Satan’s accusations sometimes reveal how good God is.
You’ve just lifted your head and slowly opened your eyes from a time of prayer. So what happens now? What is the effect of what you’ve just done? What will be the impact? What’s your expectation?
Often, we forget our prayers as soon as we offer them. Some of us approach prayer as duty, something we do before we start our day or at the day’s end. To some, prayer is a gesture done on behalf of someone in need or to make a request of one’s own. In every case, what difference do we honestly think our prayers make?
Of course, it’s great when our prayers are answered. We mark this as God’s favor and refer back to it whenever we want to remember his goodness. On the other hand, when our prayers go unanswered, we may be tempted to question God’s goodness. This can lead down a trail of doubt that reshapes our view of him completely.
We may put many of our prayers into one of two categories: ungranted or unanswered.
I remember a prayer of mine when I led an urban ministry in Detroit. We lived in a rough neighborhood, and outreach was very, very hard. During that time, I took a break to visit a friend in Washington state who owned beautiful property backing up to a lake. In that refreshing setting, I sat underneath a tree and gazed out at the lapping waves, getting rest for my soul. Suddenly, a well of desire rose up in me, and I was moved to pray, “Lord, this is all so great. Would you move our ministry to a different place with a setting like this?”
The next day, I flew to San Francisco to help lead a street rally. I’d just finished preaching when a young hippie-looking guy approached me and said, “I have an image of you sitting underneath a tree beside a beautiful lake. You were asking God if he would move your ministry to a setting like the one where you sat.” I was astonished, thinking, “I’ve never heard a more accurate prophetic word than this guy’s.” He assured me, “The Lord has an answer for you.” As I waited with anticipation, he said, “God’s answer is no.”
I grin today over my ungranted prayer. The Lord had much better plans than mine to see his purposes for me fulfilled. Ultimately, that’s the intended outcome of all our ungranted prayers.
It is no laughing matter if we doubt God’s “no” to us and try to work around it to get what we want. In that case, we face the same temptation the serpent posed to Eve. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1, ESV). The devil has been working ever since to cast doubt over God’s word to his people. He wants to ruin the Lord’s magnificent plans for our lives.
Ungranted prayers are a bit easier to take than those that go unanswered.
If we know God won’t grant our request, we can move on in faith, knowing he is unfailingly good. When our prayer goes unanswered for an extended time, that’s harder to deal with. If we don’t know whether God’s answer is yes or no, we have to summon more faith to keep moving forward.
It is one thing to wait for an answer and quite another to think God ignores us, refusing to consider our prayer. Think about it. If someone we know and respect doesn’t respond to our email or call, our natural reaction is to feel hurt. We wonder what we did to offend them and may feel unworthy or angry. Over time, we can doubt whether that person is the good friend we thought they were. It’s very hard to sustain that kind of relationship. Likewise with God, we may find it hard to sustain a prayer life if we’re not sure he cares.
Here is the one biblical passage that I believe frustrates many Christians. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11).
Jesus is describing God’s goodness in answering prayer. He’s addressing a haunting question that arises for many Christians at some crucial point. Few of us doubt God’s power to answer our prayers, but many of us doubt God’s goodness when we don’t get any kind of answer.
Some Christians reason, “I know God has the ability to answer my prayer, but he hasn’t. I’m not asking for something wrong but for something good, something that would actually glorify him. If God gives good gifts to his children, why would he withhold an answer from my request? Have I done something wrong? I’ve searched my heart and can’t find anything. I can’t help doubting how good God really is.” When we’re in this frame of mind, Jesus may flip our question around. In the verse immediately following his teaching on God’s goodness, Christ says, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). I like to think Jesus may be asking, “So, you want a need met in your life? Well, chances are, your neighbor wants the same thing. So, go do it for them, and you’ll be God’s answer to their prayer.”
As children of our heavenly Father, we are agents of his generous goodness. Thus, rather than focusing on the blessings we want, we should consider living as his blessing to others. Often we’ll find then that God is blessing us as well.
In similar passages, Jesus puts attachments onto our prayer requests.
Consider this familiar verse from John’s gospel. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). Jesus links our prayer requests to the act of abiding in him.
When we abide in Christ, seeking to know all we can of his desires, our own wishes are impacted. As we hunger to know him, we’d better discern between our own fleshly desires and the desire to please him in doing his kingdom work.
Abiding in him brings an additional blessing. It spares us a lot of stress, worry and sleepless nights over prayers that go unanswered. We no longer ruminate or obsess endlessly about what we may be doing wrong that hinders our prayer. Instead, abiding in him gives us access to a deep, enduring peace.
“In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Paul says to make our prayer requests “with thanksgiving.” Gratitude rids our hearts of coveting fleshly things and aligns our desires with the Lord’s.
Trust in God’s goodness also frees us. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, he instructs us in this order: Give to the needy, pray, fast, store treasure in heaven instead of on earth, and don’t be anxious about material needs. He concludes, “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).
David confessed that he was too quick to doubt God, that the Lord ended up being as faithful as ever to meet his great needs.
David was looking back on a time of trial when he testified, “Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me when I was in a besieged city. I had said in my alarm, ‘I am cut off from your sight.’ But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help” (Psalm 31:21-22).
In other Bible versions, the word for “alarm” here reads as “haste.” David was saying, in short, “I thought God had cut me off, that he refused to hear me, but I spoke too soon. I accused him of not being a good God, yet he ended up answering me faithfully, according to his purposes.”
These days when I catch myself complaining about God not hearing me, I immediately know I’m already wrong. This tells me I’m maturing. Sometimes he still answers my prayers the way he did years ago when I longed for a serene existence by a lake: a straightforward “no.”
Trust me, amid the ministry he has called me to, I’ve had plenty of restful days by lakes. Left to my own desires — without abiding, without serving, without knowing him intimately — I never would know the joyful reward of his goodness. As David testified, God’s goodness never changes, and he can be trusted to always work for our good. Amen.