~ Don't Explain It Away: God's Will is Yes ~
Consider the declaration: "God always answers prayer. Sometimes the answer is 'no.'" You heard it before and it sounds true; however, it is not scriptural! I suggest the statement is a way of explaining away our failures at prayer.
I also find it troublesome when people contradict God's promises by excusing their apparent failures and thereby saying, "It's not my fault. It just isn't God's will. God is saying no." In all humility, I suggest this is also troublesome to God's Spirit.
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasizes prayer and encourages us by explaining how our heavenly Father's desire and anxiousness to answer, that is to fulfill, our prayers far surpasses our willingness and desire to attend to our children's needs. Jesus often taught persistence in prayer. His well known instruction reflects this persistence: Don't just ask and receive, also seek and actively search and you will find. In fact, be even more aggressive and knock, with boldness and expectation, and the door will open for you. Then, to emphasize this critical instruction further, Jesus reiterates it: Because everyone who asks will receive, who searches will find, who knocks, will have access.
Jesus repeats this assurance many times, that whatever we ask in His Name (not in our names) will be granted, in His pre-arrest instructions (John 14-16). On many occasions, Jesus asserted the certainty of our prayer fulfillment. One of the most powerful is recorded in Mark 11:24: "That's why I tell you to have faith that you have already received whatever you pray for, and it will be yours." He preceded that with, "Have faith in God!"
So why the tremendous number of reassurances and assertions? Why are our prayers of petition so frequently disappointing?
The answer lies just beyond the understanding of our penchant for instant gratification. To get something quickly is a worldly obsession and not scriptural. It is the way and enticement of Satan, the prince of this world. Instant power. Fast results. Quick money. Immediate relief and fixes. Contrarily, the Scriptures, particularly the Psalms and the New Testament epistles, repeat and emphasize the dynamic of the "wait"...Wait on the Lord; be patient and long-suffering; endure; persist.
Jesus' followers were well acquainted with the numerous injunctions to wait on God in expectation scattered throughout the Scriptures. Jesus knew there would be delays in the fulfillment of prayer, many of them. (And for good reason, as we will consider later.) Jesus knew this waiting would put pressure on our faith and challenge our confident expectation. I believe that's why He provided so many assertions that our prayers in faith will be fulfilled. Without that assurance and trust in His promises, our weariness gives way to a false submission where we then say the unscriptural platitude, "Well, it must not be God's will. His answer is no." We stop praying. Then, of course, our prayers remain unfulfilled and the slick, diabolical prince of this world smiles in victory.
So why the waiting period? Why does it seem to take our heavenly Father so long to answer and provide? Even David in his Psalms frequently pressed God to hurry, to respond quickly. Part of the answer is because we forgot what it was like as a child. Asking a five-year-old to wait six months for Christmas is asking him or her to wait one tenth of his or her lifetime. A fifty-year-old only waits one hundredth of his or her lifetime. God and we view time very differently. But of great impact is our ability to see the bigger picture compared to a child's. We often say "wait" to our children because we truly want them to have that dessert, that reward, that present, that new privilege or experience, but it must come after something else is in place, like dinner before dessert or instructions before using that new item or toy. And we often say "wait" to our children because we will not only give them the desire of their hearts, but because we also want to surprise them with even more and exceed their expectations, even if the wait is challenging for them.
Jesus did this with Lazarus, His friend. He got word Lazarus was sick and needed healing. Lazarus' family wanted him well and alive for more years with them. But Jesus did a strange thing in their view. He waited. Lazarus died and the loss was painful as Jesus knew it would be. He cried with the family in sharing their grief. But it was necessary, in order to give them not only a healthy Lazarus as they wanted, but a resurrection experience, a God-glorifying demonstration of power, life and grace, a wonder fostering faith and intimacy in God.
Lazarus and his family received what they were seeking and much more. Like the mother's labor pains before her joy of receiving her baby, the pain and challenge of the wait is later regarded as worth it and even worthy of being endured again for the repeated result. So we sometimes disappoint our children with a "wait," knowing they will be even more thrilled and blessed when they get what they desired and more or even better. Our heavenly Father is like that with us.
There remains the issue of the form and dynamics of prayer. When Jesus was asked to teach His followers "to pray," He responded with a model we now call "The Lord's Prayer," which we have studied in detail in another article, Lord, Teach us to Pray. Now let's consider Nehemiah's prayer, which has similar elements as the Lord's Prayer.
Nehemiah was King Artaxerxes' cupbearer in the fifth century B.C., the official responsible for ensuring the king's drinks were not poisoned, among other duties. Nehemiah asked his brother and friends "about the Jews who had survived captivity and about Jerusalem." (Nehemiah 1:2) They told him, "Those who survived captivity are in the province. They are enduring serious troubles and being insulted. The wall of Jerusalem has been broken down and its gates have been destroyed by fire." (v. 3)
The first element of Nehemiah's prayer is his response: "When I heard this, I sat down and cried. I mourned for days. I continued to fast and pray to the God of heaven." (v. 4) This first element is two-fold. Nehemiah was burdened by the great need for prayer, and it was God's burden as well. The decrepit state of Jerusalem and the Jews was not God's will nor Nehemiah's. We can know what God's will is as the Holy Spirit is the Father's witness in us. Praying in God's will and praying for what burdens both God and us results in powerfully fulfilled prayer!
The second element is worship and praise. Nehemiah begins his prayer with, "Lord God of heaven, great and awe-inspiring God, you faithfully keep your promise and show mercy to those who love you and obey your commandments." (v. 5) We contemplate and celebrate God's greatness, holiness, mercy, love and His covenant of promise to us.
The third element is our call to intimacy with God. Nehemiah prayed, "Open your eyes and pay close attention with your ears to what I, your servant, am praying. I am praying to you day and night..." (v. 6a) St. Paul urges us to approach the throne of God with boldness and confidence. (Hebrews 4:16) We urge God to draw near to us as we approach Him, desiring His attention more than food or sleep, fasting and praying day and night.
The fourth element is the confession of sin, both personal and ancestral, asking for forgiveness of the sins of our family as well as our own: "I confess the sins that we (Israelites) have committed against you as well as the sins that my father's family and I have committed..." (v. 6b) Jesus told us, "Whenever you pray, forgive anything you have against anyone. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins." (Mark 11:25) Jesus also told us the pure in heart will see God, and we need the purity of heart for intimacy with Him. In His repentance Psalm, David asks, "Create a clean heart in me, O God, and renew a faithful spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10)
The fifth element is praying God's word and promises back to Him in affirmation of His covenant with us: "Please remember what you told us through your servant Moses..." (v. 8a) This is another way of praying God's burdens, which include His promises to us. The fulfilling of His promises to us of answering prayer is His will, and He moves as we pray "May your will be done!" We are reminded of the many assurances of Jesus that our prayers in faith and His name will be fulfilled.
The sixth and final element is the specific petition itself. Nehemiah prayed, "Lord, please pay attention to my prayer and to the prayers of all your other servants who want to worship your name. Please give me success today and make this man, King Artaxerxes, show me compassion." (v. 11) All the elements combined reflect profound worship and the highest level of expectation. Nehemiah wasn't called by God for a job as were the prophets. In boldness and worship, Nehemiah called himself out in service through prayer. He expected God to influence a king and give him charge over an army of workers to lead in rebuilding Jerusalem and rebuilding a nation that would again be centered around God. Nehemiah's burden was God's burden and God fulfilled this man's prayers.
James reminds us of another person, Elijah, who "was human like us. Yet, when he prayed that it wouldn't rain, no rain fell on the ground for three-and-a-half years. Then he prayed again. It rained, and the ground produced crops." (James 5:17-18)
In summary, consider and use the six elements of Nehemiah's powerful prayer: The burden of the need; praise and worship; call to intimacy; confession of sin; affirmation of God's promises; the specific petition.
Consider the great frequency of Christ's assurances: "I can guarantee this truth: Those who believe in me will do the things that I am doing. They will do even greater things because I am going to the Father. I will do anything you ask in my name so that the Father will be given glory because of the son. If you ask me to do something, I will do it." (John 14:12-14) The "anything" or, in some translations, "whatsoever," covers everything! The promise and power of prayer transforms us and gives us access to the infinite resources of our Father's kingdom, which is "His great pleasure to provide."
Consider the inherent necessity of waiting upon the Lord. In this physical world, when we are not in complete control of the environment, we must wait to attain. We must wait in line to buy, we must wait for the traffic light to turn green, for the rain or sunshine, for the new season, for the dawn or twilight. If we can't wait, we suffer or we seek to take control, and that causes conflict, disruption and havoc. In matters of the spiritual realm, if we seek control we become guilty of Satan's sin. Our Father is All-knowing, All-powerful, All-loving and requires our submission and self-denial. His control means necessary delays for us. They are not "no" answers to prayers, but needed to fulfill Christ's covenant of guaranteed yes answers!
The place of revelation and receipt of power, grace, wisdom, triumph in spiritual warfare, growth into Christlikeness and the nurturing of the Holy Spirit within us is the prayer closet. It is where we delightfully wait upon the Lord in confident expectation and faith; where we meet with our Lord in deepening intimacy. Our prayer lives exude the witness and testimony of God's power that projects the saving love and glory from the heart of Christ within us touching all with whom we interact. This is our family heritage as adopted children of the heavenly Father and the ultimate service and function of prayer.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
© April 2, 2001
Responses are welcome at: Reflections@prayergear.com
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