Sunday, November 25, 2012
UGW 9: Understanding Prayer Better
9. How come some prayers don’t seem to work, even when you believe that it’s God’s Will? And how long do you keep praying for something (especially when it’s a painful issue) when God seems to not be listening or answering?
Boy, I tell you, I struggle with this one all the time. I want something so bad sometimes (even something that’s good and beneficial), and I pray earnestly for it. And when it doesn’t happen, I struggle with why my prayers aren’t getting things done.
When we were considering a possible adoption (one of my relatives was possibly going to give up his newborn and ask us to take her), I was reading a book that basically taught the “name it and claim it” idea. If I felt like I could “hear” God’s answer in prayer, then I just had to claim it and cling to it in faith, until it happened. Despite any appearances to the contrary. If I had enough faith to continue to cling to His “promise,” it would happen eventually. And if it didn’t happen, it’s because I gave up too early or because I doubted.
But it didn’t happen.
So what went wrong? Was it my faith, God, or my understanding of God? Or will it still happen sometime in the future, as the book would say, even though it’s been over five years? (And for the record, I don’t want it to happen now. She’s where she should be - with her parents.)
You know, the funny thing is that it’s a Bible verse that confuses me more than anything. Jesus’ own words. The verse that really trips me up is the “If you believe and don’t doubt” verse.
Mark 11:22-24: “‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’“
I have to be honest. I struggle with this verse. I really do. I mean, it sounds pretty straightforward to me: believe that you’ll get what you ask for and you’ll get it. Name it and claim it! Sounds great! But there’s a problem . . . that doesn’t always happen. There are things that we pray for and that we are confident are in line with God’s Will, and yet they don’t happen. The mountains didn’t move.
So what went wrong? Is it that I didn’t have enough faith? If I was able to push away all anxiety and calmly say, “I know You can do it, Lord. I trust You,” would it please God enough that He would grant my request? Would He really hold it against me if I waited faithfully for 30 days, but then I faltered and lost faith on day 31?
And can any of us ever move any mountain, or even a molehill, with our prayers if we have to believe ahead of time that it will happen, without any doubts? Is it possible to know for sure what God should do and that He will do it, when we know that God has His own mysterious ways about why and when and how He answers prayer? Is knowing that He can do something as faithfully-effective as claiming that He will do it? Or do we have to “claim” that it will happen without any confirmation, and risk looking like a fool who went out on a limb and put words in God’s mouth? Is it “believing what we say” or “saying what we believe” that makes it happen? I tell ya, this one confuses me. It really does.
There have been times that I have prayed for things that haven’t happened. And I’m guessing that the “name it and claim it” pushers would say that it was the strength of my faith that was the problem - that I didn’t really believe it enough - or that the time hasn’t yet come.
And I don’t know, maybe at times it was my faith. Maybe I cannot really “claim” anything in faith because I’m so afraid of looking foolish if it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to put words in God’s mouth and run around saying “God told me . . .” or “This will happen because I believe it will.” And then, when it doesn’t happen, become an embarrassment to God and our faith. So I guess there is always a bit of doubt in the back of my mind. I know that He can do it, if He chooses. I just can’t presumptuously claim that I know for sure that He will do it. Is that still okay? Is that being faithful?
It’s comforting, in a way, to know that even Paul didn’t get the thorn removed from his side by his prayers. And I don’t think anyone would question the strength of his faith. And of course, even Jesus didn’t get the cup taken away from Him after earnestly praying for it. And for them, it wasn’t about their faith or that they didn’t please God, it was simply that it wasn’t God’s Will.
As I think back on things that I have prayed for that haven’t happened, I have had to reevaluate how I understand those verses. Let me see if I can best explain them, in light of the fact that there are times that we don’t get what we ask for, even if we feel our faith is solid.
I think this verse is best understood when we bring it all back to the beginning of what Jesus says - when we look at what it all hinges on. And Jesus sets up those verses with this: “Have faith in God.” Our problem (at least, my problem) is not with how much faith we have, but with what we set it on. And according to the “name it and claim it” version of Mark 11:22-24, it’s our level of faith and the absence of doubt that will make whatever we say happen. But is that the right interpretation? Is that what faith is - believing that we know what the answer should be and claiming it?
Of course, I would love to be so in line with God that I could be bold and discerning in knowing exactly what to pray for - so that it gets answered. But I am apparently not there yet. I keep trying, though. I really do. I pray for something entirely appropriate (in my view), and I am confident and calm because I know that He can do it. And I believe that what I am asking is His Will, so He will do it. And I feel like a wise, effective prayer-warrior.
And then I wait and I wait and I wait. And I remind Him that I am hanging in there because I have faith in Him to come through for me. I let Him know that I believe that He is a big God who can answer my prayer with one touch of His Heavenly finger. And I feel like a tired, but persistent, prayer-warrior.
And then I wait and I wait and I wait. And after awhile, I get depressed and I doubt and I wonder why He won’t just do this one thing that would be so simple for Him to do. Does He not get involved in this world like He used to in Bible Times? Has He just set the world in motion and then sat back and watched? Where is He and how much more do I have to do to demonstrate my faith in Him to do it? And faith? What is faith anyway? And what does Mark 11 mean if we don’t get what we ask for? And then I feel like a discouraged and defective prayer-worrier.
But it’s usually at this point that God has a lesson to teach me. Because it’s at this point that I learn that it’s not about me. It’s about Him. He doesn’t answer prayers based on my power and wisdom and faith. He answers them based on His power and strength and mercy and grace and wisdom. And whatever He does is for His purposes and His glory.
And sometimes, He shows me what a big God He is by not answering my prayers as I think He should. I have come to realize that what I am really trying to do when I believe that my “strong faith” will make things happen is to manipulate God to do what I am asking. I am saying, “See how much I believe in You to do this? So now You can’t let me down.” I am putting my faith in the strength of my faith to get God to do what I want, instead of putting my faith in God to lead me to do what He wants. Does that make sense?
But this is not having “faith in God,” as Jesus says. It’s faith in my faith. It’s faith in myself to get something accomplished - based on what I do or don’t do, or believe or don’t believe. And this is misplaced faith! “Name it and claim it by the strength of your faith” is not a godly way. It’s a spiritual-sounding, super-subtle way of elevating ourselves over God, of turning God into our errand boy. We act like we are in control and that we get it done - by our prayers, beliefs, and level of faith.
But God is so much bigger than that. And Jesus says, “Have faith in God!” When a lake freezes in the winter, how do you know that it’s strong enough to hold you? You could stand at the edge and do all sorts of tests to determine if it’s safe, but you won’t know for sure until you step out in faith.
And the thing is, it doesn’t matter how strong your faith is. If the ice is not thick enough, no matter how much faith you have in it, it will not hold you up. But a frozen lake will. When the timing and conditions are right, it will hold you up, regardless of your level of faith in it.
Well, God is like that lake. When the timing is right and it is in His Will, you can take a step forward and know that He will hold you up, that He will grant your request. But if it’s not the right time or the right step to take, He will not make the steps you take secure or grant your request, no matter how much you thought He would or wanted Him to. It’s not about your level of faith, but it’s about where you are putting it. Are you putting it in your own presumptuousness about how God should answer your prayers or are you putting it on God and His wisdom, strength, and timing?
Well, I’m learning that I need to focus less on my faith and if it’s “strong enough” and more on the God who is in control; less on the answer that I want and more on what God is trying to accomplish and to teach me through the trial. Genuine faith in God is not one that says, “I asked for this and I believe that You can do it, so I’m claiming in faith that You’ll do it.” That’s presumption about what God wants and about how He should answer.
We say, “I have faith in You that You can do what I am asking You to do.” But God might just be saying, “Yes, but will you still have faith in Me if I don’t do what you’re asking Me to do?” Because a genuine faith in God is a faith that says, “I can’t see what’s ahead and I may not get what I want, but I still believe in You. I believe that You can do what I am asking; but if You don’t, I know that You are good and that You will work all things out for good. You are God and I am not!” That is putting our faith in God. That’s humility. It’s letting God be God, while we are the children at His feet. We can ask, but we have to let Him decide how to answer. We can desire and plan, but we have to be willing to let Him interrupt and change our desires and plans. And when He wills that a mountain moves, it will move when we pray. But in His time and in His way!
[Going off on a tangent here, I wish that the message of letting God interrupt our plans was given during more graduation speeches. I think it’s so important for people to hear, especially as they set out into the great wide open, with all their grand plans about how they are going to use their education. And since I will probably never be asked to give a graduation speech, I’m going to share the message that I wish I had heard at my graduation. Pretend right now that you are in the audience in your cap and gown. And you are graduating from the School of Life, where we train you to go out into the “real world” to do great things for God. And I step up to the microphone, take a deep breath, and deliver the speech that I want to send you off with:
“My Dear Graduates, first let me thank you for voting me valedictorian. You’re too kind. Too kind. Now, I know that many of you have great plans about how you are going to serve God and use your degrees. You’ve gotten a great education, and you’re ready to go out and conquer the world for Christ. But as you go about your plans, store this message in your heart: Be willing to let God interrupt your great plans of what you’re going to do for Him with what He wants you to do.
You plan on getting a job in a certain line of work, but maybe God will call you to a different position. Will you follow? Maybe you find yourself working with people you don’t care for, but God says, “I put you here. Glorify Me!” Maybe you will be called to care for an aging parent or a child with special needs. Maybe your life will detour greatly because of a chronic illness or accident. Maybe you’ve planned on marriage and children, but God will call you to be single or childless. Or maybe, as many of you will be called to, you’ll find your great plans for your career interrupted simply by having children. Let God interrupt! Let God interrupt your plans with what He wants you to do. And for many of you, that will be nothing more glorious than just raising children or going to the same unglamorous job every day.
Where you end up may not be what you planned on. Those great things you wanted to do may be replaced by small, tedious, daily tasks. But be willing to follow God in obedience, doing your best wherever He plants you . . . working for Him and for His glory! You may feel like you’re wasting your education or your time, but remember that God doesn’t waste anything. If you will present all that you have to Him and if your main goal is to glorify Him, He will use you for His great purposes. Through your faithfulness and obedience in the small things. Wherever He plants you. Let God interrupt!”
I wish that I had heard this message when I was graduating with my master’s degree. I had planned on working and using my degree and paying down loans. And then, I got pregnant. I remember half-joking with Jason that he could stay home and raise the children while I went to work. Because, after all, I had worked so long to get my degree. Not to stay home and raise kids.
But I had to learn to follow where God leads. To grow where I was planted. Now, to be honest, this doesn’t mean that I don’t struggle with negative feelings from time to time, with the dissatisfaction that comes with life’s detours. In fact, not too long ago, I realized that I was becoming very bitter because I was feeling unappreciated at home. I felt like I was working my hardest, but it was not getting acknowledged. There was no thanks and no sense of getting anything accomplished. No vacation! Only a whole bunch of things that I couldn’t get done while I was doing the things that I could do. And then, I would get to wake up the next day and do it again. Is this all there is to life? Am I going to slave away in my little kitchen until I dry up into a lifeless heap, breaking my arms to pat my own back? Because no one else would?
Boy, I was ruminating on these thoughts one day as I did the dishes. I was going over them again and again, getting more and more angry at the unfairness of life, at the lowly role that I had to live with. I just wanted a “thank you”! And I wanted to be cut a little slack for things I couldn’t get around to doing. Was this too much to ask for? With all I do around here?
(Now to be fair, I’m sure that my husband has his own way of showing appreciation and love. And I do know that there is a lot about me that he does overlook and put up with. But as is typical among two different people, we don’t always “hear” the way that someone else “tells” us that they love and appreciate us. Oh, if only we all spoke the same “love language.”)
Well, as I angrily scrubbed dirty plates, I began to work my way through these thoughts and feelings. I realized that I couldn’t keep feeling the way that I was and still enjoy my life or marriage. And I knew that I couldn’t change my husband or demand to be appreciated more. How satisfying would “forced appreciation” be?
Now, at this point, I believe a lot of people go wrong by thinking something like this (or by being advised this by others): “Well, I can’t change them and I can’t keep living like this. So maybe divorce is the only option?” Well, for me, divorce was not an option. It never was! But neither was feeling that way for the rest of my life. But I knew that if something didn’t change, somewhere down the line I might be tempted to think that divorce sounded pretty good.
So I had a choice to make. To keep feeling bitter and angry would be choosing to walk down that path to potential divorce. And I didn’t want that. So I had to get off that path now. But how? And I asked God this. “How, Lord? How can I stay in this and yet enjoy my life and my marriage? And if things never change, could I be okay with that?”
I think all of us who yearn for more or better in our lives or marriages feel like it will all be okay “if only . . . !” But I knew that I couldn’t let my feelings and the success of my marriage depend on “if only . . .” Because what if “if only” never happened? What if things never changed? I had to learn to accept that possibility and to be okay with the way things were (and to flourish with it), if I was going to avoid that bitter path that couldn’t end with anything good.
But how could I do that? How could I be okay with it? How could I love my home life – the life and the role that I poured every bit of myself into - when I was feeling so taken for granted and unappreciated? And as I prayed about it and let God speak to my heart, He revealed the key to a proper perspective. And this is it:
“Change your employer! You should not be working for your husband or for your own satisfaction. You should be working for Me. But as long as you continue to work for approval and appreciation from him, you will be unsatisfied. Because you are letting your sense of worth rest on someone else - on another imperfect human being - when it should be resting on Me. Another human being will always let you down at some time, so you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you let your feelings rest on what they do or don’t do. Do your best in the role I gave you . . . because I am watching. Work for Me. I see all that you are doing, and it matters to Me. And your rewards will be in Heaven, as long as you do your best for My glory.”
I tell ya, that message got to me. And once I switched employers - once I realized Who I should be working for and where my rewards should be - I was able to relax. I was able to work harder at those daily tasks because Someone was watching and appreciated it. And I was able to love my husband in a way that I couldn’t when I was letting my sense of satisfaction rest on what he did or didn’t do for me or say to me.
It wasn’t about working my hardest and doing my best because I wanted to hear “thank you” or because I needed to be appreciated or because I needed anything from him. It was about working my hardest and doing my best because God is watching, and because what I do and how I do it matters to Him.
And interestingly enough, this knowledge freed me up to love my husband in a way that didn’t hinge on whether or not I felt appreciated. I was free to love him for who he is, and not for what he did for me or my idea of who he should be. (And I was free to see the ways that he did show his appreciation, instead of only noticing how he wasn’t meeting my definition of “showing appreciation.”)
Now, I wondered if I should share such a personal story as this. After all, I don’t like sharing such deep, personal, “marriage” things. (Honey, you know I love you! We’re in this thing called life together.) But I also don’t want to present some false, polished front. And I really believe that the message that I got from God is not meant just for me.
So many people out there need to hear that same message: people who struggle with their marriages, with their self-esteem, with their role in life, with their parents, or with jobs and bosses they don’t like. Marriages are falling apart left and right. And they don’t need to be. We need to learn ways to cope with the way things are - in our homes, in our jobs, in our lives. (I am not saying this to people who are being abused, though. If you are in that kind of marriage, you need to get help. It needs to change.)
And so this is what I want to share with you: If you feel like you can’t go on with the way things are, try switching your employer and where you store your rewards. (Which is really what we should all be doing anyway. It’s just that sometimes it takes a trial to figure that out.) You are not just serving your family; you are serving God by caring for your family. You are not just working for your boss; you are doing the job that God gave you, for His glory. You are not just a family member or friend or employee; you are a representative to others of God’s love and grace and mercy. You have a mission field, wherever God plants you. You are a missionary! Are you living like one? You are here to work for Him, to glorify Him, and to spread His message. And the only rewards that matter are the ones that will be waiting for you in Heaven.
Now, I do have to point out something. I believe that the sense of peace and contentment that I felt and the unconditional love that I felt for my husband and my place in life was released in me by the Holy Spirit because I set my heart on doing the right thing. I knew that if I continued on the path of negative thinking that I was on, I might encounter the dim possibility of a divorce somewhere off in the distant future. And so I firmly decided in my heart that “Divorce is NOT an option.” And this was a crucial turning point.
I believe that at some point in all of our decisions and struggles, we have the choice to flirt with the possibility of sin or a less-than-godly choice. And if we allow ourselves to flirt with that or to tinker with it or to covet it in our hearts and minds, the Holy Spirit is blocked from fully working in and through us. And we will not feel the complete joy, peace, freedom, and love that come from Him . . . because we have allowed an ungodly idea or fantasy to take root in our hearts and minds. And this shuts the door to Him. But if we will set our hearts and minds on the right thing - even if our feelings are not there yet - our hearts are more fully open to the Holy Spirit and His work.
I may not be serving God as the counselor I had planned to be, but I can choose to work hard at being the best mother and wife and friend that I can be. Because it brings Him glory when I do! And I think that He is just as proud! And as an unexpected blessing, when I let God choose my mission field (which in this case is just my home) and when I made Him my Employer, I found an incredible peace and joy and satisfaction, knowing that I was right where God wanted me and that He noticed all I was doing! And that’s what really mattered.]
Anyway, back to what we were originally talking about, if you can remember that far back. Faith in God isn’t “claiming” something that He hasn’t promised, believing that He’ll do it just because we believe in His ability to do it. Godly faith is trusting that He is the God that He claims to be in the Bible and that He will do what’s best, in His time and in His way. And our job is to follow in obedience, not to lead.
And contrary to the “name it and claim” way, I believe that we are off-base when we are “claiming” a particular answer to prayer before He reveals it, when we tell Him the answer that we expect and that we are going to wait for. I think we need to not be claiming specific answers or blessings as much as “instructions” or “help along the way.”
While we can and should pray what's in our heart and present our desires to the Lord, there may come a time when we have to accept that God is not answering our prayers the way we want. And at those times, it would be far more effective to pray for things like strength to wait instead of that the wait ends soon or for guidance to know His answer instead of that the answer is such-and-such. We may not necessarily be able to claim healing, but we can claim God’s peace and wisdom while we wait. We can claim His grace to uphold us while we go through the trials or the waiting or when facing a “no” answer.
Sometimes, the problem is just that we are focused on the wrong thing. We are focused on the end, when we should be focused on the journey. And we are asking for what we want, instead of seeking what He wants for us. I think that we can have faith in the promises that God has given us in the Bible, that we can believe in our hearts that He will answer us when we ask for those kinds of things. But we can not always “believe” that He will give us whatever we ask for, if we are asking for things that He has not promised in His Word.
And when it comes to what we think we hear God telling us in our hearts, we need to tread very carefully when we are trying to determine what God has “promised” He’ll do. We can far too easily convince ourselves that God has “spoken” to us and promised us something that we want or something that sounds good and godly to us. Such as healing or financial security or health or marriage or a wide-reaching ministry. We have preconceived ideas of what God should do, what He will do, or how He should be. And we end up “claiming” a promise that He has never made to us. And then when it doesn’t happen, we are crushed and so is our faith.
And we even need to be careful when claiming promises and guidance from Scripture. We can easily find verses to verify and confirm what we want. I mean, we could use Proverbs 15:13 to justify any selfish thing that we want to do: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit.”
But did we seek what God wanted to tell us and wait for it? Did we follow the Spirit’s leading in searching the Scriptures? Or did we go right to the verse that we “needed” to hear, and use it to embolden our decision or to try to influence God to answer as we want Him to? We need to be less about leading and more about following! God doesn’t often reveal His answers ahead of time. Because it’s the journey and the struggle that build godly character.
Another thing that I am learning through the times of unanswered prayer is that our God is not a God who plays games or who messes with us. I don’t think that He makes us unnecessarily wait just so He can go, “See, I knew she’d lose faith if I just made her wait long enough. Now, I’m not going to grant her request.” I used to unconsciously feel like He was doing this, making the wait drag on unnecessarily just to rile me up, so that He could go, “Oh, now she just lost the blessing I was going to give her.”
But I don’t really think He tests us that way - because He knows that we are human and that we will fail Him if we are given a long enough wait. So it’s really not a test. If He’s making us wait, there are reasons. Sometimes it’s that there are issues inside of us that we need to discover and work through. Sometimes it’s to help us go deeper or higher in our walk with Him. Sometimes it’s that we are unknowingly blocking Him by our own sins or desires. Sometimes it’s that our desires need to change because we are asking for the wrong things. And sometimes it’s just because He’s working on the answer, but it’s not ready yet because He works with and through humans to get His Will done.
But we are hasty. We are impatient. And we think everything hinges on us: on our prayers, our strength, our resourcefulness, and our faith. And so we get discouraged with ourselves, our faith, and Him if we have to wait too long. We feel that we let ourselves down, that we let Him down, and that He let us down. All because our prayers “didn’t work.” But it shouldn’t be this way. Our “faith” should not hinge on how and when God chooses to answer.
I should not be limiting God by my expectations and putting parameters around Him and how He works in my life. I cannot determine how He will answer. I cannot know how He should answer. And so I should not be focused on “the answer.” I should be focused more on how I am walking with Him on this journey through life.
While I cannot claim a particular, pre-determined answer, there are many Biblical promises that I can claim to help me on this journey. And I should be searching for the Bible’s promises that relate to my character, my walk, my relationship with Him, and His help and comfort and wisdom and guidance, etc.
And I also think that I have been misunderstanding Mark 11:22-24 because I have isolated it from other Scripture. And when I do this, it’s easy to see it as a “name it and claim it in faith” teaching. And this then causes me to focus more on my faith’s ability to make things happen and less on drawing near to God and immersing myself in Him and His Word. After all, if my faith is enough to get it done, how much do I need Him?
Yes, Jesus says “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” And I still haven’t fully grasped what He meant by that. But I think that it is best understood when we take a look at all of Scripture. Verses cannot be taken separately. The Word is not like trail mix, where we can pick and choose the raisins and chocolate, leaving the icky nuts behind. It’s like a cake, where all the ingredients work together to form the end product. All the ingredients work together to make the final product just right. And so we cannot pick and choose the verses we want and leave the others out. We need to take it and study it as a whole. They all work together.
Therefore, in order to best understand Mark 11:22-24, it would be wise to do a quick review on other “prayer verses” (ones we’ve already looked at) and see what it adds to our understanding of how and when God answers. And doing this helps me see some of the pitfalls in the “name it and claim it” interpretation of the Mark verses and the dangers of isolating them.
1 John 5:14-15: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us - whatever we ask - we know that we have what we asked of him.”
James 4:2-3: “. . . You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
John 14:13-14: “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
Yes, this last one sounds like the Mark 11 passage: Ask for anything and Jesus will do it. Wow, that sounds great! What an awesome power - to be able to get anything we ask for. But! I don’t think that’s what Jesus really meant. And we have to look at all the verses together to know what He really means. (And there are even more verses that I am not looking at here. It would be a great study if you want to explore it for yourself.)
I cannot just ask for what I want and believe that my faith will make it happen. Because it also says that it has to be in line with His Will. Sure, we can ask for whatever, but He “hears” the things that are in line with His Will. And when He hears the prayers that are in line with His Will, we can be confident that He will do them. And those verses also say that we won’t get what we ask for if we have selfish motives, and that we have to ask in Jesus’ name, for the glory of God. But this is not a blank check. We can’t just add “in Jesus’ name, Amen” to the ends of our prayers and expect God to give us what we ask for.
So what does it mean to pray in Jesus’ name? I like to think of it this way. Let’s say that I work for a company, and I go to an office supply store to get some supplies that my boss wants. Now, I am going there in his place - in his name - to get the things that he wants. As long as it’s on his list and in line with his needs and what he wants for his office, then it’s in his name. But if I don’t ask for it, I won’t get it. And as soon as I ask for something off of the list - something that I want, that I think he wants, or that’s out of line with what the office needs - I am asking in my own name. And I can’t put it on his tab or claim that it’s his will.
When we consider all of these verses together, it weeds out a lot of the requests that we make. How many of our requests are in our own names, for our own desires and purposes? Even prayers for healing or blessings can come from our own desires and our own thoughts of what we need. God doesn’t promise to give us whatever we want, but He will give us what He wants for us. And God often has important things to teach us during the wait and during our struggles with unanswered prayers - if only we will take our eyes off of our requests and put them on Him.
[Now, I know that I have just spent time talking about how you can’t just “believe and then you will get whatever you ask for.” And I use this mostly for when we try to convince ourselves that God will give us whatever we want. But I have read other people’s stories about their prayers being answered, and I do have to wonder if there really is something more to the “you will get it if you believe” verse. While we can’t claim whatever we want, if God has given you a deep assurance that He has indeed answered a prayer in a certain way – even if you have no outward proof – then believe Him with all you’ve got in you.
I wonder if “belief and faith” are so important in getting what we asked for because it’s like God is giving us a choice to accept His answer or to reject it. And we accept it by choosing to believe in it. Once again, we need to be sensitive to how God might alter our requests, and we need to give Him the right to answer as He will. But if He has given you an answer in the very depths of your spirit, then believe Him and wait for it. Because giving into despair and doubt and fear might just prevent His answer from becoming a reality in your life – because it gives the devil greater ground in your thoughts, your heart, and your life. And if you don’t believe, you will not take the necessary steps to reach the answer that God has laid out for you.
I don’t really know what to the think about all of this; I am still learning about prayer. But if God says that our belief and faith matter in getting our prayers – the ones that are in line with His Will - answered, then we need to take Him seriously. And if there is one thing that I am learning, it’s that He has given us the choice in so many areas: the choice to obey or rebel, to choose blessings or curses, to obtain salvation or go to Hell, to find His Will or go our own way, to pray or not, and, possibly, to accept His answer or to reject it by not believing in it. Just something to think about.]
I think that there is something else that we need to consider when it comes to our requests. How many times do our requests and our desires for an answer become idolatrous pursuits, taking our focus from God? I think sometimes this is why many of us end up in the furnace of refining, long waits. To purify our hearts, to help us weed out wayward desires and idols, and to help us refocus on what we should be focused on: God!
And most of us don’t do this on our own, not when things are going good and we are getting what we want. Because when things are going our way, we are content to float and to live self-centered, temporally-focused lives. And we think our relationship with Him must be pretty good for things to be going along so nicely. And so He allows us to face “the furnace” of unanswered prayer so that we can discover the selfishness and self-sufficiency and sin in our hearts, so that we learn that we need to be pursuing God - not the answers that we want - and letting Him fill our hearts and lives with what He wants for us.
After a looooong time of waiting on God for a house, He has finally “remembered” us and we are now in the house that is the answer to our prayers. But when we were working through the process of trying to buy it, I was getting very anxious and discouraged. It was another short sale, and the sellers had unexpectedly lost a job and were getting a divorce. So the wait dragged on and on. And I was getting more and more frustrated and antsy.
When we finally got word that the closing date was finalized, I was relieved. Relieved. . . and upset! Because I realized that it had taken so long that I had gotten past the point of being excited about it. I wasn’t overjoyed or thrilled to finally be getting the house that we had wanted for so long; I just wanted to get it over with. And that was upsetting to me. I just wanted it to be the thrilling experience that getting your first home was supposed to be. I felt robbed of joy. And I confessed this discouragement to the Lord one night in a pity-me prayer. (Wow, am I an ingrate or what!)
“Lord, why couldn’t we have gotten this house when I was excited about it and looking forward to it? We had waited so long for it, and I just wanted the chance to be happy about it. But it took so long to finally get it that I’m not excited about it anymore. It’s no longer the ‘fulfillment of the dream’ that it was supposed to be. Now . . . it’s just a house.”
And I heard one word from God. One word that put it all in perspective: “Exactly!” Immediately, I went from griping and feeling sorry for myself to “Ohhhhhh, I get it now!” With that one word, I realized that God was telling me that this wasn’t “my dream” or “my house.” It was His house on loan to us. It was His gift to us, to be used to glorify Him and to be used for His purposes. I wasn’t supposed to hold it up as highly as I did or hold onto it as tightly as I was. I was supposed to hold it loosely, knowing that it was by Him and for Him. It wasn’t a “dream house” for me to covet. It was . . . just a house!
Oh, how many times I do that to myself! Making an idol out of some thing or some answer that I am waiting for. I pray and wait and struggle and plead and doubt and get discouraged. And then, I get to a point where I get so depressed that I can’t pray about it anymore, where I realize that I’m worse off to keep dwelling on this concern or request. And it’s usually then that God shows me that I have lost focus on Him and that I have been consumed with my request. I have been trying to manipulate God with my prayers and with my “faith” in Him to answer the way I want or think I need.
And it’s hard to do, but when I get to this point - when the answer I want or when my desire for an answer has become an “idol” - I need to take my focus off of my request and put it back on God. I need to “give up” and give the Lord permission to answer as He will and to work in His timing. Because whatever His answer is, it’s ultimately by Him and for His glory. And so I pray:
“Lord, forgive me for making an idol of this request and for pursuing the answer when I should be pursuing You. I leave it in Your hands now, and I ask You to do as You will and to give me the strength to face this unanswered prayer gracefully. I know You are good and I trust You. I may not have the great faith that I wish I did, but I am putting my pathetic, little faith in You right now. Thank You for being a big God who can see what I can’t see and handle what I can’t handle. I lean on Your strength now. May You be glorified through this.”
Gods knows that we have the ability to do this - the ability to make an idol out of our own lives. And so maybe He allows enough waiting and enough unanswered prayer so that we get to the point where it becomes “just a . . . “ Because when it’s “just a . . . ,” we can hold it more loosely, keep our focus where it belongs, and remember Who deserves the glory.
Another problem with the “name it and claim it” interpretation is that we are tempted to bail on God, to criticize ourselves for our “weak” faith, or to question Him when we don’t get the answers that we want or thought we would get. It confuses us, discourages us, and blows our understanding of God and His Word out of the water. And I think that God allows this helplessness and futility so that we can learn that it’s not about us, it’s all about Him! That He is God and we are not! And so that we dig deeper into the Word to see who God really is and what He has to say through all of it - and not just through the few passages that we are familiar with.
We want to lead and have control by our prayers, whereas true faith in God says, “Whatever happens, I still believe in You. And I will follow where You lead.” It’s not that the strength of our faith gets our prayers answered the way we want; it’s that our prayers get answered the way God wants when we put our tiny, weak faith squarely on Him and His glory. And many times, that means that He has to change and mold our prayers to be in line with His Will as we struggle with the wait and the “lack of answer.”
Our hope should not be in some future answer to our prayers, that God will eventually give us what we want if we just hang in there long enough and drum up enough confidence in Him to do it. (Oh, how many times I fall into that!) Our hope should be in the fact that God is here now and that He is working things out in His time and in His way, even if they don’t match our time and way. It’s not letting the darkness and confusion pull us away from God, but letting it draw us even nearer to Him.
When we get past the point of needing our way and our timing to keep our faith alive, when we abandon the idolatrous answer that we are clinging to and we passionately cling to Him instead, then we have learned to humbly put our faith in God, and not in some idea of who we think God should be and how He should act.
When we get to the point where God - and not some particular answer - has become what we really need, then He has become God in all areas of our lives, even in the pain and unanswered prayer and confusion. And it is then that we find ourselves and our desires transformed. When we are no longer concerned with what we think we need, we are free to be concerned with God’s glory and our witness to other people. And maybe this is when we have the power to get what we pray for - because our hearts and desires have been transformed and purified to the point when it becomes all about God’s glory.
Okay, now this is a lot to think about already. But there is more. (And even more than what I am saying here.) On top of all that I’ve already said here and in an earlier chapter, there are many more verses that shed light on why our prayers may not be effective. We have a much greater responsibility than we realize in making sure that our prayers get heard.
For one, maybe part of the reason that our prayers aren’t “working” and that it seems like God isn’t listening is because . . . God isn’t listening! “Whoa! Wait!” you say. “How could you dare to say something like that?” Well, let me explain. We want God to be there when we want Him, and we want Him to give us what we ask for. And so we single out verses like Mark 11:22-24 to convince ourselves that our only job is to ask and believe, and then He’ll do it. (If this is the case, the best thing that God can do is not answer our prayers as we desire.)
But what we don’t do is consider the many verses that highlight our responsibilities in making sure our prayers are heard. God is not manipulated to do whatever we want by our level of “faith.” (Yes, He wants our faith and requires our faith, but faith is not genuine faith when we use it as a tool to get what we want.) But we do have an effect on the effectiveness of our prayers by how we live and by the condition of our hearts. (And I’ve already went into this is greater depth in an earlier chapter. So I’ll try to be brief here, but there will be some redundancy. I can a kick a dead horse with the best of ‘em!)
Psalm 66:17-19: “I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue. If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.”
If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened! When we cry out to God honestly (not just thinking it, but actually putting it into prayer) and with a sensitive heart and broken spirit, He listens. But if we chose to live in self-sufficiency or if we harbor sin in our hearts, He is not obligated to listen to or answer our prayers. Because we have put up a wall between us. We have chosen distance. And so we are blocking God from hearing our prayers and from answering them.
This shows me the importance of Psalm 139:23-24: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” This really should be a daily thing, asking God to search our hearts and reveal anything that we need to ask forgiveness for or make amends for. (And admittedly, I don’t do this every day as I should. Usually, I forget to do it until things get to be too much for me to handle. I have to be forced by helplessness to passionately seek God sometimes.)
So if we wonder why our prayer life seems weak or if we are going before Him with a very serious need, maybe we should spend some time evaluating our hearts. Because hiding sin in our hearts is a wall between us and God, and it has an effect on our prayers. In fact, look at the very next verse after Jesus tells us that we will get anything we ask for if we believe . . .
Mark 11:25: “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive your sins.” And this echoes Matthew 6:14-15: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
I don’t know about you, but this is a very hard teaching to absorb. I will not be forgiven based on my unforgiveness towards others. And my unforgiving state has an effect on whether or not my prayers get heard, because ongoing, unconfessed sin in my life blocks God from listening to my prayers. And it blocks me from being of any real use to Him.
Now, I do not believe that these verses are saying that we will lose our salvation. I believe that there are two levels of forgiveness. One relates to the moment we chose Jesus as our Savior and we were forgiven of our sins, as a whole, so that we could attain salvation. This is a permanent forgiveness. And we can’t lose that by any sin we commit. Because if we could lose it by our sins then Jesus’ death was not enough. And it would be meaningless if it didn’t fully meet God’s requirements for our salvation. And He would have to die over and over again for every new sin.
Now, the other level of forgiveness, though, relates to the condition of our relationship with the Lord and our daily walk with Him. When we sin, we break fellowship with Him and we prevent ourselves from attaining the abundant, God-glorifying life that we should have. Like in a marriage, a sin doesn’t necessarily mean that you run out and get divorced, but it does interfere with the condition of your relationship with your spouse. And we need to confess these sins as they happen to restore proper fellowship.
There are numerous other passages in the Bible that say the same thing. The fact that we have responsibilities in maintaining a proper, godly relationship with God - that we have an effect on the effectiveness of our prayers - is a very real teaching that should be taken seriously.
And not only do we have the responsibility to forgive others and to seek forgiveness from God, but we are to ask for forgiveness from others for any offenses we have made against them.
Matthew 5:23-24: “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.” Being reconciled to others is so important to God that we are not even supposed to offer our gifts at the altar until we do.
But how many of us harbor bitterness towards others for some offense? How many can’t let it go because it seems so justified? They deserve it, right? Or how many of us won’t seek reconciliation because we don’t think that we should have to? We didn’t do anything wrong; it was all them . . . right!?!
But forgiveness is not so much about the other person; it’s about our relationship with God. The Word makes it clear that the responsibility rests with us to forgive anything that we have against someone else and to seek forgiveness from others and from God, if we want to approach God in prayer. And if we don’t, it blocks God from forgiving us, which blocks God from hearing our prayers.
And even worse, unforgiveness towards others (or any resistance to confessing any sin in our lives, for that matter) shows hard-heartedness, which is diametrically opposed to a healthy, open relationship with God. And we will further block ourselves off from being sensitive to the Holy Spirit. And the longer we resist, the more we will entrench ourselves behind the wall that we have put up between us and the Lord. And the more numb and desensitized - and self-justified - we will feel.
It’s all about your heart and if you humble yourself before a holy God. How many of our prayers go unheard because of our heart’s condition and our attitude towards others? Pride, bitterness, envy, gossip, idol worship, unforgiveness, ungodly speech, getting drunk, cheating, giving into temptations, lust, affairs, sex outside of marriage, acting out in anger, worry, etc., are all sins that need to be confessed and repented of, if we want God to hear our prayers and to have the most effective life for Christ.
It’s shocking, I know. I mean, God hears all of our prayers, right? So how can I say that He doesn’t? I don’t think it’s so much that He doesn’t “hear” them, but that we bind Him from working in our lives and from answering them because we have chosen to walk away from Him in our sins. We have chosen the roadblock. We have chosen sin. And we can’t hold onto sin and hold onto Him at the same time.
And once again, we need to bring this back to actually praying for forgiveness and healing our relationship with God, not just thinking about it. Look at this verse 2 Chronicles 7:14-15 “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land. Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayers offered in this place.” If we pray for forgiveness, He will hear.
Now, that’s a lot to take, I know! But . . . there’s more! If we really want to examine what sins we might be harboring in our hearts, we would be wise to consider these verses.
Here’s one for husbands. 1 Peter 3:7: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.” The degree to which we treat others with consideration and respect, particularly regarding a husband’s treatment of his wife in this verse, is the degree to which our prayers are unhindered.
And here are three that scare me:
Proverbs 21:13: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered.”
James 4:17: “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.”
Romans 14:23: “. . . everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
Yikes! The first verse tells me that God does not listen to us if we ignore those in need. And the second two broaden the definition of sin. Sin is not just doing things that we know we shouldn’t do; it’s also sin to not do what we know we should do and to do anything that doesn’t come from faith. And sin hinders prayer.
This really opens up a whole new side of our responsibility, of what God expects from those of us who call ourselves Christians. Do we ignore needs that we see? Do we turn a blind eye at injustice? Do we fail to treat others kindly? Do we fail to do the good that we know we should do? This is sin!
What, in our lives, are we doing that is a result of faithlessness? Do we hoard money because we don’t have faith in God to provide? Do we seek our own ways out of trials because we don’t have faith in God to help us through? Do we look to satisfy our desires outside of the boundaries God has given because we don’t trust that God’s way is best? Do we fail to obey because we are afraid of what obedience will cost us? This is sin, too!
We can open up to just about any passage in the Bible and find something we should be convicted about, something that will lead us toward a deeper relationship with Him and a better idea of how to live righteously, which leads us toward more “powerful and effective” prayers. But how many of us take the time to do that? How many of us read the Bible with the intention of seeking to live more righteously? Of getting to know Him better, as He really is? Or have we become comfortable in our own little world, behind our walls of fear, self-sufficiency, self-centeredness, and sin?
1 John 3:21-23: “Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from Him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.”
Notice that it’s not just an inactive, passive command to avoid doing anything that doesn’t please Him. It’s an active command that instructs us to live our lives doing the things that please Him. But we shouldn’t look at obedience as a way to manipulate Him to get what we want or as something that we have to do out of duty or irrational fear or to earn His love. The desire to obey is the natural response of a heart that properly fears God and that is so full of His love and of love for Him that you want nothing less than to do His Will and bring Him glory.
John 15:7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” Now, if we ended with that verse, it would sound like a blank check. (Notice, though, that we need to be remaining in Him and to store up His words in our hearts. That’s a lot of responsibility.) But we need to go on to the next verse to find out what kind of prayers God is talking about. Is it really “whatever you wish”?
Verse 8: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” God grants the prayers that are centered on bearing fruit for the Father’s glory, that show others that we are His disciples. And this comes as a result of remaining in Him, which means way more than just reading our Bibles, going to church, and praying every now and then. Remaining in Him, as a tree branch remains connected to the trunk, means being vitally connected to Him. It means absorbing and living in His Word, love, power, grace, etc. It is not a casual thing, and it is not about our wants and desires!
When I consider all these verses together, I can see that it doesn’t mean that He will always grant anything that I ask. Am I abiding in Him daily? Or am I just running to my Vending Machine God to ask for what I want or think I need? Do I have my plans, pleasure, and glory in mind, or God’s? (And here’s a scary question: Does my life currently show obedience and reflect His glory and His love and His Word? How about in my home, in how I treat others, in how I speak and think, when I am in a crowd, when I am alone, etc.?)
After really searching the Word for verses on prayer, I’m beginning to believe that God doesn’t just answer prayer based on how much faith we have and on whether or not we claim that it will happen ahead of time. Yes, we need faith. That is a necessity. But it’s not about “performing” or about jumping through hoops to prove how much faith we have. It’s about the condition of our lives and hearts, about our relationship with Him and with others, and about how closely we are walking with Him and living in His love. Do we have faith in Him to handle our request? And no matter how He chooses to answer, do we have enough faith in Him as a good, loving Father to remain close to Him and to praise Him?
Summing up all that I’ve learned so far, I’d have to say that our prayers are most effective…
- when we are living righteously,
- when they are in line with God’s Will and are unselfish and are in Jesus’ name (according to what He wants),
- when there are no un-confessed sins blocking our relationship with God (meaning that we need to clear the air with God and others, seeking forgiveness from God and those we have wronged and forgiving those who have wronged us),
- when we (especially husbands) treat others with consideration and respect,
- when we are doing the good we know we need to do,
- when we are living and acting in accordance with our faith and not doing anything that doesn’t come from faith,
- when our hearts don’t condemn us (because we have actively searched them and we have righted any wrongs, and not just because we are ignoring any conviction),
- when we obey His commands and do what pleases Him,
- when we believe in Jesus and are loving one another,
- when we are remaining in Him and His words remain in us,
- and when we are living for and bearing fruit for His glory!
This is a lot to consider. It is very sobering. But we need to resist the urge to make this list a formula to get what we want or a check-list that we have to do before we can approach God in prayer. Notice that nowhere in the list does it say anything about having to pray the “right words” in the “right position” and with the “right tone-of-voice” and when you have made yourself “good enough.”
It’s all about our heart’s sensitivity to God and our desire to live life with Him, doing our best to continue transforming ourselves to be more like Him. And this will take our whole lives. So we should never let a “check-list” come between us and God. More important to Him than the particular words we pray or how we pray is that we draw near to Him in genuineness and humility, that we are needy for Him, dependent on Him. And this is why and how we should pray. Because we need Him and because He wants us to let Him near. He can handle anything we bring His way; we just need to learn to be willing to accept His answers. And this becomes a lot easier when we learn that He really does love us.
Now, no matter how “righteously” we live, we will still struggle from time to time with our own desires, some selfish ones and some for good things that He is not willing to grant for His own reasons. But the longer and closer we walk with Him, the “easier” it gets to refocus and to allow Him to answer the way He wants. But it takes remembering His goodness to us and His love and His displays of power in the past. It’s so easy to get discouraged when we take our eyes off of Him and what He is capable of. So we need to be immersing ourselves in Him daily if we want to have the greatest amount of peace and joy possible. Peace and joy in the midst of unanswered prayer do not come to us apart from abiding in Him daily.
And I think that’s what I’m learning to do, through all of the unanswered prayers and waiting. I’m learning to not let my faith in Him hinge on how He chooses to answer. I’m learning to let Him be God! In the name of transparency and dependence on Him, it’s okay to pray for something specific. I believe that He can do what I am asking . . . if He chooses to. I have no doubt that He is capable. But in the name of humility, I have to allow Him to answer as He wants. (And sometimes, this is not easy to do, even though it should be when you realize what a good, loving, wise God He is.) I need to be sensitive and moldable and to allow God to purify my request and change my desires to be more in line with His Will. When I get hung up on a specific answer or on what I think I “need” then I get tunnel-vision and I lose my ability to see what God may actually be doing in response to my request.
But to be honest, it is hard sometimes to lay our requests down before the Lord - to place them in His hands fully - when the answer is so important to us. And it’s especially hard when the Lord seems to be taking His time, and we want our answer NOW! (And I realize that I cause stress for myself because there are many times that I want my answer early – earlier than it needs to come. I want the assurance that it is already there, when instead God is telling me to trust that the right answer will be there when it is the right time.)
But these times are very teachable moments in our lives. And they can either be times to get bitter and angry, or times to draw near to God and experience enormous growth in our Christian character. Maybe that’s part of the reason why God seems so silent, hidden, and unresponsive most of the time – to force us to decide if we will turn our backs on Him, if we will remain half-hearted “what’s-in-it-for-me” Christians, or if we will commit to Him fully, even though He is a mysterious and confusing and sometimes frustrating God.
So how long do we continue to hang in there and pray for something that doesn’t seem to be happening? When it seems like God is not listening and it hurts us to have to plead again about a certain request? I’ve pleaded with God for things that haven’t happened or that seemed a long time in coming. And this is the best advice I can offer right now. If you have gone through all the steps above and God is still not answering, hang in there and keep praying about a concern until one of five things happens. Until . . .
1) God says “Yes.”
2) God says, “No, My grace is sufficient for you.” (And sometimes a “no” is actually a blessing in disguise.)
3) God has strengthened your conviction that this is indeed the way you are to continue praying, and you need to persist in prayer until it happens.
4) God has purified your desires through the trial and the waiting, and He has shown you how to change your request to be more in line with His Will. Or . . .
5) You realize that you have made an idol out of the request and the answer that you want.
And if that has happened, I think it is wise to put the prayer request aside, for a time at least. When we learn that we have been so focused on a request or on the pursuit of the answer that we want - to the point that we have lost our focus on God, lost our confidence in God, and have caused ourselves emotional distress - then we need to confess it and to fully hand the request over to Him to do with as He pleases. And this, when we can do nothing else about this request, is the time to praise Him. And to keep praising Him - until we have Him so clearly in focus and at the forefront of our minds that our desire to get what we want pales in comparison to His glory and His love.
(Also, if it seems as though God is not answering your prayer, ask yourself if there is anything that you should be doing or not doing. Sometimes, we pray “lazy prayers.” We ask God to do something for us while ignoring the resources and wisdom that He gave us to do it ourselves, such as praying for healthy bodies when we won't exercise or eat right. Or we pray prayers from the wrong angle, and we need to slightly shift what we are asking for. Instead of praying, “Lord, change my spouse,” it would be far more effective to pray, “Lord, help me see what I can do/think/change to make this marriage better.” Sometimes, to get our prayers answered, it takes tweaking them a little or praying that God opens our eyes to the answer that is already there.)
In the end, I have to wonder if God doesn’t always give us everything we ask for simply so none of us can feel like we have an inside track to God and so that we put away our “pat” answers about faith and God and life. So that we can never shake our heads at others in condescending pity when their prayers aren’t answered the way they want, thinking, Poor things. If only they prayed right or had my strong faith. And so that we remember that none of us can really understand or control God. (And isn’t this exactly what most of us get hung up on in a crisis of faith? But a god that can really be totally understood or controlled by us is not really God at all.)
Summing it all up, when it comes to prayer and faith, what we should want more than anything is to get to the place where we can take His hand and walk forward into the darkness in faith. Faith in Him! Because even if we don’t get what we want, we know that He is a good, loving Father who will work all things out for good! (Wow! This question was a chapter in itself!)