The Why Of The Unanswered Prayer

By William Hirsche

At first it would appear altogether out of order, if not contrary to reason, to close this series of meditations on prayer by sounding a negative note. After the victorious affirmations of the foregoing chapters regarding the power of prayer and the absolute assurance based on the Word of God that the ear of the Almighty, whose loving care is ever about His children, never fails to heed their cry, however faint, why now in closing raise this question? Why now open the door to doubts which we have sought by every means to banish? The answer is, we must be honest. We must be true interpreters of the Word. We must be true to experience. Who that is a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ has not experienced the pain, yea, the agony of an unanswered prayer? As the pages of Holy Writ abound with examples of answered prayer, so do they also give us abundant proof of unanswered prayer. And as we look with reverent devotion into these
Biblical examples of defeat, and take into account the plain teaching of the Word as to the why of the unanswered prayer, we find that this seemingly negative side of the matter is fraught with vast meaning and is virtually a mine where gold such as that only found in the treasures of God, is at the disposal of the Christian. He must have this negative emphasis to bring to yet sharper focus the positive.

As we enter upon the why of the unanswered prayer, we are compelled to head the list with a most unsavory thing, which like the poor to whom the Saviour referred, is ever with us in one form or another. Yes, it is that heinous thing called sin and which the world is so eager to dress up and call by some other name. Sin strikes at the foundations of prayer, and vast as its power is, renders it ineffective. How often we come upon such words as these as we leaf over the pages of Holy Writ, “Your sin has come between you and me; because of your sin I will not hear you.” It comes to perhaps its severest intonation in Proverbs where the Lord quite frankly says:

Because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; But ye hare set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity… Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me… They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own Way, and be filled with their own devices. For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them (Prov. 1:24-32).

The psalmist understood this and was saying “amen” in hearty fashion, when he said, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me: But verily God hath heard me; he hath attended to the voice of my prayer. Blessed be God, which hath not turned away my prayer, nor his mercy from me” (Ps. 66:18-20).

Perhaps the most poignant example in all the Scriptures is that of David when he lay on the cold ground all night pleading for his sick baby. But the baby died. David’s prayer was not heard, for David had committed an abominable sin. His hands were red with the blood of a loyal soldier whose wife the king had stolen and whose home he had destroyed. David must first confess his sin and repent in sackcloth and ashes and then, verily, he would be heard and his prayers, as in the days of his youth when his heart was right with God, would be gloriously answered.

And so we draw out from this deep mine which we have called “the unanswered prayer” a precious lesson, which if heeded will lead us to the hidden veins of gold in the very life of God. Is my prayer life weak, and are my most earnest supplications failing to bring the desired results because of some sinful practice? Are there doubtful things in my life, grievous in the sight of God? And are these the reason for so many defeats? Have I been unwilling to make the sharp, uncompromising break with sin that is required of me in Romans six, where I am told to reckon myself to be indeed dead unto sin but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord? Is not this the explanation I have long desired to have of my wretched failures as I have sought the Lord in prayer, and have come so far short of achievements such as others mighty in prayer have wrought, achievements such as a host of Biblical promises declare should be mine?

Unanswered prayers also point in the direction of cross-purposes with God. Prayer’s highest function is to get us in step with the Most High. If it does not first bring us into line with the outworking of God’s most holy and blessed purposes, it cannot achieve in the realms of personal desire. Paul’s cry in the hour of his conversion, “Lord what would thou have me to do?” was the groundwork of a life among other things immeasurably great, that was mighty in prayer. The object of prayer is not to bend the Lord and to bring His power and wealth to the fulfillment of our own personal caprice. If there is one central thought which these chapters have aimed to lay at the foundations of this great theme, it is that prayer does not come
truly into its own nor accomplish its full quota (and we have said that it is the greatest force in the universe) except it be on the basis of the Cross. It is only as with Paul I can say, “I am crucified with Christ:
nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ liveth in me,” that I find solid ground for a life of prayer.

The great intercessors of the Bible were all marching in the direction of the fulfillment of the eternal purposes of God. Even the Saviour, and no one as He must heed this law. “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise,” was the ruling principle of His life. Only once, and then it was when He must become a curse in an identification with the sin of the world that it might be expiated, did He say, “If it be possible, let this cup pass.” Ah, the real prayer was, “Not my will, but thine be done.”

“If we would only let God be God, which of course means a sovereign control of our lives and such a divine direction of our affairs as Jesus, the Son of Man owned, we would not have to do much asking. Our little bark would be swept along by that River of Life which proceeds from the throne and from the Lamb, and we would experience a fruition such as that which Paul had in mind when he said, “All things are yours, for ye are Christ’s.” Surely the psalmist was thinking of this when he said, “Delight thyself also in the Lord; and he will give thee the desires of thine heart” (Ps. 37:4). It is only when we begin to move in the direction of “self-will,” which at heart is a declaration of independence as to the sovereignty of God in our human
sphere, that we begin to discover a disparity, yea, a mighty difference between our meager achievements in the realm of prayer and what is represented by the promises of God.

And so we come to the second lesson to be mined from the hidden treasure of the unanswered prayer. Failure in prayer should bring me to the realization that I have not been still to often to His voice. He wants to speak and show me what He is doing; He wants to perform all things for me, to use the language of the psalmist, but I am moving in a world of my own creation, where “self” is king. I have been busy about my own affairs. They may be good; they may even be the affairs of the Church and missions. But I have not allowed Christ to carry the burden and to take the helm. It is when He is the Alpha and the Omega, the Soul of one’s soul, the Life of one’s life, the Beginning and the End of one’s dreams, and His glory an all-consuming passion, that prayer becomes as natural as breathing and the results as stupendous as the promises of God and commensurate with the declarations of Holy Writ.

The unanswered prayer, too, leads to the discovery that often God wants to give us something great while we have been demanding something small. The classic illustration is Paul’s prayer in II Corinthians twelve, to which we have already referred in a former chapter. Paul was sick and he asked the Lord (thrice he prayed, II Cor. 12:8) that his thorn which he calls a messenger of Satan to buffet him, might be removed. But that thorn, whatever its nature may have been (some wild guesses as to its character have been made, ranging from ophthalmia to epilepsy) was fulfilling a significant mission in the divine economy. Paul, the greatest of the apostles, a chosen vessel to bear the name which is above every name before the Gentiles and kings, the foremost maker of history, must be nothing in himself that Christ might be all and in all. He must be a corn of wheat that falls into the ground to die even as his Lord and Saviour did. We must
exemplify the Cross in which he so glorified, and which he so courageously preached as to its deeper implications, namely co-crucifixion as the way out of sin and as the secret of the Christian’s victory. He must be able to say and literally know the deepest depths of the meaning of such a position as, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, and yet not I but Christ liveth in me….” He must realize as no one in the great succession of the saints that “we which live are alway delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.” Hence the thorn in Paul’s flesh. And prayer did not remove it. Supplication failed to bring the longed for results.

But that is not all. Ah, how sweet the Saviour’s voice as He speaks to his afflicted servant, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” “Paul,” the thought seems to be, “the great
purposes for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God which are to be realized through you, can be fulfilled in no other day. To break the power of ‘the natural’ so that your strength might be that power which was manifested in the resurrection of your Lord, and that you might draw moment by moment on that treasure of divine life, the thorn is necessary. Do not fear, my grace is sufficient for thee.” Paul sees the Cross and the empty tomb in a new light and ceases to pray for the removal of his thorn, He is wholly reconciled to his pain and declares that he will glory in his infirmity that the power of Christ might rest upon him. What a wealth of light this sheds upon the mystery of the unanswered prayer. We ask for a penny, while the Lord aims to give us a million of an infinitely higher order.

The theology of the unanswered prayer takes us also to the consideration of the fact that often we are not in the right frame of mind to pray. We cannot understand why the heavens seem to be brass and our earnest cry of no avail, but the reason is to be found in our restless, excited, fussy state. We are in a hurry; we rush here and there; we are fretful and anxious about a thousand things. We strain over this role and now that. We are out of sorts and forever passing from one tension to another in our relation with people. We pray hard as one situation after another develops and are hurt and think of God in a fault-finding fashion because He does not seem to care, nor to hear our prayer. We criticize His providences and harbor secret doubts as to His love.

We must change our attitude. We must come to a position of rest. The psalmist understood. He gives us the key in Psalm 37:7,8, “Rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him: fret not thyself because of him who
prospereth in his way…. Cease from anger and forsake wrath: fret not thyself in any wise to do evil.” The Psalmist had heard the Lord say, “Be still and know that I am God.” Our loving Heavenly Father cannot manifest Himself to us and work the great and mighty things He would in our behalf until we settle down to a restful position before Him. It is the high and holy function of the Cross to bring this to pass. The fussy, restless, excited, ever-straining and never fully attaining “self-life” which keeps you out of step with God, was in His divine economy crucified together with Christ. With Him you were raised and made to sit together with Him in heavenly places. You must enter in by faith. When you do, learning to rest in the Lord and to let take the lead, your prayers will become a chain of miracles, never ending, forever achieving in the might of the Spirit of God, and you will stand speechless in the presence of the Most High, worshiping in immeasurable awe and wonder. It will be with you as it as with those to whom the Lord referred when He said, “…before they call, I will answer” (Isa. 65:24).

The “Why” of the unanswered prayer also takes us to another thought. It may be as it was in the case of Job, that the Lord is seeking to bring us to His very own self. Job had to be stripped; he had to be brought to the end of himself; he had to die as it were, before he could say, “I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear; but now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes.” It was not until he ceased praying for himself and gave himself to prayer for his friends (these “friends” who had so tormented him with their insinuations that all these troubles which had come upon him were the result of some secret sin he must “confess” and all would be well) it was not, I repeat, until he had come completely out of himself praying for these who had so wronged him, that the Lord turned his captivity (see Job 42:10).

We pray for many things, all more or less good, but God wants to give us the summum bonum, namely, Himself. Oh, to bring us to Himself! There was no other way but the Cross. Our old man was crucified with Him (Christ) that the body of sin might be destroyed (Rom. 6:6). We have been raised up together with Him and made to sit together with Him is heavenly places (Eph. 2:5,6). Thus are we brought into deepest intimacy with God and made one with Him. We read that on the Mount of Transfiguration, the disciples
saw no man (they had been looking at Moses and Elijah) save Jesus alone. It is good beyond measure that God does not always give us the things we ask for, that in our desperation we may get beyond “things” and cease to pray for mere “blessings,” in order to get to God Himself and rest in Him alone. In having Him, we have all.

A closing word is in order to those who mourn because they feel that God has let them down. Their most cherished hope has long been deferred. They cry in vain, but the Lord, so it seems, turns to them a deaf ear. Years have gone by, yet their earnest supplication for some dear one that the Lord might bring him to a knowledge of Himself has gone unheeded. They cannot understand why others seem to get everything they ask for, while they plead their cause before the throne of grace to no avail. For such, I have a blessed word of hope and cheer in the fact that God’s delays are not denials. They form a necessary part of the discipline of faith. He means for us to hold on even though there be no star of hope in the night of our pain. George Muller prayed for over forty years for the conversion of two dear friends. He was chided by one who said to him, “Mr. Muller, you say that all your prayers are answered. What do you mean?”

The reply was, “I have prayed for many years for the Lord to bring two I dearly love to Himself. They have not yet received the Holy Ghost. But I know that they eventually will. Therefore I say, ‘all my prayers are
answered.'” Not long after, George Muller saw these for whom he had so long interceded, receive the Holy Ghost. Faith sorely tried won out.

So we must not give up. The widow of the parable did not give up. The unjust judge before whom she pleaded her cause is described as a hard worldling who feared not God neither regarded man, in order to accentuate by contrast the goodness of God. The thought is that if a wicked judge finally gives in to a grief-stricken widow so that she might not weary him by her continual coming, how much more must a loving Heavenly Father, whose mercy cannot be measured, respond to those who call upon Him according to
the needs and desires of their hearts. No, we must not give up. The answer when it comes will be all the sweeter. The blessing when it comes will be all the greater. The joy will be all the more unspeakable, and the praise offered in return, all the more jubilant and sincere. Faith only comes to be true faith after it has been tried. You have prayed for years for something that you desire more than life. You shall have the desire of your heart, and you will have all eternity to praise the Lord for His faithfulness.

When Daniel prayed for his people, the children of Israel, that they might be delivered from their captivity, the angel Gabriel sent to strengthen him said to him, “Fear not, Daniel: for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard… But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me one and twenty days; but, lo, Michael, one of the chief princes came to help me… Now I am come to make thee understand what shall befall thy people in the
latter days.” What a lesson here for discouraged intercessors! Daniel’s prayer was heard from the first. But the “powers of darkness” had interfered. The delay was from the “pit,” not from heaven. Gabriel and his
aides had to fight it out with the prince of darkness before the answer could come. All hell moves against the prayers of the saints, but let them be of good cheer. The prince of this world is a defeated foe (see Heb. 2:14 and Col. 2:14,15). He must give way before the victory of Calvary to which Christians testify. The gates of hell shall not prevail. Christians are more than conquerors through Him who loved them. No true believer has ever been “let down” by the Great Shepherd of the sheep. If they will but hold on in prayer, victory is as sure as the rising of the sun. Only let them not faint. God’s time is best. Prayer warrior, do not give up the fight. Your prayer was heard from the first, as it was with Daniel. Let not contrary winds discourage thee. For you, too, is the word which came to the prophet; it is for all intercessors, “At the beginning of thy supplications the commandment came forth, and I am come to shew thee: for thou art
greatly beloved” (Dan 9:23).

(The above material was taken from Prayer’s Deeper Secrets.)
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