The God Who Delights In Answering Prayer
Prayer is an institution of God. Over and over again, the Bible commands us to pray. And yet, I suspect that many of us, having prayed, have wondered about whether our prayers will actually change anything.
As we ponder the subject of whether or not prayer changes anything, we must be sure to bear in mind God’s character. Why would God mandate an exercise that is ineffectual? Why would God command me to do something that has no more effect than if I whistled in the wind? If prayer changes nothing, it is a monstrous absurdity that God would ordain it (Spurgeon). But, of course, because God has ordained prayer it necessarily follows that it has the capacity of being effectual. God’s institutions are not folly.
Our study, this morning, of answered prayer is, therefore, an exciting exercise. It is exciting to learn from our Lord Jesus Christ that our prayers are not empty words. It is exciting to learn that prayer is the means appointed by God for carrying out His will.
There is, however, a sobering aspect to our study. The study of answered prayer is sobering in that we learn that not every kind of prayer will be answered in the affirmative.
We know this already from experience. We know what it is like to pray for someone who is very sick only to have them never recover. We know what it is like to pray for someone in a difficult situation only to see no change.
In my study on prayer, I had hoped that I would find some secret formula to getting all of my prayers answered, but I found no such formula. But what I did find, however, was a source of tremendous encouragement to me.
The Lord Jesus Christ teaches extensively on prayer and, for our purposes, we shall examine His teachings from Luke 11:5-13 and Luke 18:1-8.
Jesus tells a parable about a man who needs to acquire some bread from a friend in order to offer hospitality to another friend who has arrived following a long journey. The problem facing the man seeking bread is that it is midnight. He calls on his friend asking for three loaves of bread (11:5), but the house is shut up, and the man inside explains that the family is already in bed (11:7).
Studying the history of the day has led commentators to surmise that this family likely lived in a one-room house with a raised platform on which the entire family would sleep. The animals would be brought in at night and would sleep below this platform. As a result, the man inside could not get up without disturbing the entire household. There appears to be no objection to giving away three loaves of bread, but the trouble of getting up and opening the door is quite another matter (Morris, Luke, 213).
The man in need of bread is not easily deterred. He refuses to go away. And where his friendship fails to sufficiently motivate the man inside, his persistence succeeds. Jesus explains, “even though he will not get up because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs” (15:8).
The principle being taught, quite clearly, is that we need to be persistent in our prayers. We must not be deterred by a slow answer. Since prayer does not always yield an instant result, we are required to continue in prayer.
Jesus teaches the same principle in the parable of Luke 18, where the judge who feared neither God nor man is approached by a widow seeking legal protection. For a time, the judge is “unwilling” to help, but eventually he capitulates with her request, saying to himself, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection” (18:4, 5).
The man seeking bread, and the widow seeking legal protection, have this in common: Both received what they sought because they persevered in their request.
As we approach God in prayer, we too need to be prepared to persist in our prayers. Very clearly, Jesus wants us to be like the friend who won’t stop knocking; He wants us to be like the widow who keeps petitioning the judge; He wants us to prevail in prayer.
What is less obvious is how we are to view God based on these parables. Admittedly, many of the parables taught by Jesus instruct us by comparisons of likeness. We read the parable of the Good Samaritan and we understand that we are to be like the Good Samaritan. We read the parables about three things lost and we understand that God is like the shepherd seeking the sheep, He is like the woman seeking the coin, and He is like the father seeking the son.
The parables of Luke 11 and 18, however, are different. In these texts there is a comparison of likeness and a comparison of contrast. On the one hand, we are instructed to be like the persistent friend and widow, but on the other hand, in regards to God’s response, the point being taught is made by contrast. God is not like the reluctant friend; God is not like stubborn judge. According to Jesus, we do not have to twist God’s arm; we do not have to wear God down with our prayers in order to get what we need. Quite the contrary; Jesus says, “Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you”(11:9).
Here we see that God is not reluctant, but rather, He is eager to answer our prayers. Jesus' second qualification makes the same point, “Now suppose one of you fathers is asked by his son for a fish; he will not give him a snake instead of a fish, will he? Or if he is asked for an egg, he will not give him a scorpion, will he? If you then being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”(11:11-13).
A similar qualification is given in Luke 18, “now shall not God bring about justice for His elect, who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? I tell you that He will bring about justice for them speedily” (18:7, 8).
The point is that if reluctant friends, fallible fathers, and unjust judges are willing to give good things, how much more can we expect our Heavenly Father to provide us with good things!
Bear in mind, however, that we do not get to be the judge of what is good. As the Holy and Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, God alone determines what constitutes a good gift.
This should help explain why not all of our prayers are answered in the affirmative. What seems good to us, and perhaps to everyone around us, may not be good in respect to God’s eternal plan. For example, who can blame Peter for initially thinking that Jesus dying was a bad thing (see Mt. 16:21-23)? Peter was prepared to do whatever it took to protect Jesus from harm—sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? But what does Jesus say in reply? “Get behind Me, Satan! . . . for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests but man’s” (Mt. 16:21-23).
This rebuke is an important key for how we are to shape our prayers. Prayer that God eagerly answers is prayer that comes from setting our minds on God’s interests. If our mind is merely set on improving our circumstances, without any regard for God’s purposes, we have a problem.
Again, this comes down to grasping what is truly good for us. And, unfortunately, we are not well positioned to always determine what is best.
Young children regularly face this challenge. Anya has recently discovered that she likes her mother’s chewing gum. The trouble is that Anya imagines that she can have gum whenever she wants, and in unlimited quantity. As a result, Allie and I are frequently refusing Anya’s persistent requests for gum.
This past Wednesday, Allie, Anya, and I were in the church lounge, awaiting folks for the evening program. Allie noticed that Anya was chewing gum and asked me if I had given her some. I said ‘No’, and so Allie asked Anya where she got the gum from; Anya then pointed to the underside of one of the lounge chairs.
Not a pretty story, I realize, but I see a striking parallel to how we sometimes respond to God when He refuses to answer our prayers in a timely fashion. There are times when, after refusing our request, we plow ahead anyway, without regard for the will of God.
Chewing gum from a mother’s hand is sweet to taste, but gum from the underside of a chair is just disgusting. Likewise, provision from the hand of God is sweet, but provision gained by circumventing the will of God will surely end in ruin.
What sort of things then, should we be asking God for? The example of a “good gift” that Jesus presents us with is the gift of the Holy Spirit.
This answer tells me that I am praying too superficially. Or, at best, I’m neglecting to pray for that which is of supreme importance. I’m praying that I would be a better husband, a better father, a better Christian, and a better minister, but really only one prayer is needful here: ‘Lord, fill me with your Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18). In every circumstance, keep me “in step” with Your Spirit’ (Gal. 5:25).
As a minister in this congregation, I find myself praying for more volunteers, I’m praying for a unity of purpose to be shared by the members, and I’m praying for better attendance on Sunday mornings, but what I really need to pray is: ‘Lord, pour out Your Spirit upon this congregation!’
The Holy Spirit is the best gift we could ever hope to receive from God. Only by God’s Spirit can we be made more like Christ, and only by God’s Spirit can this congregation be all that God intends us to be.
Friends, when was the last time you prayed for the gift of the Holy Spirit? Yes, it is true that the Spirit of God indwells every Christian (Rom. 8:11), but the apostle Paul tells us that we have the ability to “grieve” and “quench” the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1Thess. 5:19). In other words, there is a way to misuse and neglect the Divine resource within us.
Because our goal is total transformation, because our ultimate goal is Christ-likeness (see Phil. 3:8-14), we need to be persistent in our prayer for the Holy Spirit to be at work in us, and among us.
Our encouragement for praying in this regard is the promise of answered prayer. Jesus wants us to know that God is not unjust; God is not asleep. Jesus wants us to know that our Heavenly Father is more inclined to give us good gifts than even our earthly parents.
What is required of us is that we persist in our asking, in our seeking, and in our knocking. Do not tire of asking God for good things, for our Heavenly Father is eager to bless His children when they pray. Amen.