When Christians Suffer Hard Times

Grantley Morris

Why God?

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You are commencing my second webpage in a series devoted to supporting Christians reeling under the shock and pain of evil blows that God never promised to stop before Judgment Day, but has promised to turn around so astonishingly that they become things to rejoice in. If you have not yet read the First Page, I urge you to do so now, since the following assumes you have already received the comfort, encouragement and perspective it provides.

The famous Christian thinker, C. S. Lewis, said that each era has its own blind spots and that to see things clearly, for every modern book we read, we should read several books from other eras. One of the things we will see in this webpage is that a blind spot peculiar to many of today’s Christians is the mistaken belief that being a victorious, Spirit-filled Christian insulates oneself from almost every distressing thing that the rest of humanity suffer.

Contrary to what is all too commonly presumed today, God’s Word is emphatic that, like our Savior himself – and, indeed, like everyone else on this fallen planet – it is inevitable that strong, devoted Christians in whom God delights, will suffer hard times. This side of heavenly retirement, every Christian, no matter how divinely blessed, will sooner or later be hit by this spiritual reality. In fact, rather than Christians being spared suffering, the New Testament goes so far as to say, ‘For if only in this life we have hope in Christ, we should be pitied more than anyone,’ (1 Corinthians 15:19, NET – most other versions are very similar). And, while on the subject of blessings, let’s not forget that Jesus said it’s the meek, the poor, the persecuted, the reviled etc. who are blessed, and it’s the rich, the popular, the self-seeking etc. who are in grave spiritual danger.

I will begin this new webpage with the reassurance found a quote from another of my webpages. If you are already familiar with the quote, feel free to slide down to the next section.

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Life’s Mysteries

Life will remain primarily a mystery and a frustration until you understand the heart and goals of the God who is ultimately in control of everything that touches your life.

God loves you because he loves you. He loves you, not for what you can do for him, but for what he can do for you.

The mind-boggling intensity of God’s love is as close and as crucial as the oxygen you breathe. Despite this, we tend to drift into regarding the infinite love of God as if it had the practical relevance of the countless grains of sand in a desert we have never seen. Let’s bring our thinking down from the clouds to hard reality. The fact of divine love makes the happiness of Almighty God forever dependent upon your happiness. If you hurt, God hurts.

You are of infinite worth to the One who gave his all that you might spend eternity with him.

When pondering God’s plans for us, we tend to zero in on our role in God’s labor force. But although the Almighty has every right to treat you as his worker, the God of love chooses to be not your Boss, but your loving Father. And as the best imaginable Parent, the Lord is devoted to your welfare. Foremost to him is your fulfillment and development. The Lord has ministry plans for you, but they are for your sake, not for his gain (God, after all, is totally self-sufficient). And any tasks he lovingly allocates are just a fraction of his overall dreams for you.

Anything God asks you to do is because it is in your very best interest. God’s blueprint for your life focuses on your endless happiness and fulfillment. This is not to be confused with short term ease and bliss that ultimately wears thin and crumbles. Like little children who think happiness means having no rules and an endless supply of candy, we still have a lot of growing up to do before we understand what is truly in our best interest. Much of what we presently clamor for we will eventually discover is not what we really want after all. In contrast, the infinite knowledge and intelligence of God focuses on things we will be eternally thrilled about. That often puts our priorities at odds with God’s priorities, even though both he and us seek our happiness.

When looking down from heaven, everything on earth is viewed upside down. But heaven’s perspective is the right one.

    Luke 16:15 He said to them, “ . . . that which is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”

We find Jesus’ teaching perplexing because he was forever turning things right side up. He taught, for instance, that among the worst things that could happen to you on earth is that you are rewarded (Matthew 6:1-5,16) or that people speak well of you (Luke 6:26). He said you’re blessed when you mourn, or are poor, or are persecuted. The first shall be last, the greatest shall be the least and it’s more blessed to give than to receive. Another example of us seeing things the wrong way is when someone finally discovers that the busier we are, the longer – not the less – we need to be in prayer.

When you are in heaven looking back over your past life, what will you regard as the most exciting aspects of earthly life? All earth’s pleasures will be totally eclipsed by heaven’s pleasures, so the pleasures of your past will no longer impress you. Relationships and fellowship enjoyed on earth will also be completely outdone by heaven’s perfect communication and ecstatically thrilling love. With the wisdom of hindsight we will all agree that the most wonderful thing about our stay on earth was the trials. That sounds ridiculous, even though we know Scripture affirms that so much good results from hard times that it urges us to rejoice whenever trials hit us Let’s explore this mystery.

There were two passions driving the great apostle Paul, which it would do us good to have within us. One of his longings – to know Christ (Philippians 3:10) – will, for all of us, reach thrilling pinnacles in heaven. The other – to share in Christ’s sufferings (Romans 8:17; Philippians 3:10; Colossians 1:24; 1 Peter 4:13) – we will be deprived of in heaven. We will only be able to wistfully look back to past opportunities. In glory, when at last our eyes are opened to just how much our Lord has done for us and how wonderful he really is, it will at last get through our thick heads why the disciples rejoiced over the privilege of being flogged and humiliated for Jesus (Acts 5:40-41). What we will lament in Paradise is that the opportunity to express the depth of our love by suffering for Christ has passed us by. And we will nostalgically miss the trials. Here’s why:

Although we will have many thrilling things to do in heaven, we’ll be rather like former football champions who have retired and gone into sports administration. Life will be easier. There will be no more injuries, no more tedious, grueling training sessions, no more agonizing over mistakes made on the field, but the opportunity to gain more glory and become a greater hero will have forever passed.

So life is exciting. And the greatest thrills it offers are the pain and dangers and challenges. Forget about a soft life. Leave that to your heavenly retirement. Now’s your time for glory. You’re a champion in the making; someone increasingly bearing the likeness of God himself; someone the Almighty will forever smile upon with Fatherly pride.

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The Word of God insists we must have the same mindset as Christ, who sacrificed everything to embrace humiliation and suffering (Philippians 2:5-8) for the sake of the lost and the glory of the God who loves them. Or, in the brutal, oft-repeated words of the one who did exactly as he preached:

    Matthew 10:38 He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me.

    Matthew 16:24  . . . If anyone desires to come after me, let him [several Bible versions say ‘he must’] deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. (Mark 8:34 and Luke 9:23 are almost identical.)

    Luke 14:27 Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple.

Paul and Barnabas devoted themselves to ‘strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith.’ How? By declaring that, ‘We must go through many hardships [(alternative renderings in other versions include ‘afflictions,’ ‘tribulations,’ ‘troubles’ and ‘suffer a lot’] to enter the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22, NIV). This is the inspired summary of their entire message.

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Not Just Persecution

Most of us realize that Scripture is emphatic that just as our Lord, our ultimate Role Model, was savagely killed, trials hitting Christians can include harrowing persecution. Without having the slightest clue as to how far we have strayed from God’s Word, however, far too many of us, though passionate and devoted, have let others cherry pick Scriptures for us until we drift into the fantasy that besides horrific physical attacks from people opposed to Christ (which we never expect will happen anyhow), everything will go swimmingly for mature, theologically sound, good-living, Spirit-filled, faith-filled, ceaselessly praising, victorious Christians who are steeped in the Word of God and flowing in his favor. For a much-needed dose of spiritual reality we need look no further than the great Apostle Paul, for whom, aside from persecution so severe that it repeatedly sent pain soaring to incomprehensible extremes, things went so swimmingly that several times he literally ended up swimming.

When this faith hero outlined his mind-boggling array of sufferings endured through obeying God, our eyes can glaze over all the beatings, whippings, stonings, imprisonments etc., but what staggers me is that included in the list are three shipwrecks, including a night and a day in the open sea – and we know that he later suffered at least one more shipwreck, when he ended up swimming for his life, followed immediately by being bitten by a venomous snake, all while under arrest (Acts 27:42-28:3). Yes, he survived – although it is uncertain if he eventually ended up being put to death – but he still got wet and was bitten, after days and nights of being continually tossed by mountainous waves. Just like him surviving beatings, there is a world of difference between miraculously surviving and having a pain-free or easy life.

Have you stopped to consider the implications of Paul’s shipwrecks? Persecution is one thing, but natural disasters are another. To adapt what I have written elsewhere:

    In the light of Jesus calming the sea (Luke 8:24), plus the biblical affirmation that the Almighty ‘has his way in the whirlwind and in the storm’ (Nahum 1:3 – note also Psalm 107:23-29) and that the Almighty used a storm to prevent Jonah from sailing away from God’s calling, it would be so easy for a less theologically astute person to fall into despair by mistakenly interpreting shipwrecks (perhaps all, but certainly one of which was the result of a storm) as signs of divine disapproval, or at least indifference. But this mighty man of God drudged on, convinced that despite it all, the good, all-powerful Lord loved him and was with him.

    Great faith does not mean an end to dark times when everything and everyone in hell, heaven and earth seems to be against you. Great faith means slogging on regardless; stubbornly holding on to the conviction that nothing – not “oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword . . . nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing” (Romans 8:35-39) – can mean that God has stopped loving you or has given up on you.

To cite snippets from another of my webpages:

    Speaking from the most profound personal experience, the Apostle Paul insisted that no matter what hits you, be it pain, poverty, demonic attack – you name it – nothing means that God’s love for you has waned.

    No matter how many children the best human parent has, each child is special and irreplaceable to him/her. Not only do we differ in our God-given gifts and our role in the body of Christ, we can differ markedly in the severity of our trials and spiritual attacks. But that says nothing about how loved of God we are.

    Many of us have strayed far from biblical truth into imagining that divine approval means having a soft life. One of the downsides of this mistake is that we would conclude that God must be displeased with us if we faced even a fraction of what the great Apostle Paul endured.

      1 Corinthians 4:11 To the present hour we both hunger and thirst, and we are poorly clothed, and beaten, and homeless. (NKJV)

    The Bible insists that even God’s discipline is proof of how precious we are to him (Job 5:17; Proverbs 3:12; 1 Corinthians 11:32; Hebrews 12:5-11; Revelation 3:19). Coaches reserve the most grueling training for those they believe have the greatest potential.

    I might be envious of Joseph’s position of power in Pharaoh’s court and of David ruling God’s people from a royal throne, but I’m not so envious about the route they had to take to get there. Note that their stories are not about before and after finding God or discovering some life-changing spiritual truth. It is impossible to argue that God loved Joseph more or approved of him more in Pharaoh’s court than when he was languishing in prison, falsely accused of being a rapist. Nor can it be said that the Lord thought more highly of David after he ascended the throne than when he was the nation’s most wanted fugitive.

    On and on I could go about people I might think God has favored them more than me. I might be jealous, for example, of the visions and spiritual revelation the Apostle Paul received, but I’m not so jealous of his beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, imprisonments and so on. Likewise, anyone can envy the ministry of the Old Testament prophets and the way they kept hearing from God but who wants the ridicule and rejection dished out to them? Most were as welcome as flies at a picnic. Not just Job (Job 3:1-23; 6:8-9; 14:13) but Jeremiah wished he had never been born (Jeremiah 20:14-18) , and Jonah, Elijah, and Moses actually asked God – some even pleaded with him – to kill them (Jonah 4:3,8,9; 1 Kings 19:4; Numbers 11:15).

    We are God’s children, and the longing of the Father’s heart is that we grow up to be like him. And in the crucified Lord we see the heart of God. Stirred by compassion so intense that only the Almighty can contain it, our tender-hearted Savior is infuriated by evil and all the suffering that selfishness inflicts on others. The Perfect One had every right to end all suffering by destroying everyone contributing to this world’s evil. Tragically, that’s every single one of us. Instead, God in the flesh exposed himself to all the suffering inflicted by this world’s evil. And he is eternally honored and exalted for it. So it is for all who heed his call to follow his path to glory.

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A Peculiar Source of Comfort

We are repeatedly tempted to deny biblical truths outlined above and to think that if we can apply the right formula or ‘spiritual law’ we can somehow find a lazy alternative to having to tough it out.

In a webpage likely to be read by people who are reeling under the shock and pain of horrific trials, I consider it inappropriate to spend long explaining why we so easily fall into the heresy of thinking that devotion to Christ renders us immune to distressing times. I should at least touch on it, however, because you need the comfort of knowing that God is faithful and that if self-proclaimed know-alls add to your torment by attacking you because your painful reality shatters their mistaken theories about Christianity, it is not because you deserve to be treated that way. God is on your side.

Paul warned that ‘the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear’ (2 Timothy 4:3, NIV). Sadly, we live in such an era. Seeking to serve nothing but ourselves is more a feature of current western society than probably any pagan society in any era. Perhaps you have been able to see through this deadly delusion, but doing so is rare and exceedingly hard because we have been immersed in this way of thinking from birth and subjected to its brainwashing wherever we turn, and it is continually reinforced by our fallen nature inherited from Adam.

A Christian who is not Christlike is a grotesque contradiction in terms but this is exactly what so many of us strive to be. Who wants to be like Christ? He sacrificed everything; we want to sacrifice nothing. He sweat blood over doing God’s will; we want God’s will to be a walk in the park, or we’re not interested. Put bluntly, we find ourselves wanting to serve ourselves, not God. We like to think of ourselves as godly and yet our human nature has no interest in submitting to God, nor to anyone other than ourselves. This part of us wants the ego trip of self-righteous pretenders but doesn’t want God as our God. We want to be our own God. We want to be master of our lives; worshipping our wisdom; doing whatever we declare to be good. This draws us to preachers who, craving the acclaim it brings, become skilled at pandering to our egos and at cherry-picking Scripture until the appallingly unbiblical seems biblical.

To be frank, you might expect me to be critical of such preachers but I can muster little more than compassion. In fact, my heart goes out to them. I came close to being one of them. They might be peddling spiritual snake oil but I believe many sincerely believe their concoction works and have convinced themselves that it is biblical. This is so easy to do because there are Bible truths that almost say what we ache to hear. As someone wisely observed, the Scriptures we most need are those we have not underlined in our Bibles. And he was addressing those with sufficient devotion to thoroughly study God’s Word.

Once we suppose we have found not just part of the truth but the entire truth, we become sitting ducks for small-mindedness or even arrogance. This blinds us to further revelation; causing us to unthinkingly gloss over or reinterpret Scriptures that contract our oversimplification. It leaves us barely aware that we are acting like children cutting pieces of a jigsaw to try to make them fit.

For instance, to conclude that Christ suffered so that we never have to suffer is overstating biblical revelation. It has some scriptural support but not full scriptural support. This is because the conclusion/presumption is true spiritually and ultimately, but not physically and this side of the grave. The less appealing side of the truth is highlighted in Scriptures stating that by suffering Jesus was providing us an example of how we should suffer (Examples).

Without having a clue that we have fallen so far, by recoiling from the cost of Christlikeness and gathering around us people who seem to imply we have biblical authority in doing so, we can end up convincing ourselves that we can not only be our own God, we can even be God’s God. We think we can not only get away with refusing to serve/obey God but we can make him serve us. I say it with tears: this renders us more arrogant and deluded that all those honest enough to admit they have rejected God and want nothing to do with him.

Biblical revelation on answered prayer and miracles is another area where it is so easy to build a doctrine by focusing on many Scriptures while dodging many others. I could write entire webpages on this – in fact, I have – but a particularly relevant example is James 4:2-3, because, like 2 Timothy 4:3 about ‘itching ears’, it says that it is our lusts/desires that lead us into error. Taken in isolation, ‘You don’t have, because you don’t ask’ suggests God is giving us a blank check to spend on our own selfish desires, but the context emphasizes the exact opposite:

    James 4:2-3 You lust, and don’t have. You murder [not physically but in their heart] and covet , and can’t obtain. You fight and make war. You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures. (Emphasis mine)

The one thing that will save us from such delusion is too often omitted in our favorite sermons but the Bible speaks of it frequently; using such expressions as repentance, denying oneself, dying to self, crucifying the flesh, and so on. Such Scriptures are typically so strenuously avoided in our era that they even sound old fashioned. In other words, though central to New Testament revelation, such Scriptures have been relegated to a bygone era when people were more willing to embrace what God really says in his Word, rather than what we wish he had said.

As explained in Why We Can’t Be Forgiven While Refusing to Let Go of Sin, through Christ, salvation is freely available to all who want to be saved from their sin. Appallingly, however, many who today consider themselves Christians, do not want Jesus to save them. They want God’s blessing if that boosts their ego and prosperity but not if it means losing either. They want to hypocritically claim that Jesus is their Savior while having no intention of letting him rescue them from their pet sins. And the most basic sin is refusing to serve God but instead serving ourselves. No matter how many Scriptures a person might quote, anyone with such an attitude is in the same appalling spiritual condition as the most godless person on this planet.

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When ‘Promises’ Aren’t Promises

We commenced this series of webpages by noting the Bible’s insistence that we should not think it peculiar when we suffer ‘fiery trials’ (1 Peter 4:12). But if God answers our every prayer in the way claimed by those who quote Scripture selectively, such trials are peculiar to the extreme. Do we really think that Christians suffering awful trials never thought of praying for the trials to go away? Is it conceivable that the inspired writer, who himself was miraculously delivered from prison as direct result of prayer (Acts 12:6-10), was having an off-day when he wrote this Scripture and happened to forget about the power of prayer? Did it slip the apostle’s mind to try to inspire faith in miraculous deliverances?

Clearly, answered prayer and suffering hard times are inseparably linked. When writing about trials, divine promises about answered prayer beomes a matter we cannot sidestep.

I emphatically believe that God powerfully and miraculously honors faith and answers prayer today. The New Testament is not an ancient history book about how God used to do things but our guidebook as to what we can expect today. What does it really say we can expect, however? Let me begin with some probing questions.

Does God expect us to live to give or to get; to bring glory to the God who means everything to us or to boost to our ease and our egos? Do you come to the Bible with a heart bursting to please the most Wonderful Person in the universe and delight in him; to know him better and become like him? Is your heart’s cry to serve God and delight him or, hidden where you dare not look at it, is your longing to serve yourself and exploit God for your selfish gain?

We should lovingly, reverently and honorably study Scripture; eager to learn exactly what our Master means. Instead, we have a strong tendency to greedily, carelessly and disrespectfully mash God’s words. When we do so, ‘claiming promises’ often means claiming that God has made promises he never made. To do so is not just to misrepresent God but to slander him. To rip words out of context, ignoring other scriptures and presenting conditional promises as unconditional is to set God up so that everyone will end up thinking he is a liar when he fails to keep ‘promises’ he never made.

Every scripture’s context, by the way, is not just a couple of verses either side but all of Scripture. No passage should be interpreted without considering God’s entire biblical revelation.

Anything sensible people say will be consistent with their character and with everything else they say. If, for example, I said I had a drink, no-one who knows me would think I could mean an alcoholic drink. No one expects us to spell everything out every time we speak. To be brutally frank, most of us already consider the Bible too long and repetitive, without it repeatedly excluding every possible misinterpretation, when other parts of Scripture already do so, or when a misinterpretation would be inconsistent with the revealed character of God.

Another critical aspect of the context is noting who was being addressed. If, in an emergency, you gave your trustworthy adult daughter your credit card details, telling her, “Use this however you feel appropriate,” there would be all sorts of unspoken conditions attached but there would be no need for you to detail them – indeed, to do so would be to insult her intelligence and character. How would you feel, however, if her irresponsible, much younger brother, overheard and used it as he felt appropriate, claiming that your words to his trustworthy sister gave him the authority to use your hard earned money irresponsibly?

To illustrate how we can get things horribly wrong, I explain below that the invitation Jesus gave his devoted follows to ask anything in Jesus’ name is actually highly restrictive because it means to ask for Jesus’ sake, not our own, and to ask as his representative. To act foolishly or greedily in someone’s name would be to blacken that person’s name and incur his hot displeasure.

As mentioned previously, I have written two webpages about prayer that are highly relevant to this discussion. For your convenience I have placed them below. To counter modern misconceptions, you are likely to need the detail they provide. I suggest you at least glance at them but don’t forget the link at the end of this webpage taking you to next page in this series: The Spiritual Value of Suffering Trials: Why Hard Times Bless Christians.

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When Faith & Prayer Do Not Work

A thoroughly biblical exploration of prayer will surprise many Bible believers. Many of us are floundering because our understanding of how to get prayers answered has seemed Bible-based and yet has become somewhat distorted. Will you join me in seeking God for a deeper, more accurate insight into the mysteries of prayer?

The divine goal of prayer is that “your joy may be full” (KJV). In the words of the NIV:

    John 16:24 Until now, you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.

How exciting is that!

It is important never to lose sight of this astounding truth. We will explore other facets of prayer that might initially seem more sobering but our perception of divine reality will be distorted unless we keep in focus this thrilling goal God has for our prayers.

Like the world’s most doting grandparent, God absolutely loves “spoiling” his loved ones, in the sense of showering them with blessings infinitely beyond what they could ever earn or deserve. It makes God’s day! On the other hand, he loves you far too much and is too wise a parent to spoil you in the sense of giving you something you clamor for and initially enthralls you but eventually ends up hurting you. The joy that God wants for you is joy that lasts forever, not something you end up regretting or turns out to be second rate.

The gulf between what the immature want and what is in their best interest is a significant source of friction between little children and good parents – and between immature Christians and the good Lord. No matter how much “faith” we try to muster and how much we nag God and whine and sulk, we will not corrupt our holy, loving Lord into someone who, just to shut us up, gives us things that end up robbing us of his best. More often than we realize, if God were so weak or spiteful as to give us what we clamor for, we would end up resenting him when it all turns sour.

The Almighty is always working toward your everlasting joy; never a high that eventually fizzles and comes hurtling back to earth with such a devastating crash that you would be better off if it had never happened. So one prerequisite for answered prayer is that we have asked for something that will genuinely complete our joy.

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We are beginning to see that precisely because God is good, wise, and loving, there is more to answered prayer than faith and persistence.

Jesus told the paralyzed man to take his mat and walk, the blind man to wash his eyes in the pool, the ten lepers to show themselves to the priest (and we could add so many other examples from throughout Scripture) and they received only as they did what they were told to do. And so it is with us. “But be doers of the word, and not only hearers,” warns James 1:22, “deluding your own selves.” [emphasis mine]

Too often we seem to act as if there were two different ways of obtaining God’s promises: we can either do as Scripture says or we can largely ignore Scripture’s directives and simply pray for it to happen.

Consider these scenarios:


The Bible tells us to flee immorality (Scriptures). In fact, it says that the immoral or adulterous cannot enter the kingdom of God and that to look lustfully at a woman is to commit adultery (Scriptures). So when someone who lusts after women asks God to bless his marriage and family relationship will God answer that prayer?


God’s Word tells us to keep reading the Bible and putting it into practice (Scriptures) and that doing this will make us wise (Scriptures). But is there some divine loophole that those too lazy to read the Bible can exploit? Can they ignore the Bible and get wisdom simply by praying for it?


The Bible tells us to work hard (Many Scriptures). So if we refuse to work as hard as we can, should we expect God to answer prayers for finances?


God tells us in his Word not to complain and to continually praise and thank God (Scriptures). If we disregard this, can we expect God to answer prayers for joy?

And of course there are hundreds of other examples we could cite.

To receive everything we ever request would make us as terrifyingly powerful as the Omnipotent Lord. Who would you dare let have such unlimited power? Would it be generous or irresponsible for the good Lord to use prayer to entrust Godlike power to anyone whose motives are not Godlike?

Do we suppose the way to get our selfish way is by prayer to the God who demands we die to self? Has anyone the audacity to think we can trash all that the Bible says about the necessity of studying God’s Word and storing it in our hearts because prayer for wisdom and revelation will work as an alternative? Imagining that prayer can somehow allow us to bypass the need to follow Scripture’s instructions is not only ludicrous but offensive to God. Dare we, for example, defile the holy Word of God by coming to the very Bible that devotes so much space and passion to denouncing the love of money and seizing a verse about prayer as an open-invitation to use faith-filled prayer to feed our addiction to money and perpetuate our adulterous love affair with material things? That would be as perverse as praying for guidance, wisdom and protection in robbing a bank, or praying for God to provide victims for a hideous sex crime.

Do we really think we could dupe the Holy God into giving us anything that by his exacting standards is unholy, or that he would invite us to pray for such things? If it were possible for prayer to nullify the Word of God, we would not be praying to the God of the Bible.

The unspiritual side of us, however, keeps hoping to avoid God’s way and find some cozy alternative. Alarmingly, the Deceiver has gleefully prepared many such options for those who prefer the easy road that leads to destruction. And he is delighted to let them remain smugly convinced they have got away with it.

For example, we are sometimes so dominated by greed and self-centeredness as to twist God’s Word by ripping fragments of Scripture out of context about prayer without even realizing what we are doing. Consider this favorite Scripture:

    Psalm 37:4  . . . delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
    (Emphasis mine)

It is time to check your medication if you imagine this verse is telling you how to manipulate God or get your own way. Nevertheless, this is exactly how some greedy soul (whether greedy for power, fame, luxury, ease, sex, chemical highs, or whatever) could misinterpret it.

Put simply: the Almighty is perfect; we are not. Perfection can never be improved upon. God never changes (Scriptures). This is not because he is inflexible or stubborn or self-centered but because any change could only be a move away from perfect wisdom, perfect goodness, perfect love, and so on. The Perfect One can never improve. For us, however, it is a very different story. Infinite love means that God is utterly unselfish. As dramatically affirmed by the cross of Christ, our Lord is always seeking the well-being of others and never his own comfort. This makes God forever focused on inspiring us to change our hearts for the better; not on getting us to change/corrupt his heart.

This Scripture is not saying that if you desire something, the way to get it is to delight in God. Delighting in God will profoundly affect your very desires, and the longer you delight in him, the more your desires will change, just as the more you delight in wildlife and pristine wilderness areas, the less you will want to do things that harm the environment.

To delight in God is to take your eyes off yourself and lose yourself in the majesty and purity of God. Anyone delighting in God loves him so much that he/she would never knowingly ask for anything that grieves or disappoints God. You would be so passionate about God that pleasing him means more to you than life or pain-avoidance or anything else you could ever crave. We see this exemplified in Jesus: despite being so horrified by the consequences that sweat dripped from him like blood, our Role Model prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”

“Teach us to pray” the disciples had pleaded, and yet they slept through the greatest example of all.

In The Treasury of David, C. H. Spurgeon comments on the verse in Psalms we have been examining:

    Men who delight in God, desire and ask for nothing but what will please God; hence it is safe to give them carte blanche [divine authorization to get whatever they want]. Their will is subdued to God’s will and now they may have what they will.

He immediately adds:

    Our innermost desires are here meant; not our casual desires; there are many things which nature might desire which grace may never permit us to ask for; these deep, prayerful asking desires are those to whom the promise is made.

It is safe to say, “Love God and do what you want,” precisely because no one who truly loves God would ever want to grieve his Lord by knowingly doing anything that clashes with God’s holiness or his plans. To love God is to obey him (Scriptures).

The Word of God puts it this way:

    Psalm 145:19 He will fulfill the desire of those who fear him. He also will hear their cry, and will save them.

    1 John 3:22  . . .whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.
    (Emphasis mine)

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Taken in isolation, the portion of divine revelation we have so far examined might seem a letdown. God is not the genie in the bottle some of us have been hoping for. Disappointment vanishes, however, when we realize that riding high in the full truth is that God is staggeringly bighearted – a God “who gives to all liberally and without reproach” (James 1:5) and whose goal is always that “your joy may be made full.”

I will not repeat everything said in the above section, this time using only New Testament Scriptures. It could easily be done, however. For example:

    Matthew 6:33 But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.

Despite greedy eyes lightening up when zooming in on just part of one verse, this is actually the very opposite of telling the greedy how to get their fill. The words “and his righteousness” should be enough to nail any such misconception. Many Scriptures confirm that lust, greed, selfishness, covetousness, slavery to pleasure, laziness, and so on are sin and therefore incompatible with righteousness. Moreover, we shall see that linking righteousness to answered prayer is a regular biblical theme. Two examples should suffice for the moment:

    Psalms 66:18 If I cherished sin in my heart, the Lord wouldn’t have listened.

    Isaiah 59:2  . . . your iniquities have separated you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.

To make it still clearer that this is not an invitation to the greedy, Jesus introduced this promise by saying it is pagan to give priority to seeking first even the most elementary of human needs. Despite a superficial familiarity with this passage, please pause for at least one careful reading of the context:

    Matthew 6:24-33  . . . You can’t serve both God and Mammon [money]. . . . don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? . . . Why are you anxious about clothing? . . . Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness . . .

The briefest glance at the context affirms that Jesus was not referring to a television, hot and cold running water, or even clothes that are fashionable. He zeroed in on the most basic necessities of life that even birds need, declaring that above even those things, we must seek the kingdom of God, and the other essentials are for God to worry about. In the words of Paul:

    1 Timothy 6:8-11 But having food and clothing, we will be content with that. But those who are determined to be rich fall into a temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful lusts, such as drown men in ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some have been led astray from the faith in their greed, and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But you, man of God, flee these things, and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Unlike some preachers who have lost sight of Jesus’ priorities, our Lord never stooped to exploiting people’s greed as a way of enticing them into the kingdom. In fact, such an attempt is doomed because the greedy cannot enter the kingdom:

    Matthew 23:25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the platter, but within they are full of extortion and unrighteousness.

    Mark 7:21-23 For from within, out of the hearts of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, sexual sins, murders, thefts, covetings, wickedness, deceit, lustful desires, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and defile the man.

    Luke 8:14 That which fell among the thorns, these are those who have heard, and as they go on their way they are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures . . .

    Luke 12:15  . . . Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness . . .
    (Emphasis mine)

Jesus never said or implied, “I am your cash cow.” On the contrary, his passion was to get the greedy to reverse their thinking so that if the change in their attitude to feeding their selfish desires is sufficiently radical they might be able to enter God’s kingdom, (the realm where God – not one’s personal cravings – is king).

    Mark 10:17-25 As he was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” . . . Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into God’s Kingdom! . . . It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into God’s Kingdom.”

Immediately after feeding the five thousand, we read:

    John 6:15 Jesus therefore, perceiving that they were about to come and take him by force, to make him king, withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Jesus withdrew from anyone who thought he would meet their political or economic aspirations. Instead, he sought those who were desperate for godliness:

    Matthew 5:6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

And what will they be filled with? What really counts: righteousness (selflessness).

Of course, the rest of the New Testament says such things as:

    Romans 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

    Colossians 3:2, 5 Set your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth. . . . Put to death therefore your members which are on the earth: sexual immorality, uncleanness, depraved passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry

    1 John 2:16-17 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, isn’t the Father’s, but is the world’s. The world is passing away with its lusts, but he who does God’s will remains forever.
    (Emphasis mine)

To be righteous, however, is to be like God. And God is the most dynamic and exciting and beautiful person in the universe.

You were born for greatness and born again to be forever hailed a hero by following the path to never-ending glory; the trail blazed by our all-conquering King. Let go of the inferior that glitters and entices and fizzles and fails. Let go of the inferior that glitters and entices and fizzles and fails. Take God’s hand and soar to fulfillment and achievement beyond what you have dared dream.

Life is not about getting our own way but about letting God have his glorious way in our lives. Stop resigning yourself to the inferior. Raise your aspirations to divine heights so that you will forever rejoice in the choices you have made.

* * *

Prayer turns God’s stomach if it degenerates into an excuse for disobedience or spiritual laziness. If you baulk at that statement, read what God says:

    Proverbs 28:9 He who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.

    Isaiah 1:15-16 When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you. Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves, make yourself clean. Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes. . . .

    James 4:3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

Imagining that prayer can somehow allow us to bypass the need to follow Scripture’s instructions is not only mistaken but offensive to God.

As already demonstrated, the Bible spells out the prerequisites for answered prayer a number of times. If, however, Scripture were to list all the conditions and exceptions every time any subject were raised, we would need a wheelbarrow to carry the Bible around and we would all be complaining about how tedious and boring it is to read.

The Bible’s teaching on prayer is founded on the presumption that those praying have died to self (and hence to spiritual laziness) and are committed to doing things God’s way. Since the Bible’s promises about prayer were usually addressed specifically to people who were already devoted to God, there was no point in continually adding at the end of every verse,“Of course, this only applies if you are living this Book, i.e. have died to self, been spiritually transformed by spiritual union with Christ and are in total submission to God, in everything thinking and acting like him.” That would be as ridiculous as an instruction manual for a high performance vehicle stopping at the end of each statement to explain that what it says only applies to that particular vehicle.

Even so, many of Jesus’ declarations about prayer specifically added provisos, the ramifications of which we often gloss over. Consider, for example, the implications of offering prayer in Jesus’ name.

    John 14:14 If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.

    John 15:16  . . . I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.

    John 16:23-24 In that day you will ask me no questions. Most certainly I tell you, whatever you may ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Until now, you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be made full.

    John 16:26-27 In that day you will ask in my name; and I don’t say to you, that I will pray to the Father for you, for the Father himself loves you . . .
    (Emphasis mine)


Average Christians in our era rarely grasp the grave significance of this expression.

I was taught as a child to tack on to the end of my prayers, “For Jesus’ sake, Amen.” Whoever initiated this tradition truly understood prayer but, like so many other children, I never bothered to consider what the words meant. For me, it was simply the way to let God know the prayer was ended. I might as well have said, “Roger, over and out!” or “Goodbye, God – Nice to talk to you!” I never for a moment stopped to wonder whether what I had been asking was for actually Jesus’ sake or merely for my own sake.

So let’s investigate what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. If I were to do something in your name, I would be acting as your representative. That’s a huge responsibility. If, in your name, I were to do anything stupid or unethical I could ruin your reputation. If ever there is a time to ask oneself, “What would Jesus do?” it is when doing anything in Jesus’ name. You are putting his reputation on the line. If ever you were exposing yourself to divine judgment, this is it.

At first glance, it seems that in some of Jesus’ promises about prayer he is handing us a blank check. Only a fool, however, would give a blank check to anyone who is not highly responsible. So if the eternal Son of God were handing out blank checks, as it were, you can be sure he is giving them only to people he could trust never to abuse the responsibility. And, of course, that is what God does, as shown throughout both Testaments.

But first: a note about the proportion of Old Testament quotes in the Scriptures I will cite. We have already quoted from the New Testament:

    James 4:3 You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

Expressed another way:

    1 John 3:22 and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight.

    1 John 5:14 This is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us.

    John 15:7 If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it will be done for you.

    James 5:16  . . . The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective.
    (Emphasis mine)

And there are still more New Testament quotes to follow. Since the Old Testament is significantly larger and is the foundation for the New, however, it follows that there should be a higher proportion of Old Testament quotes on this topic. A further reason is that the New Testament was addressed primarily to new converts – first generation Christians – who had a corresponding fervor for God. Much of the Old Testament, however, was addressed to people born into their religion and were therefore more likely to be lulled into merely going through the motions and not realize that there is more to serving God than that. Whereas for the original readers of the New Testament it was obvious, those who had never had a personal relationship with God, or had lapsed into little more than lip service, needed the conditions for answered prayer to be spelled out. Sadly, that describes many of us today. So let’s see some of these Scriptures:

    Proverbs 15:8 The sacrifice made by the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is his delight.

    Proverbs 21:13 Whoever stops his ears at the cry of the poor, he will also cry out, but shall not be heard.

    Micah 3:4 Then they will cry to the Lord, but he will not answer them. Yes, he will hide his face from them at that time, because they made their deeds evil.

* * *

The teachings of the New and Old Testaments on prayer dovetail. Consider this, for example:

    Malachi 2:13-14 This again you do: you cover the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping, and with sighing, because he doesn’t regard the offering any more, neither receives it with good will at your hand. Yet you say, ‘Why?’ Because the Lord has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion, and the wife of your covenant.

Note how similar this is to the following:

    1 Peter 3:7 You husbands, in the same way, live with your wives according to knowledge, giving honor to the woman, as to the weaker vessel, as being also joint heirs of the grace of life; that your prayers may not be hindered.

The passage in Malachi not only mentions treating one’s wife as being critical in how God responds to our attempts to reach out to him (and Peter links this to prayer) but it says that offerings are useless if we mistreat people. Note how this dovetails with what Jesus said:

    Matthew 5:23-24 If therefore you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

It also fits snugly with Jesus’ warning:

    Matthew 15:7-9 You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, saying, ‘These people draw near to me with their mouth, and honor me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. And in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrine rules made by men.’

Isaiah also proclaimed the following that fits this theme perfectly:

    Isaiah 58:4-9  . . . You don’t fast today so as to make your voice to be heard on high Is this the fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to humble his soul? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under himself? Will you call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? “Isn’t this the fast that I have chosen: to release the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Isn’t it to distribute your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? When you see the naked, that you cover him; and that you not hide yourself from your own flesh? . . . Then you will call, and the Lord will answer . . .
    (Emphasis mine)

* * *

God is all about love:

    1 John 4:7-8  . . . love is of God; and everyone who loves has been born of God, and knows God. He who doesn’t love doesn’t know God, for God is love.

    1 John 4:16  . . . God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.

    Matthew 22:36-40 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the law?”
    Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. A second likewise is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

So prayer to the God of love must be all about love – verbalizing our love for God and wanting to know him better, to be more like him and to please him, glorify him and see his purposes furthered. Since love focuses on the beloved, prayer should be God-centered, not self-centered. And trying to make it God-centered just because you think that approach will better aid your quest to manipulate God into giving you what you crave is no improvement on any other self-obsessed attempt to exploit God’s goodness. God’s piercing eyes expose all such schemes. Prayer should be about companionship and intimacy and yieldedness. If it is all about me or about continually getting rather than giving, it is not real prayer; it’s a perversion.

To claim for ourselves Bible promises divinely given to people who were more devoted to Christ than we are willing to be, is as fraudulent as tampering with someone’s last will and testament, by trying to erase someone else’s name and replace it with our own. It is not only taking Bible promises out of context, it is ripping them out of Christianity and putting them into a false religion. Hoping to exploit God for our selfish ends might bear similarities to voodoo or witchcraft – I know too little about these religions to be sure – but it most certainly is nothing like genuine Christianity.

Consider these Scriptures:

    Joshua 24:15 If it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose today whom you will serve . . .

    1 Kings 18:21  . . . How long will you waver between the two sides? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. . . .

    Matthew 6:24 No one can serve two masters . . .

    Revelation 3:15-16 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth.

In the light of these Scriptures I must conclude that as much as it breaks God’s heart, he would prefer us to abandon Christianity altogether than remain in hypocrisy and self-delusion by pretending to be Christian when we are actually serving not God but ourselves.

* * *


Finally, let’s consider the role of faith in all of this. The faith the Bible speaks of should not be confused with screwing up one’s face and raising one’s blood-pressure trying to generate some magical force. It is focused not merely on getting an answer to prayer but on the whole character of God and submitting to him and to his ways.

Biblical faith is simply resting in the thrilling fact that not only is the God of the Bible good, kind, caring, forgiving, generous, dependable, wise, powerful and honest, he is utterly superior to us in all these areas and more. Because of his infinite intelligence, wisdom and goodness, the Almighty is always right, and, because of his infinite love and selflessness, he loves us more than we could ever love ourselves and always has our best interest at heart. Anyone truly believing these truths about God would always want God to have his perfect way and never exalt his/her own longings above what the God of infinite love and wisdom deems to be best.

* * *

Final thoughts

The last thing I want is for any of us to miss God’s best by failing to ask for it.

“Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God,” said William Carey, the famous missionary known today as the “father of modern missions”.

There is nothing stingy about God. As powerfully expressed by Paul:

    Romans 8:32 He who didn’t spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how would he not also with him freely give us all things?

The problem, however, is highlighted in the same chapter:

    Romans 8:26 . . . we don’t know how to pray as we ought . . . (Emphasis mine).

The rest of the verse explains that the Holy Spirit mercifully compensates for our deficiencies in wisdom. We should not grieve or quench the Spirit, however, by seeking things that offend his holiness or by supposing that we are smarter than him or insulting his love by imagining we have our best interest at heart more than he does. On the other hand, we should not freeze with fear over what we pray for. The Spirit of our gracious Lord is always eager to forgive. Nevertheless, he is also eager that we stop blindly repeating our mistakes, and especially that we not hurt ourselves by pulling back from God through being so foolish as to get mad at him for mercifully not giving us things that to us seem wonderful but are actually inferior – sometimes dangerously so – to God’s plans for us.

Often we are like King Midas, having no idea of the consequences of what we request. In the fable, Midas was granted his greedy wish (that everything he touched would turn to gold) before he realized the devastating implications for every morsel of food and every loved one he touched. God would be too kind to answer such a prayer. How tragic it would be, however, if any of us were to turn our backs on God simply because it is beyond our comprehension how superior the divine alternative plan is to the one we have concocted.

I saw a shop advertising free range eggs. “Look! Free eggs!” I joked to someone with me who enjoys a bargain. To my surprise, she immediately became excited about getting range eggs (whatever they are) for free, not realizing that “free range” refers to uncaged chickens. Many of us are like that with God’s promises; gleefully latching on to a few words without bothering to consider the intended meaning. If you would like to see them in a single glance, I have listed eighteen Scriptures commonly used to imply we can have anything we ask for in prayer, showing that in each case the immediate context states that the promise is conditional. See for yourself. Or you can click here for twenty-seven Scriptures emphasizing that sin renders prayer useless.

My goal has not been to cover every prerequisite for answered prayer. For example, except for praying for spiritual salvation, there is no guarantee of answered prayer without first being born again (redeemed). (For more about this, see You can Find Love.) Even this, however, fits into the general category of needing to be submitted to God and follow Scripture’s directives if our prayers are to be answered. These restrictions are not because God is a kill-joy. On the contrary, he wants to give us his best and our tendency to focus on quick gratification or simplistic solutions means the “good” things we crave often kill joy more than we can comprehend.

We see the divine dilemma exposed when Jesus fed the multitude. This was no treat to titillate the taste buds. The situation was so serious that some were in danger of fainting on the long walk home (Mark 8:3).

Moved by compassion, he who denied himself bread in the wilderness miraculously provided for these people but – as God’s longing to meet our physical needs often does – it backfired.

    John 6:26-27, 34-35, 49-51, 66 Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. . . .”
                They said therefore to him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.  . . . Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. . . .”
                At this, many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

In contrast to some preachers, Jesus withdrew, rather than let people seek God for the wrong reasons and he ended up making it so hard for them that those with materialistic motives left him.

We, too, are in danger of degrading God by worshipping him as a Cash Cow instead of honoring him as the Holy One whose passion is righteousness and selflessness.

Too many of us break God’s heart by putting him in a no-win situation: if God lovingly refuses to indulge our greed we resent him; if he gives us what we clamor for, we destroy ourselves by becoming infatuated with the temporal rather than the eternal.

    1 John 5:14 This is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us. (Emphasis mine)

And God’s will is filled with love and wisdom far beyond ours.

* * *

The Joy of Unanswered Prayer

Consider this example of unanswered prayer, uttered in intense passion by the most righteous, powerful, faith-filled person ever to walk this planet:

    Hebrews 5:7 He, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear

How thoughtfully did you read that? The Holy, Eternal Son of God passionately prayed ‘to the one who could save him from death’ and yet, despite being ‘heard,’ he died an agonizing death in humiliation and apparent defeat.

If by answered prayer we mean being given what we want when we want it, it is a biblical fact that not every prayer will be answered, no matter how Spirit-filled and faith-filled we are.

Moses, Elijah and Job were men of superior integrity, devotion and faith. Jonah was a prophet of God. They not only wished they were dead, they asked God – some even pleaded with him – to kill them (1 Kings 19:4; Numbers 11:15; Job 6:8-9; 7:15; Jonah 4:3,8,9). None of these prayers was answered.

In fact, the Bible keeps giving so many examples of people’s prayers not being answered, that I’m reluctant to cite many for fear of boring you. For more, see Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayers.

Consider this Scripture:

    2 Corinthians 12:7-9 By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you . . .”

Paul was adamant that this ‘thorn’ was anti-God; ‘a messenger of Satan’ that tormented him. Despite the mighty apostle’s immense faith and spiritual authority, however, God cared too much for Paul’s spiritual well-being to answer his repeated prayers for the attack to end. God’s ‘grace’ – the spiritual empowering to endure, divinely seeded within Paul – was enough.

The Lord revealed that the quick delivery most modern-day Christians expect, could have spiritually ruined Paul because of the greater danger lurking in the shadows – pride.

Over and over Scripture tells us to rejoice in trials. This is not so that we can act macho but because trials really are something to rejoice about. Trials do us good, developing character and spiritual benefits that will last forever. They equip us for ministry. They equip us for eternity. Like Paul, however, when we’re in the midst of them we want out. There are times when God loves us too much to answer those escapist prayers. God has our long-term good at heart, not some short term high that fizzles.

Try reading this Scripture in a new light:

    1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

This is nothing remotely like a promise that God would make strong temptation melt away for his beloved. Instead, it is a promise that we would be able to ‘endure it.’ The King James Version uses the expression ‘able to bear it.’ The point is that if the divinely-provided ‘way of escape,’ was for the temptation to go away, there would be nothing to ‘endure’ or ‘bear.’

Too many Christians wrongly suppose that if temptation continues to rage after prayer, there must be something wrong. The divine game-plan has never been to prevent us from being hit repeatedly by fierce temptation but to empower us to endure it. The promise is not that God will mollycoddle us, treating us as embarrassing weaklings who would shame him the moment things get tough, but that God will secrete within us everything that we need to heroically survive the onslaught – and by so doing be acclaimed forever as spiritual champions.

Even in the Old Testament, God’s people were called to fight the enemy, keep themselves holy and in no way compromise and yet, for at least two divinely brilliant reasons, God chose not to give them quick deliverances but to keep them battling their enemies year after year:

    Exodus 23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate, and the animals of the field multiply against you.

    Judges 3:1-2 Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to test Israel by them, even as many as had not known all the wars of Canaan; only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at least those who knew nothing of it before

Consider the spiritual heroes portrayed in the faith gallery in Hebrew 11. Many of us lock on to the first half of the gallery – those who by faith received miracles – and overlook the second half, who through faith received the power to endure torment and martyrdom when God saw a better way than to grant miraculous avoidance.

    Hebrews 11:35-38  . . . [By faith] Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

Even of the first half of the faith gallery, Scripture says none received in their lifetime what had been promised:

    Hebrews 11:39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. (NIV)

And consider Abraham: for year after year, decade after decade, his prayer for a child went unanswered. He had no idea what was going on, but it turned out that each year his prayers went unanswered Abraham was achieving eternal glory as a man of faith, the spiritual father of all who have faith. Likewise, Job ministers so powerfully through the centuries right down to today because both his prayer for healing and his prayer for death met icy silence. There are times when unanswered prayer is the only path to such glory.

Faith, says Scripture, is more precious than gold, and yet faith can only grow by prayers going unanswered for what seems an eternity. Yes, the answer finally comes, but faith grows by stretching. It’s usually in those dreary days of unanswered prayer that faith grows best.

God knows how to give good things to his children.

    Matthew 7:7-8 Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.

That sounds as if we will get anything we ask for, but let’s read what comes next:

    Matthew 7:9-11 Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

That still sounds like we will get anything we ask for, but consider the implications of Jesus’ teaching that God is the perfect Father.

If a child asks for bread, he won’t be given a stone. Nevertheless, a child will sometimes be given vegetables that to him seem as tasteless and as useless as a stone. The child might complain as bitterly as if he were actually given a stone. Nevertheless, his cries for candy and ice-cream will sometimes go unheeded because wise parents know how to give good things to their children.

Likewise, if a child asks for a fish, he will not be given a snake. If, however, a little child foolishly asks for a cobra or scorpion to play with, he will not be given one. Again the child will feel unfairly treated but no matter how much he pleads, the child will not be given anything harmful. Likewise, in order to remain the perfect Father that he is, God must refuse our request when in our ignorance we ask for things that to us seem good, but ultimately are not in our best interest.

Little children focus on their immediate pleasure, whereas wise, loving parents look out for their children’s longer term good. This is the source of many a complaint from children who mistakenly think their parents are being harsh and stingy. As we grow up we come to realize the benefits of focusing on our longer term good, and we become grateful that our parents did not let us have all the things that we now recognize as being unwise or even dangerous. Yet even as mature adults, we often focus on a ridiculously short time-frame, relative to eternity. Like the perfect Parent he is, God gives the very best to his children, even at the expense of incurring their wrath if they foolishly misjudge what is best for them.

‘You don’t have, because you don’t ask,’ sounds like an exciting invitation to receive whatever we desire, but this is the very trap James was seeking to expose:

    James 4:2  . . . You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

So they did, in fact, ask but their prayers went unanswered because they asked for the wrong things and with the wrong motives. The Holy Lord wants to nurture righteousness and selflessness in his children; not use his power to foolishly feed an addiction to lust, greed and materialism.

Near the beginning of his epistle, James said we cannot expect answered prayer if we waver in faith (James 1:5-8). He was referring, however, to asking for something highly spiritual – godly wisdom (James 1:5; 3:13,17). Trying to entice God to answer prayers to foster our selfishness, however, is such a lost cause that rather than suggest more faith, James denounces the practice.

He continues his tirade against praying for wrong things or with wrong motives:

    James 4:4 You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God

The next verse initially seems strange:

    James 4:5 Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously”?

This is reminiscent of what Paul says:

    Romans 1:28-29 Even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil habits, secret slanderers. (Emphasis mine)

James is saying that we are all subject to an intense urge to envy. How true that is! Our natural tendency is to slide into the pit of regretting what we don’t have, rather than rejoicing in what we have. Give Joe Average a hundred million dollars and he’d be over the moon with excitement about how rich and blessed he is. Then give ten billion dollars to hundreds of people around him and it will not be long before, regardless of his millions, he is feeling deprived.

(There is an alternative interpretation of James 4:5 but it leads to the same understanding of what ‘resist the devil’ refers to.)

Despite our natural predisposition to be driven by envy, however, James immediately continues to explain that through Christ we can live in victory over this insidious temptation:

    James 4:6-7 But he gives more grace. . . . Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Had you realized that the famous Scripture, ‘Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,’ though applicable to other situations, was actually referring primarily to resisting the temptation to envy (verse 5) and overcoming the temptation to pray “because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures” (verse 3)?

Few of us pause long enough to realize that this famous quote is referring to resisting the devil’s enticement to use prayer to try to manipulate God into giving us things that end up not being in our best interests spiritually. The attraction of devilish practices such as witchcraft is that they seem to offer supernatural help in feeding selfish desires. The devil does not display our Heavenly Father’s reluctance to grant us things that end up hurting and enslaving us.

Christians are typically well aware that lack of faith often hinders Jesus’ longing to miraculously meet our physical needs:

    Matthew 13:58 He didn’t do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.

The equally serious, but seldom recognized, hindrance to God pampering us with material possessions, however, is the human tendency to push aside the true God and instead worship money, pleasure and/or ease, and ruin our lives by making them our god.

    Deuteronomy 6:10-12 It shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, great and goodly cities, which you didn’t build, and houses full of all good things, which you didn’t fill, and cisterns dug out, which you didn’t dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you didn’t plant, and you shall eat and be full; then beware lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

For still more about trials, see The Spiritual Value of Suffering Trials: Why Hard Times Bless Christians.

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Not to be sold. © Copyright, Grantley Morris. May be freely copied in whole or in part provided: it is not altered; this entire paragraph is included; readers are not charged and it is not used in a webpage. Many more compassionate, inspiring, sometimes hilarious writings available free online at www.net-burst.net  Freely you have received, freely give. For use outside these limits, consult the author.


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