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The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

Category Articles
Date May 26, 2003

let us be encouraged with the knowledge that our wise and loving heavenly Father is committed to and knows how to plant and cultivate perfect desires in His beloved children

by William Harrell

It is common for a pastor to hear various members of his flock lament over the apparent disinclination the Lord has to hear and grant certain of their petitions. Christians frequently point to such verses as Psalm 20:4,5, wherein David prays that the Lord would grant the desires of His people’s hearts and fulfil all their petitions, and wonder why so many of their desires are unfulfilled. The reason is not that God has misled us by His Word, but rather that we tend to misunderstand the true nature of such promises in Scripture.

When we are told that our God will give us the desires of our hearts, we do well to consider how He will do it. Few, if any, believers would understand by such a promise that the holy God of heaven is binding Himself to grant every desire we have. Suppose a man desires success in robbing a bank. No Christian would assert that Psalm 20:4 warrants the belief that the Lord would countenance, let alone fulfil, such a sinful desire. The rub comes with those desires we deem natural and legitimate. Surely, we are inclined to reckon, the Lord has promised to fulfil all such desires.

This understanding boils down to an ‘I want, therefore God gives’ dynamic. When God delays fulfilling our wants, or denies our requests that He do so, we are tempted to think hard thoughts about our heavenly Father. The truth is that the Lord does give us the desires of our hearts. However, He does so not by an indulgent and uncritical granting of our desires, but rather by His purifying, strengthening, and redirecting our desires before He fulfils them.

It is not only our sins that alienate us from God and bring misery to our lives, but it can also be our seemingly innocent pleasures. Thus, James informs us that quarrels and conflicts erupt even amongst believing people as each seeks to have his own desire fulfilled at any cost (Jas. 4:1-3). The desire that our Lord pledges Himself to grant is not the petty, trivial, self-regarding desire that naturally fills a sinner’s heart. Rather, it is the longing for righteousness that our God will satisfy (Mt. 5:6); it is our desire for conformity to Christ (Phil. 2:1-13), and our seeking first the kingdom of God that the Lord will grant (Mt. 6:33).

As in every other area of the Christian life, so in this matter of our desires, Jesus is the perfect example. In His anguished prayer in Gethsemane, He expressed a desire to have the cup of His atoning sufferings pass from Him (Mt. 26:39,42,44). Yet, even as our Saviour expressed that desire, He also articulated a higher desire with the words: yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt. That higher desire grew stronger in the second of the three petitions of Jesus: if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done (v.42). The point for us to realise is that the desire of our sinless Saviour was on one level sinlessly self-regarding. Who wants to suffer inconceivable anguish? Nor was Jesus obliged so to suffer. The atoning work with all of its tortures He voluntarily undertook. But from this desire He ascended to the higher desire that He might manifest the glory of God and accomplish the highest good for His people through His going to the cross. It was this supreme desire that the Father granted to His Son. Neither Jesus, nor His Father, nor any of the redeemed regret that this highest desire was the one granted.

We find a similar situation with Paul’s thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Three times the apostle asked God to remove the thorn. There was nothing sinful per se in Paul’s request. It was just that his desire was not the highest. When the Lord made it clear to the apostle that His divine grace was sufficient, His power perfected in weakness, then Paul most gladly boasted in and desired to bear his thorn by God’s grace and for God’s glory.

Our Lord does not always make clear to us in such detail the form and fruit of our higher desires when He refuses to grant the lower ones we may currently have. Yet, let us be encouraged with the knowledge that our wise and loving heavenly Father is committed to and knows how to plant and cultivate perfect desires in His beloved children, which desires neither He nor we will regret that our heavenly Father sowed and stimulated in us and satisfied for us. While our delayed or denied gratification may cause us temporary frustration, anxiety, and emotional distress, even such things are but momentary, light afflictions that will soon give way, not only to the development of higher desires and deeper satisfaction, but also to an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16-18). In the meantime, our pain will be lessened, our patience extended, and our peace restored when we remember, and, with humble trust and gratitude, submit to the process whereby our heavenly Father leads us to have the highest desires which will give to us greatest joy and to Him highest glory when He grants them.

William Harrell

Immanuel Presbyterian Church, Norfolk, Virginia, USA

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