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The Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb The Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb

The Rev. Dr. Charles Reeb is pastor of Pasadena Community Church (United Methodist) in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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Pasadena Community Church (United Methodist), St. Petersburg, FL


I Wonder Why My Prayers Go Unanswered

Luke 11:1-13

The 18th Sunday after Pentecost

September 18, 2005

Warren Wiersbe tells of the time when he was helping to paint the outside of his neighbors' home. His neighbors had a small black dog that had a ritual of going to the back door of the house to bark and bark until someone finally got the message and let him out.

One day, Wiersbe was painting the outside of the house when no one was home. The neighbor's little dog, who was inside the house, took up his station at the back door and barked and barked all day long. The sad thing, Wiersbe said, was that it never dawned in his little brain that all his barking was totally useless-no one was home to hear!!

Perhaps many of you feel like that dog. You have prayed and prayed for something and there seems to be no answer-there seems to be no one home! And maybe you have tuned in today because you have this nagging wonder why your prayers are going unanswered!"

You are not alone! Throughout Scripture we see instances of followers of God who cried out and did not seem to have their prayers answered. The 2 biggest examples were Jesus and Paul. Remember, Jesus pled for God to "take this cup from me," but to no avail. And the Apostle Paul begged God to take away "the thorn in his flesh," but God never did. Obviously, their prayers were not answered to their satisfaction.

Again, we can receive comfort from the fact that even Jesus and Paul went through times of fervent praying for God to do something, and God not complying with their requests. We are not alone.

But perhaps you are thinking, "Wait a second, didn't I just hear Jesus telling us that if we ask, seek, and knock, we will receive an answer?" Yes. That is what he said, and his words are true. But we must first understand what prayer is before we can understand the truth and power of Jesus' words. Prayer is one of the most misunderstood and misused practices of our faith. And like the black dog mentioned earlier, until we understand the nature of prayer and how God answers prayer, all of our barking and praying for an answer will leave us frustrated. The truth is, our wondering about unanswered prayer is often about a misunderstanding of what prayer is.

For many, prayer is understood as an exercise in magic. There are a number of popular religious books out there that seem to support this. People often believe that if they say the right phrases or have the proper technique, they can persuade God to answer their prayers.

There is an old story of a monk who was bothered by mice playing around him when he prayed. To stop it, he got a cat and kept it in his prayer room so the mice would be scared away. But he never explained to his disciples why he had the cat. So, one day, the monk walked down the corridors of the monastery and noticed that each of his disciples had a cat in their prayer room. After seeing the monk with a cat, they thought having a cat was the secret to powerful praying.

I believe this is a parable for many Christians today. Many believe they have to do something special in order for God to hear them and have their prayers answered. So, you will often see folks running here and there to learn the latest prayer gimmick from self-proclaimed spiritual gurus.

But prayer is not rubbing a magic lamp. It is not presenting some Santa Claus in the sky with a list of things we want. Prayer is intimate communication with our Lord. It is as natural as turning around and speaking to a friend. And then, more importantly, it is being quiet and still and listening to God and being transformed by what he is communicating to us. Prayer is vital, for how can we expect to be in relationship with God if we don't communicate with God?

Jesus taught us this lesson. Just read through the gospel of Luke, and you will find Jesus praying consistently at every turn in his life. He prays as he senses God's call on his life; He prays before choosing his disciples; He prays as he serves and heals other people; He prays as he feels the demands and pressures of his ministry; He prays as he faces the cross; He prays as he finishes his work on the cross. Jesus is continually praying. You could say that prayer for him was as vital as taking his next breath. He knew that in order to live out the life God called him to live, he needed to be continually connected to God in prayer; God was the source of his power.

It was out of his own consistent prayer life that Jesus gives us this teaching in our reading for today. The disciples notice Jesus praying all the time, and they finally get a clue and say, "Teach us to pray." They observe that prayer is a vital practice for Jesus, and they want to learn how to do it. And what follows is a profound lesson from Jesus about prayer. And it is not a lesson in right technique. It is not a lesson in right phrasing. It is not a lesson in how to persuade God. It is a lesson in persistence. Through the story of the man banging on the door all night, and the repeated words, ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is telling us that effective prayer is consistent prayer. Effective prayer is a continual connection to God. And if you look close at today's reading you will also notice Jesus telling us that effective prayer is not about what we can get from God, but what we receive from God. There is a big difference! For, often times, what we want from God and what we receive from God are two different things.

Perhaps this changes your wondering about unanswered prayer. Maybe God has answered you and you just don't like the answer. Someone once said that God answers prayer in one of four ways: Yes, No, Wait, and Are you Kidding? This is somewhat glib, but there is some truth to it. I recall times in my own life when I prayed and prayed for God to give me something, and my prayer was never answered, or so I thought. Later, I discovered that what I wanted was not the right thing for me. That event always reminds me of the country song, "Thank God for unanswered prayer."

There have been other times when God seemed to know that I was not ready for the answer to my prayer or the timing was not right, and God asked me to wait. It was then that I relied on the words of the Psalmist: "Wait for the Lord!"

We need to keep in mind that what is implied in Jesus' words for us today is that God always answers prayer. Now, God may not give us the answer we want or answer us at the time we want, but God always answers us. And God will always answer us with our best interest at heart. Remember, Jesus said: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" This is a great promise that should encourage us to pray more!

But notice what Jesus does not say. He does not say, "How much more will the heavenly Father give you what you want when you ask for it?" He says that those who ask him will be given the Holy Spirit. This means that when we pray, God gives us what we need to be empowered and to grow.

I remember playing with the pew pencils in church when I was a kid. And the pencils always had these words inscribed on them: "Prayer Changes Things." As I have grown in my faith, I have learned that prayer does indeed "change things," but it is not God who changes. It is me. There is a wonderful old phrase that gets to the root of what I am saying, "Prayer does not give us what we want, but prayer helps us want what we need." How true that is. You see, prayer is not designed to change or persuade God; it is designed by God to change us! Prayer is a spiritual discipline through which we are formed into disciples of Jesus Christ.

In his classic book, The Meaning of Prayer, the great preacher, Harry Emerson Fosdick, puts it this way: Some things God cannot give to a person until he or she has prepared and proved his or her spirit by persistent prayer. Such praying cleans the house, cleanses the windows, hangs the curtains, sets the table, opens the door, until God says, "Lo! The House is ready. Now may the guest come in."

I believe this is what Jesus is driving at in our Scripture reading for today. When we ask long enough, seek hard enough, knock loud enough, and pray persistent enough, something happens on the inside of us. The discipline of prayer begins to awaken us to the Holy Spirit inside of us, and our motives and desires begin to change. It is like the persistence of our praying becomes the axe that breaks up the frozen numbness of our souls. Then the power and wisdom of God break in and we begin to be formed by the will of God.

Peter Annet once said that those who pray persistently are like sailors who have cast anchor on a rock. As they pull on the anchor, they think they are pulling the rock to themselves, but they are really pulling themselves to the rock.

This is what persistent prayer does. It pulls us closer to The Rock, God Almighty. And as we move closer to God in prayer, we find that we do not get what we want from God. We get something better. We get what we need. We get what God wants. We find that as we move closer to our Rock, we begin to desire what God desires, so that what we ask for, knock for, and seek after becomes what God so desperately wants to give us. Then the truth of Jesus' words come to life so that what we pray for we truly receive. It is a sacred surprise.

Are you still wondering about your unanswered prayers? God has an answer for you. But whatever your request, know that God's answer will always involve your heart being changed by his love.

Let us pray:
Dear Lord, "Drop thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease; Take from our souls the strain and the stress, and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of they peace. Breathe through the pulses of desire they coolness and they balm. Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire; Speak through the earthquake, wind and fire, O still, small voice of calm." -John Greenleaf Whittier
Amen.


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