Unanswered prayer is a universal Christian experience. Every one of us has asked God for particular things that have been denied: we asked for help to make a B and only got a C; we asked for sleep and lay awake all night; we asked that her attitude be changed and she stayed as sour as ever; we asked that they not go ahead with the divorce and they did it anyway; we asked that he be protected in Vietnam and he was killed; we asked that she be given the job and they gave it to another; we asked that the place be full and only a few showed up; we asked that she be healed but she passed away. The experience is so common we have woven it into our hymns. One of the old Swedish hymns says,
Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,
Thanks for what Thou dost deny!
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all Thou dost supply!
Another familiar hymn says,
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
It is an agonizing thing to cry out to God for the life of a loved one and watch it ebb irrevocably away.
So I have been thinking a lot about prayer lately. And at this point I have a three-week plan. Today's message is the first of two in which I try to give a biblical answer to the question, "What do answers to prayer depend on?" The second half of this series will come on January 25th, the Lord willing. Between these two, I plan to preach next Sunday from 1 Timothy 2:2 under the title, "Pray for Kings and All in High Positions." That is the Sunday before the presidential inauguration.
The question I want to begin to answer today is, "What do answers to prayer depend on?" It is a huge question and has to be broken down into parts. One part would be, "What has God done that our prayers might be answered?" Another part would be, "What must we do that our prayers might be answered?" Today I will try to answer the first part of the question and begin to answer the second part. Then on the 25th I hope to continue with the second. But first, what has God done that our prayers might be answered?
Jesus Died That Prayers Might Be Answered
If Jesus Christ had not come into the world and died for our sins, then the wrath of God would not be removed from us. The power of God would all be aimed at our destruction. But, as Paul says, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). And in dying for us and bearing our sin in his body (1 Peter 2:24), Christ propitiated God; that is, he appeased the wrath of God; he satisfied the demands of God's justice. The result is that for all those who hold to Christ the wrath of God is turned away, and in its place there is mercy. God no longer opposes the sinner who trusts in Christ; instead he now is working for that sinner's good. In fact, he is rejoicing over him to do him good with all his heart and with all his soul (Jeremiah 32:40f.).
Therefore, not only our final joy of salvation, but all the good that comes to us was purchased at Calvary. If it were not for the death of Jesus, everything you and I experience would be a token of God's wrath. But since Jesus has died and we have become beneficiaries of that death, everything that happens to us, even our trouble, is a token of God's love. Paul said in Romans 8:32, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?" Which means, the death of Jesus secures for those who trust him every possible blessing that God can give. Therefore, all the answers to our prayers are owing to the death of Jesus. What has God done in order that our prayers might be answered? He has sent his dearly loved and only Son to absorb his own wrath against sin and to lead us into the green pastures of his favor where there is mercy and grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14–16). Jesus died for our sins that our prayers might be answered. (That is why all of our prayers are "in Jesus' name.")
Therefore, nothing that I say in the rest of this sermon should be construed to mean that we ever merit or deserve answers to our prayers. We deserve the punishment of hell, every one of us, for the scorn we have heaped on God's glory by refusing to trust his promises and delight in his will. Any blessing at all that comes to us, including all the answers to our prayers, is sheer mercy on God's part. Therefore, whatever the conditions are that we must fulfill in order to have our prayers answered, they should not be viewed as work done to earn God's favor, but rather as things done in response to and for the enjoyment of his mercy.
Whose Prayers Are Answered?
That is the question I want to turn to now. What must we do in order to have our prayers answered? When I say "we," I have in mind Christians, that is, people who are trusting Christ—that what he did purchased their salvation, and what he said is true and the best advice in the world. As far as unbelievers are concerned, there is one prayer that we know God answers for them, the earnest plea to Christ for salvation. Whether God answers any other prayers of those who reject Christ is irrelevant. It is irrelevant whether persons who throw away eternal life and insist on going to hell are given a few earthly pleasures along the way. The only thing such pleasures will do for them, if they persist in their unbelief, is to make their guilt and their torment all the worse because they don't use them as an occasion for repentance. So it is no great boon even if God does answer some of their prayers.
The issue that has been in the press recently as to whether God answers the prayers of Jews who reject Christ obscures the vastly more important question: Are Jews who reject Christ saved? And the answer from the New Testament is clearly that they are not. They, with all other unbelievers, are under the curse of God (Romans 9:3; Galatians 1:9), and at the judgment day will be sentenced to eternal condemnation, if they have persistently refused to trust Christ. Jesus said to the Jews of his day, "The men of Nineveh will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah and behold, something greater than Jonah is here" (Matthew 12:41). And John said in his first letter,
He who does not believe God has made him a liar because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne to his Son. And this is the testimony: that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. He who has the Son has life; he who has not the Son of God has not life. (1 John 5:10–12)
Jew, Gentile, white, black, red, yellow, male, female: if they reject the Son they do not have eternal life. A helpful way to hold the Jewish question in proper perspective is this: if a Jew rejects the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ, then he joins the Gentiles in their condemnation. And if a Gentile accepts the Messiah and trusts in him, then he joins the true Israel and its salvation.
So my response to the issue in the press is this: except for the prayer to be saved through Jesus Christ, the prayer of unbelieving Jews and Gentiles are of little value to them, because even if they are answered, they only store up more wrath for the day of judgment (Romans 2:4, 5). In order for answered prayers to be a lasting blessing for the person who prays, that person must be saved, he must be a believer in Christ. That is why I am talking only about Christians when I ask, "What must we do in order to have our prayers answered?"
Live Like Loving, Obedient Children
I start my answer to this by focusing on our peculiar relationship to God as Christians, namely, the relationship of Father and children. Jesus said,
Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7–11)
Becoming a Christian means being adopted into the family of God, so that all our praying is the talk of a child to his father. "I love you, daddy." "Thank you, daddy." "You're a good daddy." "Daddy, I need help."
That brings us to the next observation: If a child has certain bad attitudes and misbehaves, a good father will not give him everything he asks for. Accordingly, the Bible teaches that in order for our prayers to be answered, we must do our Father's will. Jesus said in John 15:7, "If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will and it shall be done for you." A child who disregards his father's words (Jesus' words are the Father's words) is not fit to have his requests granted. We would not approve a father's behavior who did everything a rebellious child wished. Not just because the child doesn't deserve it, but because it would be bad for the child and a dishonor to the father's word. It is not a good thing to confirm a child in his waywardness by giving him whatever he asks. No, if my words abide in you, son, then ask what you will and I'll do it.
There are many other places in Scripture where this same thing is taught. John says in his first letter (3:21–23),
Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and we receive from him whatever we ask because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another just as he commanded us.
If we are unloving, irritable, holding a grudge, impatient, unkind, boastful, jealous, resentful we should not think that God is likely to answer our prayers. His will for us is that we love one another; therefore, he will be slow to prosper our cause when our attitudes are unloving.
Peter wrote in his first letter (3:7),
Husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker vessel, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered.
Then four verses later he says,
Turn away from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those that do evil.
Surely, the word directed to husbands applies to both partners: if you are not considerate of each other, if you are not forgiving and kind and respectful at home, your prayers are going to be hindered, and not just in the making but in the answering. "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer." And by "righteous" Peter means those who do what is right and loving in their family.
And that is what James taught also, isn't it? James 5:16,
Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.
Why? Well, that is the way it is between a father and his child. A child who keeps his father's words and does what is right and humbly confesses his sins has clout with his father. He so honors his father's wisdom and goodness by following his ways, that the father feels compelled by his own honor to grant his child's requests. And besides that, he knows that whatever he gives his child will be an investment in righteousness and love.
In the first chapter of Isaiah, verses 15–18, God speaks to his wayward people Israel and says,
When you spread forth your hands I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Is there anyone here who conducts his business in a way that takes advantage of people, that deceives or exploits others? Is there anyone here whose investments or procedures oppress and gouge the fatherless, the widow, the poor, or any disadvantaged people? If so, God's word to you is, "Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen." Christian, the answer to your prayers may depend on where your money is invested and how you do your business.
Two hundred years before Isaiah's time God said to Solomon "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 I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chronicles 7:14). And the psalmist confirmed in his personal experience (Psalm 66:17–19): "I cried aloud to God, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has given heed to the voice of my prayer."
Therefore, we find it taught in the Old and New Testaments that if a child has certain bad attitudes and misbehaves, a good father will not give him everything he asks for. In order to have our prayers answered, we must be obedient children.
Now, there are two possible misunderstandings of this teaching which would be detrimental to the joy of our faith and which would belittle God's mercy. It would be a mistake, first of all, to conclude that one must be sinlessly perfect in order to have one's prayers answered. There is a difference between being an obedient child and being a perfect child. At the heart of the prayer which Jesus taught us to pray is the petition, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us" (Matthew 6:12). And since Jesus expects us to say each day, "Give us this day our daily bread," then surely he intends for us to pray the next phrase each day, also: "Forgive us our sins." In other words, Jesus did not anticipate that his disciples would ever get beyond the need for this petition in this life. And since he taught us to pray for forgiveness for our sins, it would be a contradiction to say our prayers can only be answered if we commit no sin.
The righteous person whose prayers have great power is not a sinless person but a repentant person. It is not the person who falls into sin, but the person who stays there whose prayers the Lord is slow to answer. It is not the person who fights against temptation and now and then loses, but the person who is content in his spiritual mediocrity and does not war against his own lethargy. So never say that God demands perfection before he will answer your prayers.
The second misunderstanding of this teaching would be that since God is inclined to answer the prayers of obedient children, therefore this obedience merits or deserves the blessing of answered prayer. But this would go against everything I said at the beginning about how the death of Christ purchased all our answers to prayer so that we could have them freely. The way to picture the importance of obedience is something like this. None of us is a child of God by nature. We are by nature children of wrath (Ephesians 2:3). But by his great mercy and due to no merit in us, God has adopted us into his eternal family and put the seed of his own nature within us.
Therefore, all good behavior in God's family is a response to this mercy. All true obedience grows out of faith in the Father's power and goodness and wisdom. The only reason to disobey is that we don't trust that his advice is best for us. So all disobedience grows out of distrust of God, and all obedience follows from trust in God. But trusting in mercy is not the same as meriting or deserving. Merit looks at itself and the value it brings to God. Trust looks at God and the value of his mercy. Since all true obedience comes from this sort of trust in God, it cannot be said to merit or deserve God's answers to prayer. God answers the prayers of the obedient because he delights so much in being honored by the faith from which that obedience springs. Therefore, never say, "My obedience has merited an answer to prayer."
If we avoid these two errors, perfectionism and legalism, then the teaching stands: in the words of John 9:31,
We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.
It seems to me that the application of this teaching is plain: when Jesus commands us to ask and receive, seek and find, knock and have the door opened, he is commanding us not only to pray but also to live like sons of a merciful father ought to live. Let the words of God abide in you; cherish no iniquity in your heart; love your fellow believers and do good to all; forsake oppression; confess your sins. If you walk in the light, as he is in the light, there will be confident communion and great answers to prayer. What is this confidence? How confident do you have to be that your prayer will be answered? That is what I will talk about two weeks from today.