Why does prayer fail so often for so many? Last month we saw that communication with God is often cluttered with rituals, repetitions and archaic or arcane language. But avoiding these common pitfalls is only part of the answer to unanswered prayer.
When it comes to prayer, most people have a give-and-take relationship with God. He gives — and they take. In this age of grace, there is a tendency to maximize what God will do for us (which is very considerable) and minimize what we "need" to do for God. People approach their relationship to God with a minimum-daily-requirement mentality. They think in terms of how little they have to do to "please" God and get saved rather than how much. Christianity is thus transformed from a religion into a racket. God becomes a "patsy" whom men con, cajole and coax blessings from while paying only lip service in return. He is expected to play the role of a supernatural answering service that answers all requests for help and forgiveness with no questions asked and no strings attached. And then they wonder why He doesn't answer their prayers. They wonder if He understands their plight, if He really cares, or even if He really exists. God exists all right. He remains loving, compassionate and merciful. But He is also smart. He knows that one-way give-and-take relationships never solve anything. He wants to help us, to give us abundantly of all good things — but He insists there be an appropriate response on man's part. And that is: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment" (Matt. 22:37-38, RSV throughout article unless otherwise noted).
You Got To Have Heart
God doesn't want us to worship Him with full churches and empty hearts. And He won't settle for halfhearted, part-time, lackadaisical Christian living either. He seeks a total, wholehearted commitment to Him. "I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted, "He commanded Abraham (Gen. 17:1, Jewish Publication Society translation). The person who is sincerely dedicated to God will find a God who is interested in helping him through the problems and trials of this life. "For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in the behalf of them whose heart is whole toward Him" (II Chron. 16:9, Jewish Publication Society translation). Prayer is a dynamic part of a meaningful give-and-take relationship with God. It is not a device to get this or that from God, but a means by which God and man work together toward a common goal — salvation. Let's examine the salvation God has in mind for us. When we understand why we exist in the first place, why God bothers to listen and deal with us, we will know how to make prayer work for us. We will better understand the problem of unanswered prayer — and what to do about it.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done
In Christ's model. prayer we are instructed to ask: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matt. 6:10). A lot of people aren't that enthusiastic about the Kingdom of God. They aren't sure what God's will is, except in the most general terms, such as "to save all sinners." And anyway, they are much more interested in the next topics for discussion: "Give us this day our daily bread" and "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." So they tend to discuss God's will perfunctorily and briefly and get down to what matters to them most — their problems. Too bad. For if they took more time and thought to consider God's will they might ask more wisely and with a greater assurance of an answer about their own needs. They might solve the problem of getting the opposite of what they asked for — not enough bread, and too many temptations. What, then, is so important about the Kingdom of God? And just what is God's will? What do they have to do with you and your problems? We generally think of the Kingdom of God in terms of Christ's second coming. But the Kingdom of God is more than a divine government that now rules in heaven and will one day rule from earth. It is also a family — God's family. And God's will on earth is that every human being shall eventually be born into the Kingdom of God. We are to become members of God's family. We are to become sons of God. (If that's news to you, then you need to find out what the gospel — literally, the "good news" — of Christ is all about. Read our free booklets What Is the True Gospel? and Why Were You Born?)
Seek First the Kingdom
Bringing sons into His family is God's number-one priority. It affects every decision He makes about you, every response to your prayers. His spiritual purpose supersedes mundane considerations. Now don't get God wrong. He's not oblivious or inconsiderate to our physical needs. He knows we need jobs, need food, need healing of our physical infirmities, etc. He knows our problems better than we do! He is acutely aware of how frail our existence is. "For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust" (Ps. 103:14). We should pray about our physical needs. But we should also get our priorities straight! "Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well" (Matt. 6:31-33). Man does not live by bread alone (cf. Matt. 4:4; Luke 4:4). He shouldn't live for bread alone — God didn't put us here to see how much of this world's goods we could grab for ourselves. "Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15). In the consumer-oriented societies of this age, that is a very difficult spiritual principle and fact of life to learn. When God does provide our basic, daily needs, we still want more, while neglecting our spiritual impoverishment. In prayer we often seek our own gain — and let God take the hindmost. Consequently, we come up empty-handed. "You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions" (James 4:3).
Seek His Righteousness
You may have noticed that Christ told us to seek God's righteousness as well as His Kingdom. God's righteousness is expressed in His laws. They are summarized in the Ten Commandments. God gave them so that we would know how to act like Him; so that we would know how to prepare to be sons of God. Unfortunately this is another area of God's will where many are in conflict with God instead of harmony. It is a major reason why prayers go begging for answers. "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you so that he does not hear" (Isa. 59:1-2). The barrier of sin that prevents God from responding to our prayers is broken down by the sacrifice of Christ. It is kept down and communication is kept open by living life God's way as defined by His laws. "And we receive from him whatever we ask, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him" (I John 3:22).
Law Is a Means — Not an End
Of course, keeping God's law can't save us. It can't earn us salvation. That's not the point, the objective. The law serves as a guide for us to understand how God thinks, how He would act if He were human — how Christ, God Incarnate, did act when He was human. God's law reflects His way of doing things. It exemplifies His mind, His character. And Christ tells us: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matt. 5:48). To emulate God the Father is quite an assignment. As human beings, it is an impossible task. But as Christians, with the help of God's Spirit, and the sacrifice of Christ for when we fall short, we can use God's laws to grow toward spiritual maturity and perfection in this lifetime. It is through God's law that we come to understand Him — and love Him. "He who says 'I know him' but disobeys his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected" (I John 2:4-5). The greater our love and knowledge of God, the more effective our prayers become because we are giving God the commitment to His way that He seeks and we better understand what to ask. We can say, as did the apostle John: "And this is the confidence which we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him" (I John 5:14-15).
More Blessed To Give
As was stated at the beginning, most people have a selfish give-and-take relationship with God. God is always giving, and they are always taking. But if our relationship to God is based upon a wholehearted commitment to His way of living, to emulating God so that we may become His sons, it behooves us to give and share with God and our fellowman as generously as God gives to us. Christ said it is more blessed to give than receive. He challenges us to "give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back" (Luke 6:38). Notice particularly the meaning of that last phrase: God gives to us as we give to others. Paul amplified this important point in his appeal to the church in Corinth: "After all, God can give you everything that" you need, so that you may always have sufficient both for yourselves and for giving away to other people.... The more you are enriched by God the more scope will there be for generous giving..." (II Cor. 9:8, 11, Phillips translation). Giving is one of the "acid tests" of Christianity. It separates the goats from the sheep, the fakes from the faithful. It shows where a person's priorities are, where his heart really is. "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth... but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Matt. 6:19-21).
Poor in Money — But Not in Spirit
It seems to be a rule of thumb that the more treasure people have, the more "earth bound" they are in their use of it. The more they have, the less generous they are — at least towards God. "And he [Christ] sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the multitude putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. And a poor widow came, and put in two copper coins, which make a penny. And he called his disciples to him, and said to them, 'Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in
Prayer is a dynamic part of a meaningful give-and-take relationship with God. It is not a device to get this or that from God, but a means by which God and man work together toward a common goal — salvation.
more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they all contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living" (Mark 12:41-44). This pattern holds true today. Often widows, pensioners, and poor people are far more liberal toward God in their tithes and offerings than those substantially better off. They contribute a disproportionate share of the funds for the work of the Church. They may be poor in terms of money — but not in spirit, in zeal for God's Work! "The point is this: he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do as he has made up his mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver" (II Cor. 9:6-7). Establish a give-and-give relationship with God and your fellowman.
Waiting for God To Act
No discussion of prayer would be complete without mentioning faith. When people think of faith, they think of moving mountains. They envision spectacular deeds and mighty miracles. They talk in terms of "proving one's faith" and "stepping out in faith." But there is another kind of faith Christians need also. It's not as dramatic or heroic — but it's just as important for salvation. It's not the kind of faith that steps out — but a faith that stands still, that waits for God to act. Sometimes we must prove our faith by simply our patience and perseverance. This is especially true in praying to God. Many times we commit to God problems that clearly only He can solve. Sometimes God may act on our behalf quickly. But other times He may wait. When God waits we must wait with Him. We must believe that God has a good reason for waiting. We must trust in His love and wisdom to take care of the situation in the best way at the best time. Jesus Christ Himself preached perseverance in prayer. "And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, 'In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, "Vindicate me against my adversary." For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, "Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming."' "And the Lord said, 'Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate His elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?'" (Luke 18:1-8.) Will Christ find faith in you? When only God can solve the problem, or correct the injustice, can you pray with perseverance and wait with patience until He acts — until the end of the age if need be?
Endure to the End
It is never easy to wait for God. "But he who endures to the end will be saved" (Matt. 24:l3). And, "By your endurance you will gain your lives," says Christ (Luke 21:19). These are watchwords for Christians in every age. But it just so happens that Christ made these statements while talking about the end of the age, the time just before His return. We like to think that in the end time Christians will shake the earth with mighty miracles and great acts of faith. Perhaps some — such as the two witnesses — will. But could Christ be telling us that most Christians — you and I — will prove their faith by their patience in spite of every adversity and affliction? Instead of stepping out in great and glorious steps of faith, may we be asked to prevail with God in prayer and good works, believing in His great purpose and promises of eventual deliverance? Time will tell. In any event, the faith that waits, that won't give up, is one of the most indispensable traits you need in dealing with God.
"Thus says the Lord: 'Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool; what is the house which you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things are mine, says the Lord. But this is the man to whom I will look, he that is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isa. 66:1-2). God puts a premium on humility. On the other hand, Christ reserved some of His strongest condemnations for the spiritual vanity and self-righteousness of the religious leaders of His day. Unfortunately, it seems that into every Christian's life seeps a little overweening pride. Like childhood diseases, it's one of the things the children of God seem to catch as they grow up to the stature of Christ. Some are afflicted with it more than others. In a few cases, the malady is never shaken off and it proves fatal. What makes the problem even worse is the fact that spiritual pride is usually very obvious to everyone but the person who has it! Blessed is the man (though he won't think so at the time) who has a genuine friend tactful and courageous enough to tell him he's caught the fever.
The "Pharisaical Fever"
In the parable of the Pharisee and the publican, Christ gave an example of spiritual pride in prayer. "He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: 'Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself [certainly God was not listening to this public relations spiel], "God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get." But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted'" (Luke 18:9-14). If your conversation, private thoughts, or prayers are even vaguely similar to this, you may be contracting the "pharisaical fever." You may need a good dose of humility, an awareness of your own humanity and fallibility, coupled with compassion and longsuffering for the shortcomings of others. "Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:36). Don't compare yourself with others or judge the spiritual status of others based on outward appearance.
Ask the Right Question
There is much more that could be said about prayer. But like swimming or painting, you learn by doing. You come to understand the basics by experience. Just remember one thing. If you can't seem to get through to God, the problem lies on earth, not in heaven. The answer to unanswered prayer begins by asking the right question — not about God, but about yourself. So don't ask: "Why doesn't God answer?" Ask instead: "Why should He?"