The Bible exhorts us to pray and the Bible makes tremendous prayer promises and yet, as I talk to Christians, I find that most people, in a sense, struggle with prayer. They feel like they don’t pray enough, they should pray more. They don’t understand prayer. And one reason that people struggle with prayer is that they’ve been disappointed with unanswered prayer. So, what I want to do today is I want to talk about prayers that are not answered. If I were to take a show of hands and ask how many of you had prayers that weren’t answered and you don’t understand why, I bet that almost every hand would go up here. Now, if we want the experience of answered prayer, then we have to understand a little bit better, why is it that some prayers aren’t answered the way we want? God wants all of you to know the joy of answered prayer.
If I were to ask, you’ve all probably heard of junk food. It is all around us. Junk food is food that has lots of calories and almost no food value. It really doesn’t make you get healthier, it just helps you put on weight. You all have probably heard of junk science. Junk science is kind of faulty research and corrupted studies and analysis which is used to further an impression in order to create an agenda. It doesn’t really advance truth, it isn’t meant to. But, how many of you know, there is also something we could call junk theology? What’s junk theology? It is false religious ideas that are all around us that are popular but they are not biblical and they are not true. I want to share a little junk theology about prayer that is out there and that is in America, most people believe that God has promised or is bound to hear all prayers. But, you know the Bible doesn’t teach that. Many years ago, before we started Foothills, I did a study on prayer. I went to the concordance and found every example or teaching of prayer and I focused on all the prayers in the Bible that were not answered. Then I looked at the reasons given why those prayers were not answered. I put them all down, each verse, each reason on a 3×5 card. Yes, this was before I owned a computer. It’s before you owned a computer. So, I did it the hard way, 3×5 cards. Over the months, I stacked those cards up and I began to distribute them into piles and come up with principles to why prayers aren’t answered. I just want to share with you five types of prayers that God says He won’t hear or answer, just really quickly, just to give us an idea because you hear a lot of people say, “Well, I prayed, God didn’t answer my prayers, I don’t think He is real.”
Five types of prayers God says that He will not hear or answer:
The prayers of the person who ignores God’s Word will not be heard.
He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, even his prayer is an abomination.
Or, “even his prayer is completely unacceptable.” Now, how many of you know many today ignore God’s words, they ignore God’s standards? They instead substitute their own will or the opinions or standards of people rather than God’s. But to ignore or devalue God’s Word is to ignore or devalue God. God’s Word is an expression of who He is, of the truth that He is. In fact, Jesus was known as the Word of God. God says in the Bible here and other places that He does not welcome, value, or accept the worship or the prayers of people that ignore His Word.
The prayers of the person who continues in sin will not be heard.
If I regard wickedness in my heart, the Lord will not hear.
If I make room and I justify my own sin in my heart, then God will not hear me. Look at:
Behold, the LORD’s hand is not so short that it cannot save (if you have a problem or there is a situation, it is not that God’s hand isn’t long enough to reach and help, that’s not the problem); Nor is His ear so dull that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
What is iniquity? Iniquity is lawlessness. Iniquity is when a person continues to walk in sin. In other words, he makes some practice a part of their lifestyle. He chooses to continue in it in spite of what God says. It might be sexual immorality, it might be a number of other things, but they make place to continue to walk in that. God says when they do that, He will not hear their prayers.
The person who neglects the needs of others will not be heard.
By the way, there are people who go to church almost every week and yet they have made some sinful compromise in their life permanent. Maybe it has to do with where they are living or who they are living with or what they are doing. But, the person who neglects the needs of others will not be heard.
He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard.
So, we know if we want to receive, we have to be willing to give. If we want God’s mercy and God’s help, we have to be willing to extend mercy and help to those that need it.
The prayers of the undecided, impulsive, and temperamental will not be heard.
But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
Now, the doubting that is spoken of here is not doubting in the existence of God, or doubting in the goodness of God, or doubting in the ability of God, that’s not the doubting that is being talked about. What is being talked about is the doubting or the questioning, or the second guessing of your request. In other words, a lot of people sort of want something for these reasons but for these reasons they are not sure that they really want it. So they vacillate, they go back and forth. They run hot and cold towards God or towards some commitment, or some decision to obey. They have no root so they are changeable. All of us struggle with it at some route, just going back and forth and we are not really sure who we are or what we want. God says we need to know who we are in Him and then we need to ask for the right things and hold steady. This is the last one I’ll share of prayers God said He won’t hear or answer.
Having wrong relationships will hinder our prayers from getting through to God.
You husbands, in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.
You see, you can’t be a tyrant at home and then turn around and be a humble petitioner to God. You can’t be a force for division and manipulation at home and then go and be a humble, sweet, submissive petitioner to God. We have got to get our relationships right. And one of the things that is very important is the whole issue with forgiveness. Unforgiveness can be a major hindrance in getting prayers heard and answered. In Mark 11, we have a tremendous promise about prayer but it is linked with a responsibility. Watch how Jesus does that.
Therefore, I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. (What a promise, but look, He links it with something.) Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.
Now, you can’t simply remove verse 24 from verse 25. Right next to that promise it says if you won’t forgive then you aren’t right with God and you are not really a candidate for receiving answers to your prayers. Now, all of these 5 situations I just went through, these are real hindrances to prayer. It is one of the reasons why people say, “I prayed to God and He didn’t answer, I don’t think I believe in Him anymore.” He didn’t promise to answer all prayers or hear all prayers. Now, the good news is God is kind. The good news is God is merciful. And even in some of these conditions where He hasn’t promised to hear, He still does in His kindness. But if we want to really claim the promises of God, then we’ve got to conform to the conditions.
Now, even if you could look at all 5 of those conditions and say, “Well, none of those really apply to me”, even then you can experience the disappointment of unanswered prayer. You can still struggle with, “Why didn’t God answer that prayer? It seemed like it was a good prayer.” Jesus sheds light on this question in a conversation He has with two of His disciples, James and John. We are going to get a lot of help here. It’s in Mark chapter 10 and it begins with this kind of provocative statement by the apostles.
James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came up to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.”
Now, that is the attitude behind most prayers. We know what we want and we are hoping to get God to cooperate with His power to bring it to pass. We believe that we know what is the best solution in that situation and we want to get God on our side to make it happen. Now, they said to Him, “We want you to do whatever we ask.” Now, Jesus had just shortly said to them in John 14:3, “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do” so they said, “We claim that promise! Jesus, we heard what you said. We want you to do for us whatever we ask.” But how many of you know they didn’t quite get it right? He said, “Whatever you ask in My name, I will do for you.” Now that doesn’t mean you just tack on at the end of your prayers, “in Jesus’ name”, tap tap, no erasies. It is not some magic seal you put at the end to guarantee your prayers saying, “in Jesus’ name”. To pray in Jesus’ name means you are asking something according to His character, according to the revelation of who He is, according to His purpose, mission, and His Spirit and you are asking in that name. But, they kind of let that part go and they are like a lot of people today who sees a verse or a sentence in Scripture, pull it out of context of the whole rest of Scripture and want to claim it and stand on it and it doesn’t work sometimes and they get very confused. Now, let’s look at what Jesus said. They said, “Well, you said you’d give us whatever we want” (which isn’t what He said), “Here is what we want”. And rather than saying, “OK, name it and claim it. Blab it and grab it. It’s yours”… look what He said to them:
And He said to them, “What do you want Me to do for you?”
Good question, “Let’s take a look at your request.”
They said to Him, “Grant that we may sit, one on Your right and one on Your left, in Your glory.”
Now, I believe that they thought they believed what they were asking for was a good thing and a God pleasing thing and I am sure they thought their motives were right. What were they asking for? To sit on His right hand and His left hand. Well, I am sure in their mind they thought, “We want to be close to Jesus. That is the closest seats. We want a close relationship with Jesus.” I am sure they thought, “To be at His right and His left hand would give us the greatest opportunity to serve Him. We’d be the first ones that could serve Him.” I believe they thought, “If we had the power of that position, think of how much good we could do to help other people and to advance Christ’s agenda?” After all, they were not asking for that much more, they were already part of the circle of three. Most of you know that Jesus had a circle of 3 disciples around Him that were closest at all, James and John here and of course, Peter. Jesus doesn’t really rebuke them for their request. I think He recognized they thought they were asking for a good thing with good motives and yet, their request will not be granted. Now, that is kind of a situation like us. All of us have wondered why we have had prayers that we thought were good prayers, we thought they were the kind of thing to be according to God’s will, but yet they weren’t answered. Jesus here gives us 4 reasons in this passage why even good prayers are not always answered in the way that we want. We go on to the very next verse. They said, “We want to sit at your right and left hand”…
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.”
In other words, they had no idea what they were asking. They didn’t know what was coming next. They didn’t know that Jesus would be crucified. They didn’t know that He would be taken to Heaven and be away from them. They didn’t know that the leadership of the church was going to fall on their shoulders. They didn’t know there would be great persecution. They certainly didn’t know that the church would endure for 2000 years. They wanted to sit at the right hand in Heaven. They had no idea what Heaven was. They had never been there. You see, they didn’t grasp the big picture. The first reason our prayers aren’t answered the way we want is because we don’t understand the implications of what we ask. We think we do. We think we know how things would turn out if only we got their request and they went their way. But we really don’t. We don’t understand the pressures that would come about, the temptations. We don’t understand the effect it might have on other people, what the outcomes will be. How many of you know that many are destroyed by getting exactly what they want? The stories of people that prayed for the lottery, wanted the lottery, and got the lottery and the kind of havoc it brought into their life are legion, aren’t they? A lot of people think they want to win a political office and they get that political office and when they step into the halls of power they are destroyed or they are corrupted by it. The same with great wealth or great fame, or great position or power. Sometimes people do not know what they are asking for. They have no idea what they would be getting themselves into because we just don’t understand the implications of what we ask for ourselves and others. I want to make a prediction that I am 100% positive about and that is that someday all of us in this room will be really happy we didn’t get a prayer answered in the way and in the timing that we wanted. Let’s go on to the next verse.
Reasons our prayers aren’t answered the way we want:
We don’t understand the implications of what we ask.
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They said to Him, “We are able.”
Now, what He was asking them, are you sure you are prepared for what you are asking for? They wanted to exercise His power and authority but that comes with a price. And that price is total consecration to the will of God even in the face of persecution and even to the point of death. Because the cup that He was going to drink, the baptism He was going to undergo was submission to the will of God even to the point of the cross.
We are not fully committed to God’s will and therefore are not spiritually prepared.
Now, they thought they were ready. He said, “Are you willing?” They said, “Oh, we could do it!” They thought they were ready but in just about a week after this, Jesus would embrace that cross in the Garden of Gethsemane. He would yield to the will of God and allow Himself to be arrested but James and John would run away and abandon Him. They thought they were ready but Jesus knew they really weren’t at that point. Now, I have watched good friends, Christian businesses and people that I knew were struggling and not successful and they hoped and prayed for great success and great prosperity, but when it came it first distracted them from their Christian walk and then it corrupted them. I have known the same with politicians, people I have known. People who had great fame and yet they weren’t committed enough to the will of God to walk it out. They probably all thought they would use their wealth and power for God but when it came, they found out events proved otherwise because they weren’t sufficiently committed to God’s will above everything else. I am going to tell you, anything that you receive from God, if you are not committed completely to God’s will, it will not turn out in the end to be a blessing to your life because, unless you are committed to the will of God you will not exercise that blessing according to Scripture and God’s purposes. Now, there is good news for James and John. He told them that they were not… they had said that they were ready and they weren’t, but listen to what He says. Good news. They weren’t ready yet but one day they would be. Finish verse 39.
…And Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you shall drink; and you shall be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized.
After Jesus Christ left and they absorbed more teaching after they were filled with the Holy Spirit, they did get to the place where they completely committed to God’s will; therefore, they exercised tremendous authority, they did miracles, they helped establish the church and they even followed Jesus to the point where they gave up their life for the will of God. That is one reason why our prayers are delayed, because we are not yet ready but one day we will be. You see, as long as we are praying, as long as we are wrestling in prayer with God, as long as we are engaging God, God is at work in us, transforming us, changing our desires, changing our perspective. Until we get to the point He wants to get us to we are like James and John, we are ready to receive His will. Mark 10:40, the next verse, gives us the third reason why sometimes even seemingly good prayers that we believe are from good intentions are not answered.
But to sit on My right or on My left, this is not Mine to give; but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.
You see, even if they had been prepared, even if they had been fully committed to God’s will, there was still one more reason why He wouldn’t have granted their request. It is because God had a sovereign plan, an overruling plan that overruled their desire.
God has a sovereign plan higher than our plans and thoughts.
How many of you believe that God’s plans are best for everyone? Can I tell you, it is only a foolish, foolish, foolish person that would want to insist on their plan over the plan that God has for them because He is infinitely wise, infinitely loving, and infinitely good.
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.
Listen to me, my friends, please, this is worth the price of admission right here, this is worth taking home right now. Ultimately what God offers each one of us is to bring His wonderful plan to pass in our life. He does not offer us to make all our dreams come true. Ultimately, what God offers us is His wonderful plan in our life, not make all our dreams come true. The more you understand life, yourself, and God, the happier that should make you be. So, the real question is, do you trust Him with His plans? You know, Jesus taught us how to pray the Lord ’s Prayer. The very first thing we ask after we give Him worship is we ask, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.” Have you ever thought that every time you say that prayer, you are asking that God would overrule your will with His will? You don’t pray, “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed by thy name, my kingdom come, my will be done.” So, every time we pray that, we are not only yielding our will, we are asking to be overruled. I remember when I had a ministry here at another church in La Mesa, I had visions, I had dreams, and I had prayers but God didn’t answer those prayers the way that I wanted. God blessed me and it was good. So then I had to go to Dubuque, away to seminary. When I was there we opened up a city-wide youth ministry. I had visions (I won’t go into details) and we had dreams and we prayed. They seemed like they were good prayers but God didn’t answer those prayers. You see, God had something better planned. A sovereign plan. You know what His plan for my life was? It was Foothills. I did not know in La Mesa or when I was in Dubuque, or even when I was at a church in more the Mid-City area and was praying, I didn’t know what God had. I didn’t know enough to ask for what God wanted. So God just always just often has a better plan that we will be glad we waited for.
Hearing this (hearing that James and John asked for those two choice seats, those plum appointments next to the right and left hand of God), the ten began to feel indignant with James and John.
Now, that is interesting. When they heard what James and John wanted, how did they respond? They got angry. They got indignant. Why? Here is an important point. Maybe they knew James and John better than James and John knew themselves. How many of you know that sometimes people see things in you that you aren’t quite ready to see in yourself? Anybody married in here? How many of you know that sometimes we don’t really know our hearts the way other people see it? Now, it is interesting. The other 12 had no problem at all with Jesus having all authority and power. They had no problem with following Jesus but somehow these guys, James and John were different. If they really had been walking in Jesus’ Spirit then the other ones probably wouldn’t have had a complaint. Now, look at what Jesus does the very next moment. What He says is instructive.
Calling them to Himself, Jesus said to them, “You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”
Now, there is two different views of leadership there. James and John had been asking for leadership, to be next to Jesus. He goes and tells them about the two different kinds of leadership. Now, one of those is Jesus’ style and the other kind of leadership is what comes natural. The other 10 disciples knew what was in their heart and they probably also knew what was in James and John’s heart and they didn’t want to be under their authority. If they had the same spirit as Jesus, then they probably wouldn’t have complained. The other sense is deeper motivation perhaps in James and John’s heart. Now, that is the fourth reason.
We don’t fully know our own heart and would misuse the thing we ask for.
You ask and do not receive because you ask with wrong motives so you many spend it on your pleasures.
Even if we ask for a right thing, but we ask for wrong motivations, then it becomes a wrong thing, it becomes a destructive thing, it becomes a self-destructive thing. Because, if we get it, it will just enthrone our flesh. It will break up relationships. Many times, people can’t see the true deeper motivations in their heart. That’s the truth. Past wounds, traumas, self-seeking, pride, self-protection, all of these things can blind us from what are the really deeper motivations that are driving us no matter what we tell ourselves. The Bible says that only God knows our heart. It says our own heart can deceive us. At some point, all of us need to acknowledge our own limitations of understanding, of wisdom, of knowledge as to what everything is about and we just need to bow our knee before God’s infinite wisdom, infinite goodness, and we need to rest in His love and just let Him work things out. Prayer is a breath-takingly great privilege. It is an audience with the Creator of the whole universe. Because it is so freely offered to us, we just don’t esteem it or value it like we should. I have a quote that I used before from Ralph Waldo Emerson, he said:
If the stars appeared only one night every thousand years, how we would marvel and appreciate them.
Imagine if only once every thousand years, the starry heavens were unveiled and you could look out like in the desert and you could see, how amazing and awesome that would be. But, now since they are up there every day, we don’t even look up sometimes. Now, prayer is like that, too. Imagine if you only had one audience in your whole life with the Creator of the universe, how you would search out to know His will. How you would study to try to find what is it you should be asking. You would take it so seriously. But because it is offered so freely, we are careless with it. We spend way too much time asking and way too little time preparing. God is not stupid. It is good for us to continue asking, but if we’re not growing in our asking… we don’t have to tell Him… I mean, it’s like a little kid, “Can I have a popsicle? Can I have a popsicle? Can I have a popsicle?” You heard them the first time. It is good that we continue to engage in God but we need to spend more time preparing ourselves. God is not deaf, the problem is not on His end. He wants us to devote ourselves to prayer, to study it, to understand it, to make sure we are not allowing ourselves to fall into those things that would disqualify us from the answers and to prepare ourselves to ask the right questions with the right motives and to wait on God for His answers.