Lends a whole new meaning to “I’m praying for you” doesn’t it?
Prayer helps us feel closer to God, more connected to the church and extremely guilty if it is perceived that we don’t do it enough or correctly. And this is one of the verses that is often claimed as a promise for praying Christians: James 5:16 The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. And no matter what translation you read it in it is just as powerful, the King James Version says James 5:16 The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
While the New International Version reads: James 5:16 The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.
And it my opinion that this is the one of the most encouraging verses for praying Christ followers and in the same breath one of the most discouraging verses for praying Christ followers.
Encouraging because it truly is a great promise, listen to it again: James 5:16 The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. If you are a righteous person and if you pray earnestly your prayers will have great power and produce wonderful results. And we have all heard incredible testimonies about the answer to prayers, people healed, love found, employment gained, children saved, football games won.
Obviously those who prayed were righteous people who prayed earnestly.
But what about when people aren’t healed? When love is lost, a job can’t be found, children continue to wander and the football game is lost? What then? What does that say about the person who prayed? Are they not as righteous? Are their prayers not as earnest because the results are not wonderful and not powerful?
This scripture came to mind a couple of weeks ago in a matter of answered prayer, and because I’m older than dirt I remembered it in the King James James 5:16 The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. And as I thought about it and celebrated it I realized that James didn’t finish the thought, what he should have written was James 5:16 The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much, but not always.
Now before you get out your torches and pitchforks in an effort to run me out of town you need to recognize two things. The first is “You can’t” and the second is that I’m right. Because no matter who you are, no matter how righteous you might be, no matter has fervently you might pray, not all of your prayers have been answered. And if you were feeling particularly honest then you would admit that you don’t always understand why not and sometimes you get a little cranky about it.
If we are truthful, there have probably been times that you felt like David when he wrote in Psalm 22:1-2 My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief.
And if the truth be known you don’t need a sermon on how to pray, you’ve got that figured out. You might not feel comfortable praying when other people are around or praying out loud or in in public but you have no problem praying and you know how to pray, it’s just talking to God, even if it’s as simple as “Dear lord I pray his radar wasn’t turned on, or help my baby get better, or let me win the lottery.”
And we know why we pray, we pray when we feel helpless and when we can’t do it ourselves. So we know the why and the how of prayer. Sure we might need to be reminded that prayer is supposed to be an ongoing conversation with God and not simply a shopping list of things we want, that it should include some thank-yous along with the pleases. But for the most part we all know how to pray. Maybe we don’t do it enough but most of us do it, even if it’s a prayer like Jacob Astley’s “O Lord! thou knowest how busy I must be this day: if I forget thee, do not thou forget me.”
So here is the question, why aren’t some prayers answered? One source I read listed a number of reasons for unanswered prayer in our lives and his list looked something like this:
1. Lack of Fellowship with God and His word
2. Not seeking to please the Lord
3. Unconfessed Sin in One’s Life
4. Improper Motives
5. Not asking in God’s will
6. Don’t know how to pray
7. Lack of Faith
8. Misunderstanding of Faith
9. Wavering faith
10. Failure to apply spiritual Authority
11. Lack of Perseverance
And well those are undoubtedly reasons; I don’t think it’s super productive to tell people “The reason that your prayers aren’t being answered is you. You have no faith, or the wrong faith or you’re just plain sinful.” “Well thank you very much.”
But without getting personal there are some reasons for unanswered prayer and some things we need to understand about prayer and also about limits that God places on prayer. Now I know that we like to think that the power of prayer is unlimited, and in theory it is. But remember the words of Yogi Berra who said “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice, but in practice there is.”
But for all practical purposes there are limits on prayer that are imposed by God himself.
And there are things we need to understand
We Need to Understand that God Has a Plan. At this point we could say that prayer is limited by God’s will, but we all have different ideas of what God’s will is, so let’s stick with understanding that God has a plan for this world.
God’s design for this world is that we would accept him as our Saviour and so when we die we will live with Him for all eternity. From time to time I hear people talk about healing and occasionally they will say that God wants everyone to be healthy and within certain limits I still believe that. However, the bible does say in Hebrews 9:27 And just as it is destined that each person dies only once and after that comes judgment. People do not live forever, that’s a plain and simple fact of life, and because of that we shouldn’t be surprised when prayers for healing are not always answered.
I believe in the power of God to heal, and I know that God does heal people, but I also know that not everyone is healed. And people die, Jesus died and was raised to life again. Our hope is a resurrection hope, that’s God’s plan for the world and our prayers are limited by God’s plan. That doesn’t mean that you don’t pray for healing, but pray knowing that God is in control.
When I was younger I thought that when you prayed for healing and added “If it’s your will” that it was just a cop out, that by adding that disclaimer you could always fall back on the “Well I guess it just wasn’t God’s will.” But as I gotten older and perhaps wiser, depending on who you talk to, I’ve come to understand that ultimately God knows what he’s doing, even if we don’t understand it or agree with it. And I’ll talk about that later.
We Need to Understand that God Designed the World A pastor came into his church one day and noticed a boy at the front praying, he went over to comfort the child and when the boy was done the pastor asked him, “I know you were praying but why did you keep repeating Tokyo, Tokyo, Tokyo?” To which the boy responded, “I just finished my geography test and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of France.” Probably not going to happen. There have been times that I’ve prayed for 48 hour days and unlimited energy so that I could accomplish all I wanted to do. But the sun still set at the usual time and I still needed my rest. Step off a building you will get hurt, because gravity isn’t just a good idea, it’s the law.
God created this world with certain laws in effect. We need our rest, and we need the universe to be a stable place to live. Design and order are necessary. I know that in the book of Joshua, Joshua prayed and God made the sun stand still but when we pray for such things we must know that we’re praying for a miracle. And a miracle doesn’t require God to violate a “natural law” so much as it requires God to violate the consistency of the universe. Psalm 104:19 You made the moon to mark the seasons and the sun that knows when to set.
Prayers for God to move outside of those boundaries affect the very course of nature.
We should not be surprised when our prayers for miracles sometimes go unanswered.
We Need to Understand the Primacy of Free Will Who watched the movie “Bruce Almighty”? If you didn’t watch it you probably still know the premise. Bruce Nolan, played by Jim Carrey, is a reporter in Buffalo New York who is constantly gripping about how God treats him, so God, played by Morgan Freeman gives him his power, temporarily, to see what it is like.
Here is the scene where the rules are explained: (Clip from Bruce Almighty) You got that right? Don’t mess with free will.
God didn’t violate your free will to force you to become a Christian and he won’t violate the free well of others to force them to become a Christian. Nor will God force people to give up alcohol or drugs or a destructive lifestyle.
The greatest gift that he ever gave us was the freedom to make choices for ourselves and he isn’t going to take that gift away from someone else simply because you pray for it, no matter how noble your motives are. We should not be surprised when some of our prayers for others go unanswered.
Now if you’ve ever asked me to pray for the salvation of a loved one, I will pray for their wisdom, I will pray that God’s brings people into their path who will share a positive witness, I will pray that you become a better example of Christ’s love and that you will have the courage to share Christ with your loved one, but I will not pray that God will make them a Christian.
Nor will I pray that God will make them stop drinking, or smoking or cheating.
We Need to Understand That We Are Not the Only One Praying How should God decide whose prayers to answer.
During the Stanley Cup I wonder how many Flyers fans were praying as compared to the number of Blackhawk fans? Do we presume that more Chicago fans prayed then Philadelphia fans? And what does it say about the prayer life of “Leaf” fans?
Probably the great example of this is weather. How many people pray for specific weather requests? We are probably all guilty of that aren’t we? Lord let it be a nice day for my wedding, let it be a nice day for the picnic, let it rain for the crops and snow for the skiers.
What would happen if God granted everyone’s weather requests? Can you imagine it? I mean the weather would have to be different about every hundred feet! It would have to be rainy in this field and it would have to be sunny out behind this house. It would have to be twenty eight degrees down Main Street and there would have to be a ten foot pile of snow in every child’s back yard! It would be ridiculous! And we shouldn’t be surprised that isn’t how things work! The Bible tells us that God is concerned about us as individual people but it also tells us that God is concerned about nations and groups of people and on some level that means God has to be concerned about all of us together.
If you remember in Bruce Almighty, Bruce answers everyone’s prayers with a collective yes and everyone wins $17.00 in the lottery. But that wasn’t what they were all praying for.
And some of those prayers are selfish. If you are praying that you will get that great job you are praying that someone else won’t. If you are praying that someone you know gets into surgery sooner because of a cancellation what are your prayers saying about the person who had to cancel? And where will they go in the line-up. And what are we praying when we are asking for an organ donation for someone.
We Need to Understand That God is Probably Smarter Than Us Outside of the limits that are on prayer we also need to realize that God created the universe and most of us have a hard time putting our kids toys together at Christmas. This would lead me to believe that God is smarter than we are. Often prayers aren’t answered because it wouldn’t be in our best interest. Just for a minute ask yourself what would happen if every prayer you had ever prayed had been answered. Who would you be married to, what would you be doing for a career, where would you be living. Sometime we just have to believe that God knows best. Maybe St. Teresa of Avila had it right when she said There are more tears shed over answered prayers than over unanswered prayers. Which is very similar to the words written by Garth of Oklahoma who said “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers, Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”
Have you ever made a purchase or decision that you regretted soon afterwards? You know, buy a computer or phone and the upgrade comes out the next week. Start dating Mr. Right and then meet Mr. Right 2.0. Jump at a job opportunity and the company folds a month later. Order the burger and then see the nacho’s at the table next to yours.
Sometimes God is waiting for even greater things for you, more than you can imagine right now.
What should we do when our prayers aren’t answered?
That wasn’t all that helpful was it? Learning why our prayers might not be answered. So what do we do when the sick friend or loved one doesn’t seem to be getting any better, and the wayward child still hasn’t come back to God. Does the fact that there are limits on our prayers mean that we should just give up? By no means. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Be Patient
First of all and maybe most importantly, be patient. Many of the things that we pray for we expect to happen overnight. “Lord teach me to be patient” we pray one evening and expect to have the patience of Job by daybreak! Be patient! Just because it didn’t happen today doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen tomorrow, or next week or in a year. A request delayed is not a request denied.
2. Trust God
Be patient but also trust God’s wisdom. Every child knows that there are times when parents say “no” and that there are demands that parents don’t fulfill. When it looks like a prayer isn’t being answered don’t get your knickers in a knot! God hasn’t fallen off His throne. The angels sent to guard you didn’t take a wrong turn on the trans-Canada and wind up in going to Florida for the winter. Whatever is happening for whatever reason God knows. Trust His wisdom and goodness. I always go back to a story I heard years ago. Two women were talking and one say “Maybe God will be good and will heal your little boy.” To which the second responded and said “God will be good whether he heals my little boy or not.”
Can we trust the wisdom of God even when it runs contrary to what we think should happen?
3. Ask Why or Why Not
If a prayer isn’t being answered and God knows why and what’s happening then we should also ask for some insight. We’re often told “don’t question God.” True, it isn’t healthy to doubt God’s intentions, but often I hear this kind of thing said of situations when we should ask God. If God knows then we might stand to learn something if we ask.
What if we stopped and asked, “God why didn’t I get that job?” or “God why don’t I have a relationship right now?”
Think about a child who begs continually to eat sweets. What would happen if they asked why? Think of what they might learn about nutrition and discipline and about always getting what we want! Think of how much more they could know than that “mean old mom won’t let me have what I want.”
It’s the same way with God. When we don’t get what we ask for it’s a good idea to ask for more information.
4. Keep Praying
Perhaps the best thing we can do when a prayer goes unanswered is to continue praying. Keep praying! But remember prayer isn’t just asking. It’s a conversation. Sometimes we see God as a giant vending machine, you put in a prayer, pull out a healing, stick in a prayer pull out a solution.
Have you ever had someone in your life that every time you see them they ask for something? Gets a little annoying doesn’t it. Sometimes prayer is just talking to God, telling him about your day and thanking him for all he’s done for you.
It’s easy to get discouraged when a prayer hasn’t been answered. It gets hard to keep praying when we don’t see direct results, but we ought to keep praying because the Bible and our experience both tells us that God answers prayers. Every time we pray there is the real possibility that God will do something about our request.
Be patient! Trust God’s wisdom and goodness! Ask Why! Keep Praying!
And as Jesus said John 13:7 Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.”
And Jesus still reminds us of that promise 2000 years later.