How Long, O Lord?
Every day I use the Prayer Focus which is issued monthly by the Evangelical Fellowship of
Congregational Churches. Looking at the prayer requests I have sent to be included, one
recently talked about the need to resume outreach meetings and asked people to pray for a
relaxation in the current level of restrictions so we can return to some of the things we have
been doing. Those prayers have not been answered as yet – what do we make of it?
Clearly, this is one of the cases where we pray for openings for the gospel, and it is right to
pray for these because our God is a missionary God (John 3: 16), and for his own wise
reasons God does not choose to answer our prayer as we would wish and as he has
indicated in his word is his revealed will for his people (1 Timothy 2: 1 – 4).
We might ask why is it that God’s people are encouraged to pray for peace and protection but also encouraged to keep going without their faith diminishing when those prayers remain un-answered? The same of course applies to our prayers for the unsaved; if (1 Timothy 3: 4), ‘God our Saviour, ... desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the
truth’, why is it that our prayers for the salvation of loved ones, and others the Lord places
on our hearts, often remain unanswered and can cause us great personal pain?
There are a number of people I pray for regularly and it is painful to think of the reality that they may remain unsaved with the consequences of this utterly clear in the Bible. I think there can be a number of reasons why prayers remain unanswered and to prevent despondency it may be good for us to consider some of them. There is no doubt that one of
the threats posed by the current restrictions, and this will impact most heavily on those who
are back under partial lockdown, is depression and in the case of Christians this can often
link to the difficulty posed by the fact that prayers which represent our heart’s desire for
others are often slow to be answered.
So, here are some possible reasons for unanswered prayer:
1. God is often dealing with us and making us ready to have our prayers answered.
James 4: 3, ‘You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your
passions.’ The person addressed is a step beyond not asking (James 4: 2 end), ‘You do
not have, because you do not ask’ but is learning a further lesson. Lesson one has been our absolute dependence on God’s grace and lesson two is that even when asking for what is entirely right and appropriate we may have mixed motives which would mean that it would be damaging to us if our prayers, brought to God as they now are, were answered. We can be very passionate in prayer when the root of the prayer is not God’s glory and the good of others but our own comfort and our own glory. God refines us to make our prayers answerable.
2. Sometimes we may not have an answer to our prayers as we long for because God, being all-wise, actually uses the experience of prayer and its difficulties, sadness and frustrations to make us into the kind of people we need to be. That is closely linked to the first reason but we are to realize that the suffering of unanswered and heartfelt prayer is making us increasingly godly and more aligned with God’s will in our praying.
(Romans 5: 3 + 4), ‘we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.’
3. Sometimes the reason for unanswered prayer may simply be that we need to realize
something very basic about our Christian faith and about our prayer. That is that Christianity, Christian obedience and prayer are not about technique, or even primarily about correct belief, but about a relationship. It is of prime importance that our experience of unanswered prayer does not damage our view of God and his character and friendship. The Lord has revealed himself as a God (Exodus 34: 6), ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’. When we allow our experience of unanswered prayer to move us from the conviction of his steadfast love towards us that is a far worse disaster than the fact that our prayers as yet remain unanswered. One of the great lessons of the book of Job, and there are dreadful tragedies and sadness within the book and Job
consistently cried out to God for answers and response, is that the answer to Job’s
problems is actually to encounter, know, love and trust the Lord God himself.
I am very aware that what I have written above does not begin to touch how some of us feel
about our prayers and tears that still remain with God. At the end of the day we come to this
– we will trust him and remember his goodness and faithfulness, most fully expressed to us
in the life and death and continuing ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ, even though our hopes
and prayers seem to lie in the dust. With God there is mystery and if that were not so then
we would not need to have faith. Faith takes God’s word, his revealed truth about himself
and his goodness and love and faithfulness to his people, and holds onto it when we cannot
In the meantime we pray as God directs his people to do – in our prayers we are guided by
God’s will as revealed in his word – when prayer remains unanswered we are sustained by
his love for us and his faithfulness to us and the knowledge that this loving and kind God is
absolutely sovereign and in control of all things. It is this that enables us to continue praying
when there appears to be no response to our prayers and sometimes when the response
seems to be the reverse of what we desire and pray for. One great lesson from Jacob’s
encounter with God and he wrestles with him and obtains victory and the answer to his prayers is that this happens because Jacob won’t let go of God. The reason is that God has
lamed him and he can’t let go of God! That is spiritual reasoning – we in our spiritual
weakness lay hold of him who could but doesn’t choose to destroy us.
Yours in the Lord,
2nd October 2020