Psalm 5:1-3 NLT
O LORD, hear me as I pray; pay attention to my groaning. 2Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for I pray to no one but you. 3Listen to my voice in the morning, LORD. Each morning I bring my requests to you and wait expectantly.
Prayer isn’t a “cash in your lottery ticket” and “get-whatever-you-want” enterprise. We often see only one side of prayer—the part where we ask God for something. We tend to come to God in prayer with our list of requests, filling our prayer time with asking for things. We come hungry for what we desire to see God do. Is that wrong? No, certainly not. We ought to come and lay our requests before God. “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6 HCSB). As the famous British preacher Charles Spurgeon once said in a sermon, “Prayer pulls the rope down below and the great bell rings above in the ears of God. Some scarcely stir the bell, for they pray so languidly; others give only an occasional pluck at the rope. But he who wins with heaven is the man who grasps the rope boldly and pulls continuously with all his might.”And in another sermon, Spurgeon continued:
“I have no doubt many of God’s people cannot think their prayers will be heard, because they have had as yet such very few manifest replies. I saw the other day a greyhound chasing a hare. The moment the hare ran through the hedge out of the greyhound’s sight, the race was over, for he could not follow where he could not see. The true hound hunts by scent—but the greyhound only by sight. Now there are some Christians too much like the greyhound; they only follow the Lord as far as they can see His manifest mercy; but the true child of God hunts by faith, and when he cannot see the mercy, he scents it and still pursues it, till at last he lays hold upon it. Why, man, you say you have had no answers! How do you know? God may have answered you though you have not seen the answer.”
One of the inherent challenges believers face in prayer is that sometimes an answer doesn’t come as quickly as we would like for it to, or an answer comes in a form we don’t recognize. In reflecting on how God answers prayers, Mark Batterson remarks, “As I read Scripture, I can come to no other conclusion than this: God loves showing up in unexpected ways at unexpected times.”
But sometimes the reality is that an answer hasn’t come either in an unexpected way or at an unexpected time; there has just been no answer―period. Have you ever found yourself coming to God consistently in prayer, and after some time without receiving an answer, you wonder, “Am I just supposed to continue to wait patiently? Nothing seems to be changing. How long am I supposed to wait!?” After hours, days, months, and maybe even years, we might find ourselves getting discouraged when we fail to see an answer to our prayers. And this discouragement can lead us to stop persevering in prayer.
We often mistakenly overlook the possibility that there is a reason we do not see the answer right away. As we continue in prayer, our desire should grow deeper and stronger, not wane and diminish. As Andrew Murray writes, “God puts us into the practicing school of persevering prayer so that our weak faith may be strengthened. Above all, God wants to draw us into a closer fellowship with Him. When our prayers aren’t answered, we learn that the fellowship and love of God are more to us than the answers of our requests, and then we continue in prayer.”Thus, perhaps there are unseen blessings that we are missing when an answer to prayer is delayed, and the period of time between the prayer and the answer has a purpose that we don’t understand.
But the error that some of us find ourselves succumbing to in our prayers is in seeking to receive the blessing more ardently than we desire to commune with the Giver of all blessings. I am reminded of the interest that I had as a child to run to my father and ask for money to purchase candy from the concession stand at sporting events. I would run up to him with a big smile on my face and plead with him for a dollar or two. He never immediately reached for his wallet, but often asked me about how I was doing, if I was enjoying the game, and which friends I was hanging out with. With the typical impatience of an adolescent, I streamlined the answers in order to satisfy his seemingly banal inquiry, all the while barely being able to sit still and divert my attention from what I came asking for.
After what felt like an eternity (but was likely less than 2 minutes), my father eventually pulled out a few dollars for me and proceeded to admonish me not to eat too much candy because it would upset my stomach and it wasn’t good for me. There was little chance that I actually really registered what he said to me because I was so intensely focused on laying hold of that money and doing what I wanted to do with it. As soon as my father handed me the money, I ran off giddy with delight, racing toward the concessions, giving little thought to the conversation with my father. But little did I realize at that time that my father just wanted me to sit with him for a while in the stands and share some of those precious life moments with him. In my rash and selfish youth, I was consumed with my mission of simply coming to him so that I could receive what I needed in order to appease my craving for a quick sugar fix. I didn’t appreciate being in his presence longer than it took to get what I was asking for.
Unfortunately, in my immaturity I was oblivious to the more important encounter that my father desired to have with me. I wish I could go back and be present with my father more and spend the time with him that I can never get back. But alas, such is the heart of a child that only knows what it wants and nothing more. This selfish regard all too often can find root in our prayer life and incline us to forget about what is most important in prayer. Oswald Chambers writes,
“Think of the last thing you prayed about―were you devoted to your desire or to God? Was your determination to get some gift of the Spirit for yourself or to get to God? ‘For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him’ (Matt. 6:8). The reason for asking is so you may get to know God better. ‘Delight yourself in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart’ (Ps. 37:4). We should keep praying to get a perfect understanding of God Himself.”
What God is seeking is our prayer of longing to be with Him, for us to desire Him above what He can give us. I believe God created us with an inborn desire to be with Him. As Phillip Yancey describes, “Surely, if we are made in God’s own image, God will find a way to fulfill that deepest longing. Prayer is that way.”But we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to prayer. We might subtly begin turning our focus upon the requests we make of God and forget to just enjoy being with Him and praising Him for who He is.
Prayer is the way that we reach out to the divine and call upon heaven to touch that deep urge and void within us. But going to God in prayer brings with it all sorts of expectations for how we think He should move in our lives in doing what we ask of Him; and when He doesn’t, we are tempted to lose heart and to grow weary in our persistence to come to Him in prayer. We must remember that God is faithful and will not delay in bringing an answer to you somehow and in some way. This difficult reality can be trying on our patience while we wait for God to act, but we must not give up in seeking God in prayer. He will answer us in ways we can never compare.
In a poem titled Unanswered Yet, Ophelia Guyon Browning captures the struggle and temptations many of us face while waiting for God to answer prayer. But she elegantly leads the reader to face the fact that God will answer our prayer sometime and somewhere. One of the stanzas powerfully conveys how we must be patient and trust that God will answer our prayer at the right time―His time.
Unanswered yet? Tho’ when you first presented
This one petition at the Father’s throne,
It seemed you could not wait the time of asking,
So anxious was your heart to have it done;
If years have passed since then, do not despair,
For God will answer you sometime, somewhere.
Some of us have also lost our ability to see prayer as an avenue of refinement as much as it is an encounter and petitioning for divine assistance. God uses prayer to form and shape us into the person He is calling us to be—one who finds all they need in God Himself. When we ask God for something in prayer, we might be blind to what we really need, but God knows how to answer prayers in the way they need to be answered.
The converted-slave-trader-turned-abolitionist and Christian pastor John Newton wrote a poem titled Prayer Answered by Crosses, which describes his journey in prayer that brought him through many trials and challenges to the point that he finally found what his soul longed for. And while he made many prayers, Newton expressed that it wasn’t until he learned that prayer was not about receiving earthly things that his soul finally found rest.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
’Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“’Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”
When we pray, if there seems to be no answer, we must not lose heart but continue to come to God in prayer. He wants us to desire Him above those things we ask of Him. And by persistently coming to Him, we can draw nearer to His heart and find the satisfaction our hearts truly need.