When I pray earnestly, why does God *still* say “No”, or “Wait”?

I’ve not posted much here that reveals anything of the faith I profess on my //about page, so after a busy week of things happening and very much not happening, I’m feeling challenged to do some study.  This is intended as a “thinking out loud” piece, based on what I’ve found today and reconciling that with what I’ve experienced over the last few years.  This is not an attempt at an authoritative answer to the headline question – more my working out of what I can understand now.  If anyone has constructive critique or more biblically-sound points to guide me,  the comments panel is open!

“I’ve prayed, but God isn’t doing anything”.  It’s a situation that has plagued me through my whole Christian life.  I’m sure all but the most blessed Christians have faced many situations causing them to ask similar questions throughout their struggle to reconcile simple faith with the realities we all deal with in our day-to-day lives.  It seems that Jesus himself struggled with reconciling God’s will with the emotions he was feeling at the time near his crucifixion:

“Abba,[f] Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Mark 14:36 (New International Version, ©2010)

The kind of prayers I see most struggles with, whether in myself or in others, are things like:

  • “God, why won’t you take this condition away from me?”
  • “God, can I have some money to pay off my debts?”
  • “God, can I have a spouse?”
  • “God, can you heal xxx?”
  • “God, can you convert yyy?”
  • “God, can you take away the pain?”
  • “God, can you take me away from this right now?”

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6 (New International Version, ©2010)

If we are to take this advice as a guide, we are indeed doing the right thing by asking for things to change, for things to be given to us or our friends/family/church/the world at large.  But the truth is, when we make these kind of requests of God, what we really need is a new perspective, or a new attitude. This sounds very much like something any business coach or life-coach worth their fee might suggest – and indeed they are onto something. What most of them miss in giving such advice is that the perspective check needs to come from God – our viewpoint needs to be realigned with His.

So if I’m bringing a problem, a request or a need to God, then I must also be open to the fact that I myself might be what needs to change, or perhaps, more helpfully, to be changed by God. In doing so, I might be called to repent of something, or simply to change a perspective or priority.  These are painful processes, full of opportunities for failure, self-doubt and cynicism to creep in and seemingly undo any achievements we might make.

The God of the bible is, among other things, often referenced as “Abba” or “Father”.  He created us (Mankind), and throughout the bible He continually promises to nurture and care for us; US! His creation, living in His world, sustained in His universe for His purposes.  He wants us not only to grow in knowledge of Him but, even more importantly, to be in a relationship with Him. He wants us to follow Him, to submit to His will, to allow Him to guide us, and He really wants us to allow Him to delight in us.

Let’s look in more detail at that last point here, for fear of my being exposed as a follower of some Prosperity-Gospel – which I most definitely do not identify with, much as I love receiving stuff and things!

Delighting in us really is not just about giving us gifts and seeing how happy that makes us. To use an example from my own life:  when I think about the best times I’ve had with my own (human) father, it’s not been when he’s given me something material, though of course I enjoyed those things too. [The hifi is still wonderful, Dad, if you’re reading this!] No, the things I’ve really enjoyed and appreciated most have been the ongoing conversations either in person or online, where we both have learned new things of each other, and where we’ve just simply spent time enjoying each others’ company, perhaps while exploring the world and situations around us.  So if I were to come to him instead with merely a long shopping list of wants, that would frankly be a bit of an insult, unless of course that’s what he’s asked me for!  In the same way, God does not ask for us to use him as a vending machine for our own wants and desires – He really does not want for us to work for Him in exchange for some favour of healing or material.

When we do pray, I think there are some acid-tests as to whether we are praying for the right thing, that might help us understand whether we are the source of the problem we’re praying to change.  One such test comes from this:

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. John 14:13-14 (New International Version, ©2010)

I don’t think it’s wrong to pray for things or for change if that’s what we think we need – we’ve already seen that we are to take all our requests to God.  However, if we are going to be able to ‘see’ our prayers being answered – which God promises they either will be or already are – there are a couple key elements that need to be in place. First, our prayers need to be submitted in the name of Jesus – He is our Mediator, it is only through His name that our requests can be acceptable to God, because it is only through and in Him that we are acceptable to God the Father. Secondly, the ultimate goal of the ‘thing’ prayed for needs to be for God’s glory.  Now here’s my usual problem:  Quite often I simply want to bring more glory to myself, or simply to make things easier or more pleasurable for myself; but I will never see such prayers as being answered, since my glory simply is not the point of this world, nor of me.  So with those repeated failings identified in my prayers and motivations, it’s comforting also to know that:

…the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. Romans 8:26 (New International Version, ©2010)

In effect, what I think this is saying is that even if we ask for the wrong thing or ask in the wrong way, the Holy Spirit acts as a spiritual “babelfish” if you like, translating our needs and wants, perhaps even our heart-condition, into a language and form that God can usefully work with.  Maybe this translation service is more than just a one-way process.  Maybe the Spirit also changes our hearts too – and from that we are changed in answer to our initial prayers.  In fact I think Jesus himself provides a rather strong clue to this:

the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. John 14:26-27 (New International Version, ©2010)

So if I pray for the freedom of being freed of my headache, being relieved of my depression, the gift of a car or the gift of a cool £1,000,000 tax-free, and God does not want me to have those things, there is a promise that He will (and does) send the Spirit to help open my eyes to how I can or must live without them.  And that’s rather comforting, even if it is painful for me to swallow at the time.

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