A woman invited some people to dinner. At the table, she turned to her six-year-old daughter and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” “I don’t’ know what to say,” the little girl replied.”Just say what you hear Mommy say,” her mother instructed. The daughter bowed her head and prayed, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?” (quoted in “Prayer that Gets Results”, by Mike Turner)
How many of you believe God answers prayer? Shout yes if you do. Sounds like most of us believe that God answers prayer. Now, how many of you have ever prayed for something that didn’t happen? Shout yes again. So, what do you make of that? If God answers prayers, why do some of our prayers go unanswered?
One of the questions I often wrestle with when I study about prayer, and when I pray, is the reality that sometimes when we pray our prayers don’t get answered. I’m in the same boat as you are. I have prayed many times for things to happen that never happened. I have prayed for people to get well and they didn’t. I have prayed for marriages to be saved and they weren’t. I have prayed for success of church ministry that were flops. I have prayed for people to change their lives and they didn’t. I have prayed for people to live and they died. I have prayed for many things over the years that never happened. Now before you make that mental note to not ask me to pray for you…let me say that in spite of the time it seems like there is an invisible wall between earth and heaven, I believe with all my heart that God answers prayers – and there have been plenty of wonderful examples in my life when I have prayed for something and God has answered! I’m sure many of you have experienced the same things with prayer as I have.
But what about those times when prayer goes unanswered? It makes you want to ask, “What’s the problem? Why didn’t God respond to that prayer? Didn’t Jesus say, ?Ask, and it will be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock, and the door will be open to you?’ Didn’t Jesus say, ?Whatever you ask for in my name, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’ Didn’t Jesus say, ?You can ask me anything in my name and I will do it’?” To many of us, that sounds like an unlimited credit line! Doesn’t it?
So what’s the problem? Is it false advertising? Is God just teasing us: “Ask me anything but I really don’t intend to do it?” or is there some sort of cosmic wheel of fortune that is spun every time we pray and whatever that wheel stops on, that’s our answer? Is God playing a game?
The answer is no. It isn’t a game, and there is not heavenly wheel of fortune. The Bible helps us to get some insight into what seems to be unanswered prayer. God never said, “I will answer your prayers in the exact way you want me to answer them.” He has not made that promise. In fact, the Bible says that God answers our prayers in one of three ways.
Sometimes, God says ?yes’. I like it when that happens. I love it when God answers prayer in miraculous and often supernatural ways. I love hearing about someone praying for something and it coming to pass – I love it even more when I seek God’s favor upon something and He does it! Not only because I’m seeing something happen that I desire to occur – but also because what I desire is apparently what He desires! When God says yes to my prayer, it means that God and I are on the same page! Praise God, that he does many times say yes to our prayers!
Sometimes, God say, “not yet”. When God answers, “not yet”, he isn’t necessarily saying no but instead that either the timing isn’t his timing or the way isn’t His way. Today’s society is a ?right now’ society. We want instant everything. All too often, when we pray for God’s help, we have the attitude of ?hurry it up, God!’ However, we’ve either forgotten, or never understood properly, that God knows the perfect time and the perfect way in which He should answer our prayers, and we don’t. It is so important that we have patience to allow God do His perfect work in His perfect time and stop trying to rush Him to fit into our imperfect schedules.
Sometimes, God says, “no”. The Bible is full of examples of God saying “No.” Moses prayed, “God, I want to go into the Promised Land.” And God said, “No.” Abraham prayed, “Lord, let my son Ishmael receive the blessings of the nations,” and God said, “No, it’s for Isaac.” In 2 Samuel 11, David had an affair with Bathsheba and they had a little baby boy and that boy got very sick. David fell on his face and for days prayed and fasted saying, “God, I’ll do anything if you’ll just save my boy’s life,” and God said “No”.
So if God said no at times to Moses and Abraham and David, I figure there’s a chance He might say “no” to us. Actually, the Bible is pretty clear that there are certain instances where God will definitely say no. In the next three weeks I’m going to be talking about what those definite instances are:
- Lack of Faith
- Unconfessed Sin
- Wrong Motives
I believe that it is important we understand the reasons the Bible gives for God saying no to our prayers and I believe once we do understand it will have a dramatic effect on the power and impact of our prayer life and our relationship with God. We’re going to start looking at those reasons next week but today I want to begin by focusing in on some obstacles to a life of prayer. Obviously, as I shared two weeks ago – a big reason why we don’t see the power of prayer in our lives is because we don’t pray. And so, as we begin this series, I want to talk about the stuff that gets in the way of our pursuing prayer as a lifestyle.
There are a great number of heavyweights who have written on prayer – Thomas Merton, E.M. Bounds, J.I. Packer, Emilie Griffin, Henri Nouwen, Anthony Bloom… I could go to the amazing writings and messages shared by these people and harvest for you great insights on connecting with God – and every week you could walk out of here knowing more about prayer than you knew the week before – but not really find yourself praying more. God help us avoid the sin of hearing but not doing. Help me avoid the sin of preaching but not practicing, of imparting to others what I am not instilling in myself.
So it’s important that to avoid those sins that we commit to setting aside time in our schedules, clear away distractions, and making time for prayer. Will you realize that your intentions will not be good enough – we can earnestly intend to pray all our lives and never really do it. It is so important to understand that it is only the activity of prayer that counts, not wishing or wanting to pray, but only doing it. How many of you took me up on the challenge of praying 15 minutes a day that I gave you at the beginning of the year? It is possible folks! Recently, Kerryanne and I have started our mornings by joining hands while still in bed and praying together before we get out of bed and step into the whirlwind of an Ethier household morning. Let me tell you it has made a tremendous difference in the flow of our day and the focus of our lives.
Jeremiah 29:13 (NIV) says,
You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Let’s take a look at the obstacles to a life of seeking after God in prayer.
Learning about Prayer
The first thing I want to teach you this morning is that the constant temptation when it comes to the subject of prayer is to talk about it, read about it, learn about it, study it, perhaps write about it, and somehow never actually do it! This is the first obstacle and somewhat of a paradox because it is also a benefit – learning about prayer. Your attendance at church while I preach on prayer is of little value if you are not actually praying during the week, learning to implement what you learn into your practice of prayer both privately and corporately with the rest of the church body. A commitment to actually pray is the first order of business and as I often say, commitment is follow-through.
Henri Nouwen wrote in The Genesee Diary:
Writing about prayer is often very painful since it makes you aware of how far away you are from the ideal you write about. People who read your ideas tend to think that your writings reflect your life…This week all I am reading and writing about is prayer. I am so busy with it and often so excited about it that I have no time left to pray, and when I pray I feel more drawn to my ideas on prayer than to praying. While it is true that in order to pray you have to empty your heart and mind for God, you also have to empty your heart and mind of your feelings and ideas on prayer. Otherwise, prayer gets in the way of praying.”
Willingness to be a STUDENT of prayer
This is the second obstacle to a life of prayer. We are sometimes willing to learn something, assuming that means we hear a fact, store it away in our minds, and then claim that we know it. But there is a difference between learning something and knowing it – a great chasm between storing away knowledge of something and being a STUDENT of it.
When you have learned something, you are finished with it. You can tuck it away into that category of things you KNOW. When you are a student of something, you are engaged in a process of learning it continually, allowing it to embrace you, to shape you, to define you, to mold you. Learners seek to master their subject matter, students seek to be shaped by it. This probably sounds kind of philosophical and out of reach so let me bring it home to you. I think many marriages are in trouble today because spouses are not students of one another. In a sense, I must be a student of Kerryanne. I must devote myself to the never-ending search for what makes her…her! I must learn more every day to appreciate the intricacies of her personality. I must continually try to find out what makes her tick. I must realize it is a quest. As soon as I cease being a student of my wife and think I have LEARNED her, — or that she cannot ever be learned, — I take her for granted and miss much of what is special about her. More marriages would be healthy today if spouses understood one aspect of a healthy relationship is to be students of each other. But most of us don’t, do we?
Why is that? It’s because many of us have a perception of ourselves that we are not “student material”. We don’t see ourselves as students, as studiers, as those who are continually learning new things. Even now, I’m sure there are some of you who have tuned me out because you are thinking “I’m not really a student kind of person”. But you’re wrong. Every single one of you is a student of something.
Think of your favorite hobby. For those of us with a hobby I can almost guarantee you that you are a student of that hobby, at least to some extent. You find that you are always learning more about it, always seeking to get better at it or learn how to enjoy it more, or at least how to save money at it! For many of you, you have continued to learn more and more just through years of constant exposure. That’s what it means to be a student of something – to expose ourselves to it again and again until it begins to shape us.
Anyone here know virtually nothing about music? Raise your hand. Let’s say that today you began piano lessons. At first it would be this difficult, deliberate attempt for you to master certain basic skills. You don’t consider yourself a musician and for you to learn piano, at first you would kind of feel like you are stepping into unknown territory, my world, or Fred’s world, or the world of some other musician you know. But at a certain point you’d realize that you consider yourself a musician and are at home in that world. At first you work constantly to capture and understand music, but at some point you find yourself captured by it. It has begun to form you, so that even as you continue to learn more, it continues shaping who you are, from the inside out. You’re not all musicians but almost all of you can relate to what I’m saying if you simply think about what it is that you love – the hobby or activity that has captured your heart. Chances are you are a student of that thing – whether it be fishing, sewing, video-games, reading, athletics, music, golf, horses, working with wood.
We do not move forward in prayer until we are willing to be a student of prayer. The resistance to this is a normal human tendency that shows up in many areas of our lives. There are some of you in this room today who say you want to make a bigger impact on the lives of your friends and family, but you will not prioritize your schedules in order to learn how to do it – will not make yourself a student of it. There are some who say they want to learn how to manage their household, their money, their economic lives better to live free of the burdens of debt and bad credit – but you have not been willing so far to make yourself a student of it – -to learn not the new technique, but the new lifestyle that will enable you. We can learn techniques, but we must be students of lifestyles.
So let me ask you: are you willing to think of prayer that way? Are you wiling to become a student of prayer? It is important that I talk about prayer and teach about prayer but I need to tell you that all you are going to learn is just the beginning – it is important that you dedicate yourself to a lifetime of learning the lifestyle of prayer, that you become a student of prayer. That is what I want to urge you towards in all these messages on prayer – a lifestyle of learning of prayer that we can embrace together.
EXPECTATIONS of prayer
Another obstacle to a lifestyle of prayer is our expectations of prayer. In ministry there are times where I will receive the call to visit someone who is facing tragic circumstances and is in a really tough spot. Whenever I got these calls, there is a feeling I always get, a feeling of complete uselessness – the embarrassing sense that I have nothing to offer in the face of such tragedy. On the way to the hospital, or the person’s home I’ll usually pray a quick prayer that God would give me the words to say. Of course, at the back of my mind I’m hoping that God will show up through the words I share so that I won’t have to feel useless – and so that I’m making a difference in those peoples lives. The problem is, my expectations were wrong. I’ve come to understand that the only time I’m of any use to God is when I realize how useless I am – how it’s in times like these that I need to let go more of myself and cling more to God. The more I cling to Him the more it will be God I’m bringing to those hurting people and not me. They don’t really need me, they need Jesus!
It’s hasn’t been easy but I’m learning that God wants me to be ineffective (in my understanding of effectiveness). He wants me to not know what to say. Often times that’s God’s way of pushing me towards silence, towards holding the hand or putting my arm around the shoulder of the person in crisis and just offering them my presence and in turn welcoming the presence of God.
We pray with wrong expectations anytime we think that the actual words of our prayers will somehow overrule the whole orientation of our lives toward or away from God. In other words, prayer forms us gradually, and helps us become containers who are capable of carrying the presence of God in us. Prayer is not a magical force or formula that calls upon God “the genie” – it is not an incantation. So when I pray and ask God to help me know the right things to say in a hospital, the far more important issue is not whether I am praying at that exact moment, but whether I am “prayed up” – -the extent to which prayer has already oriented me toward the power of God, and made me sensitive to spiritual things.
Too many people want to live however they want to live, and then expect prayer to work like some kind of magic potion to change the consequences of our ungodly actions and decisions. Prayer does not work that way. Prayer orients us toward God. The more we pray, the more we are oriented toward God and God’s point of view.
The Apostle Paul writes of a time when he begged God to take away this thing in his life that was afflicting him and driving him nuts – the Bible never says what it is but merely refers to it as a thorn in the flesh. Paul says he prayed three times, “God, please get rid of this thing in my life.” Let’s read further in 2 Corinthians,
9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)
That’s a powerful passage because it’s the story of how Paul came to abandon his own point of view concerning his weakness, and embrace God’s point of view.
If this passage is true, and indeed I believe it is, (that the weaker we are the stronger we become) then the final obstacle we have to an obstacle of prayer (or rather the final one I’ll talk about this morning) is our need to feel competent at it – our need to feel like we’re good pray-ers.
Need to feel competent at praying
This feeling of insufficiency I believe is nearly essential in approaching God in prayer.
Have you ever felt insufficient in prayer? The answer is yes if you’ve ever found youself saying any of the following things.
? I don’t know how to pray.
? I don’t know what to pray for.
? I am uncomfortable praying out loud.
? It’s not like MY prayers ever get answered!
? Why would God listen to me?
I want to encourage you to consider this morning that that very feeling of insufficiency is the starting point of true prayer – it begins with a sense of smallness before God, a sense of our own non-importance, the sense that if God doesn’t show up we’ve wasted our time.
10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men–robbers, evildoers, adulterers–or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ 13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ 14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Luke 18:10-14 (NIV)
I will most likely be referring to this passage again later in the series, but for now it’s sufficient to note that the prayer of the Pharisee was all about his own goodness – the prayer of the tax collector was all about God’s goodness.
Today we have looked at four obstacles to a lifestyle of prayer.
1. First is learning about prayer but not actually praying.
2. Unwillingness to become a student of prayer – wanting just to be prayer-dabblers.
3. Wrong expectations of prayer
4. Need to feel like we are good at prayer.
So all this brings us back to the first point. Because we are unwilling to be students of prayer, because we have wrong expectations of prayer, because we fear we will never be good at it, we are often content to simply learn ABOUT it and not do it – and we become perpetual prayer-dabblers.
So friends, I invite you to a lifestyle of prayer, I re-extend the challenge to pray 15 minutes a day and to welcome the opportunities to pray corporately with your church family on Thursday nights and/or Sunday morning before service – or at the conclusion of the service around the front here. Don’t give in to the temptation to just hear a sermon about it and think you’re growing. You won’t grow in prayer unless you pray, so make it a priority!