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I invite you to take your Bible and turn to Ephesians chapter 3, verses 14 to 21. We are in a series in the book of Ephesians, life together. And last week we started a message entitled The Big Ask because we’re looking at one of Paul’s prayers. If you look at his prison epistles, you’ll find that he offers prayers for the church in Ephesians and Philippines, Colossians and one of his earlier letters actually 1 Thessalonians.
And I want to come back to look at it a second time, and as I studied this week, I realized we’ll probably do another two sermons after this. It’s going to kind of be four sermons on verses 14 to 21 because it’s rich. And the reason we’re going to extend it is because I’m going to go on a rabbit trail this morning with regards to unanswered prayer because I’ve kind of been calling you to pray big, but I wonder if there isn’t a question in your mind. “Well, I’ve been doing that, but I haven’t seen those big requests answered in big ways.” And I thought about that and my heart as a pastor wants you to help think that through. So hold that thought.
But in honor of God’s word, let’s stand Ephesians 3, verse 14. It’s just the tradition we have. We’re not worshiping the Bible, but God has exalted his word above his name, and I was always taught as a young Christian in my church in Northern Ireland, your treatment of the Bible is a measure of your reverence for God. It is his holy word. So let’s give attention to it. Ephesians 3:14.
“For this reason, I bow my knees to the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named, that he would grant you according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might through his spirit in the inner man, that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you being rooted and grounded in love may be able to comprehend with all the sins what is the width and length and depth and height, to know the love of Christ which passes knowledge that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us, to him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
You may be seated. I like the story of the little girl who approached her father and asked him for a nickel. Well, her father drew out his wallet and in an act of generosity, he pulled out a $5 bill and offered it to the little girl. She didn’t realize what he was offering, didn’t take it and simply replied, “I don’t want that. I want the nickel.” Now I wonder if this little girl’s interaction with her father is not a parable of how often we deal with our heavenly Father in a similar manner. I think we often ask from God less than he’s willing to give.
We ask for a thimble fool, not a bucket fool. We ask for the reasonable, not the remarkable. We ask for a nickel’s worth of God’s blessing when the maker of heaven and earth and the owner of all things has his wallet out.
So as we return to Ephesians chapter 3, verses 14 to 21 and the fourth prayer of Paul for the Ephesians, we find that Paul is encouraging us to make the big ask, to bring large petitions to the king. It’s been well said that Paul’s prayers are marked by blatant extravagance and his description of God marked by superlatives. God’s ability and God’s willingness to answer our prayer. You see it in verse 20, we’ll get there eventually. “Now to him who is able to do,” here’s the superlatives, here’s the extravagance, “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us.”
We said that prayer is not the overcoming of God’s reluctance. I think we’ve got this idea of we’ve got to twist the arm of God. We’ve kind of got to wrestle with God until he kind of gives in and then kind of turns in kindness and compassion toward us. That’s not true. Prayer is not the overcoming of God’s reluctance. It’s actually the laying hold of his willingness, the belief that he is able to do and willing to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can imagine or request. That’s what we have got here.
Paul encourages us through his own example to go to him who is able to do more than we expect. I’ve told you this story before of Spurgeon who got saved in a Methodist church, grew up congregationalist but became a baptist. So after he gets saved in this little primitive Methodist church, he goes to a Baptist church and gets baptized convinced of believers baptism and joins the Baptist church.
He goes home to tell his family what he has done. His father is a very well-known congregational minister in the community. And so the family’s a little disturbed by this and his mother says to the young Charles, “Spurgeon, you know I prayed that you’d get saved. I didn’t pray you’d become a Baptist.” To which he replies, “Oh mom, God has answered your prayers exceedingly abundantly above all that you can ask or think.”
Now, I love that story and I love its implication. God does go beyond what we ask many times. If we were to reinforce this thought, look at verse 16. Paul says, “I’m praying that God would grant you strength, might through his indwelling spirit in your inner man,” and notice what he prays “that God would do that according to the riches of his glory.” Let’s just stop there and let’s not run by that. Let’s just think about that free as the riches of his glory.
What are the riches of his glory? What is God’s glory? Well, it’s the sum total of his attributes. It’s all that he is and is capable of doing. And when we look to the heavens, we know from Psalm 19:1, the heavens do what? They declare the glory of God. If you want to know what God can do, look at a burning sun, look at a shining moon, look at the vastness, an order of the creation.
And so Paul is telling us that he’s praying to a God that he will use the sum total of his attributes to meet the need of the moment and the request of the hour. It’s powerful, isn’t it? We’ve made this statement before, but I’m going to say it again. It’s according to, not out of.
One of the verses that really struck me early in my Christian life when I hung onto it was Philippines 4 verse 19 where the Philippines have met Paul’s need and he prays that God would meet their need. He says this, “My God shall supply all your need according to his riches in Christ Jesus.” I remember a pastor saying, “Notice according to, not out of.”
You see, if someone’s a billionaire and they give you $100, you’ll be thankful for it. But that’s $100 out of their riches. But if they give you $10 million, that’s according to their riches. The first one is a portion, the second one is a proportion. And that’s what Paul’s driving at here. God encourages us to make no small plans and God encourages us to make no small prayers.
Remember what we said last week? Our prayers are often thin and emaciated and starved of the vision of the glory of God. Our prayers are often confined to the small spaces of our self-concern rather than being prayers that are weary and fat and wear down and bloated with a sense of God’s greatness, goodness, and generosity.
So let’s come back to this text and look at it one more time and we’ll certainly return over the next couple of weeks. Let’s trace around the contours of this prayer. I love the fact the Bible gives us prayers that have been prayed because they become prayers that we can pray. We can kind of trace over them, learn how to pray, what to pray and why to pray. So I’m so thankful for this prayer of Paul because this can help me and this can help you because we need help in prayer. We all can identify with the disciples. “Lord, teach me to pray.”
In fact, one of the things I did in the last week or two is just read a couple of extra books as I studied my Bible on prayer. And one of the books I read was a book by Eric Alexander, a Scottish Presbyterian who’s alive today. June, and I sat under his ministry sometimes in Glasgow, Scotland and in his book on prayer he said this. I think this is helpful.
“I find prayer at one and the same time a great delight and a major challenge.” Do you agree with that? Yeah, you do. I do. I am reluctant to pray. This is a minister of the gospel. I’m reluctant to pray and often find myself troubled by wandering thoughts when I do. But I am encouraged to find that so many greater men than I have found the same problem. Thomas Watson, the Puritan confesses that Christ went more readily to the cross than we do to the throne of grace. Wow, that’s quite an image, isn’t it? Christ went to the cross quicker than you and I pray before the throne of grace.
We need help. We all understand that praying is like eating vegetables. We know we should do it. We know it’s good for us, but we struggle to do it. We kind of push it to the side of our Christian plate, so to speak, not sure how, when, what, why to pray. And that’s why we’re wonderful here that we’ve got something to kind of trace our praying over.
Now, there were several things in this text, the prompt and the posture. We looked at that last week and what’s left for us to consider is what I call the passion. Paul is driven by love and concern for others. There’s not a syllable or a smidgen of self-focus or self-concern in this prayer. If you go back over it, notice what he talks about. He talks about the whole family of God, not himself. He talks about them, that God would grant them strength, that they indwelling Christ would grow in his influence over their lives, that they would be rooted and grounded in love and that they would comprehend that, and that they would indeed be filled with all the fullness of God. And then he talks about the fact that he wants the glory of God to be put on display in the church.
It’s all about the church. It’s all about the worldwide church. It’s all about them. That’s his passion. Intercessory prayer is loving people on your knees. We’ll get to that. Then there’s the patriarchy. Paul prays to the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family. That could be untranslated also fatherhood in heaven and earth is named. Every father finds their definition of fatherhood in the Father. We’ll come back to that.
In a day when the left, BLM and so many other woke warriors want to destroy the patriarchy, they’ve actually got signs destroy the patriarchy. But the patriarchy is rooted in the Father. We’ll come back to that.
And then the petition. He prays that they would be strengthened, that they would grow in their knowledge of God’s love, that they would dwell more deeply in Christ and Christ more deeply in them and that they would be filled with the fullness of God. Then the prayers. Got this beautiful doxology.
So let’s look at the passion, the patriarchy, the petition and the prayers next week because I want to go on a rabbit trail. Paul did and I thought, “Well, you know what? If he can do it, I can do it.” Remember we looked at chapter 3 in verse 1 he starts with this idea, “For this reason, I Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for you Gentiles.” And if you go to verse 14, it should have followed “I bow my knee to the father of our Lord Jesus” because he says for this reason. But he got onto a rabbit trail. He get onto a side road, he get onto a digression, a good one, an inspired one, a helpful one.
And I want to do the same because I thought about this and I think this will help you. I’m just reflecting on this passage, what I preached last week and this thought. You know what? I’m calling you, I’m calling myself to pray bigger and pray bolder. But I think there’s a blockage. I think there’s a barrier to that because right now many of us would say, “Pastor, I have prayed, and I’ve prayed long and hard and big and bold, and I haven’t had that prayer answered.”
So here you are. Here’s Paul calling me to come to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that I could ask or think. Well, I have asked and I’m still asking and there’s been no answer.
And so I want to help you with that. I want to help you deal with unanswered prayer, and the fact that at this moment God has not exceeded your expectation and God has not answered your prayer. An unanswered prayer is a dragging anchor on your desire to seek God again and afresh. So I want to give you an answer to an unanswered prayer because unanswered is a reality and we need to think it through theologically less that kind of undermine our desire to embrace this prayer of Paul.
I like the story of the pastor and his six-year-old boy. They’d gone to church, they were home, lunch had been eaten, the boy was sitting on his father’s lap and he said, “Daddy, when you come out to preach every Sunday, I see that you sit there and you bow your head. What are you doing?” And the father replied, “Well, I’m asking God to give me a good sermon,” to which the kid replied, “Well, why doesn’t he?” Well, we’re all struggling with unanswered prayer and expectations that haven’t yet been exceeded.
Another book I read recently was a book by Bob Russell on when God doesn’t answer prayer, helpful, pastor in Kentucky. He had this statement. See if this doesn’t resonate with you. It challenged me. He says this, “We don’t usually ask for big things. We choose the little requests which seem easier to fulfill and less disappointing if they go unanswered.” I think sometimes that’s where we’re at. We’re asking for the reasonable, not the remarkable, just in case God doesn’t answer them, we won’t feel as let down. But yet we’re being told here “unto him who was able to do exceedingly abundantly above all you can or think.”
Let me give you some answers to unanswered prayer. I think you’ll like this. So if you’re writing some reflections down, here’s the first one. Here’s my answer to unanswered prayer. Number one, in an ultimate sense, there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. Now there’s unanswered requests, but not unanswered prayer, because God always answers our prayers all the time. You say, “No, he doesn’t.” Yes, he does. In his three answers he’ll give every time to your prayer, he’ll either say yes, he’ll either say no, or he’ll say wait. When it comes to prayer, it’s either going to be a red light, orange light or green light.
And sometimes God says no. But isn’t no an answer? Now it’s an answer you don’t want and it’s an answer you’d rather not God give, but it’s an answer. So just put that in your pipe and smoke it. Don’t know if that’s a good analogy, but there you go, metaphorical, just in case you’re going to write me a letter.
So here’s the deal. Think about that, no is an answer, and therefore in an ultimate sense, there’s no such a thing as an unanswered prayer. Remember Paul prayed. I think Paul prayed in faith and Paul prayed boldly and Paul prayed confidently that God would remove the thorn and God didn’t. That was the answer, no. But God give grace to bear the situation that God left Paul in. Look, God is a wise heavenly Father and for reasons known to him, sometimes he says no. I mean that’s what wise parents do.
I hope you’re not one of those parents that gives your child everything they ask every time they ask, and especially if they do it with a little bit of a temper. Don’t be that. A wise parent says no because a wise parent is wiser than the child that’s asking. And the child might bristle and the child might not like it, but the child will live to thank you for it.
Now here’s a footnote. Sometimes that no is a kindness. Do you know what? God is committed to our preservation. Do you know that? God is committed to making sure that we do not face unnecessary harm? Let me give you a couple of verses. Psalm 91, verse 10 and 11, here’s the verses, “No evil shall befall you, nor shall any plague come near your dwelling; for he shall give his angels charge over you,” notice these words “to keep you in all your ways.”
God’s watching over you and me and he’s keeping us in all our ways. He’s preserving us. Best Psalm on that is Psalm 121, and here’s what Psalm 121 verse 7 says. “The Lord shall preserve you from all evil.”
So I think you and I need to assume for God to say yes to our prayers sometimes would bring us to harm, harm that we don’t see, but God sees and therefore instead of a yes, he gives a no out of a sense of preservation. All right?
Isaiah 46 firsthand, “I am the Lord who knows the end from the beginning and the things not yet done.” There’s you and me with our finite senses and our limited perspective. We’re in the middle of that, the beginning and the end and the things not yet done. But God is over all of that. He gets the big picture and some of his nos to us in prayer are based on what he knows that we don’t know and out of preservation he says no.
You know what? There’s a book on prayer by B M Palmer called Theology of Prayer and he tells of a woman who had spent the summer away from her children, was anxious to get home, cuddle the kids and spend time with the family. And she learned that the steamer that she was wanting to book on was full, and she was bitterly disappointed and she kind of shared that with the Lord. She didn’t get a passage and had to wait two weeks in New York to get passage on another ship. But once she waited, she learned that the vessel she was to travel in, the vessel she wanted to travel in, the vessel she prayed the travel in was at the bottom of the Atlantic. She didn’t see the no as a wonderful answer to the prayer until the whole story was told.
Number two, unanswered prayer can be the result of us not asking enough. So write down James 4 verse 3. And the challenge there is what? You have not because you ask not. But that’s not one and done, okay? Because Matthew 7:7 adds to that where Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be open to you,” they’re all present tense verbs, which means keep on asking and you’ll receive, keep on seeking and you’ll find, keep on, you know what, knocking and the door will open. It’s not one and you’re done. If you want to see an answer to prayer, God will have you persevere in prayer.
And that’s one of the problems. You’re about to give up on that thing, that problem, that person. Don’t do that because unanswered prayer can be the result of not asking enough. What if you’re one prayer short? What if you’re two prayer short? What if you’re three prayers short? Jesus said in Luke 18 verse 1, and he would go on to give parables of perseverance and prayer. Man ought always to pray and what? Not faint. There’s the challenge. Are we fainting in our pursuit of a desire before God?
And don’t forget that perseverance and prayer is a good thing. It’s a God ordered thing because when we persevere in prayer, it proves to God and to ourselves the depth of our desire. We really want this because sometimes in life you set out wanting a thing and five years later you don’t want it. So persevering in prayer allows God to purify our motives and to see the depth of our desire. And ultimately when God answers that prayer won’t we be more grateful? Because we’ve had to wait for it, struggle for it, wrestle for it.
What does James warn us? In James 1 he’s talking about trials particularly, but he says, “You know what? If you lack wisdom, why don’t you ask God? Why don’t you pray for that wisdom to handle your struggle?”
And know this, that God gives liberally. He’s extravagant. He does exceedingly abundantly above all that you can ask or think. He won’t reproach you. He won’t say, “You back again? I saw you Friday.” God doesn’t do that. But here’s what James says, “But let him who asks ask in faith, not doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind.” So James is saying, go and ask and go keep on asking, and while you’re waiting, don’t waver. But we do waver. Our emotions go up and down and our commitments go in and out, and that’s deadly to our prayer life.
My daughter Laura is in sales and we celebrated just recently. Let another man praise you so I’ll boast about her a little. She just became the number one salesperson in her company. Took a while to get there. She’s made for that. She’s a little thick-skinned because if you’re in sales, you got to ask and ask and ask and ask. If you’re thin-skinned, don’t go into sales because there’s a lot of rejection in it. And so she’s in this healthcare industry where she offers aftercare physical therapy and nurses to your home after surgery. And so she has to go into doctor’s offices and hospitals, bang on the door and make a case for why they need to go with her company. And there’s a lot of rejection until there’s an acceptance of that.
And so we’re proud of her persevering. And you know? What she said to me one day, “Dad, sales is tough.” And someone shared with me this maxim: It’s always a no on until it’s a yes. And every sales person has that tattooed on the forehead. So I’ve got you smoking pipes and getting tattoos today, right? It’s not good, not good, but that’s where they’re at. It’s always a no until it’s a yes.
I hope I’m not being irreverent. Can we carry that over to our prayer lives? Isn’t it a no until it’s a yes? You got to keep asking. You have not because you ask not. “But I did ask.” “But did you ask enough?” Are you willing to pray for months, for years? Do you know that George Muller prayed with salvation of many friends and family and in some cases their prayer wasn’t answered until 50 years later. Some of the people got saved after he died.
Number three, unanswered prayer can be the result of wrong motives. Let’s stay with James 4. “You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss.” You ask wrongly. Your motives are wrong. Your desires are amiss because he says that you may spend it on your pleasure. Here you are taking the gift of prayer, which is not about getting our will done in heaven, but getting God’s will done on earth. It’s for the advancement of God’s kingdom. Seek first the kingdom of God.
Here you are taking this precious privilege bought by the blood of Jesus and you’re using it for your own ends, greedy ends, materialistic ends, selfish ends, human ends. Jim says that you got a problem there, brother. God puts the receiver down on that call. You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss. Prayer is to be spent wisely. We must never treat God as a sugar daddy. We want God’s will to be done in the midst of our wants. What we want must always fall within the purview of what God wants most.
I think it was Adrian Rogers who said “The prayers that begin in heaven are the prayers that get to heaven.” Have you ever thought about John 14 verse 14? “You may ask me for anything in my name and I will give it to you.”
Now, the health and wealth preachers grab that, tear it out of its context, twist it to their own destruction. Let me help you with this verse. Notice, you can ask anything from me in my name. That’s the qualifier. Now, if you study Middle Eastern history and you understand the Jewish culture, a person’s name summed up their whole personality. Their name was symbolic of their character or God’s calling on their life. And when Jesus says in my name, that’s not just pinning the tail on the donkey so to speak with regards to prayer. It’s not just a punctuation mark. We pray in in Jesus’ name, something cursory, superficial. No, no, no. It’s a declaration of all who Jesus is and all that Jesus stands for.
So with that in mind, that qualification made, here’s how you need to read John 14:14. “You may ask from me anything in my name,” which means the kind of things which I myself would ask. That’s good, isn’t it? Ask anything from me as long it’s the kind of things I would ask. But we don’t do that. We ask amiss. Our motives are wrong and misplaced. So that’s number three.
Number four, unanswered prayer can be the result of God’s goodness. Stop the presses. You sure you said that right? Yes. Unanswered prayer can be the result of God’s goodness. Psalm 84 verse 11 says what? “No good thing will he withhold to those that walk uprightly.” That’s a promise, and I love it. That’s an encouraging promise. Come on, come and ask. It’s in my nature to give. You’re not overcoming my reluctance. You can lay hold of my willingness. No good thing does God withhold to those that walk upright.
Now here’s the issue. If God doesn’t give us that which we ask, two implications. One, we’re not walking uprightly. That’s the qualification to those that walk uprightly. And the other qualification would mean that which we’re asking is not good. May be good for someone else, but not you. May be good for another time, but not now. And sometimes when God withholds something good, it’s a result of his goodness. And sometimes we miss that.
Listen to Justin Dillehay who writes for The Gospel Coalition and he was reflecting on that verse in relation to prayer and he says this. “We should be thankful that God isn’t an unthinking vending machine that just spits out the drink based on whatever button we happen to push, because sometimes we accidentally push the wrong button. Haven’t we all gone to a machine and pushed for a Coke and accidentally hit the Dr. Pepper, and the machine spits out Dr. Pepper because it neither knows nor cares what we really want, it just knows what you pushed. Prayer isn’t like that.
John Broadus once observed: It is part of the privilege of prayer that God will withhold if he sees best. Were this not the case, the wisest and best persons might often be slowest to ask, for they know how often their judgment as to what was best has proved erroneous.”
So trust God’s answers. You’ve prayed for a good thing. Maybe it’s not as good as you think because you’re limited in your perspective. Or maybe it is a good thing and it’s a good thing for another person but not for you and it’s a good thing later on but not now.
Number five, unanswered prayer can be a result of a pocket of unconfessed sin or continuous sin in our lives, right? Isaiah 59:2, “Your sins have separated you from God so that he does not hear you.”
So sin gets in the way. Sin is the static on the prayer line. And if you and I are living with known sin and dwelling sin that has rooted itself in our life and we haven’t rooted it out, that becomes a barrier to God answering our prayer, not sin in general, but sin in specific sin because there’s not a moment in which I pray on planet earth, I don’t pray as a sinner saved by God’s grace in need of God’s forgiveness. So that can’t be the disqualification or none of us can pray and none of us will receive an answer to prayer. But in Psalm 66:18, you have a verse you need to write down. It says this: “If we regard iniquity in our heart, God will not hear us.” And the important word there is regard. In fact, you might have a translation that translates it: “If you cherish sin in your heart, God will not hear you.”
So the writer is saying not sin in general because we are always praying out of the context of a fallen condition. He’s talking about a sin you know to be a sin, a sin that the spirit of God has put his finger on but you’re not repenting off and you’re acting rebelliously, you’re going on in disobedience and you’re expecting God to answer your prayers.
If you’re living with your girlfriend in immorality, don’t pray, except the prayer of repentance because you’re cherishing sin in your heart and God won’t hear. If you’re on the path to an unbiblical divorce and you’re hurt and you’re wounded and you’re praying, don’t, because you’re cherishing sin in your heart and God will not hear you.
There are paths of disobedience that are clearly stated in the scripture and many Christians are taking to those paths, cherishing sin, regarding sin, holding onto that sin without repentance, continuing to disobey, and they’re praying and God’s not answering. That’s another reason. You can’t ask God to approve a life he disapproves of.
There’s a great story in a book by John Lavender Why Prayers Are Unanswered. It’s related to Norman Vincent Peale whose theology we reject. He was the father of positive thinking. But there’s an interesting story related to him as a little boy.
When Peale was a boy, he found a big black cigar and he slipped into an alley and lit it up. And he hated the taste of it, but it made him feel grown up. And while he was puffing on this cigar, he saw his father coming towards him and realizing this was not what he ought to be doing. He kind of hid the cigar behind his back and to distract his father who was now within a few feet of him, he pointed to a large billboard that was announcing the fact that a circus is coming to town and he said, “Daddy, daddy, look. The circus is coming to town. Can we go?” The father replied, “And son, never ask a petition while at the same time hiding a smoldering disobedience.”
One would guess that the smoke of his cigar was coming up from behind and out the top of his head like a chimney pot. But I love that little statement. “And son, never make a petition right at the same time trying to hide a smoldering disobedience,” or heavenly father would say the same.
Can I get specific? I did with myself. Can I get specific with you? Here’s a couple of thoughts about unconfessed sin or disobedience. What about Proverbs 21:13? I hadn’t looked at that for a while, but it’s a verse that says, “If you ignore the cry of the poor, God will ignore your cry.” If you have no compassion for the disadvantaged and the downtrodden, the truly homeless, those living in poverty and starvation all around the world, if you don’t do something about that either by going, by giving whatever, if you ignore the cry of the poor, God will ignore you. Proverbs 21:13.
Number two, just to be a little specific would be 1 Peter 3:7, where Peter says to the husband, “If you don’t live with your wife with understanding, if you don’t learn about her, what pleases her, what displeases her, her moods, her moments, all of that, if you don’t study her that you might love her better, then your prayers are going to be hindered.” 1 Peter 3:7.
So listen, we’ll broaden it. Repeated marital conflict, a dismissive attitude towards the needs of your spouse, it dams up the flow of your prayers. That was all under this idea that unanswered prayer can be a result of a pocket of unconfessed sin or continuous disobedience.
Number six, if you’re keeping count, unanswered prayer can be the result of our prayers not being part of a serious and sustained pursuit of God. That’s a bit of a close cousin to number two, but I think it’s distinct. What am I thinking here? I’m thinking John 15:7. I’ve seen many of you write these thoughts down. So write that one down and look at verse 7 of John 15. “Jesus said, if you abide in me and my words abide in you,” circle the word abide twice, “you will ask what you desire and it will be done.”
Here’s another promise. God’s going to answer your prayer, but there’s a condition, abiding in Christ and his word abiding in you. And the word abiding there means dwelling. It means ongoing. It’s not jumping in, not jumping out. It’s the image of the roots of a vine going deep into the soil and drawing nutrients from that soil. It’s abiding in the soil and it produces a healthy plant.
And our devotion before God, our seeking of God in private, that’s the hidden roots of our life. If we want God to answer our prayers, our prayers have got to be the overflow of something more than an emergency prayer. Prayer must be more than a 911 call. Let’s be honest, we’re tempted if not having given into the temptation of treating God like a spare tire.
Here we are driving along the road of life. We get a flat. We pull over to the side of the road. We’re stuck. We need help. We need our spare tire and we get the spare tire and off we go. Same with us. Most of the time we try to live without God and then there are moments we realize we can’t. And so we go to God like a spare tire, and as soon as the thing is fixed off we go again. Forget about God. And I think that kind of lifestyle will not produce productive prayer. Jesus said, “You got to abide. It’s got to be real, consistent, authentic, and then you can ask and it’ll be done.”
Our prayers and God’s answers flow out of and overflow from an authentic and happy devotional life. Acts 2:42, “they were devoted to prayer.” Colossians 4:2, “they were devoted to prayer.” Devoted. Psalm 109:4, your Bible will read, my King James reads that David was given to prayer. But you’ll notice the words given too is in italics. It’s not in the Hebrew. You know what the literal Hebrew is of Psalm 109:4? I am prayer.
See, prayer wasn’t just something David did once in a while. Prayer was something David was. It’s conversation with God. David constantly lived in contact with God. And it’s in that context we can pray with greater expectancy.
I was back in Northern Ireland early this year with one of the men in our church and we were in Newcastle, beautiful little coastal town in County Down right by the Mourne Mountains. And we’re walking down the street and I hear my name called out. And it’s an old friend of mine, Gary Henan. We’d gone through work together. We worked in an aerospace company. He was a good brother in the Lord, Church in Nazarene, and he come over. He’s a big guy, jolly guy, and we were laughing and catching up and he listens to our services here at Kindred and connects with us on the radio and he said, “Hey, I got a good preacher’s story for you.” He told me it. I said, “Gary, you got to send me that.” So he sent me it and here it is.
A man went into the unemployment office and looked at the girl behind the counter and said, “I’d like a job.” She said, “I have a couple of questions. What do you do?” “Well,” he says, “I do this and that.” She said, “Where?” He said, “Here and there.” “How often?” “You know what? Off and on.” She looked at him. “So if I got this right, you work here and there, you do this and that, on and off.” He looked at her and said, “That’s right.” And she replied, “Well, why don’t you come back now and then?”
And Gary says this in the email to me. He says, “Philip, do you know why you and I only get answers to prayer now and again? It’s because we pray this and that here and there on and off.” It’s a good insight. Jesus said, “That’s not going to work. You got to abide in me and my word in you and ask and it’ll be done.”
Number seven, unanswered prayer is the result of God doing something greater than you desire or expected. Unanswered prayer is the result of God doing something greater than you desired or expected. Kind of tied into that thought that sometimes God’s no is a kindness, sometimes God’s no is a goodness. But God is willing to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we can ask or imagine. So if that’s true, you’d have to imagine that sometimes he does that and he doesn’t answer our prayer because he’s got something bigger in mind. And that’s a wonderful thing to hold onto. I’ll give you two examples of it.
What about Moses? Moses, disobeys God. God says, “You’re not leading the people into the promised land.” Moses doesn’t like that thought and so he pleads with God to repent. He pleads with God to not do that and to change his mind. And God doesn’t change his mind and God doesn’t repent. And so Moses doesn’t enter the land. But you know what? God had something better in mind for Moses, because centuries later Moses would reappear in the New Testament in the land on the top of a mountain with Elijah and the Son of God and all his glory. I think that was better.
Sometimes God does that. He doesn’t answer your immediate prayer. He will answer it later better than you can imagine. I’ll give you a New Testament example of this. That would be the story of Martha, Mary and Lazarus, John 11.
Lazarus is sick. It’s a life-threatening sickness. And so they send word to Jesus, “Hey, one whom you love is sick. Won’t you come and help and fix this and heal our brother?” And what does Jesus do? Jesus hears that, but he stays there three days, he delays. But remember, God’s delays are not God’s denials. But in the intervening time, Lazarus dies. He’s led to rest.
Jesus comes. And from their perspective, “Lord, if only you’d have been here.” Those are two words by the way that should never be put together in the same sentence, Lord if. There’s no if in God’s purposes and plans. “But Lord, if only you’d have been here.” And Jesus said, “Okay, do you believe in the resurrection on the last day?” “Yeah.” “Well, let me show you. I’m the resurrection and the life.” And he raises Lazarus.
What’s the point? Jesus delayed, Lazarus dies. Jesus didn’t come immediately and heal a sick man. Jesus came later and healed a dead man, something greater. This sickness is not on the death, but to the glory of God. Just bear that in mind.
Unanswered prayer is the result of God doing something greater than you desired or expected. Is that not true in the life of Augustine or Augustine, the great church father? He wasn’t saved and his mother, Monica, prayed for him long and hard, and God didn’t answer the prayer. He was a profligate. He was a prodigal. And to boot now he says, “I’m leaving you mother and I’m going to go to Rome,” sin city. What happens in Rome stays in Rome. And Augustine’s on his way and Monica’s scared to death about what Rome’s going to do, going to wrap some more chords of sin around her son’s soul. But what happens? Augustine gets to Rome. And what happens? You don’t know your church history. He gets saved and Monica finds out.
And the thing she feared most turned out to be an answer to prayer. God did more than she expected and imagined. Here’s what Augustine said in his own words. “Oh Lord, in your wisdom, you granted the substance of my mother’s desire. You refused to think she prayed for in order that you might affect in me what she always wanted. She loved to keep me with her as mothers are one to do, in fact far more than most mothers. But she did not know what joy you were preparing for her as a result of my desertion.” Isn’t that amazing? Not to glorify sin, but even the journey of the prodigal into the far country may be an answer to prayer. That’s hard to imagine, but that’s the point. God can do exceedingly abundantly above all that you can ask or think.
Lord, we thank you this morning for this kind of digression away from the taxed in terms of its explication, but we’re within the taxed in terms of its implication. You’ve encouraged us here to pray expectantly and we want to do that. But Lord, unanswered prayer is acting like a dragging anchor in our pursuit of you. We’re a little sheepish because we have been disappointed it would seem by your slowness in answering and your lack of answer.
But Lord, we thank you for these insights, biblical, that are pastoral and practical. So help us to take them and realize that if there’s a problem seemingly on your side, it’s because you’re wiser than us. And sometimes your answer is no. And sometimes it’s a kindness because we don’t see all that you see. We will live long enough someday to thank you for unanswered prayer.
And Lord, it’s because you’re up to something greater. You’re working on different levels of our life and multiple circumstances working it all together for good.
And then on our side, Lord, sometimes we waver, we ask, and then we stop. We don’t persevere. Lord, sometimes we cherish sin and indulge disobedience.
Lord, help us to abide in you as you abide in us that we might ask. Help us to pray in your name, asking the things that you would ask for. Help us to be willing to wait ’cause sometimes it’s a yes, sometimes it’s a no, and sometimes it’s weird. But as we wait on the Lord, help us to believe to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living for Jesus’ sake. Amen.