Luke 11:5-13 June 20, 2021
When Jesus talks about prayer, he makes it seem so easy. Ask and it shall be given to you, seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you. Ask, seek, knock then God will answer, and things make things roll your way. It sounds simple enough, but what about all those unanswered prayers–the times it feels like your prayers just bounce off the ceiling and the only thing rolling is a wave of disappointment? Raise your hand if you can relate. It’s quite an impressive club we belong to. And yet, here we are.
Several members of our church family requested that I preach about unanswered prayers. I guess the good thing is that our club encompasses nearly everyone. In the 1990s, I read a poll that said 94% of people pray–especially in times of distress. What was remarkable is that at the time only 83% said they believed in God.
There are moments when life punches us in the gut and we don’t know what to do so we reach out in spite of our doubts and unanswered prayers of the past to connect with something larger than ourselves to help us. At least 94% surveyed are willing to admit it.
Unanswered Prayers in Scripture
The club of people with unanswered prayers encompasses even the great heroes of faith in the Bible. Moses’ prayer that he’d get to enter the promised land with the people he led for 40 years was denied. King David fasted and prayed for seven days that his son would live but he died. Jeremiah prayed that Jerusalem would not be destroyed and when the Babylonians wiped it out, he complained to God, “You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through to you.” (Lam. 3:44)
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul prayed for the removal of an affliction he called a “thorn in his side.” It never went away. Even Jesus prayed that his followers would be one but look at all the divisions between Christians. He even prayed for God to take away his cup of suffering and death, but he was crucified anyway. And yet, here we are.
The thing about unanswered prayers is most of them point to a very tender and hurtful period in our lives. And yet, here we are. So, what’s going on, how do we persevere–how can we make sense of this?
Unanswered Prayers as a Gift from God?
Maybe sometimes the answer is that God knows better than us about what our real needs are. Garth Brooks has a song called, “Some of God’s Greatest Gifts are Unanswered Prayers.” The lyrics tell about how there was one girl that he prayed would someday be his wife. She got away and years later he ran across the girl now a woman and all he could think was, “Thank God for unanswered prayers.”
Sometimes we probably do ask for the wrong things–selfish things, things that are about our effort to keep up with the Joneses. Who can forget Janis Joplin singing, “O Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz, my friends all drive Porsches, I must make amends.”
Although God would prefer that we spend more time listening and connecting in prayer, there can be a tendency to treat God like a cosmic vending machine put in your prayer, and your selection drops right to you. Tony Campolo talks about his young son who said, “I’m going upstairs to say my prayers, does anyone want anything?”
Treating God like a short-order chef hardly recognizes the sovereignty of our creator. When the order isn’t fixed to our liking we turn into what TicTokers call “Karens” or people always complaining.
The Difference Between an “If” and “Though” Faith
Spiritual maturity takes you from an “if” person to a “though” person. Martin Luther King Jr. An “if” faith says, “I will believe if God does this for me. I will pray if God makes things go my way.” A “though” faith says, “Though the night is dark, I will persevere. A though person looks at the problems around and says even so, even so, it is well with my soul.
Do We Have Enough Faith?
Sometimes people think their prayers went unanswered because they didn’t have enough faith. In my first church in the Midwest the board chair told me on my first Sunday, “Pastor if you just pray for a good three-inch soaking rain in the middle of July, you’ll be alright.” But Jesus said that if you have faith the size of a tiny mustard seed, you can move mountains. The fact that you even reach out in prayer means you’ve got at least that.
So what is it? Sometimes we may think that we didn’t use the right words, that there is a magical formula. Throw in some King James’ “thees” and “thous.” But Romans 8 says that when we do not know how to pray as we ought, “the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Prayer isn’t about a formula or buttering up God.
Others seem to think that if you are a bad person, God won’t listen. This is the disproven argument that Job’s friends tried out on him. They told him that God answers the prayers of the just, so you are having all these problems because you are a bad person. I remember being in the hospital as a teenager with Crohn’s disease and youth group leaders told me that the reason I wasn’t getting better was that I must have some unconfessed sin that was blocking their prayers for me. Er. What?! Are you kidding me? But I confessed everything and it didn’t help, they only made matters worse, like Job’s buddies. The whole book of Job is about saying that isn’t it. Jesus told the sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes to pray.
Please don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking, “God must not like me. If I were just a better person, my prayers would get answered.” God just doesn’t work that way.
Another unfruitful way of thinking is thinking that God causes you to suffer to teach you some sort of lesson. But that’s not the way Jesus talked about God. It makes God seem mean and manipulative. A loving parent would never inflict cancer on a child, would not even “permit” it, in order to teach her “a lesson.” God has nothing to do with meanness.
Is God like a Hands-off Watchmaker?
One solution to the problem of unanswered prayer, some argue, is to say that God doesn’t answer any prayers, that God is like a watchmaker who sets up the universe to run in a certain way and steps back and doesn’t interfere. God doesn’t violate the rules of physics and has given us free will and often there are disastrous consequences. We cannot all get what we want all the time. In the movie Bruce Almighty, there are funny scenes where someone is imbued with god powers and tries to answer everyone’s question, “Yes.” So everyone won the lottery, everyone got promoted, no one ever died. Let’s just say it didn’t turn out so well.
The hands-off watchmaker God doesn’t quite seem to jibe with what Jesus talked about and the experience of so many people. I asked earlier to raise your hand if you’ve had unanswered prayers. I’m wondering how many of you believe you’ve had answered prayers. And here we are. There are just so many experiences where people testify to amazing things. It’s not that it always happens, but on occasion.
Some argue that the watchmaker theory doesn’t really work because on a subatomic level the particles that make up the universe don’t behave mechanistically. The Heisenberg principle in physics even talks about how particles behave differently if they are being observed. Maybe prayer is focusing energy or attention in a way that makes a difference, especially if you hold as we did a couple of weeks ago that if God has a body it is the whole cosmos, all energy. Now I see some of your eyes glazing over and others are getting jacked up. Let’s just say when it comes to science you cannot rule it in or out–it remains a possibility.
So why offer intercessory prayers if they don’t always work. Why risk wasting time or getting disappointed? Later in this sermon series, we will answer this more fully, but for now let’s say that prayer keeps us connected to God to something beyond ourselves, keeping us out of the center of the universe in our minds. Prayer helps us articulate what is important to us. It can clarify our connection to others. Knowing that someone is praying for you can be very empowering, helping you feel cared for, embraced in love and that can make a huge difference.
Prayer has a way of motivating us to get involved. If you care enough to pray about something, you might also care enough to do what you can to make a situation better. And when you take action that creates a space for God to act. Sometimes the answer to a prayer is you. God can work through your to care for someone. Maybe you bring them food or give them a call, to send a card and that helps lift their spirits and that positive energy makes a difference.
The Answer to Every Prayer
You may be thinking it sounds a long way off from the ask, seek, knock, stuff I mentioned at the beginning. The thing that I discovered in Jesus’ teaching, is he does not promise that we will get whatever is on our wish lists. But we are given a great promise—the gift of the Spirit.
Amazing. Jesus is saying that your prayers are always answered. The answer to every prayer is God giving God’s very own self to you, to be present with you no matter what, no matter if you feel it or not. God gives you God. It may not be the care, the cure, or the career you were asking for. Sometimes it is. The important thing that Jesus said is that when we come to God in prayer we encounter God.
What does that look like? Sometimes it looks exactly like what you had prayed for. Sometimes it is having a sense of peace and strength to get through something difficult. Sometimes a prayer for healing at the start of a disease can provide some comfort, some relief. Later a prayer for healing can be realized in the healing of broken relationships before death. Sometimes a prayer for healing can be a sense of peace with God before we leave this life. It is all one prayer, but it gets deeper as time progresses. Sometimes it looks like a friend who cries with you.
Sometimes it looks like someone God sends to give you comfort. A knock on the door. It is someone with a casserole. The lady kind of stammers. “We heard the news. I’m so sorry. I don’t really know what to say. But here, I made this for you. We do care.”
It is my experience that God doesn’t do a lot of flashy miracles. More often than not, God works through people. People to care, to comfort, to help. In my first sermon here, I told you that you are the answer to prayer. I have a pretty basic view of prayer. When you care enough to pray, you care enough to act. When you act, you make an opening for God to do something.