We are in impatient people. We know what we want and we want it instantly. A new product is barely on the shelves when an announcement for the release of the new-and-improved version of what you just bought is made. The new model is more efficient and much faster. You’ll get what you want even quicker! I recently went around and around with technical support a couple of Mondays ago regarding an update to my church laptop. I was going through my Monday routine and downloaded an update that was recommended by my friends at Microsoft. Well, guess what? Somehow, it fixed it so my computer wouldn’t print. I ran through the instructions to no avail. Not having time to figure it out myself, I called tech services to talk to a representative. They could tell I was not happy and patiently listened to my anti-Microsoft rant about sending me updates I don’t need or want. My son, who designs webpages says there is an acronym in the trade for people like me. PICNIC: Problem In Chair, Not In Computer. In any event, they were able to fix it and before letting me go I was transferred to a supervisor who asked if I was happy with their service. I said the answer was yes and no. I told them I was pleased with tech support and knew that what the update did to my ability to operate my laptop was not their fault but I was still aggravated at Microsoft. She said she understood my frustration and would see what she could do about it. Yeah, right.
That’s the way it is when we pray. Something happens beyond our control so we go to God in prayer to fix it as soon as possible if not sooner. When our problem isn’t immediately addressed to our satisfaction we wonder why God won’t answer our prayer. We pray in earnest for the terminally ill, to find a job when unemployed, or for the safety of our children. The unanswered prayer causes many people to struggle with their faith because of God’s silence and apparent impatience when they cry out to him in their time of greatest need. Our disappointment in God is the result of these unmet expectations. After all, didn’t Jesus tell us in Matthew 21: 21, 22 that if we have faith we can move mountains? Jesus is not saying that if you have faith and pray for it that it will automatically be done. He is saying that if you have faith, pray in earnest and have a dialogue with God that your prayers will be answered. They may not be answered to your liking, but they will be answered. The answer may be yes, but not in the manner you expected, it may be no, and it may be even not yet because the timing isn’t right.
Some people put God’s failure to answer prayer on the requestor. They weren’t seeking to please the Lord, they had unconfessed sin in their life, they prayed with an improper motive or they lacked faith. Your prayer is between you and God. Jesus heals because he is holy, not because those he heals are holy. While being holy is a worthwhile endeavor, it is your faith in God that is of utmost importance. Faith is the act of trusting that God hears, that God cares, and that God is able to act as we have prayed. Jesus asks that we pray with faith and that we trust as we pray. Go to God with your burdens. Be bold when you pray. Trust that God hears your prayers and, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through the situation you face.
God does have three basic responses to prayer. The first is yes. Sometimes we pray for something to occur and God intervenes directly and comes to the rescue. Miracles do happen. However, the miraculous is not God’s ordinary way of answering prayers. God works through people and uses them to be the instruments to work in the lives of others and be an answer to their prayers. Last month I preached a sermon entitled: A Real Godsend which was about how God sends people our way to help us with our problems. If you missed it or don’t remember it you can go to our new website and find it in the sermon section. What God wants is for us to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit and then take action to bless, care for and stand up for others. Be the “yes” to someone’s answered prayer.
God’s second response to prayer may be no. The New Testament has at least two good examples of God saying no. The first is our scripture reading for today. The Apostle Paul talks about a “thorn in his body” that he was given by Satan to torment him. Paul said, “I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone.” Paul explains that the Lord said to him, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” As a result, Paul tells us that he will gladly spend his time bragging about his weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on him. Paul concludes that he is all right with weaknesses, insults, disaster, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ because when he is weak, then he is strong. Paul’s weakness gave him a strength and a credibility with those in the gentile mission field he was trying to reach. Paul’s case is evidence that sometimes we’re not delivered from our suffering but instead God walks with us through it. Paul’s answer to his prayer may have been the gift of peace and strength, and wisdom and patience which ultimately enabled him to accomplish God’s purposes in a way not possible otherwise. Sometimes unanswered prayers lead to events that change the world. This is evident in Luke 22 when, just before his arrest, Jesus prayed, “Father, if it’s your will, take this cup of suffering away from me. However, not my will but your will must be done.” Jesus hung on the cross and felt the absence of God and the disappointment of an unanswered prayer when he cried, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” God didn’t forsake Jesus or abandon him. He used Jesus’ suffering and death for the redemption of the world.
God’s third response to prayer is not yet. I think that is was Paul meant in Romans 8: 28 when he said, “We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.” It is hardship, challenges, suffering and tragedy that most often lead to the development of character and compassion, that tear down walls of oppression and serve to redeem and transform the human race. I think the best example I have of “no, not yet” is the case of one of my Drug Court graduates. Bob, not his real name, grew up in a good Christian family and went away to college. He was ambitious and had a promising future ahead of him until he was introduced to drugs and then it was all downhill from there. Estranged from his family and turning to a life of crime to support his methamphetamine habit. Luckily for Bob, he got arrested and landed in drug court. He embraced the program and once he had enough sobriety he asked for a furlough so he could go out-of-state for Christmas to see his family. We granted it and he went. When he got back I asked him how it went. He said his tiny grandmother met him in the driveway and as she was hugging him she told him that she had been praying for him for a very long time. God told her no, not yet, as there was more to be done with Bob to complete his redemption. Bob has been clean and sober for about four years now, has a great job, and is in a good relationship with another clean and sober Drug Court graduate. He even posted on Facebook this week that he and his girlfriend are in Mexico on vacation.
So, why do we pray? What’s the purpose of prayer? Our prayers are mostly intercessory where we are asking God to intervene in our problem and help us or a loved one out of a tight spot. Maybe praying for something to happen or not happen is the wrong approach. Maybe our prayers should be more along the lines of entering into a relationship with God or yielding our lives to God where we are invested in the relationship or are in communion with God. Our prayers should be more like a conversation with God where we engage in a dialog and bounce ideas off God where we weigh our options and, with the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, draw our strength through God and power through the situation. In the final analysis, when it’s all said and done, we go with God and God goes with us.
Please pray with me.
Most gracious, forgiving and loving God, how grateful we are that we can come to you with our concerns and petitions, that we have the Holy Spirit to guide us and your son, Jesus, to intercede on our behalf when we need you. We come to you out of faith and the knowledge that our future is secure in you. Still, because we are human we often face trials and tragedies that shake us to our very core. When shaken, what a comfort it is to know that we can always come to you in prayer. We know that sometimes you grant our requests and other times, like a loving parent, you tell us no and that it’s for our own good. Other times you tell us no, not right now and to wait upon you. We are like impatient children but we know that because you love us all things will work together for our good as we are called according to your purpose. We know this because of our assurance that nothing can separate us from your love in Christ Jesus our Lord. We can’t say it enough, but thank you again for being the loving God that you are and for your forgiveness when we fail you. In the name of your most holy son, Jesus Christ, we pray, amen.