The Bible is filled with all kinds of fantastic promises on the power of prayer to heal, reveal, change, restore, and provide. Jesus said things like, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believing, you shall receive,” and “I tell you the truth anyone who believes in me will do the works that I do and even greater works than these.” The Gospels and the book of Acts are replete with stories of miracles and answered prayers. It is clear that signs and wonders should follow believers wherever they go according to Mark 16 and Acts 4:30.
But today in America it seems like such legitimate miraculous moves of God are few and far between. What do we do when faced with our own unanswered prayers? Many denominations have adopted theologies that attempt to reconcile their lack of answered prayers: dispensational theology says that miracles were only for the “age of the apostles” and a perverted version of Calvinism teaches that we may ask whatever we wish but 99.9% the time God will overrule us because his mysterious sovereign plan is not to be fouled up by our small-minded intercessions. But when analyzed rationally and compared with the fullness of the Word neither one of these doctrines hold any water.
Then there are many churches like the one I attend which teach and believe in answered prayer, miracles, healing, etc. Yet even in these churches, a great number of people are still sick or waiting on miracles that have yet to come. There have been occasional stories of miraculously answered prayer – I have a few of my own – but on the whole it seems the majority of God’s people today, including myself, are suffering daily from a lack of answered prayers. Some of us have been praying and suffering for years while struggling to believe for things that have yet to materialize. What are we to do being faced with all of these unanswered prayers?
In my times of doubt when my faith has seemed most fragile, I have found instruction and encouragement in Job 33 (see below). Job has been complaining that God answers none of man’s requests and that it profits a man nothing to seek righteousness. But Job receives a rebuke from his friend Elihu that is unlike the rebuke from his other three friends. His other friends have been implying that Job must have committed some kind of terrible secret sins to receive such a beating from the Lord, but Elihu does not make such an accusation. Instead Elihu rebukes Job for justifying himself rather than God. Pride was Job’s sin. He was the most righteous man of his day, but when his prayers weren’t answered He justified himself rather than God. At the end of the book of Job when God is rebuking Job’s friends, Elihu’s name is absent from the rebuke, so we can conclude that what Elihu tells Job in chapter 33 is sound wisdom.
The message of Job 33 is that many times in our lives we will suffer. We will be brought to a breaking point when either our faith will break or our pride and worldliness will break. We may complain that we’ve done everything right, we’ve had faith, we’ve prayed, we’ve read our Bibles, we’ve served our church, and God has not answered. We may be tempted to throw in the towel and decide we’ve been fed a pack of lies. We can become at worst bitter and angry enemies of the church or, at best, nominal powerless Christians with faith for nothing more than a heavenly retirement someday. Or we can humble ourselves and say, “Who knows? Perhaps I have sinned” (and I have), “perhaps I’ve been unfaithful,” (and I have), “perhaps I’ve doubted,” (and I have), “perhaps I’ve been prideful,” (and I have), “perhaps I have not been the picture of holiness and spirituality and am therefore not worthy of having a miraculous sign pointed at me that reads: ‘this man has the truth, follow his example.’” We can choose to let the suffering of a failed attempt at faith and an unanswered prayer crush our pride and reveal to us just how far we have to go before we are perfected in His image.
I am not saying we have to be perfect to have answered prayer – far from it. I’m simply saying that when we don’t have answered prayer, we have two choices: justify ourselves and complain God didn’t hold up his end of the deal, or justify God and humble ourselves and admit that perhaps we have missed something. Perhaps we aren’t there yet. Perhaps we have been prideful and perhaps we have not held up our end of the deal. If we as a church, as one body, do the latter, then perhaps faith will once again arise as in times past and signs and wonders will once again follow us: the lame will walk and the blind see. We can either let unanswered prayer drive us into disbelief or rationalization or we can let it drive us into humility and a deeper pursuance of holiness and righteousness. God’s Word promises all things and perfects all things; let’s hold on to it and make it so.
“You say, ‘I am pure, without transgression; I am clean, and there is no iniquity in me.
Behold, he finds occasions against me, he counts me as his enemy,
He puts my feet in the stocks and watches all my paths.’
Behold, in this you are not right. I will answer you, for God is greater than man.
Why do you contend against him, saying, ‘He will answer none of man’s words’?
For God does speak, now one way, now another though a man may not perceive it.
In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls on men, while they slumber on their beds,
He may whisper in their ears and terrify them with warnings,
That he may turn man aside from his deed and conceal pride from a man;
He keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword.
Or a man may be rebuked with pain on his bed and with continual strife in his bones,
So that his life loathes bread, and his appetite the choicest food.
His flesh is so wasted away that it cannot be seen, and his bones that were not seen stick out.
His soul draws near the pit, and his life to those who bring death.
If there be for him an angel, a mediator, one of the thousand, to declare to man what is right for him,
And he is merciful to him, and says, ‘Deliver him from going down into the pit; I have found a ransom;
Let his flesh become fresh with youth; let him return to the days of his youthful vigor’;
Then man prays to God, and he accepts him; he sees his face with a shout of joy, and he restores to man his Righteousness.
He sings before men and says: ‘I sinned and perverted what was right, and it was not repaid to me.
He has redeemed my soul from going down into the pit, and my life shall look upon the light.’
Behold, God does all these things, twice, three times, with a man,
To bring back his soul from the pit, that he may be lighted with the light of life.”
There is an early Christian writing called The Shepherd of Hermas.
I encourage everyone to read the whole thing, but in one particular revelation on faith, the angel tells Hermas:
“Put away doubting from you and do not hesitate to ask of the Lord, saying to yourself, ‘How can I ask of the Lord and receive from Him, seeing I have sinned so much against Him?’ Do not thus reason with yourself, but with all your heart turn to the Lord and ask of Him without doubting, and you will know the multitude of His tender mercies; that He will never leave you, but fulfill the request of your soul. For He is not like men, who remember evils done against them; but He Himself remembers not evils, and has compassion on His own creature, Cleanse, therefore, your heart from all the vanities of this world, and from the words already mentioned, and ask of the Lord and you will receive all, and in none of your requests will you be denied which you make to the Lord without doubting. But if you doubt in your heart, you will receive none of your requests. For those who doubt regarding God are double-souled, and obtain not one of their requests. But those who are perfect in faith ask everything, trusting in the Lord; and they obtain, because they ask nothing doubting, and not being double-souled. For every double-souled man, even if he repent, will with difficulty be saved. Cleanse your heart, therefore, from all doubt, and put on faith, because it is strong, and trust God that you will obtain from Him all that you ask. And if at any time, after you have asked of the Lord, you are slower in obtaining your request [than you expected], do not doubt because you have not soon obtained the request of your soul; for invariably it is on account of some temptation or some sin of which you are ignorant that you are slower in obtaining your request. Wherefore do not cease to make the request of your soul, and you will obtain it. But if you grow weary and waver in your request, blame yourself, and not Him who does not give to you. Consider this doubting state of mind, for it is wicked and senseless, and turns many away entirely from the faith, even though they be very strong. For this doubting is the daughter of the devil, and acts exceedingly wickedly to the servants of God. Despise, then, doubting, and gain the mastery over it in everything; clothing yourself with faith, which is strong and powerful. For faith promises all things, perfects all things; but doubt having no thorough faith in itself, fails in every work which it undertakes. You see, then,” says he, “that, faith is from above–from the Lord –and has great power; but doubt is an earthly spirit, coming from the devil, and has no power. Serve, then, that which has power, namely faith, and keep away from doubt, which has no power, and you will live to God. And all will live to God whose minds have been set on these things.”