2 Corinthians 12: 7 - 9
Where Is God When We Need Him?
Of all the things that weigh us down, perhaps no burden is greater than the silence of God. A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday school, he knows the Bible-but when he left home, he left it all behind. For many years his mother has prayed for him, but to this day he remains a prodigal son.
A wife prays for her husband, who left her after 23 years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable, and the marriage heads swiftly for divorce. A husband prays for his wife, who has terminal cancer. She has 6, maybe 7 months to live. None of the treatments stop the rampaging tumours. The elders anoint her with oil and pray over her in the name of the Lord. She dies 5 months later.
A young man prays fervently for deliverance from an overpowering temptation, but the struggle never seems to end. The more he prays, the worse the temptation becomes. So we cry out with the psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10: 1)
The Problem No One Talks About
We will be helped if we simply acknowledge reality - A great many believers struggle with the issue of unanswered prayer. If there is a God, if he really does answer prayer, why doesn’t he answer my prayers? For those who are in pain, a theoretical answer is not enough. Nor will it be enough to simply say, “God always answers prayer. Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, and sometimes he says wait.” We say this a lot. But it sounds superficial when someone cries out to God from the pit of despair, and the heavens are as brass, and the answer never comes.
There are people who bear hidden scars from the pain of prayers that were not answered. They remember times when they really prayed, said all the right words with all the right motives, even asked their friends to join them in prayer, deeply believing that only God could help them; and after they prayed, they waited and waited, but God never seemed to answer.
We don’t talk about this problem very much. Maybe we’re afraid that if we admit our prayers aren’t always answered, it will cause some people to lose their faith in God. That’s exactly what has happened. Many good, devout people secretly doubt that God answers prayer. They doubt it, for God did not come through for them. So in their hearts, hidden behind a smiling face, rests a profound disenchantment with the Almighty.
My Grace Is Sufficient
I have made a great discovery: I’m not the first person to have my prayers go unanswered. The Bible is full of stories of men and women who prayed to God in the moment of crisis, and God - for reasons sometimes explained and more often not explained - did not answer their prayers. Most of us would rather hear about the parting of the Red Sea than about Trophimus being left sick at Miletus. Miracles that did happen are more encouraging than stories of miracles that almost happened.
No story of unanswered prayer encourages me more than Paul’s unanswered prayer in 2 Corinthians 12. 14 years earlier Paul had been caught up into heaven and had seen things that no mortal man had ever seen before. It was the greatest experience of his life, and he never forgot what it was like. But when that great experience was over, something else happened to Paul that would change his whole perspective on life - 2 Corinthians 12: 7.
Some suggest that the “thorn in the flesh” was the fierce opposition Paul received from his Jewish opponents. Others suggest it was some kind of demonic oppression. Still others think that the thorn was a physical ailment that crippled Paul in some way and limited his effectiveness. It really doesn’t matter. The crucial point is that Paul prayed for God to remove the “thorn in his flesh” so that he could get on with his ministry. In fact he prayed not once but 3 times. And each time God said no - v. 8.
Can you imagine that? The apostle Paul, probably the greatest Christian who ever lived, the man who introduced Christianity to Europe, the man who wrote so much of the NT - that man, when he prayed about this need in his life, found that God did not, would not, answer his prayers.
It’s hard to believe because we know that Paul was a man of prayer. He writes about prayer in all his letters. Suppose Paul was to come to our church next Sunday and after the service said, “Now, I’ll be glad to pray for any of you.” What would you do? I know what I’d do. I’d get in line and ask the apostle Paul to pray for me. But here’s a clear-cut case, in his own words, of a time in his life when he desperately begged God over and over again to answer a very specific prayer, and God said no.
1. Unanswered prayer happens to the very best of Christians.
2. When it happens, it is humanly unexplainable.
3. When it happens, God has a higher purpose in mind.
Paul kept on praying until God finally gave him an explanation - v. 9. Sometimes our prayers are not answered because God can do more through us by not answering our prayers than He can by answering them. Sometimes God’s no is better than his yes.
What would happen if God answered all your prayers all the time? Forget that some of your prayers are foolish and shortsighted. Just suppose that God answered them all. Would that produce spiritual maturity in your life? If God always answered your prayers, eventually your trust would be in the answers and not in the Lord alone. But when God says no, we are forced to decide whether we will still trust in God alone - without the benefit of an answered prayer to lean upon.
Don’t get me wrong. Answered prayer is wonderful, and if none of our prayers were answered we would probably stop praying altogether. But if all of our prayers were answered we would end up taking God for granted. Unanswered prayer forces us to trust in God alone. When we do, he alone gets the glory, for it is at that point that his strength is made perfect in our weakness.
We Grow Best in the Darkness
As I look at my life compared to others around me, I see many people whose path has been much harder than my own. But I know that - “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5: 7). If I live long enough, I will certainly see much more personal sorrow. There is no way around it. I now look back and think that the most concentrated times of spiritual growth have come as a result of my trials. We grow best in the darkness of pain, sadness and despair. We learn many things in the sunlight, but we grow best in the darkness.
Sometimes it is better for us if our prayers are not answered immediately. Sometimes it is better if they are not answered at all. The great question is not, “How can I get my prayers answered?” The great question is, “What will it take to draw me closer to God?”
Consider these words attributed to a soldier who died in battle.
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.
It is a great advance in spiritual understanding to be able to say, “I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.”
Though He Slay Me
That brings me to the conclusion. Sometimes our prayers will go unanswered. Unless you admit that fact and deal with it as a Christian, you will probably give up prayer altogether. To make it worse, sometimes our prayers offered from righteous motives and pure hearts will seem to accomplish nothing. It is as if the heavens have turned to brass. But that is not true. God does hear every prayer, even the ones he chooses not to answer. No prayer is entirely wasted, for even unanswered prayer may be used by God to draw us closer to him. In that case we may say that it was better for our prayers to go unanswered that we might draw near to God.
The final solution, I think, lies somewhere along these lines: When we pray, we tend to focus exclusively on the answers; God wants us to focus on him. Whatever will help us do that is what we really need. Sometimes that means our prayers will be answered in amazing and miraculous ways; other times our prayers will not be answered at all.
Remember Job - He lost his home, his fortune, his children, his health and his reputation. All that he counted dear was taken from him. When he hit the bottom, filled with anger and wishing that he were dead, he uttered these words of faith: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). It’s as if he is saying to God, “You can take my life, but you can’t make me stop trusting in you.” Yes, there is a note of defiance in those words, and yes, Job wasn’t too happy about what God had done to him. And yes, he wanted his day in court. But underneath the anger and searing pain was a bedrock faith in God. “I don’t understand this at all, but I’m hanging on to you, Lord, and I’m not going to let go.”
That’s the place to which God wants to bring us. Sometimes unanswered prayer is the only way to get us there.
What to Do When Your Prayers Are Not Answered
We still need to know how to respond when we pray and God does not answer us. I have 3 suggestions -
1. Keep on praying as long as you can.
Sometimes God’s answers are delayed for reasons beyond our knowledge. Who can really say why a prayer which has been said 999 times should finally be answered the 1000th time? But it happens. From time to time we hear stories of how people have prayed for a loved one for 20 or 30 years before the answer finally came. We all know of stories of people who have made miraculous recoveries after the doctors had given up all hope. We should gain hope from such miracles? So pray, pray and keep on praying. As you pray, don’t be ashamed to beg God for a miracle. Who knows? You may be surprised to find that after you have given up all hope, God has moved from heaven to answer your prayers in ways you never dreamed possible.
2. Give God the right to say no.
God already has that right, whether you acknowledge it or not. But if you never acknowledge that God has the right to say no to you, you will be filled with anger, frustration and despair. To fight against God’s right to say no to you is really the same thing as fighting against God. That’s a battle you’ll never win.
How much wiser say, “Lord, I am praying this from the bottom of my heart, but I confess that you have the right to say no if that’s what You think is best.” We have the example of the Lord Jesus who prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane with the sweat pouring off him like great drops of blood, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will.” If Jesus needed to pray that way, how much more do we? Let God be God in your life. Give him the right to say no.
3. Keep on doing what you know to be right.
In the darkness of unanswered prayer, you may be tempted to give up on God. You may feel like throwing in the towel. But what good will that do? If you turn away from God, where will you go? Keep on praying, keep on believing, keep on reading the Bible, keep on obeying, keep on following the Lord. If you stay on course in the darkness, eventually the light will shine again and you will be glad that you did not turn away in the moment of disappointment.
We see dimly now as we march on through the shadows of life. But the day will come when the sunlight of God’s love surrounds us as we stand in the presence of Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us. Until then, we move on through the twilight knowing that some of our prayers will not be answered no matter how hard we pray. But this fact sustains us on our long journey home: He did not say, “My answers are sufficient,” but rather “My grace is sufficient for you.”