I think most of us have heard the story of the little boy who was praying for a bicycle for Christmas. His was a poor family, so when Christmas morning came there was no bicycle. A friend of the family, who was not too sensitive about such things, said to the boy, “Well, I see God didn’t answer your prayer for a bicycle.” The boy replied, “Yes, He did; He said No.” Most of us are aware that No is an answer every bit as much as Yes. But I have always felt that the story of the little boy’s prayer doesn’t quite get to the heart of the prayer problem. To receive a bicycle might be nice, but it is clearly not essential. Nor is it spiritual. Most of us understand that when we pray for things like bicycles – a better job, more money, success in a business deal, or the resolution of certain personal problems – there is no real reason why we should expect a Yes answer. God may give what we ask for, but again He may not. We accept that. But what about prayers that really are spiritual? What about prayers that are (or at least seem to be) unselfish? What happens when these prayers are not answered? This is where the real problem with prayer lies and why the people who have trouble with it are not the novices in prayer, as we might suspect – novices do not expect much from prayer anyway – but rather the church’s mature believers. It is the saints who feel the burden of unanswered prayer. It is the godly who wrestle with it strenuously.
In the case of Paul’s prayer, recounted in Romans 1, we have a superb example of precisely this problem. Why is it such a good example? First, it is a prayer by an apostle. This doesn’t mean he is without sin, of course. Nor does it mean that all of Paul’s prayers were spiritual. Second, Paul’s prayer was a proper prayer: It is to the Father on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus Christ and, although Paul doesn’t say so explicitly, it was undoubtedly also in the Holy Spirit. There is one more thing to see about this prayer, the third item: It was a prayer for right things. Paul might have prayed for something that would only have enhanced his prestige or personal comfort; that is, he might have prayed selfishly. But that was not the case here at all. He wanted to assist in the spiritual growth and fruitfulness of the Roman believers. This was an entirely worthy and quite spiritual motive. Yet, Paul was prevented from coming. His prayer was not answered positively. Paul doesn’t suggest a reason why his prayers were unanswered, and the fact that he doesn’t opens the door for us to reflect on why prayers like this – including the best of our own prayers – go unanswered.
There may be several reasons why perfectly proper prayers may go unanswered and what we may learn from this. The first is: Unanswered prayer may be God’s way of teaching that we are not as necessary to the work we are praying for as we think we are. This is clear in Paul’s case. Paul had been praying that he might be permitted to travel to Rome to serve and strengthen the Roman Christians. But noble as this desire may have been, it is also clear that the believers in Rome were doing quite well without him. They were doing well without any apostle or noteworthy teacher. Paul testifies to this when he records that their strong faith was being reported on all over the world (v. 8).
The second reason why perfectly proper prayers of ours may be unanswered is that God may have other work for us to do. This seems to have been the chief (perhaps the only) reason why God did not send the great apostle to Rome earlier. Paul speaks of his ministry among the remote cities of the Gentiles as a fulfillment of Isaiah 52:15 in the fifteenth chapter of Romans. Then he adds, somewhat unexpectedly, “This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you (v. 22). Paul recognized that delay in reaching Rome was for the sake of the Christian mission elsewhere. We need to learn this too, and be content through learning it.
The third reason why our prayers may go unanswered for a time is the hardest to understand: There may be spiritual warfare of which you and I are unaware (2 Cor. 12:7, 9; Dan. 10:1-14). Spiritual battles are mysteries to us because we cannot see the warfare. But there are spiritual battles, and we need to know about them. They are an important reason why some of our prayers go unanswered.
In the last study I asked the question, “Does prayer change things or change people?” I answered, “Both.” Prayer changes things (or circumstances) because it is a God-ordained way of changing them. But prayer also (perhaps chiefly) changes people, as pointed out. It’s important that we return to that point now, because, in addition to all that has been said so far, one important reason for God not answering prayer is deficiency in us. And so, prayer needs to change us before it changes circumstances. What needs changing in us?
1)Unconfessed sin: There are more verses in the Bible saying that God will not answer prayers than there are verses that say He will, and one of the chief categories of verses that deal with unanswered prayer concerns sin. 2) Wrong motives: James spoke of this when he said, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). 3) Laziness: It is said of Elijah that he prayed “earnestly” that it would not rain and that it did not rain for three and a half years (James 5:17). Prayer was a serious business with him. One reason our prayers are not answered is that we are not really serious about them. 4) We are too busy: Sometimes we are too busy to pray “earnestly.” If we are too busy to pray, what we are really saying is that we consider the things we are doing to be more important than praying. Idols in the heart: Is an idol keeping you from having prayers answered? Is that idol a person, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, a wife, a husband, your children, is it your job, your lifestyle, your social position, your worldly reputation, your image of yourself, and are you determined above all else to be “successful”? To place anything ahead of God is idolatry! 6) Stinginess in our giving: If you do not give to the needy, God will not give to you when you ask Him for something (see Prov. 21:13). 7) Unbelief: The greatest cause of failure in our prayer, and the area in which we most need to be changed, is unbelief. If we do not believe God’s Word unquestioningly, why should we get what we pray for? Is it any surprise that our prayers are unanswered?
Here you are someone who has been praying earnestly for something for a long time and has not had an answer. As we have seen, there are numerous reasons why a positive answer may be delayed, all the way from spiritual warfare in the heavenlies to our sin or unbelief. What are to do? Should you keep on battering the brass doors of heaven with ineffectual petitions? Or should you accept God’s rejection? Should you quit praying? The answer is in Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow, which Luke tells and teaches us that we “should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1). Prayer may change us. It may change history. But whatever the case, we must keep on praying! Paul kept praying, and he got to Rome eventually.
Romans 1:13 Reflection Questions:
How do you feel when your prayers go unanswered?
Have you ever realized that your prayers of being answered positively were being delayed? If so how did you respond?
Why do you think you prayers are not being answered?