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Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer: Does God Answer Prayer?

August 5, 2007

Matthew 7:7-8

We come to the third in our series of sermons entitled Cultivating the Spirit through the Life of Prayer. Earlier this week, Kathy Green, my secretary, asked me if I would give her the titles of the sermons in the series and the corresponding Scriptures. I said, “Kathy, I can’t do that. I don’t know what they are yet.” This series is very much a work in progress. The sermon title for today, “Does God Answer Prayer?” is not the title I thought I would be preaching on Monday. During the week, I have received several e-mails from a number of you, telling me that you have questions about the life of prayer. The sermon today came directly from a request in one of those e-mails.

When it comes to the mystery of prayer, we are probing depths here. Actually, we will never get to the bottom of this topic. I regard this as a spiritual journey for me and hope that you are on this journey, too. I ask that you pray for me as I prepare these sermons. I hope that you will take note of the Scriptures I refer to during today’s sermon. Reread them and allow them to become a part of your own devotion time.

One night this week, Clare and I went out to eat dinner. When the waitress brought our plates, we first looked at the plates of food in front of us and then at each other. We knew that each plate was at least two meals’ worth of food. Before we ever began eating, I said to the waitress, “We are going to need two take-out boxes.” She brought the boxes, and we divided each meal in half and put them in the boxes. You should know that I have done something like that with this message today. Through the week, I have collected so much information that I thought was going to be a part of this sermon. I finally decided to divide the material in half. You will be very glad I did that, too, especially if I run true to form here, as I did in the early service.

Our subject for today is Does God Answer Prayer? In our text for today, Jesus directs, “Ask, seek, knock. Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.” This passage contains no shadow of doubt. It is such a definite, straightforward answer. I want you to look at several more passages from the teachings of Jesus, comments Jesus makes about prayer.

Matthew 18:19: “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”

Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”

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.”

John 15:7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.”

Taken at first blush, Jesus makes some rather sweeping promises here. Do you really have that kind of experience with prayer? Whenever you ask for anything, do you get it? Whenever any two of you agree on something and ask for it, do you receive it? My experience is that prayer just does not always work this way. Sometimes when I pray, what I ask for does not happen. My guess is that your experience is pretty much the same as mine. I will return to these four passages containing Jesus’ words about the life of prayer in a future sermon. I want us to understand these comments by Jesus.

Turn with me to the book of Psalms and follow along as I read a few verses from several of the early ones. We can see another point of view, a very different tone, in these psalms, mainly written by David.

Psalm 4:1: Answer me when I call to you,

O my righteous God.

Give me relief from my distress;

be merciful to me and hear my prayer.

Psalm 5:1: Give ear to my words, O Lord,

consider my sighing.

Listen to my cry for help,

my King and my God,

for to you I pray.

Psalm 6:1: O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger

or discipline me in your wrath.

Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint;

O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony.

My soul is in anguish.

How long, O Lord, how long?

Psalm 10:1: Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?

Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Psalm 13:1: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

And every day have sorrow in my heart?

Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In my life of prayer, I have many moments in which the words of these psalms really ring true. I hear the promises of Jesus and want to believe them with all of my heart. I want to understand them. The reality, however, is that most of us sometimes question if our prayers have fallen into the dead-letter file. To use a more recent analogy, we wonder if our prayers have gone into the spam filter. We ask if God is ignoring our prayers. They seem to ricochet off the vault of heaven and not get through at all. What we pray for is not at all what we receive.

When I was part of a church in North Carolina, a young physician became very ill with leukemia. The church prayed for him. When he went into remission, he and his wife decided to have another child, their third. Soon after that birth, his leukemia came back with a vengeance. One Wednesday night during prayer meeting, another physician offered a prayer that went something like this: “Lord, You have promised us that if we ask for anything in Your name, You will grant it. You have promised us, O God, that if just two of us agree on anything and pray, You will grant that. Tonight, O God, we claim Your healing for this man.”

Two days later, the young physician died. I was concerned about his wife and his children. I was also concerned about the other physician who had offered the prayer. Five days after that prayer, he served as a pallbearer at the funeral. I approached him to talk about this death and just asked, “How are you doing?” He answered me, shaking his finger, “Somebody did not have enough faith!” I suppose that our human reaction is to blame, blame God, blame somebody for not having enough faith. More often than not, we blame ourselves, claiming that something must be wrong with the way we are praying. Fixing blame is not the way to resolve this conflict. In order for us to have some understanding of the life of prayer, we must deal with the issue of how God answers prayers.

When I was working as a chaplain in a medium security prison in LaGrange, Kentucky, all prisoners there called one inmate, “Preacher.” He was a preacher of sorts, I suppose. He carried a little testament around in his pocket and constantly preached to the other inmates, using a style of condemnation. One day I had a private conversation with him. A little more transparent than when around other inmates, he pulled out that pocket testament and shook it in my face. He said, “This is a pack of lies. I prayed to be free, but I am in prison for life. I prayed for parole, but I was not granted my parole. God is not listening to my prayers. If He is listening, He’s not answering. He is no better than a common liar.”

I hope you know that I believe in prayer. I believe in the power of prayer. It is important for all of us to believe in prayer. It is also important for us to delve into this issue and to be very honest. I must tell you that I do not understand everything about how prayer works. When tough questions about this topic come my way, I have discovered only two ways that I may respond. I can just say, “I don’t know,” which is not a bad answer. The other way to respond is to do my best to sort through the answer. In doing that though, I sometimes run the risk of oversimplifying. For every complicated question, there is a simple answer, which is usually wrong. Just coming to a simple answer is not necessarily what we need to do.

Some people would ask, “Kirk, why are you addressing this complex issue? Is this really going to help us?” We could say, “We do not have to go there. We can just all be sweetness and light about prayer and not raise these difficult questions.” I did not receive that kind of e-mail this week. That is not what is on your heart. It is not what is on your mind. When I am honest with myself, I have to face these struggles, too.

Does God answer prayer? Yes. God answers every prayer, but He is not a vending machine. We cannot just plug in a request and expect God to dispense an answer. Prayer does not work that way. Our relationship to God – the key word is relationship – is a relationship to a loving heavenly Father. Consider what follows Jesus’ comments about prayer, “Ask and you will receive; speak and you will find; knock and the door will be open.” Jesus immediately goes into a beautiful analogy, saying, “If one of your children asks you for bread, would you give him a stone? If one of your children asks you for a fish, would you give him a snake? If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11). No, God is not a vending machine. He is a heavenly parent.

In our relationship to Him, God answers prayer the same way that we respond to the requests that our children make of us. Let us think about that. When my children come to me and say, “Dad, can I have so-and-so?” sometimes my answer is, “Yes, you can have it. Sure.”

I heard Cliff Barrows this week talk about an experience he had with Corrie Ten Boom who was staying at his house on Parris Mountain. One day her associate told her, “Ms. Corrie, we have a printing bill that is due for $3,000.” Corrie Ten Boom bowed her head and prayed, “Lord, this is not my bill. This is Your bill. You told me to have this printing done and disperse this literature. I have done it, so Lord, here is Your bill.” She walked out to the front porch and began rocking in the swing. Cliff said that her reaction to the bill dumbfounded him, his wife, and the associate. As the day passed, Corrie Ten Boom did not seem worried about the $3,000 at all. In the afternoon, Cliff walked down to the mailbox and found inside a letter addressed to Corrie. The envelope had passed through many hands, always going to a new forwarding address. Someone had addressed this letter to Corrie much earlier, and now it had finally arrived at Cliff’s house. Corrie opened the envelope and found a letter supporting her ministry and a check for $3,000. She prayed, “Thank you, Lord, for paying Your bill.” That is a wonderful story of answered prayer.

Prayer just does not work that way all the time, does it? A church member employed at the telephone company told me after the early service, “At one time in my life, I was in a real bind. I had children in college, and I needed some money. I prayed, ‘Lord, I have to have some extra money.’ Within a few days or so, a terrible ice storm hit and brought down power lines. I worked ninety-seven hours that week. I got the extra money I needed, but I told the Lord, ‘Next time, please just put it on the kitchen table.’”

Sometimes, the Lord answers our prayer but not the way we thought He would. I picked up one of my sons from an athletic event at Spartanburg High School and drove him to the Piedmont Club for a meeting. He thought he had brought everything he needed but realized he had forgotten a necktie. He said, “Dad, I must have a tie to go into the Piedmont Club.” I took off my tie and gave it to him so that he could attend his meeting. He put it on and walked into his meeting. When some of his friends teased him about his tie, he laughed, “My dad’s neckties were made before the invention of color.” That tie is not exactly what he wanted, but I had said “Yes” to his request. God sometimes answers our prayer with a “Yes,” but what we want may not be exactly the way He answers it.

Sometimes, like a good parent, God answers our prayers with a resounding “No.” “No” is an answer to prayer. The Apostle Paul, who had a painful thorn in the flesh, prayed three times that God would remove his affliction. God told him, “No.” Parents know that when their children ask for something, it might not necessarily be best for them. Try to imagine how life would be if God answered every prayer we offered, just the way we wanted Him to answer it. Our prayers would be so selfish, and the earth would be a disaster. The sovereignty of God, not the whim of individuals, must govern our lives.

An example of man managing the world occurs in the movie Bruce Almighty. I did not see it, so I do not even know if I could recommend it. I am familiar with the movie only because Philip Yancey writes about it in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? A fellow named Bruce, played by Jim Carey, has a conversation with God, played by Morgan Freeman. That combination of actors is quite odd to me. God grants Bruce the ability to do all things. He has the powers of God for one week. In love with a beautiful woman, Bruce wants to woo her and impress her. In his romantic endeavors, he brings the moon closer to the earth. Of course, massive tidal waves occur in Asia because of his plan. When word about Bruce’s powers spreads, he receives 400,000 requests from people who want to win the lottery. He says “Yes” to all of them. All 400,000 people win the lottery, each getting about $1.30.

If God answered every prayer, what a disaster this world would be! He knows better than we do. “My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways. Higher than your ways are my ways. Higher than your thoughts are my thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8). God is sovereign, and He knows best. Sometimes, He answers, “No,” just as a good parent does.

Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, prayed for all the missionaries under his supervision there. He prayed for their safety, prayed that they would be able to continue their work in China. God answered Hudson’s prayer with, “No.” Chairman Mao came to power and banished all missionaries from the country, causing them to go to places like Taiwan, the Philippines, and Singapore. The gospel of Christ spread across Asia. The Christians in China, now under persecution, experienced the greatest numerical revival in history. Hudson Taylor did not want the missionaries to leave China, but God had a superior plan.

Sometimes when my children make a request of me, I say, “Let’s just wait awhile and see.” With God, timing is everything. There is a right time, but sometimes we make requests ahead of time. God says, “Wait. Wait.” Perhaps He makes us wait because He wants us to grow spiritually awhile. Maybe He wants us to trust a little bit more. I promise you that He knows best. When He says to us, “Let’s wait,” God’s wisdom, God’s sovereignty, are in control, directing the pattern of our lives.

Sometimes, God, as a good parent, has already granted our request. He has already made the provision for it; we just have to discover our need. We find that God had answered the prayer ahead of time.

Clare reminded me of a story this morning about a man in Leesville who died. He left a modest inheritance to his adult son, a spendthrift who could not manage money. It did not take the son long to spend his inheritance. After about three years, in desperation, he decided to do what he had seen his father do so often. He picked up his father’s Bible and started reading passages of Scripture. He found a place marked in the Bible, Matthew 7: “Ask, seek, knock.” An envelope that said “To my son in his time of need” marked the place. The son opened the envelope and read what his father had written: “I knew there would in be a time when you would turn to the Scriptures. I knew it would be a time of need. I want you to know how much I love you. I also want to remind you that God is your Father in heaven.” Three years after the father died, the son found inside this envelope ten one-hundred-dollar bills. The father had anticipated his son’s need and provided for him.

Garth Brooks sings “Unanswered Prayers,” a song about a teenage romance that went bad. He prayed that God would bring his girlfriend back to him, but God did not do that. The refrain of the song says, “Just because He does not answer doesn’t mean He doesn’t care.” Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. He answers us the way we answer our children.

I have a pick-up truck that I get to drive some. My children drive it often. One of my sons has had it all weekend. I am glad to loan my truck to them; I want them to use it. I fill it with gas before I loan it to them and after they return it. Sometimes they ask me to go along with the truck if they need to move something and want an extra hand. I am glad to help because what is more important to me is not giving them what they want but being with them.

God is a loving Father. He answers our prayers, but He answers them with His wisdom, as any good parent would. Never forget that what is most important to God is being with us, having a relationship of love and care. In whatever way He answers, He does so to enhance that relationship.

Do you know God? Do you love Him? Have you acknowledged Jesus as the Lord and Savior of your life? If you have never done that, we extend an invitation to you. Some of you have other decisions to make, a decision perhaps regarding church membership. We invite your response as we stand together and sing our hymn of invitation, “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

© 2007 Kirk H. Neely

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