Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Why doesn't God answer my prayers?

#7: We need to persevere

“For our struggle is not against flesh & blood, but against the ruler, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world & against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Ephesians 6:11-12

Ephesians 6 is a cracker wee Bible passage. It is often used in sermons on spiritual attack, but interestingly has more to say about spiritual resistance & standing firm.

Living a Christian life is no ice-cream topped adventure - it is a bloody & difficult fight with far too many casualties - and we must realise that some of our prayers go unanswered because there are spiritual forces of evil resisting them. This alone should be a wake up call to persevere, to not give up and keep our eyes heavenwards, while our knees are firmly rooted to the floor.

Yet sometimes it is God Himself who resists our prayers & it is to Him that we must continue in prayer. He opposes our prayers for very different reasons to the Evil One. Instead of the instant gratification of miracles on our every finger click, He calls us to persevere in prayer to deepen our character & nurture our faith.

In Luke chapter 18 Jesus teaches His disciples about persistence in prayer & not throwing in the towel too early. He tells the story of a determined widow’s unremitting demands for justice in the face of an obstinate, crooked judge. But even the unjust judge is eventually forced to give in to her constant nagging; so how much more will a loving Heavenly Father reward His children who earnestly persevere in prayer through faith & dogged determination.

Whether your prayers are being resisted by mysterious spiritual forces, by stubborn people or even by God Himself, just don’t give up.

I finish this series with a prayer that Greig records in “God on mute.” I hope you have enjoyed this series or found it at least slightly stimulating & helpful. Thanks for journeying with me.

Help me to stand

Lord, help me to stand today.
Temptations & trials abound.

When life hurts, I get confused, dishonest, suspicious & critical.
I put on the belt of truth.

When life hurts, mu relationships suffer – especially my relationship with You.
I put on the breastplate of righteousness.

When life hurts, I either get really lazy or I make myself really busy.
I put on the shoes of the Gospel.

When life hurts, I let down my guard & leave myself exposed.
I take up the shield of faith.

When life hurts, my thinking gets negative & I question everything.
I put on the helmet of salvation.

When life hurts I’m a coward.
I take hold of the sword of the Word.

Lord, it doesn’t feel very ‘finished’ down here.
I don’t feel very ‘finished.’
See me kneeling.
Help me stand.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Why doesn't God answer my prayers?

#6: God gives us choices

I don’t really understand why the Almighty God who created our wondrous rolling spheres, holds the keys of time in His hands & creates beauty with the gentlest whisper, continually chooses to limit His own power. It’s hard to grasp why a supreme being would decide to refrain from asserting His dominion unilaterally, and instead respect the laws of nature & the choices of His creatures.

Greig suggests that we “see this willingness to relinquish control ultimately expressed in Jesus. Here is the omnipotent God becoming an incontinent baby.” This indignity was further compounded by a cruel death at the hands of the very humans to whom He breathed new life. I have come to realise that we cannot really fathom the dynamics of unanswered prayers unless we grasp God’s determination to respect the free will of humanity.

I have just become the proud father of a little bundle of joy & poop called Jacob. Already I’m a besotted daddy bore & experiencing a new wave of emotions which accompany “paternal love.” But fast forward 15 years and this little bundle is an adolescent; in transition en route to adulthood. At this stage I will still have some measure of control over Him. For example, I could demand that he declares his love & devotion to me before I relinquish pocket money & transport him to see his peers.

But “enforced love” is an oxymoron. The deepest fatherly satisfaction arises when a son freely chooses to display affection to his dad. And so it us with our Heavenly Daddy who receives the upmost delight when we voluntarily submit to His will & love, but in order to achieve this God leaves open the dangerous possibility that we might disobey Him.

And so if our unanswered prayers revolve around the Holy Spirit enforcing someone to do something – even if we have that individual’s best interests at heart – we must realise that our God gives all of us freedom to make choices, whether these are positive or negative. And while He may use our prayers to draw near to others & knock on the door of their hearts, He is unlikely to break down the entrance & force His way in.
"To use the analogy of a restaurant, prayer helps to present people with the menu, and perhaps it can even make them hungry. Yet because prayer is not a control mechanism, it cannot force the food into their mouths. Frustratingly, it's up to them to order & eat. Only then will they 'taste & see that the Lord is good' (Psalm 34:8)." by Pete Greig.

(Thoughts developed from Pete Greig’s “God on mute”)

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

#5: God wants to draw you into a deeper relationship with Himself

God the Father’s deepest desire for our lives is that we would experience a fulfilling relationship with Him. Jesus came to allow us the opportunity to live this life in all its fullness & the Spirit helps us to understand this more completely as He transforms our hearts & minds.

We’re all attracted to “fast food” prayer. The type of asking that demands an immediate answer that may satisfy in that instant, but leaves a deeper thirst unquenched. But sometimes by holding back fast track blessings, God entices us to remain longer in His presence. Sometimes He considers our questioning & our wondering as more important than the relatively simple act of supplying us with an answer.

I’m not denying that this can be frustrating. But a delayed answer causes us to pray harder, search our souls more diligently and listen attentively to even the slightest whiff of a response from heaven. This is most evident in the lives of those Christians with the most intimate & energetic relationships with the Lord, who have more often than not wrestled & suffered through the silence of unanswered prayer.

I am not suggesting that God is sadistic, in fact the opposite. Sometimes He will deny us something so that He will draw us to the great Someone. And as we submit to this grand design (that is to love Him for who He is, not for the stuff He gives us), we find that either our requests change with an enhanced knowledge of His desires or that they are simply answered.

“The outer need kindles the inner and we find that the complete answer to prayer is the Answerer.” P.T. Forsythe

(Thoughts developed from Pete Greig’s “God on mute”)

Friday, 17 April 2009

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

#4: God has got something better planned

“Sorry, but you have been unsuccessful.” “We don’t want you.” “The other applicants are better than you.” “You don’t have what it takes.”

You can just about accept rejection for the first or second job you apply for, but you get pretty fed up as the count slips past ten, and by the time refusal number fifteen came along I was fairly pissed off. Eighteen years of education, working my yo-yo’s off for a decent degree & pouring £s into further education to be rejected on an almost daily basis from the job you want to do is not pleasant.

My prayers changed from pleasantly asking God for a job, to desperately pleading for one, to getting angry with Him for His silence & the prospect of a lifetime’s service for the Golden Arches.

But after months of application forms, polished interview techniques, rejection letters & “failed” prayer requests, God fired me a curve ball of a career move into youth ministry. I went kicking & screaming and can only be grateful that He’d already employed the “swallowed-by-a-big-fish-method” of attention grabbing before.

Yet 6 years after this messy & irritating period in my life, I see that God did not want me to be a human resource manager. In fact, I don’t want to be & am delighted that I am not called to play this role. Those unanswered prayers which seemed like a curse have become the very platform upon which I have discovered joy in myself, my God & my work. I love (at least most of the time) the opportunity to play a small & hopefully positive role in the development of teenagers & young adults.

Sometimes I have to admit that God is smarter than me, that He really does know what is best for our lives & that He is bigger than both my understanding & desires.

Sometimes I have to remember & believe God’s Word when He says, “I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out – plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for” (Jeremiah 29:11).

Or plumb the depths of a promise such as, “God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around, but by His Spirit deeply & gently within us” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

Some prayers are not answered because God is good & smarter than us.

“We shall come one day to a heaven where we shall gratefully know that God’s great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayers.” P.T. Forsythe in The Soul of Prayer

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Why doesn't God answer my prayers?

#3: Life’s tough

Please don’t hear this as an uncompassionate explanation. I’d be very slow to use this in response to a complex & difficult pastoral situation, but our expectations have a huge bearing on how we respond to unanswered prayer.

Contrary to the beliefs of my youth group, I wasn’t alive in the 19th Century, but from my limited grasp of history it appears that people used to expect life to be difficult, demanding & problem-filled. Today we presume life is wrapped in cotton-wool, that the silver spoon should always be close at hand, and whilst we would endure some small mishaps along the way, we generally feel hard done by when life doesn’t pan out the way we want.

When tough times come we can feel as if God has robbed us of our deserved happiness. And despite advances in technology & medical treatment we must remember that it’s normal to have problems, get sick, have financial difficulties & wrestle with fractured relationships. Jesus promises His disciples that “You will have trouble” (John 16:33), but nobody sticks that on the car bumper or the banner at the front of church.

God’s goal for your life is not to make you happy. It is to make you holy. Life is tough, but surely that should make us all the more grateful for the abundant daily blessings of our Lord & prevent us from blaming Him for what is simply the reality of existence in a messed up planet. As Christians our ultimate hope is not set in a succession of deliveries from human affliction, but a deepening relationship with the eternal God of this Universe.

Peter was aware of it this, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as if something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). And Paul was braver than I could ever dare to be when he prayed, “to know Christ & the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in death” (Philippians 3:10).

Pete Greig summarises this better than I ever could, “Perhaps we should accept what older people and poorer people and many of those with disabilities already know: Things are probably going to be very difficult today & just as hard tomorrow. Maybe by adjusting our expectations we can reduce the sense of disappointment, isolation & unfairness riding on the back of unanswered prayer... when such times come, we should feel a little less outrage & a lot more hope because Jesus, who went through similar struggles, predicted that we would have them & promised to be with us in the midst of them.”

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

#2: They contradict the laws of nature

“A miracle is a violation of the normal laws of nature by some supernatural entity of unknown outside force.”

By definition miracles must be rare, a lot less common than we want them to be and much more extraordinary than many preachers lead us to believe. Even throughout thousands of years of history recorded in Scripture, “common” miracles are largely confined to four short periods (the period of the Exodus, the time of the prophets Elijah & Elisha, the ministry of Jesus & the time of the apostles).

I don’t like this. I wish miracles were more common, that every prayer for healing enabled sight, hearing or cured disease; that every prayer for job security avoided the redundancy package; and that every prayer for wayward Prodigals brought them back into the arms of Jesus.

But this is not the way the Lord has designed our world to function. Instead “God has intricately established certain governing principles (laws of nature) that make life work, and they do so most of the time with almost infinite complexity & exquisite harmony.” (Pete Greig)

There are times when I have found this immensely painful & frustrating, but consider for a moment if it wasn’t true. What would it be like to live in a world where we could regularly expect God to perform miracles in our lives? A world in which…
...Whenever I slip God grabs me?
…Whenever germs invade my body, God intervenes directly to ward off disease?
…I may grow old, but never die?
…When I hurt someone’s feelings, God makes them feel better?
…The fire suddenly gets cold when the young child reaches for it?
…People who have wasted their money for years get a windfall because they earnestly prayed for a way to send their children to university?
…When I pray for a hurricane not to strike my house, it turns aside & strikes yours instead?

This sort of world terrifies me. It is not a utopian existence, but a place of chaos & complete unpredictability.

Can God do miracles? Of course. Does He still intervene miraculously in this world? Yes, although not as often as we’d like. But we must realise that some prayers are not answered because they would be detrimental to ourselves, other people or the world in which we live.

In one sense this is actually quite liberating. It means we can ignore the bogus “faith healers” and good intentioned, but ill-advising friends who convince us that the miracle doesn’t arrive because our faith is too weak or that we aren’t praying often or confidently enough.

I honestly believe that God heals people today (even though I’ve never met someone who has been “miraculously” cured), so please don’t hear this as a discouragement to ask for healing. Bring your requests to God & He will meet your true needs, even if He does not give you exactly what you want. But please don’t be bound by the false expectations laid upon us by the devious or ill-informed. Miracles by definition are rare.

(Thoughts developed from Pete Greig’s “God on mute”)

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

#1: Some prayers are contradictory

I sat in pain today watching my football club (Newcastle United) play agonisingly badly against Stoke City. I am not an idiot; I realise my team will not conquer the Premier League in my lifetime, but the thought of their impending relegation is immensely frustrating.

At one stage, I remembered that our Lord is both sovereign & gracious, and in my desperation sent up a prayer for a much needed victory. As I did, the camera homed in on a Stoke supporter with hands clasped & eyes averted heavenward, clearly seeking God to deliver 3 vital points to his own team.

A trivial example perhaps, but faced with these two requests, how does the Lord react? Or what about the bride praying for sunshine on her wedding day, while the local farmer is on his knees desperately interceding for rain? What about the two unemployed people applying for the same job, in dire need of revenue for their family?

Whose prayers does God answer on such occasions? The most holy? The most desperate? The neediest? He who has pray-est the most?

While I believe that God is sympathetic to our daily needs, He rarely intervenes in the natural course of events. If He did, according to Greig, prayer would stop “being a powerful submission to the sovereign wisdom of God, and God Himself starts to look like a cosmic version of one of those bright, flashing pinball machines, frenetically flicking around train timetables, weather fronts, football scores & world markets at the behest of His creatures.”

Whilst it would suit me very nicely to control the world through prayer (especially when it comes to the fortunes of my football team or the outcomes of our youth ministry), it would probably not suit millions of others.

BUT (and it’s a bigger butt than that weird dancing girl on “Britain’s’ Got Talent”), that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother praying to God about the small things in our lives. Why?

1. It’s a privilege to be heard by God when we tell Him what’s troubling us (even if everyone else thinks it’s silly or unimportant). Conversation, especially about trivial things, marks any healthy relationship.

2. God sometimes surprises us by answering our little prayers in a supernatural way. Normally when that “little” prayer has major implications unseen to us.

3. Involving God in the tiny things in our lives opens our eyes to the hidden blessings that He lathers on us each day. People who only ask for BIG things, are only grateful when BIG prayers are answered & as a result live less grateful lives.

So keep praying on all occasions for all things great & small, but realise that if your request for sun, a free parking space or a sporting victory aren’t answered, it might be because someone else's prayer runs contrary to yours & their need is greater.

(Thoughts developed from Pete Greig’s “God on mute”)

Friday, 10 April 2009

Is God deaf?

Frustrating, confusing, painful. Unanswered prayer can deepen or destroy an individual’s faith depending on the foundations on which that faith has been built.

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty fed up with the neatly packaged & often patronising answers often offered to the complex & difficult issues that surround God’s silence in our time of desperation. So it is with great joy that I am enjoying a book that wrestles with this subject in an honest way, born out of painful, firsthand experience.

I highly recommend “God on mute” by Pete Greig & in this blog series I’ll seek to combine some of his thoughts with my own in an attempt to stimulate discussion on the issue of unanswered prayer. But perhaps today of all days it is appropriate to reflect on one of Jesus’ unanswered prayers.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The lack of an immediate answer in the moment of our Lord’s greatest need may be chilling & challenging to the rose-tinted, flat-pack version of faith we are often sold in the church, but it also demonstrates that explanations to our suffering may not come at the time when we feel it is needed the most.

We will never suffer like Christ suffered on the cross, but we all have “Good Friday” times in our lives categorised by pain, disappointment, confusion or spiritual starvation that cause many of us to think & the bravest to ask, “God , are You deaf?”

I hope you find the next blog series helpful. As ever I’d love to hear your thoughts.

(Thoughts developed from Pete Greig’s “God on mute”)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Musings of a cream crackered youth worker...

It's official. Two sleepless nights with a new born baby is actually more demanding than a sleepless youth weekend away. For one thing I don't have to change poopy nappies on weekends away. And let me assure those unexperienced in 4am nappy changes... you will never eat chicken korma again.

So as I sit match sticks in my eyes & brain still thinking it's last Friday afternoon, I came across this interesting little article that compares a church that is "performance based" & a church that is "grace based". I found it uncomfortable reading. I'd love to know your thoughts.

Which type of church (faith community) do you belong to......

A) Community of Performance
People talk about grace, but communicate legalism.
Unbelievers can't imagine themselves as Christians.
Drive away broken people.
The world is seen as threatening and 'other.'
Conversion is superficial—people are called to respectable behavior.
People are secretly hurting.
People see faith and repentance as actions that took place at conversion.
The gospel is for unbelievers.

B) Community of Grace
People can see grace in action.
Unbelievers feel like they can belong.
Attract broken people.
People are loved as fellow sinners in need of grace.
Conversion is radical—people are called to transformed affections.
People are open about their problems.
People see faith and repentance as daily activities.
The gospel is for both unbelievers and believers.