“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
“If we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:15).
If you pray for something, you’ll get it. Isn’t that what these verses are telling us? Well, we all know that it doesn’t work like this in real life. We have all prayed for things and then not received what we were asking for. So either these verses are wrong, or we are wrong to interpret them as blank checks from God to be filled however we desire.
God makes clear that there are some types of prayer that won’t be answered. On the one hand, James tells us: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). So there are some things that we don’t have simply because we have to ask for them first. But in the next verse he goes on to say: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). So it is possible for us to ask for the wrong things or with the wrong motives, and in those situations God will not grant what we ask for.
Even 1 John 5:15 does not appear to be a blank check when we take it in context. The preceding verse says: “This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” So it’s not the asking itself that guarantees a favorable response, it’s asking according to God’s will. We should also keep in mind that sin in our lives can hinder our prayers (see 1 Peter 3:7).
All that this means is that God is not a genie. And prayer is not a formulaic transaction. It’s a relationship.
But what about those times when we ask for something good and it goes unanswered? What about the times when we pray that our cancer-ridden Christian friend who spends her life witnessing to Jesus will be healed so she can keep ministering? What about the prayers we make on her behalf that go unanswered? What do we do when that godly woman dies and our godly prayers go unanswered?
The theological answer is that God’s will is still being done. He has a good purpose even for evil events. Joseph knew his brothers betrayed and sold him with evil intent, but he acknowledged that God meant those circumstances for good (Gen. 50:20). Peter knew that the most evil event in history—the corrupt conspiracy against and murder of the only innocent Person ever—was carried out with evil intent by evil people but still fell under the plan and purpose of God (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). So we have to acknowledge that sometimes God’s will includes evil things, and we need to be okay with God choosing to forego our good requests for the greater good that only he can see.
But the theological answer is not always easy to swallow, particularly when we or the people we love are going through intense suffering and God appears to be turning a deaf ear. In those cases, people don’t necessarily need to be convinced of a theological truth. They need to feel loved. They need us to mourn with them (Rom. 12:15). They need to know that evil deeply grieves God as well, and that he is at work in our world to heal that which is broken, to destroy that which is evil. They need to be reminded that the day is swiftly approaching in which sin will be no more, when every tear will be wiped away and justice will be perfectly fulfilled (see Rev. 21–22).
Unanswered prayer will only be a roadblock to faith if we assume that prayer is a blank check designed to make us happy in every moment. Prayer is powerful and effective, and God is constantly accomplishing mighty things through the prayers of his people. We will not always see the direct effect of those prayers, nor will we always receive the things we ask for. But if we trust that our God is good and that our God is powerful, then we can enjoy the fellowship of prayer. We can delight in the reality that God calls us to know him and to be involved in his workings in our world through prayer. And we can lean on him when things aren’t going the way we think they should.
I will end with the same passage that I closed with last week. It is so essential to know we are not always going to know what to pray for and to be okay with that. The Spirit himself is praying for us, and he knows what to pray for. God is on your side, and if all you can muster is a prayer of uncertainty and a request to God to guide you as he sees best, then you’re on the right track:
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28)
Are you familiar with the milk jug argument against prayer?
I am a Christian and believe prayer is effective (at least, I WANT to believe), however I have a lot of difficulties understanding it sometimes, and this argument is unfortunately a pretty strong one to me. It’s very simple. It basically says that most people believe that if you pray to God the answer is always going to be “Yes” (prayer is answered quickly), “No” (prayer is not ever answered), or “Not Yet” (prayer is answered sometime in the future). The argument though, is that you could pray to a milk jug, or an idol, or an imaginary dragon and the answer will either be Yes (via coincidence), No or Not Yet.
I have struggled with this argument. I understand the Bible says that our prayers are answered when they are in accordance with God’s will, so it just feels like such a crapshoot. How am I supposed to know what God’s will is in a particular situation? It seems that Jesus wasn’t even aware what God’s will was, when he prayed in the garden before being crucified. How should I know that He wants my one friend to get this job, but He doesn’t want to heal my other friend of his disease? Might as well just pray for anything and everything that I think might be good and hope it comes out the way I prayed. But then, how am I supposed to have faith? How am I supposed to trust that God will come through the way He says He will, when it’s all just a roll of the dice? Sometimes it just feels like He’s flipping a coin…
I definitely agree that sometimes it feels like God is rolling the dice. We can want something so badly, ask our good and loving heavenly Father for it, and then nothing ever happens. This necessarily challenges our faith.
I’m not sure that the milk jug argument is as sound as it might appear. It’s true that if you pray to a milk jug, sometimes you’ll get what you ask for (maybe now, maybe later) and sometimes you won’t. But it’s not true that praying to a milk jug and praying to God are the same thing. The logic is flawed. Here’s a bad example that I just came up with. If I get into an accident wearing a seatbelt, I could live, or I could be injured or killed. If I get into an accident without a seatbelt, I could live, or I could be injured or killed. So wearing a seatbelt is the same as not wearing a seatbelt, right? Of course not.
The milk jug thing assumes from the beginning that prayer is useless (or that God doesn’t exist).
If you ask your parents for something, you’ll sometimes get what you ask for (maybe now, maybe later) and sometimes you won’t. But that doesn’t mean your parents are real, that they’re not listening, that they don’t want you to ask, and that they don’t interact with you on the basis of what you’ve asked for. Instead, your parents know what’s best for you, so sometimes you can’t have the thing you think is best (or at least not now). As a kid, it seems incomprehensible that your parents would deny your request to skip naptime, but somewhere along the line you come to believe that your parents were actually right.
The proof of the power of prayer isn’t that we always get what we ask for because prayer is not intended to function that way. Ultimately, God is a personal being, and answers prayers in the way that a parent interacts with a child. It’s not that the child’s requests are meaningless (they are a means of communication and an essential component of meaningful relationship), it’s just that the parent knows better than the child at any given moment.
But again, none of this makes it easy for us when our prayers go unanswered, but if we see God as a loving father, then we can still trust him to tell us “no” or “wait” because we believe that his plan is better than any we could dream up (Is. 55:8-9).
Great answer! Thank you!
And I honestly believe this kind of faith and trust in God really DOES make it easier when our prayers are “unanswered”. I believe once you can reach that point where you can say “Not my will, but yours be done” and really, truly MEAN it, and really, truly trust that God is there, He wants what is best for you, and He is going to act in the way that He knows is best – I believe at that point you gain an incredible sense of inner peace and strength.
Once again, thanks for that reply, the parent/child analogy is perfect (and Biblical) and very helpful.
Christian prayer is a lot different than any other kind of “prayer” because Christian prayer is connected to the life and work of Christ. If Christ did not continue to function then our prayers would be in vain and void of reality.
Jesus Christ lived the only perfect life and God intended for Him to live this kind of life on earth, but Jesus did not live it on His own. He abided in His Father’s love and His Father’s will. “I can of mine own self do nothing:” (John 5:30; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10), Jesus said, “but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.”
Jesus lived the life of the perfect man for every minute of his life for 33 years because He loved His Father’s word and chose to receive His Father’s word…All of His Father’s word, regardless of how painful receiving His Father’s word and obeying it might be. He loved and trusted His Father.
Psa 40:8 I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.
Psa 40:9 I have preached righteousness in the great congregation: lo, I have not refrained my lips, O LORD, thou knowest.
He became as One who had absolutely nothing thereby putting Himself in the position of having to receive everything from His Father. He emptied Himself of everything (Phil 2). He trusts that He will receive everything He needs from His Father and Jesus entrusted everything to His Father. This is how He lived every minute of every day. His life was controlled and upheld by the grace of God. In taking the position of a branch who willingly abided in His Father’s will, He became the Tree of Life to all who trust in Him. God triumphed in His Son and He wants to triumph in many more sons through Jesus Christ. But we must all take the position that Jesus took in order for God to triumph in and through us (thereby bringing answered prayer).
Jesus asked and He received, he knocked and it was opened to Him, he sought the Father and found Him every single time.
John 8:29 And he that sent me is with me: the Father hath not left me alone; for I do always those things that please him.
This is how God triumphs in us. He triumphs in us through our asking, knocking and seeking. Our asking, knocking and seeking is a triumph in itself of God in man. And we always find Him when we ask and seek. He has promised that.
Pro_8:17 I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.
Jer_29:13 And ye shall seek me, and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart.
When our Lord was on earth as a man, He lived in faith and He prayed in faith and in all that He did and said and thought, He expressed the character of the One He was abiding in… His Father. In like manner, we are to express the character of our Father. As we express the character of our Father, our prayers are being answered, and we are finding the One we seek. We are being transformed into His likeness. His life of prayer was so that He may be obedient to His Father pleasing Him in all things unto the ultimate end, a spotless sacrifice for your sins and mine.
In this life of abiding in Him (through the Spirit and prayer), the Christian life is not about what we do but what He does in us and through us. Everything in our lives is supposed to be Jesus Christ in action as we abide in Him and all that we are and do is BY HIS SPIRIT.
This is the life of daily answered prayer.
The Bible tells us that “Christ is our life” (Col. 3:4) and so as “Christ lives in me/us” (Gal. 2:20) He is also praying in me and through me. We have been joined to Him and are one spirit. But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. 1Co_6:17
Our prayers are not some concept of praying to a separated deity as unbelievers do. To unbelievers, there is a painful recognizable distance or chasm between them and their deity, but on the contrary, to the Christian there is the reality of Christ’s indwelling and immanent presence. That is spiritual union with Christ, “Christ in us the hope of glory.”
As we remain one with Christ abiding in Him, He is expressing adoration and love and praise to God the Father through us. We have “been filled with the fruit of righteousness through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Phil. 1:11) “Through Him then, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that give thanks to His name” (Heb. 13:15).
Christian prayer is nothing like non-Christian prayer. Christian prayer are the deep longings of a life joined with Christ. And the prayers of righteous men are answered every day. The evidence of answered prayer is the continual triumphant and daily work of God in His sons.
The work of the Spirit of God within man is a daily testimony of God, answering prayers.