Unanswered prayer…

Sermon: Sunday, 21st August, 2022 Video
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 18:1-8

Have you given up on prayer? Many of you might answer ‘no’ to that question. You still believe that God hears and answers prayer. For many Christians, however, the truth is that you have given up praying about certain things. Why did we give up? Because our prayers seemed to go unheard and unanswered. We did bring our problems to the Lord for weeks, months, perhaps even years, but nothing seemed to change and so we gave up. Praying about the situation seemed pointless. You tried it and it didn’t work. Your tough circumstances remained the same, or even got worse. Your spouse was not converted. You continued to get mistreated just because you are a Christian. Your marital problems got worse. The pain from your physical condition remained. Your mental health was as poor as ever. If you can relate to these things then this parable is for you, because Jesus explains in verse 1 why he tells this story: ‘Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.’

Jesus knows full well that we’re tempted to stop praying. He understands this and wants to encourage us to persevere in prayer. He wants us to keep on leaning into him, trusting him, pouring our hearts out to him, even when nothing seems to change. And if you have never felt like giving up on prayer, you probably will at some point in the future, and so this parable is for you as well.

This morning, we are thinking of the problem of so-called ‘unanswered prayer’. We are thinking of when God seems to be silent. Jesus here assumes that many will feel like giving up on prayer.

Dale Ralph Davis: ‘There may be times when we have no emotional energy, no warmth of feeling for prayer. A creeping conviction of pointlessness slithers into our mind, and we find our motivation has sprung a slow leak.’

Davis goes on to speak of the doggedness of the Christian life, in that even when we don’t feel like praying and imagine it is useless, we keep praying anyway, because Jesus tells us to, and because in this parable he gives us good cause to do so.

Perhaps we have become cynical about prayer, inwardly smirking at the idea of prayer making any difference whatsoever. Jesus comes to us afresh and says, ‘Keep on praying to me’. He is answering all our prayers, but there might be a large time-delay in receiving these answers, which means that in the meantime, we must be patient and trusting and believe that God will always vindicate his people in the end.

The context of this parable is one of the injustices which Christians will receive living in this fallen world. The word ‘justice’ appears again and again, because this is what the widow is desperate for and it is what the Lord promises to give. We don’t know what injustice the widow has been on the receiving end of, but perhaps someone is trying to take her land or her money and she has no one to help her or be her advocate. Her husband is dead and there is no mention of a son or neighbour standing by her side. She is alone and vulnerable and helpless and her only recourse is to keep on bringing her case to this useless unjust judge.

The judge seems to be the kind who is far more interested in receiving a large bribe than dispensing any kind of justice. He has no interest in the widow’s plight and has no compassion for her. Not only is he unconcerned about what other people think of him, he doesn’t even care what God thinks of him. He tells her he’s too busy to take on this case. He tells her it’s a waste of time. But to no avail. Day after day, she texts him, phones him, emails him, and leaves messages with his secretary. When that doesn’t work, she starts to approach him on the street on his way to work saying: ‘please give me justice’. At the end of his working day, there she is outside, repeating the same things. It’s driving him crazy. Eventually he shouts ‘all right, I’ll do it!’. This is certainly not teaching us that if we just nag God, then eventually we will get what we want.

This is a ‘how much more’ parable. Jesus wants us to know, that if even the worst judge in all of Israel will grant justice to a helpless widow, then how much more will our heavenly Father ensure there will be justice for his children who cry out to him day and night.

It couldn’t have been easy for this widow to keep on pleading with the judge. Prayer is not easy. How might this parable encourage Christians who have given up praying for justice to start doing so once again? How might it encourage us to keep on praying when God appears to be silent?

1. Be realistic about injustice in this life

This widow is a picture of what all Christians face in their life’s journey, to some degree or another. As I was preparing this sermon, the weekly update came in from Steadfast Global, concerning the persecuted church. I read of Pastor ‘M’ from Iraq who has been hospitalised by his nephew for being a follower of Jesus, and faces death threats from his family and tribal leaders. He and his immediate family are no doubt praying to the Lord for protection and justice, and rightly so. I doubt the local law enforcement are particularly interested. Next, I read of another pastor in Uganda also facing death threats following many turning to Christ. Church buildings are being attacked, the livestock of Christians killed and Christian people threatened. We need to understand that these things are the norm for Christians throughout the world. How are these people to respond? Should they meet violence with violence? ‘Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.’ (Romans 12:19

Christians are living in a broken and hostile world where to usually, on this side of eternity, we do not get justice. Listen to the opening words of Psalm 10: ‘Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? 2 In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises’. (Psalm 10:1-2)

The psalmist is praying and praying and crying out to God and it seems God is ‘hiding himself’. God seems so far away and remote. In this lament, the psalmist asks ‘Why?’ He doesn’t understand and questions God. And yet, this is still an expression of faith, because rather than giving up on praying, he keeps on crying out to God. The Psalm ends with the promise that our prayers are being heard, and that God’s people will be vindicated in the end: ‘You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, so that mere earthly mortals will never again strike terror.’ (Psalm 10:17-18)

2. Be assured of God’s justice

‘And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?’ (Luke 18:7) God promises us here that the justice of God is an absolute certainty. Sure, most often it will not happen immediately, but when Jesus returns at his 2nd Coming. If the unjust judge (verse 5) will see the widow gets justice, then how much more will God see to it that his chosen people receive justice too. We can be assured of this.

How can we be so sure? We can be sure because unlike the widow, who wasn’t valued by the judge, we are his ‘chosen ones’ (verse 7) who are deeply loved and valued by our heavenly Father. He has redeemed us. He has set his love upon us. The widow was nothing but a nuisance and inconvenience to the unjust judge. She was bothering him. In contrast, God will never say to us ‘stop bothering me’. In fact, he says in Isaiah 62:6-7: ‘You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.’

We can also be assured of justice from God because of his character. The character of the unjust judge was one of self-interest, indifference to what is right, and lacking compassion. God is the opposite of that. He deals with everyone fairly. He cannot be bribed. He will not make any mistakes. He will not be too harsh or too lenient. Yes, he will delay meting out his justice, but he will do it nonetheless. ‘For he who avenges blood is mindful of them; he does not forget the cry of the afflicted.’ (Psalm 9:12)

When we read our prayer notes for the persecuted church it might seem like God is indifferent to the cries of his people. It might seem like there is no justice. It might seem God is so slow. The truth is, justice shall be done in when Jesus comes back. And in the meantime, God sustains his people.

Why does God delay his justice? ‘But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfil his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ (2 Peter 3:8-9) God delays bringing justice to allow more people to be saved to eternal life. That’s quite something to grasp. There are good reasons for the delay. But the day is coming when he will right all wrongs.

We often give up praying because we feel we’ve given the Lord enough time to change things for us. It’s hard for us to keep on trusting that the Lord knows what he is doing, but that’s what we must do. His delays might seem like an aeon to us. Prayers might feel like they are bouncing off the ceiling. But they are not. He hears and answers each one. Revelation 5 v8: 8 And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

3. It takes faith to keep on praying when we cannot see how God is working

If praying was like putting coins into a vending machine, it wouldn’t require faith. We’d just pray to God, and out would pop and instant and easy answer. Prayer requires faith because you will only pray if you believe God is willing and able to help you in your situation. And prayer requires faith because often there is a long delay in our prayers being answered, and sometimes we don’t even know how our prayers have been answered.

We must have a more nuanced understanding of prayer, so we don’t just say, ‘I’ve asked God for this for years and he hasn’t done anything’. And then we give up praying. Answers to prayer are far more complicated than that. God has heard and used your prayers, but just not in the way you wanted. He might refuse your request because he knows it would harm you, or because he has something better for you. He might delay granting you what you want. He might be doing all kinds of other things. We need to understand that there is a degree of mystery about the relationship between our prayers and the sovereign purposes of God. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t answer our prayers, it just means we don’t yet understand how he has answered them. He most certainly does use our prayers.

I’ve been praying for certain things for years and God still doesn’t seem to have answered these prayers. And they are things which to my mind are essential. What should I do? I need to keep on praying to the Lord, but always praying, ‘Your will be done, not mine, O Lord.’ I need to understand that he might have a better plan than the direction I want things to go. His timescale might be different. He might keep my circumstances the same, but provide the grace for me to keep going. He might be growing my faith through these things. Prayer is not simplistic.

Think of Mary and Martha praying for their brother Lazarus in John chapter 11. Jesus heard their prayer. Did he answer it? Yes, but not in the way they had hoped for. Jesus deliberately delays in coming to them, allowing Lazarus to die. Their request was for Jesus to heal a sick man. Jesus had something more extraordinary in mind. Jesus’ delay meant great pain and sorrow in the lives of the sisters. They watched their loved one die. But Jesus’ agenda was wiser and more glorious and mysterious than Mary and Martha’s agenda. Their faith would be tested and stretched and developed. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, showing all with eyes to see that he is the resurrection and the life. I think prayer in our lives looks more like John 11 than we realise, except that instead of the answer coming over the course of a week, in our case it can be over a lifetime.

Don’t give up praying to the Lord just because you don’t get the answer you want or because you haven’t yet seen or understood what the Lord is actually doing. Keep on keeping on. Keep on trusting your loving Father. ‘Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:8) One way our faith can be seen is through persevering in prayer.

Oswald Chambers: ‘Some prayers are followed by silence because they are wrong, others because they are bigger than we can understand. It will be a wonderful moment for some of us when we stand before God and find that the prayers we clamoured for in early days and imagined were never answered, have been answered in the most amazing way, and that God’s silence has been the sign of the answer.’