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The Answer to Unanswered Prayer?


Timothy Cross

Unanswered Prayers

Earnest prayers that appear to receive no answer have vexed and perplexed many a sincere, devout Christian since time immemorial.

The best solution to this trying problem I have ever come across, comes in a timeless solution proffered by John Calvin way back in 1537. In a passage which betrays both his practical godliness and pastoral sensitivity, Calvin states that God Himself is the superabundant compensation for every good thing He has seemingly denied us in this life:

'If... after a long wait, our minds cannot grasp what is the point of our praying, and do not feel that it leads to anything, our faith will nonetheless make us certain of what our senses cannot perceive-that we have obtained everything that was necessary to us. By faith we shall then possess abundance in want and comfort in grief. In fact, even if we have to go without everything, God will never abandon us, for He cannot disappoint the expectation and patience of those who are His. He, on His own, will take the place of everything, for He contains in Himself everything that is good—a fact He will fully reveal in the future.' (Truth for all Time, John Calvin, Banner of Truth, p. 62, emphasis mine. See also Calvin's Institutes, Book 3, Ch. XX, Para. 52, 'Unheard prayers?').

Elkanah and Hannah

In 1 Samuel 1, we read of a childless women named Hannah.

Hannah had no children... because the LORD had shut up her womb. (vv. 2, 5, 6).

Hannah's childlessness caused her much sorrow. In v. 8 of the same chapter though, we read of her husband Elkanah's response to her plight so:

Then said Elkanah her husband to her, Hannah, why weepest thou? and why eatest thou not? and why is thy heart grieved? am not I better to thee than ten sons?

Paraphrasing, we can say that Elkanah said:

'Dear Hannah. I know just how upset you are. I understand the pain your childlessness is causing you. But what of me and what of us? What of my love for you? Isn't our marriage relationship better in itself than anything it brings or doesn't bring in its wake?'

'Am not I better to thee...?' If this was the case on a human level, what of the divine? Is not our God more to us than any of the earthly blessings He has seen fit to withhold from us? The Bible tells us He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world. He loves us with an everlasting love. He sent His son into the world to die at Calvary and so procure our eternal redemption. He sent His Spirit on us to enable us to personally receive all the redeeming benefits of Christ's finished work on the cross. Through Christ, our sins have been put away, and we have been reconciled to God. Through Christ we can know, love and enjoy fellowship with God, and even call Him 'Father.' He has pledged to be our God for time and eternity. He is working all things out for our good and eternal blessing... It doesn't get better than this! It cannot get better than this. And doesn't this put all our earthly trials and seemingly unanswered prayers into perspective? We have been blessed with the unsearchable riches of Christ. Are not these more to us than those unanswered prayer requests?—the good health which has been denied us; the success and recognition we thought was due to us; the position we thought we were worthy of; the earthly wealth we presumed we needed, even the usefulness and fruitfulness in Christian service to which we aspired... 'Am not I better to thee...?' Knowing the eternal Giver is far greater than possessing the greatest of any earthly gifts. Knowing God intimately is infinitely greater than 'successfully' serving Him in an earthly, ecclesiastical capacity. Knowing the presence of God in and amidst the trials He sends our way is far superior to the formal, perfunctory 'Christianity' which a trauma-free existence is always in danger of producing. It has been well said that 'our disappointments are His appointments.' These are, in the words of John Newton:

From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in Me.

The danger of idolatry

An idol is any false god which dominates our lives, thinking and affections to the detriment of our absorption with and domination by the living and true God of the Bible. Sadly, even Christians are not immune from idolatry's taint—we can pursue money as if the possession of a healthy bank account was the universal cure to all our problems: such is practical atheism. We can desire and aspire to a position and promotion in society as if our justification depended on it. We can be devoted to some earthly goal or pursuit as if salvation was wrought by its successful achievement. All of these are idols. They suggest that the grace of our God is insufficient for us. They suggest that the finished work of Christ at Calvary is inadequate. They give the distinct impression that the Bread of Life does not quite satisfy us completely. Thank God then when He does deny us these 'earthly joys', and reveals their emptiness to us, and enables us to know Him alone as our all in all. He, on His Own will take the place of everything, for He contains in Himself everything that is good.

Knowing God

According to the infallible, inerrant Word of God, the Bible, the greatest blessing of all is knowing God Himself. Nothing can excel this.

Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD... (Jeremiah 9:23, 24)

And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent. (John 17:3).

The secret of the LORD is with them that fear him; and he will shew them his covenant. (Psalm 25:14).

When your prayers seem to go unanswered then, and even the good and legitimate things of this world seem to be denied you, take stock. Think of the compensation of knowing God Himself. Think of the unreachable riches of Christ that have been bestowed on you. Divine grace has given you what money cannot buy! Heaven has given you what this world cannot give! What more could you ask for? What more do any of us need when we can say 'I have Christ, what want I more?'

There's a lesser-known hymn which summarises much of what we have just considered about the superabundant recompense of knowing God Himself—that knowing God is a blessing which cannot be surpassed. Speaking from personal experience, A. B. Simpson wrote:

Once it was the blessing
Now it is the Lord
Once it was the feeling
Now it is His Word
Once His gifts I wanted
Now the Giver own
Once I sought for healing
Now Himself alone

Once was busy planning
Now tis trustful prayer
Once twas anxious caring
Now He has the care
Once twas what I wanted
Now what Jesus says
Once twas constant asking
Now tis ceaseless praise.

© Timothy Cross 2005 <>

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