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|This article is excerpted from my book Faith
and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life
(formerly The Optimism Factor).
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It really seemed that filling
the concert hall would be a cinch. The Sons of Thunder had rented a
4,000-seat civic center in Salisbury, Maryland, and scheduled a
concert, which we hoped would attract hordes of Christians from around
Maryland’s Eastern Shore. To be sure, we had never staged a concert
outside the Washington, D.C. area, and Salisbury was several hours
But we understood the effect of good publicity. We had an attractive poster printed, mailed it to all the churches in the region and tacked it up in every conceivable public spot.
More importantly, we understood the effect of fervent prayer. Another member of this Christian music group I directed agreed to claim with me the promise of Matthew 18:19, that if two believers are united in praying for anything it will be accomplished for them. We committed ourselves to pray frequently and earnestly that God would fill the auditorium to capacity. And we prayed with considerable confidence that our request would be granted.
But on the evening of the concert, you could have shot a cannon through the auditorium and not hit anyone. The 350 people who did show up were enthusiastic and a respectable audience by many standards. But to me the vast number of empty seats meant not only financial disaster but spiritual defeat. I had poured my heart into prayers that didn’t reap even a ten-percent response!
My experience wasn’t unique. Most of us have gone through discouraging and perhaps puzzling episodes of unanswered prayer. A relationship that we begged God for didn’t work out. A job interview that we diligently prayed about fizzled. A financial investment bathed in prayer turned sour. A request for healing wasn’t granted.
The problem wouldn’t be so vexing if the biblical promises about prayer weren’t so numerous and explicit. But time and again Scripture declares that specific prayer brings specific results. “I chose you . . . that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you” (Jn 15:16). This verse, and many like it, say that God specializes in giving us what we ask! Yet, unless we are very unusual, we don’t live the Christian life very long without some serious bubble popping in this area. What we say is not always what we get.
Typically we begin the Christian life very optimistic about the possibilities of prayer; then we have some disappointing experiences with prayer and skepticism sets in. Few experiences pose a greater challenge to our faith.
Explaining the Puzzle
We grope for an explanation to our experiences of unanswered prayer. Many times we attribute the problem to lack of faith. We just didn’t believe strongly enough. Indeed, this can be the problem. Yet there are many examples in Scripture of anxious, ambivalent people receiving what they ask from God.
Other times we ring it up to bad motives. We weren’t really praying “in Jesus’ name.” Again, motives can be the culprit, as James 4:3 reminds us. To pray in Jesus’ name means to pray with a desire for his will and glory. Yet we can so mystify the idea of praying in Jesus’ name that we cease to believe that God is interested in what we think. As Andrew Murray notes, the thrust of the biblical promises is that God limits much of what he does on earth to what his people are bold enough to request through prayer.*
But more often than not I think there is another explanation that is far less appreciated. We underestimate the difficulty of really wanting God to do what we’re asking. The sort of agreement Matthew 18:19 encourages is an extremely difficult mental state to experience. For one thing, as modern psychology has shown, we are largely subconscious creatures. We may seem to desire something on the surface yet underneath greatly resist it.
In addition, we don’t know our future; only God does. He knows that what we will desire in five years may be strikingly different from what we passionately crave right now. Would granting our present petition really be giving us what we desire in terms of a lifetime?
I now believe that if God had fulfilled my request for a packed concert hall, on that evening in June 1970, a deeper, more important desire for spiritual growth and wisdom would have been denied. I would have been left thinking that Christian programs can be carried out without the intensive personal contact work so necessary for effective ministry. Further, I might have become more locked into a music career and been less free to consider teaching, which in time proved to be where God wanted me to focus the most. I can now say wholeheartedly that God did me a great favor in allowing me to experience disappointment that evening.
I believe that most of the experiences of unanswered prayer which we have as followers of Christ can be explained in this way. It’s not that God has refused to grant us our desires-he has simply understood them better than we have. Appreciating this can do wonders to keep us from losing heart when our prayers seem to go unheeded.
Understanding this will help us find the incentive to keep praying, for it is through continuing prayer that our desires become clarified. Some grow stronger. Others fade away and we’re grateful that God refrained from granting them!
I’m not suggesting, then, that we shouldn’t be bold and specific in raising our desires to God. Quite the contrary: Scripture commands us in many places to do exactly that. Jesus’ parable of the importunate widow (Lk 18:1-8) is a dramatic reminder that there are times when long-term persistence in prayer is not only permitted but expected. Jesus told the parable that we might “always pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). Clearly he meant that we shouldn’t give up praying about specific personal concerns, no matter how long it takes to receive an answer.
Indeed, we will probably be surprised at how frequently the answer that comes does correspond closely with the prayer we have made. I’m convinced that if anyone gives serious attention to prayer over a sufficient period of time, and broadens her horizons to pray about a number of concerns, she will have enough positive experiences to convince her that God is truly interested in answering her prayers. If we hang in there, we’ll discover that God is more abundantly willing to grant our petitions than we’ve imagined.
I can happily say that as I’ve continued to walk with Christ, there have been enough affirming experiences with prayer to convince me that this is true. My confidence that God answers prayer springs not only from biblical teaching but from personal experience as well. But it has taken time for that conviction to grow into a strong and abiding one. I suspect that this will be the case with most of us.
We may experience some disappointment in the
short run. But as we continue to give prayer the attention it
deserves, we will find over time that our investment is greatly
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This article is excerpted from chapter 15 of Blaine Smith's book Faith and Optimism: Positive Expectation in the Christian Life (formerly The Optimism Factor).
Nehemiah Notes is available twice-monthly by e-mail.
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