We’ve been studying the life of Abraham lately, and the last time I taught, I encouraged us to rely on the promises of God, for God always fulfills His promises. Our lesson at that time was Abram believing God’s promise that Abram would have more descendants than stars in the sky. Abram believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Also, our belief in God’s promises are likewise credited to us as righteousness. The only thing God asks of us is to believe, and God does everything else. But if you remember, Abram had a question to the Lord – he was 85 years old and had no children. How was the Lord going to fulfill this promise? Abram believed anyway.
So in today’s lesson, Abram (or Abraham as he is known now), is closer to 100 years old, and the Lord in His plan gives Abraham a son. And I thought we’d talk about the long years while Abraham waited, seemingly on unanswered prayers. This looks like it’s going to be a long lesson today, and I apologize in advance, but the bible says that he who endures to the end will be saved.
II. Who is He that Hears Our Prayers?
Who is the Lord that He has the power to answer prayer? The more I study the Lord, the less I seem to know about Him. Early knowledge included His power – Genesis 1 describes powerfully how God spoke the universe into existence. I can’t speak anything into existence. I can’t even speak to my dogs and have them listen. Yet an entire universe was created with a Word.
Then I learned how much He loved me. How he knitted me in my mother’s womb, how I was to consider myself fearfully and wonderfully made by His loving hands. He loved me so much, that because I was unable to save myself, God sent His only son to die for me while I was still a sinner.
And I learned about His holiness. God is pure, and no sin is tolerated in His presence. It is obliterated. Heaven isn’t full of good enough, Heaven is perfect. How can I, as a sinner, approach a holy omnipotent God? The thought terrifies me, that I am unworthy to approach such power and holiness.
But through the sacrifice of Jesus, I am covered by His blood, and God accepts me as I am. When Jesus died and the curtain leading to the Holy of Holies in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, our separation was over. We can now go boldly to the throne with our petitions.
It is incredible that God allows us such access. I know that, on my own, I am not worthy, but I can speak to an incredibly powerful Lord who hates the sin within me solely because I have placed my trust in Jesus.
The Lord speaks to us through His Word, but we speak to Him through the awesome privilege of prayer.
III. Why Does He Not Answer All Prayers?
But even though we have direct access to the power of God, God is not ours to command. It is said that God answers every prayer, even if sometimes the answer is “no.” Habakkuk must have felt the same way when He looked at the horrible behavior of His nation and wondered why God wasn’t doing anything about it.
Habakkuk 1:2 –
How long, Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save?
Psalm 13, verse 1, says:
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
Have you ever felt that way? That God isn’t listening, or not taking action? You’re praying fervently, and God seems to be silent. Frustrating, isn’t it? Some might feel that if God isn’t answering, then why should I bother to pray?
Sometimes, though, it only seems that God hasn’t answered. Perhaps God has answered in an unexpected way. For instance, perhaps the plan of God is so natural that we don’t recognize the answer. Sometimes the plan of God is just living by faith daily – and God meeting our needs so naturally that we don’t realize that in the process of living, God is answering our prayers. We’re still waking up above ground. We’re still breathing air. We’re still drinking water.
The Israelites were warned about the danger of complacency and overlooking God’s blessings. Let’s look at Deuteronomy 8 beginning with verse 10:
When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock. He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you. You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today.
Even though we don’t deal with manna or scorpions and fiery serpents – at least, I don’t think any of us here do – we do have those various things that God does for us, even problems that God solves for us, every single day. We become so used to God’s working in our lives that we don’t even realize that God is working in our lives.
Sometimes we pray panic prayers – we’re about to lose our balance, or our car is about to hit something. We cry out to God, “God, help me.” And God helps us. We say “whew” and take a deep breath and never stop to think that God has answered that prayer.
Or perhaps we are recovering from the flu, or we need some money to get us over a financial problem. We do not stop to realize that God is answering our prayers, even those prayers that we may have only prayed mentally. God continues to progress His plan, answering prayers continually that we barely notice.
God’s plan involves the immediate present, but God’s plan also began at the beginning of time and doesn’t end until time runs out. His plan is so long, that sometimes we cannot see what God is doing. Have you ever prayed that God would do something in your life, and by the end of the day, He still hasn’t done it? Or we wait until the end of the week and He still hasn’t done it? Let me remind you of Romans 8:28. I don’t want to throw out this verse flippantly and say this is why God isn’t answering your prayer, but we have to keep this verse in mind throughout our prayers if we are to understand how God is working in our lives. Romans 8:28 –
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
The key phrase here is “all things.” Sometimes God’s plans seem to move slowly because “all things” is complex. It takes time for all things to work together. Sometimes it takes a very long time for all things to work together.
We also have a tendency to try and tell God what He means. When we read Romans 8:28, we read it as though it says, “And we know that all things work together to make us happy,” or “We know that all things work together for what we want.” That’s incomplete – God indeed wants to give us good things, for what Father doesn’t want good things for His children? But when God says it’s for the good, God Himself defines what that means in verse 29 and 30 –
For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
When God says all things are working together for good, He is saying that He is working throughout time, throughout history, that those He calls may be conformed to the image of Christ. Perhaps when we are in prayer to our Lord, telling Him of our needs and asking for things, that God answers by encouraging us to be more like Jesus Christ, that we may handle the problems in a Christ-like manner. That takes time. That takes a lifetime. And then perhaps we can understand why God doesn’t give us exactly what we ask for, but instead makes us into the type of person that is better equipped to handle both the problem and the solution. All of these things He brings about to demonstrate His great love and power and glory in His character in us.
Another reason God doesn’t answer prayer immediately is to demonstrate that no human effort can answer the prayer. When the prayer is finally answered, there is no doubt that it was God and God alone that answered it.
In our study today of Genesis 21, we see evidence of God answering prayers to demonstrate that God alone is sovereign. The last few weeks we’ve been studying God’s promise to Abraham that God would provide a son. We learned that when God reminded Abraham and Sarah at the age of 99 that he had not forgotten His promise, they laughed. God had promised Abraham that through this son, Abraham’s descendants would be more numerous than the stars in the sky and that they would be blessed and lead many nations, and the descendent that would redeem all mankind as the messiah would come through Abraham’s lineage. And Abraham laughed.
In Genesis 21, Abraham is 100 years old now, and Abraham and Sarah have no children together. Abraham has been waiting his entire life, wondering if God was going to fulfil this promise. At what point do you think Abraham started to wonder if God had forgotten? After a week had passed? A year? Ten years?
Genesis 21, verse 1 –
Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him. When his son Isaac was eight days old, Abraham circumcised him, as God commanded him. Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
And in the fullness of time, God has fulfilled His promise. I find it interesting how it is worded – “Now the Lord was gracious to Sarah as he had said.” “The Lord did for Sarah what he had promised.” “Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him.”
Now, God didn’t promise this to Sarah earlier that day, or earlier that week. God had made this promise decades ago. Abraham and Sarah laughed when reminded, because so many years had gone by that surely they believed God wasn’t going to answer this prayer. When we wait for decades for God to answer a prayer, there is only one solution. We must help God and take matters into our own hands.
Isn’t that what we try to do? God’s promise is so long in coming, God doesn’t seem to be doing His part, so we decided that God needs our help.
Abraham and Sarah did the same. Abraham and Sarah came up with their own plan, that Abraham would have a son with their maid. That wasn’t exactly God’s promise, and perhaps God is reminding Abraham of that in verse 3 when He says “Abraham gave the name Isaac to the son Sarah bore him.” God made the promise to Abraham and Sarah, not to Abraham and the maid. In God’s plan, Sarah was to be the mother.
It says in verse 5 that Abraham was 100 years old. Why did God wait so long? To clearly demonstrate that this child was from God. It was a miracle that they had a child at this age.
Sometimes when God doesn’t answer a prayer right away is because he has a different plan, a better plan, and He will answer the prayer in a way that it is an unmistakable gift from God. What are you praying for? Are you, like me, praying for something that is taking weeks or months or years for God to answer? The only advice I can offer is – keep praying. Perhaps God’s answer won’t be as dramatic as giving Abraham a son at the age of 100, but when God does finally answer it, you can be sure of two things – It was God alone who answered the prayer, and it was worth the wait.
Another reason God might wait is so we stop meddling in God’s plan. Abraham and Sarah too matters in their own hands to have a son, and God waited until Abraham and Sarah were done messing around with God’s plan and dealing with the repercussions. Sometime, like Abraham and Sarah, we just get in the way. Let’s look at Isaiah, chapter 30, verse 18:
And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him.
Sometimes the Lord waits to answer prayer because there is something in our hearts that isn’t right with Him. There is some thing, some plan, some scheme that we are working on to solve the problem. We say we’re willing to wait on the Lord, but since He’s so slow, why, we’ll just take care of it ourselves. God wants us to put our trust completely in Him. Blessed are they that wait for Him.
And sometimes the plan of God is so amazing that He has a much better answer than the one we were expecting. Many times God doesn’t give us what we ask; sometimes God actually says “no” so that He can give us something better.
Perhaps God doesn’t answer a specific prayer because He is teaching us something about His character. For instance, in 2 Corinthians 12, Paul is shown visions and revelations of heaven from the Lord. What an incredible honor to see that! But then, because of what he had seen, well let’s pick up in 2 Corinthians 12:7 –
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Whatever this thorn was, Paul pleaded with God to remove it. And after at least 3 petitions to the Lord, God’s response is, “I’m not going to remove your thorn. I’m going to give you something better. I am going to give you my grace, My strength is made perfect in weakness.” In other words, God will demonstrate that it is not man that accomplishes much, but God that accomplishes everything.
Perhaps you’re thinking of a prayer you have that God hasn’t answered. Health, job, relationship… while you’re praying and wrestling with the problem, have you discovered that God is perfecting you, strengthening you, teaching you His ways?
In that very position of weakness, God makes His strength perfect. Whatever our prayer is, we spend more time praying, pondering God’s power or God’s will, wondering what God might do because of that weakness than if we didn’t have that problem. Sometimes God allows problems to come into our lives or to stay in our lives, because He knows that while we are weak in the face of our problems, He can strengthen us, teach us to depend on Him alone.
If we are young in our faith, we may not understand why God does this. Am I being punished? Am I on the junior varsity team of God’s people? But let’s continue on with 2 Corinthians 12 and see how Paul reacts to this thorn in the flesh –
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Paul says, “When I am powerless, then that is when I see God’s power in my life. How awesome it is to see God in action and to feel the strength of God in my life.”
Sometimes God says “no,” so He can give us something better.
Some prayers God doesn’t answer because it’s not in His plan. Let’s look at 1 John 5:14-15 –
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.
Maybe we focus on the phrase “whatever we ask” and think, “of course God is going to answer my prayer! It says so right here in 1 John 5! But a key phrase in that verse is “according to His will.”
The answer to understanding why God doesn’t answer some prayers is in this little phrase. But how can we understand what God’s will is? The short answer is all we need to do is understand God and read His word. But even then, if can be difficult to comprehend what God is doing. Let’s look at a couple of specifics. 2 Peter 3:9 says,
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
Why hasn’t God unleashed the bowls of wrath of Revelation? The time is not yet right. Some of His children have not yet accepted the sacrifice of Jesus, and God wants to give us every single possibility so that no one is with excuse. But this verse tells me that I can confidently pray for people to be saved. I can pray for family, for friends. For enemies. I can pray that God will save that person, for it is God’s will that He doesn’t want anyone to perish for their sins. He’s already paid that price.
And once we have been saved from destruction, then God sets His Holy Spirit to work on our sanctification, to be set aside for God’s purpose and to bring Him glory. Let’s look at both an Old Testament and a New Testament verse that tells us this. Psalm 37:3-6 –
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
And also John 15:7 –
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
God says He answers the prayers of those who delight in the Lord and are obedient to the wishes of the Father by remaining in Jesus and His Word. The more we do that, the more our desires begin to line up with God’s will, and we ask things according to His will, not ours. In fact, our selfish prayers are not heard. Look at James 4:3 –
When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
That word, “spend” is also translated as “waste” or “squander.” If we bring a prayer to the Lord whose sole purpose is “just because I want it!”, the bible says that our selfish prayers are not heard.
Now, that doesn’t mean you cannot pray for things you want. If I pray for somebody in the hospital, is that something I want? Yes, but it’s not a selfish prayer I’m squandering on my own pleasures. Certainly, we can pray that God will meet our needs. Certainly, we can pray that God will heal our sick loved ones. We can pray about all kinds of things that have to do with us personally, but the kinds of prayers that God doesn’t bother with are the ones that are simply a matter of fun and games. There are much more important things to pray about.
It’s important to pray with the right motives.
Also, when we come to the Lord, we need to confess our sins to Him. Psalm 66:18 –
If I had cherished sin in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened;
Notice that this verse does not say, “If I sin the Lord will not hear me.” It says that if I know there is sin in my life and I’m not doing anything about it, the Lord will not hear our prayer.” And 1 John 1:9 says,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.
So we can begin each prayer by asking the Lord to seek our hearts and let us know if there is any sin in us, like David says in Psalm 139. God will answer than earnest prayer. Then we confess that sin to the Lord and ask him to remove it from us and cleanse us from our unrighteousness. And if we are righteous, then James 5:16 says the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
So we confess our sins and accept the Lord’s forgiveness, we spend time in His Word to understand His will in our lives, we offer prayers and petitions in as unselfish way as we can to our Almighty Lord. And then what do we do? We wait, and we trust.
We looked at Psalm 13:1 at the beginning of this lesson, but let’s look at the whole psalm –
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.