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The ‘problem’ of unanswered prayer

October 2018 | by Timothy Cross

‘Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies’. So states the Shorter Catechism, Q. 98. Its answer to the question ‘What is prayer?’ here is hard to better.

Prayer is one of the Christian’s great privileges. Through Christ, we actually have the ear of God the Father, and may talk to him in prayer and spread out our needs before him. No subject or circumstance is out of bounds when it comes to prayer.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians ‘Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God’ (Philippians 4:4). At its most basic, prayer is ‘asking of God’.

The Lord Jesus said to his disciples ‘Ask, and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you’ (Mathew 7:7). The Saviour then went on to argue from the lesser to the greater: if an earthly, human father does not deny his son good and necessary things, He said, how much more will almighty God, our infinitely loving heavenly Father, give us all we need when we ask him.

A ‘problem’

All this however raises the problem — or should we say, in the light of eternity, the ‘supposed problem’ — of the prayers we offer which seemingly go unanswered. We pray for fruit for our Christian ministries, but no fruit appears that we know of. We pray for healing, but we continue to struggle along with a handicap. We apply for a suitable job and pray that we will get it, but it goes to someone else. We pray for the salvation of friends and family, but they seem apathetic, or even hardened, to the gospel, their interests being confined solely to matters of time and earth.

The answer to this thorny issue of unanswered prayer is surely to focus on the God to whom we pray. If we belong to Jesus, we can address him as ‘Father’. And Scripture reveals that this Father is infinite in wisdom, power and love. This being so, it is inconceivable that he would ever deny his children anything that is needed for their true well being.

God’s wisdom and understanding is of course, infinitely greater than ours. ‘His understanding is beyond measure’ (Psalm 147:5). In Isaiah 55:8,9, God himself states, ‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’.

God knows best

If we know what the Bible says about our God therefore, when it comes to either delays or denials of prayer, we can safely and confidently say ‘Our God knows best.’ We might think that something is for our good. But the God who knows all things and all consequences, knows far better than we do.

The story is told of a father who took his little boy on a walk through an orchard. The little boy spotted some lovely looking, shiny apples, growing on one of the trees. ‘May I have one of those?’ he asked. ‘No’, said the father. ‘They are not ripe yet’. The little boy was disappointed. The apples looked so desirable. He even had thoughts that his father was denying him a pleasure. But the father knew best. His denial was a kindness. Some weeks later the apples were ripe, and he was able to give one to his son.

Thus, if our prayers seemingly go unanswered, we are to exercise faith in our God. His wisdom and love are greater than ours. He is not handicapped by our partial knowledge. And we can be sure that, in the light of eternity, all will be revealed, and we will thank him for the prayers which he did not answer, as well as for the ones that he did. ‘Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood’ (1 Corinthians 13:12).

John Calvin
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Prayer warrior

John Calvin wrote much about prayer. He was himself a prayer warrior. He also knew the perplexity which seemingly unanswered prayer can bring. With both his knowledge of God and his pastoral insight, he wrote the following helpful and encouraging words — words suggesting that God himself and knowing God himself is greater than any answer to prayer could ever be.

Says Calvin; ‘If, after a long wait, our mind cannot comprehend the benefit our prayers have brought and can discern no advantage in them, our faith nevertheless will confirm to us what our mind has not been able to see. We will have received from God all that is good, since so often our Lord promises to have a tender regard for the troubles which oppress us once we have laid them before him. Thus he will cause us to possess amid our want all abundance, and amid affliction all comfort. For even if everything should fail us, the Lord God will never forsake us, for he cannot disappoint the expectation and patience of his own. And he alone will be sufficient for everything, because he contains in himself all that is good, which he will finally reveal to us on the day of his judgment, when he will fully manifest his kingdom’ (Institutes of the Christian Religion, pp 558, 559, Translated from the first French edition of 1541 by Robert White, Banner of Truth).

The hymn writer wrote:-

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;

Wean it from earth, through all its pulses move;

Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,

And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;

Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,

To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;

Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

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