42. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 42. Q.4. Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?

Jas 4:2,3   You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives

1 Pet 3:7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect ….. so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

Jn 14:13 And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

The Question:  “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?” is a fairly common question among believers and non-believers alike (yes non-believers often pray according to surveys.) There are, when you start thinking about it, some fairly obvious common sense answers as well as some less obvious spiritual answers.

COMMON SENSE PRAYING: The first answer has got to be very simply, because we don’t pray, as James said in our verse above. But perhaps there is more behind that. Prayer is talking to God. Now that may sound fairly obvious but are all words uttered ‘prayer’? If you don’t believe He is there or that He’s not listening, is that really prayer or a mere superstitious act? Do you genuinely pause up and focus on God, the Almighty, Holy, Creator God of the Universe, and address this One, or just utter words?

The second answer has got to be simply we are asking silly, unrealistic things. For example, “Lord please give me a parking space,” or “Lord, please provide a petrol station, I’m running out of petrol.” Such prayers seem to require God to create something. A better prayer might be, “Lord, please make me alert and help me spot a parking place.” A prayer for God to speak to you and guide you as one of His children is legitimate.

A third answer has to be that you are praying contradictory prayers – your prayer may be contradicting one another may be praying, e.g. “Lord please don’t let it rain today,” while down the road a farmer is praying, “Lord we desperately need rain for the crops. Please send some rain.”

SPIRITUAL FOCUS PRAYERS: Some praying is simply limited by our own spiritual limitations. So, for example, first of all there are selfish prayers. James added, “you do not receive because you ask with wrong motives.” (Jas 4:3)

Now that should perhaps be linked, second, to praying God’s will. One of our verses above speaks about ‘asking in Jesus’ name’. That simply means praying what you believe Jesus’ will is that will extend the kingdom and glorify the Father. Praying, “Lord, please give me a big yacht,” is probably a selfish, self-aggrandising prayer but many years ago when computers were first coming on line, I felt it right to pray, “Lord, please will you give me a PCW, a word processor,” because I sensed He wanted to open up writing for me. Where the money came from I don’t know but within a couple of months I had it.

We need an aside here: sometimes when praying, especially for healing of a person at death’s door, it is natural and right to pray out of love for them, sometimes even sure that you want them to live – but even that motivation and sureness isn’t enough. It may just be that God knows that this is their time to go home – and we have to accept that! It may be hard but there we have to humbly bow before the throne and accept their death. Jesus healed and raised the dead, so let us pray for it. The Father is not going to be stressed by our love for our loved ones – and He may intervene!

That in turns leads on to, third, prayers that are half-hearted from lack of assurance. Sometimes, to be sure we are praying in the will of God we just need to start praying and catch a sense, while we are in prayer, whether this is in fact God’s will. If it is, the Holy Spirit will witness to that fact and we can thus be encouraged to press on in prayer. Yes, this does mean we need to learn to be sensitive to the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12), but when we do we can listen for that encouragement. Sometimes, associated with this I believe, fourth, prayers are delayed because God is training us, training us to listen, training us to learn to wait upon Him, training us to persevere, and that only comes when we are confident about the things we are asking. Is that why Jesus taught, “Ask (and keep on asking) and it will be given to you; seek (and keep on seeking)  and you will find; knock (and keep on knocking) and the door will be opened to you,” (Mt 7:7 with the verb tenses added) and also, “told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” (Lk 18:1)

This takes us on to realize that in His training of us, fifth, we need to learn God’s limitations. Yes, there are some things God will not do. Yes, He will perform miracles that go against nature if it conforms to His overall plans. Jesus regularly healed people, sometimes raised people from the dead, and sometimes performed other miracles, but Jesus never forced people to believe. He would teach them, challenge them, and even rebuke them, but he never exercises sovereign power to make us change our minds. Thus, when praying for our loved ones who don’t know Him, “Lord, please make X believe,” is unacceptable, whereas, “Lord please speak again and again to X and help them see their need,” is I suggest legitimate.

We should also note, sixth, that we may be acting unrighteously and that will hinder our channel to God. In one of our verses above, Peter warns husbands to treat their wives properly otherwise that will hinder their spiritual activities, i.e. prayer!

SPIRITUAL WARFARE PRAYING: In addition to the above things, the mature believer realizes that we operate spiritually in a spiritual dimension and within that dimension there is warfare. May we not be casual about the apostle Paul’s teaching: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12) There are instances in the Old Testament – “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days,” (Dan 10:12,13) and the New Testament – For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way,” (1 Thess 2:19) that suggest to us the way is not always open and easy and when the enemy shouts, “Resistance is futile,” we need to laugh and press on!

RIGHT PERSPECTIVE: Our tendency as little children is to want Abba, daddy, to do it all for us but from the beginning we find, “God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it,” (Gen 1:28) or as the Message delightfully and succinctly puts it, “Prosper! Reproduce! Fill Earth! Take charge!” There are times when God delights in stepping in to the affairs of the earth, for example when Jesus came, when Revivals occur, when Renewals of the Spirit occur, when He inspires healing crusades etc. but much of the time I believe the Lord wants us to grow up and “take charge” of our lives.

What does that mean? I believe it means using them wisely, checking that regularly by keeping in close contact with Him, seeking Him for wisdom (see Jas 1:5) while all the while realizing that living in a Fallen World means that trials come so, “the testing of your faith produces patient endurance. And let patient endurance finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (Jas 1:3,4) Note the order: trials create patience and endurance that produce maturity in us. Yes, God will sometimes move in sovereign power in our circumstances and sometimes wants us to pray for that, but the majority of the time He wants to speak to us, lead us, guide us, grant us wisdom, and where we get stressed, grace, and where we mess up, the reminder that the path is repentance, reconciliation, restoration, forgiveness, and the grace to press on.

To conclude: If we take a couple of biblical characters, look first at Abraham – the Lord spoke to Him a number of times but only stepped in with the supernatural power once, to enable Sarah to conceive. Look at how the Lord worked with Joseph – spoke prophecies to him, watched over him through the time of rejection by his brothers and being sold into slavery, spoke to his masters in prison to give him favor in their eyes, gave him prophetic understanding and dreams that resulted in him becoming the savior of the Middle East. Throughout Judges the Spirit empowered leaders with boldness, a right attitude. Moses was a different ball game because that involved national judgment and deliverance. David grew to be the warrior he was because of his relationship with God and everything else flowed from that. Do we get the message? Relationship! Listening, obeying, doing, ruling, triumphing! Hallelujah! Let’s pray, let’s keep on praying, sometimes getting it right, sometimes not, but all the while being children with a loving Heavenly Father, children who are gradually growing up and maturing, in knowledge, in understanding and in experience. May it be so.

16. The Unrighteous Judge

Meditating on the Parables of Luke: 16. The Unrighteous Judge

Luke 18:1-8:  Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’  For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”  And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 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? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Purpose & Context: The purpose of this parable is there in the first verse: “they should always pray and not give up.”   Now that is very obvious and this is one of parables that addresses a problem we face regularly in the Christian life – my prayers don’t seem to be getting answered and so the temptation is simply to give up. Again it is one of those parables that doesn’t say what you think it is going to say but the end result is still quite clear and as Jesus clearly thinks that prayer is an integral part of a life of faith, the final punch line is challenging: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

Content:

  • there is an unrighteous judge – didn’t fear God and didn’t care what people thought of him.
  • a woman comes to him to demand justice for her situation.
  • he clearly takes no notice for she has to keep on coming to him, and he refuses to hear her.
  • eventually he gives way and gives her justice.
  • his thinking is that although he doesn’t fear God or care about what people think, he is eventually worn down by her coming and even fears that in her frustration she might attack him; for this reason alone he will hear her.
  • Jesus’ teaching concludes that if this unrighteous judge eventually hears this woman – and he is unrighteous, unfearing of God and man, won’t God who does care for us (implied) hear us and respond to us when we keep on praying.

Reasons for No Answers: In the 3rd study, the Parable of the Good Friend, we faced this same situation and I noted there the following reasons why sometimes we have to pray and pray and pray: First, sometimes constant and continual prayer is an indicator of the urgency and reality of the person praying and the Bible indicates that God looks for such reality (Deut 4:29). Second, I believe spending time in God’s presence deepens our relationship with the Lord and so He holds back a while to ensure this happens.  Third, I believe sometimes we have to pray and pray before we get to the point of realizing what God’s will really is and we ask for it (and then get it) in his name (Jn 14:13). Fourth, there is clearly spiritual opposition sometimes (see Dan 10:13) and we don’t always get what we want (see 1 Thess 2:18)

Why God Answers: The obvious first reason is that He loves us and loves to talk to us, and that must always be our starting point, but reversing the reasons above for no answers:

  • first, He will surely answer when He sees our urgency. When the Lord spoke to Moses at the burning bush He said, I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering.” (Ex 3:7) The Lord does feel with us and for us as a loving heavenly Father.
  • Second, even though we may not be receiving an answer, He is attentive to us, appreciates us and loves to hear from us, just like any father loves to hear from their child in need.
  • Third, when we have caught His heart, He will answer: And I will do whatever you ask in my name,” (Jn 14:13) which the Message version paraphrases, “whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it,” e. when the Father sees we are in line with the Son’s guidance, He will answer.
  • Fourth, we just have to recognize that we are often in spiritual warfare and the enemy seeks to hinder us. Perhaps more for this one than any of the others, as we saw in Luke 11, Jesus says ‘keep on badgering heaven, don’t give up’, and now says the same thing. It is like he is saying, if you think you’re on the right track, don’t be put off, keep at it, keeping praying, keep asking. Not wanting to be depressing, it appears that Isaac prayed 20 years (Gen 25:20,21,26) for Rebekah to conceive (either that or it took him nineteen years to get around to praying!)

I don’t know: Prayer, I believe, is the most mysterious part of the Christian life. It is amazing that we can talk to Almighty, all-knowing and all-wise God. We can come up with suggestions such as above but at the end of the day all we can say is that the Son of God encouraged us to pray and keep on praying. That is at the heart of two of these parables we have considered. Put aside intellect and engage heart – and pray.

8. God’s Will

Meditations in Romans : 8 :  Entering God’s Will

Rom  1:9,10 I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.

Prayer is a mystery, but that shouldn’t stop us thinking about it. At one extreme there are people who say you can’t understand it and so don’t pray. At the other end there are those who seem to have it completely wrapped up and all they do is pray.  I suggest a middle way – we can understand some apparent aspects of prayer and we can make it a meaningful part of our lives. We have previously considered Paul’s motivation for what appears, at times, a life of prayer (although in fact he spent much time talking with people) and now he shares a request he has been making of God.

This is in addition to what he has been praying about them; it is almost as if as he prays so he has had this even stronger realisation of a desire within him, and he recognises that he needs to pray about that as well. That is one of the things about prayer: as you pray things come more clearly into focus and you realise things you previously hadn’t been aware of, or things you had hardly taken any note of, but now they come into focus and you realise these things are part of God’s will and so you pray them.

I have noticed in the psalms and the prophets in the Old Testament, that a writer or prophet would catch God’s will and that would spur them on to pray and ask for it. Hold you, you might say, why pray for what you already know IS God’s will? If it is His will then why bother to pray for it? Surely if it is His will, He will bring it about anyway?  No, merely because something is God’s desire, that doesn’t mean to say it will automatically happen for He has given us free will and He invites us to enter into the process of bringing it about – and part of that process is us coming to the realisation of His will, establishing it in our hearts and minds in prayer, and then being ready to be whatever part of its fulfilment that God has for us.

Within the teaching on prayer in the New Testament, there is this sense that we pray for what we confidently believe is God’s will. When we do that we know we’ll get the answer.  Yes, there will be times when we pray in uncertainty, and there we just have to trust in God’s love and hope we’ve got it right, and He will eventually show us whether it is right or wrong.  Yet the better way is to wait on the Lord and catch a sense in your spirit of what His will is and then pray it out.  But even then it’s not that simple!

So look again at what Paul says here: “and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.” Note those words, “now at last.” We’ll see in the next meditation something of his frustration at not having been able to get to see them previously.  He has been waiting and wanting but hasn’t been able to go to see them in Rome, but now, as he writes to them, he has had this fresh desire to go, and with that awareness he has prayed.  There have been things that previously have blocked his way, that have stopped him going to Rome but, as he has started to write and this desire to go has risen afresh in him, it has spurred him to ask the Lord to open the way for him to go.

But note also his phase, “by God’s will.” The NKJ version says in v.10, “now at last I may find a way in the will of God to come…..” That I prefer.  Paul is completely submitted to the will of God.  We find him at Ephesus saying, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” (Acts 18:21).  He would like to come back but was submitted first and foremost to what God wanted.  Near the end of this letter-book, we find him writing, “I urge you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints there, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and together with you be refreshed.” (Rom 15:30-32).  He knows he has to go back to Jerusalem and there will be faced by unbelieving Jews who will oppose him, and he also needs the approval of the Christians there, but if these things can be resolved then he may be free to come to Rome to encourage the Christians there.  He believes it is God’s will for him to come, but for that to happen various other things have got to happen first.  Thus he gives them specific things to pray for that we’ve just seen.

Isn’t this convoluted!  It’s God’s will for him to come to Rome but that is subject to various things coming about which are imponderables that are dependent on human responses.  Note in that last quote, “by praying to God for me.” Then note what he wants prayer for: first for divine intervention to protect him from the unbelieving Jews, possibly for divine wisdom to cope with those Jews, and finally divine grace to be able to fulfil his ministry in Jerusalem to the satisfaction of the church there.  So, finally, what we have here is God’s overall will for Paul to go to Rome (which Acts tells us he eventually did, but as a prisoner), but then various specific parts of God’s will to enable that to come about.

Now here’s the tricky bit: did that all happen?  Well yes, he did end up in Rome blessing the Christians there but, no, he didn’t escape the hostility in Jerusalem because he ended up a prisoner under Roman protection (?) and it was only as a prisoner that he got to Rome.  Conclusion?  We may catch God’s overall will but how it is going to be worked out, only God knows, for we live in a Fallen World with sinful people and they may make the path very twisty and windy to our final destination.  But carry on praying, carry on trusting, and carry on seeking to do God’s will.  That’s what faith is all about – listening with imperfect ears and seeking to do our best at obeying what we believe is right.  Hopefully much of the time we’ll get it right; sometimes we won’t – but God will always we working in the background to bring good out of it all (Rom 8:28). Hallelujah!   

7. Prayer

Meditations in Romans : 7 :  Living with Prayer

Rom  1:9,10 God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times;

I often think that the subject of prayer is one of the things that is most spoken and written about, and least done. Paul prays – often!  Some of us do as well, but from talking around I would suggest that most of us find prayer the greatest enigma in life. We’d like to pray more but we don’t. We’d like to understand prayer, but we don’t. We read big books on prayer, but still we find it a struggle and, to be quite honest, people like Paul make us feel guilty or embarrassed. When I was once asked to produce a series of seminars on prayer, I did a study of every prayer in the Bible and found that the vast majority of them came out of a crisis. We pray best when we are under pressure. Ah, here may be the reason we pray so little. Perhaps our life is very ordinary (we think) and there are no big crisis issues. Well let’s see what we can learn from Paul.

These two verses together give us clues as to the nature of his praying and the causes or motivation for his praying. He calls God to be his witness that what he is saying is true, but his descriptions of God reveal something about the nature of his life. He speaks about serving God, and we’ve seen that aspect of Paul at the beginning of the chapter. But it isn’t a half hearted serving; it is serving with his whole heart. When we do something with all our heart, we go all out for it. We are enthusiastic about it and it takes up all our thoughts and our energy. We want to be successful in it, we want to do it well and, maybe, we want to please the Lord in the way we do it. For all these reasons we have a sense of urgency in it. But there is often an even bigger motivation. Perhaps we have a clear sense of calling on our lives from the Lord, and we have a distinct ministry. Now that calling will provide an urgency within us, for a desire to exercise our ministry for the blessing of others will also provide an urgency within us.

That was how it was for Paul. What was it that he did with all his heart by way of serving the Lord? Preaching the Gospel! That was the all-consuming fire within Paul, the desire to take any and every opportunity to share the good news of Jesus Christ, to bring people into salvation through Jesus Christ, and then to establish them in their faith in the church. So Paul had, as an apostle, this two-sided thrust to his ministry: to bring people to the Lord and then to establish them in their faith in the church. For that reason he had a concern for all Christians. As a father in the faith, wherever he heard of the Gospel being spread and churches being established, he had a concern – even if he had not ever met them!  That is the truth here: Paul has never yet been to see these Christians in Rome – but he still prays for them whenever he thinks of them.

So what is it about prayer, what was it about prayer that made Paul pray?  Well, what is prayer? It is simply talking to God. It may be sharing our hearts, our feelings and our concerns with Him; it may be thanking Him for what he has done, praising Him for what He has achieved, worshipping Him for who He is – or asking Him for help.

Now it is that last thing that I suspect so often motivated Paul to pray for others. I am sure with the revelation he had he would often have been worshipping, praising or thanking, but when it came to asking for others, it would have been the recognition that he (or the recipients of his prayers) needed help. Now that recognition is a major revelation for most of us don’t recognise our need; we think we can just get by as we are, but as we’ve noted already, grace is something we need because it is God’s resource to enable us to live as His children and do the things He puts before us in such a manner that He is glorified. So, as we face the day, do we realise that if we are to live and work at more than a boring mundane level of survival, we need God’s help?

If we are at school, we need His help to learn. If we are a teacher we need His help to enable us to teach well. In whatever is our work, we need His help if we are to rise above the mundane. Do we face every day as a fresh opportunity to live with God’s enabling, God’s resources there to bless us, bless our work and bless other people through us? If we see our life and work like this, we will see new possibilities and those new possibilities will stir within us a recognition of our need which can only be fulfilled in Him. It is a need that will stir us to pray for somehow we know deep down, and we witness it in the Bible, that when we pray it opens the way up for God to move in and through us in ways which otherwise remain absent.

Paul had a calling, Paul was aware of his life purpose and Paul had an urgency as a result of that. To cope with that urgency, and the need that forced itself into his awareness, he prayed. If nothing else it was off-loading the burden to the Lord but, in reality, it was something far more than that; it was opening a channel of blessing from heaven, a blessing that would change him and change the people he was praying for. THAT meant Paul was praying much of the time. What an example!

35. Wrong Prayers

Meditations in Job : 35.  Wrong Prayers

Job 13:20 “Only grant me these two things, O God, and then I will not hide from you:

The thing about meditations is that you can let your mind run further afield than a strict study allows. This is particularly true as we come to this next section. One of the great unknown areas of the Christian life is prayer. Some people have written books trying to detail it and others have written about how unclear the whole subject of prayer actually is. I tend to feel that the truth is somewhere in between. The reality of the passage that we now find ourselves looking at, is that it is prayer, talking to God. Now some of us are highly dutiful when it comes to prayer, feeling we must follow the tramlines of a few specific Scriptural verses. Others of us feel we just don’t know what to say – so say nothing. Some of us believe our praying will have effects that will change the world, while others of us doubt that prayer will do anything – and so don’t pray. So prayer – or lack of it – emanates from our beliefs and hopefully our beliefs come from the Bible. All I know, when I did a study of all the obvious prayers recorded in the Bible, is that they all flowed out of a crisis. We ‘pray best’ when we are in a crisis – and that is also true of Job.

When we are in a  crisis we tend to pray honest prayers, and I believe truth and honesty are important issues as far as God is concerned, especially when I find that His Son was described as being full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14). When we are in a crisis I have noticed two important characteristics of our praying. First we pray from our heart and second, because of our desperate situation, our viewpoint is often skewed and we aren’t too bothered about the accuracy or correctness of what we pray, we just pray!

Now it is this latter part that I believe is so important here. Job has confessed to speaking out of the anguish of his spirit and the bitterness of his soul (7:11 & 10:1) and that his words had been impetuous (6:30) and that he is despairing (6:26). He recognises that his words may be off-kilter, but we’ve just seen, in his security in the Lord, that he is willing to just plough on and say stuff and risk the consequences (13:13-16). He may be off beam but he’ll risk it before the Lord he utterly trusts. So, he’s going to say stuff that isn’t right, and he’s going to ask things that are wrong and, in other words, some of his praying is futile and he isn’t going to get the answers he’s asking for.

Now the interesting thing, that we’ve now noted several times, is that the Lord doesn’t chide him for this in the long run. Yes He does chide him for speaking without knowledge (38:2) but that’s the extent of it! We might say the Lord isn’t phased by His child jumping up and down and having a temper tantrum – after all he’s got some good reasons for it – and He’s certainly not going to judge him for it.  A wise parent doesn’t inflict punishment on a young child for what we call ‘childish irresponsibility’ and with the incredibly limited revelation Job has at this time, he is certainly in the ‘childish’ category.

So let’s see the ramblings on of this man. Only grant me these two things, O God, and then I will not hide from you.” (v.20). Job, I’m not sure if you’ve fully appreciated it, but you are in no position to make demands of God. You were on firmer ground when you were pleading for mercy (9:15), and as for hiding, don’t you realise that no one can hide from God (see Psa 139:7-16). He continues, “Withdraw your hand far from me, and stop frightening me with your terrors.” (v.21). Are these the two things you’re asking for? Why?  “Then summon me and I will answer, or let me speak, and you reply.” (v.22). You put conditions on answering God? You will only talk to God when you are out the other side of this trial? I think you’ve missed the point; you are actually talking and explaining yourself right now! What do you feel about yourself? “How many wrongs and sins have I committed? Show me my offense and my sin.” (v.23)  No, I don’t think I’ll answer this; it would spoil the point of it. The reality is that I’m not doing this because of your sin. This is just a workout in the heavenly gymnasium but I’ll let you come to that conclusion on your own for that’s part of the exercise. What else is on your heart?

“Why do you hide your face and consider me your enemy?” (v.24). I think you’ve jumped to a wrong conclusion; merely because things are going badly, it doesn’t mean you are my enemy, and actually I’m still here with you if only you could realise that. Carry on. “Will you torment a windblown leaf? Will you chase after dry chaff?” (v.25). That’s not exactly how I see you. My enemy may try to make you feel you are being blown all over the place but actually you are doing remarkably well. You didn’t turn round and abuse me, you haven’t sworn and cursed. You’re actually remarkably steady in the way you have stood in the face of the awful things that have happened to you and the antagonism of your three friends. Oh no, son, you’re nothing like a windblown leaf or dry chaff. What else do you feel?

“For you write down bitter things against me and make me inherit the sins of my youth.” (v.26). You think I’m bringing a case against you for your sins, but you can’t see them in the present, and so assume they must be the sins of your youth? No, later on my people will understand that I don’t hold sin against those who genuinely don’t realise there is a wrong. No, it’s nothing like that! “You fasten my feet in shackles; you keep close watch on all my paths by putting marks on the soles of my feet.” (v.27). You think I’ve made you a slave? You feel like I’ve put shackles on you and put the mark of a slave owned by another on your feet? You’ll come to understand one day, perhaps, that those who consider me their Master or Owner are, in fact, the best off in the world. For the moment it seems like a harsh existence, but be patience and receive my grace for it won’t last forever. “So man wastes away like something rotten, like a garment eaten by moths.” (v.28). Son, I realise that that is how it feels at this moment. I understand and I feel with you. I don’t stand at a distance for I am, as my future people will come to understand, your loving heavenly Father. This IS tough stuff and I don’t pretend that it isn’t, but I am here for you and I have decreed the boundaries of this experience, so it IS limited.

With the light of the whole of the revelation of the Bible, I have attempted to suggest some possible responses of the Lord, but of course Job doesn’t hear them. Thus he carries on expressing the anguish of his heart in a variety of ways – and God still loves him! If He didn’t, the end of the book would not be as it is. The end of ‘your book’ and mine is more clearly revealed – we have a sure hope. Even when we blow it between now and then, as immature little children, our loving heavenly Father will be there for us. Take comfort in that. Jesus died to ensure we get there.

52. Prayer

Ephesians Meditations No.52

Eph  6:18-20 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Prayer is the greatest mystery in the Christian experience. Why pray? Why does God want us to pray when He knows every word before we utter it? Does Almighty God limit Himself according to our prayers or lack of prayers? We may have lots of questions and wonderings about prayer, but one thing that these verses tell us is that the apostle Paul totally believed in prayer. We’ve seen it earlier in this little book – he prays, he believes prayer is an essential part of the Christian experience. So let’s see what he says about prayer in these verses that continue on from this whole part that speaks about the body of Christ, the church, about unity, and about spiritual realities.

He starts, And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.” This is about specific sort of prayer but applied in a variety of situations in a variety of ways. The specific sort of prayer? Prayer “in the Spirit,” or prayer led by the Spirit. Isn’t all prayer like this? Obviously not otherwise Paul wouldn’t describe it like this. How often do we ask the Lord to inspire and guide us in prayer, I wonder? Or do we just pour out prayers that are self-centred. Spirit-led prayer is first prayer that is submitted to God’s will and puts that first. It is prayer that is inspired, that flows out of a flow of the Holy Spirit from within us, and Spirit-led prayer is revelatory prayer that prays with God’s understanding. Spirit-led prayer emanates from heaven, is expressed through us, and sees answers. A variety of situations? Yes, because Paul says “on all occasions.” i.e. not just at special times, not just ‘in church’ but in a whole variety of places, anywhere you are in life, turn it over to God, seek His will and let Him inspire you to pray. This is a life of prayer, prayer in every areas of life, bringing God into every aspect of life. A variety of ways? Yes, all kinds of prayers and requests.” I’m not sure what this means but at least it means that there is not just one way of praying. Prayer as you feel inspired in whatever way it comes!

But then he says something quite significant that links this in with the context we have referred to already: “With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” This is about the body. “All the saints” are all the believers you know. See your praying as resourcing other people, being a channel through which God’s blessing can flow to other people as you pray. Ask the Lord to show you the needs of other people and also what He wants to do for them, and then pray it. I first saw this with Isaiah. He caught what God’s will was, and then prayed it. Well surely, if you know what God’s will is, what is the point of praying? Surely God will just bring it into being? That is how some people might respond to this. Well no, God seems to delight in involving His children in His activities, in helping them to come to understand His will and then in praying for it and perhaps even, sometimes, being the answer to it. He delights in making it a “God and us” thing. Our part is Spirit-led prayer. I wonder if the church is sometimes so weak because so many of His children don’t understand this and don’t pray?

He continues: “Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.” This is amazing. This is the great apostle Paul acknowledging that he needs God’s resourcing  and that he’s aware that that resourcing is enabled by the prayers of other people. I don’t know how many times over the years I’ve heard a testimony that says, “The situation just seemed impossible and then suddenly there was breakthrough and I later learnt that there had been people praying for me.” Coincidence? As a friend used to say, well all I know is that when I stop praying the coincidences stop happening. Within our own church I use a small band of faithful praying people with whom from time to time I share things confidentially and I know that that testimony above is true. I was without energy, or a situation seemed impossible and then something changed; energy flowed, wisdom was given, circumstances changed, and I later found out it was as the people had prayed. It’s a mystery but it’s a mystery that works! You need resourcing? Pray! You want a stronger, more united church? Pray!

9. Prayer

Ephesians Meditations No.9

9. Responsive Prayer

Eph 1:15,16 For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

We commented only just recently in these meditations about link words that are at the beginning of a verse that link it with what has gone before, and here in verse 15 we have the most obvious of linkages, “For this reason…..” Now what is the reason? It’s partly given in the words that follow but mostly he is referring back to what he has said about them previously. In verse 12 he had spoken about “we, who were the first to hope in Christ,” meaning the Jews who were the first believers, but then he went on to refer directly to the Ephesians themselves when he said, “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth” (v.13a) and again, “Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.” (v.13b). So he has been speaking about how they had turned to Christ.

He had first come to Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:19 ) but had stayed briefly. Then shortly afterwards he came back (Acts 19:1-) when he encountered some believers who had apparently not received the Holy Spirit. When “Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied.” (Acts 19:6) Perhaps this was what he had in mind when he referred previously to them being sealed with the Holy Spirit. After this he spoke in the synagogue for three months and then took over a public hall and stayed there and had daily discussions for two years (Acts 19:8-10). Paul clearly had a strong signs and wonders ministry there and a strong deliverance ministry followed (Acts 19:11-20). In other words he had great impact in the city and many became believers.

It seems strange, therefore, that he should go on to say, “ever since I heard about your faith…” because he clearly knew of their faith. Perhaps it is that many more Christians had been added to the church since he was last there and so he is addressing a much wider audience than he previously had. So what would appear to be the situation is that he had known many of them when he had been there previously but many more had been added and news has come to him of the church growth, a very healthy church growth. Now why do we say that? Because it is what he has heard about them that has provoked him to give thanks to God. He has heard about their “faith in the Lord Jesus,” and their love for all the saints.” Do you see those two things – faith that produces love. Now that IS healthy!

Let’s consider these things a bit more. They have established their lives based on what they have heard from God about Jesus – that is faith. Everything they are flows out of this belief; they live according to it. Jesus died for them, Jesus won their hearts and now they want to be like him. He loved the world so now they love each other and they love the world (implied – love doesn’t stop inside the church!). That is real faith. So-called faith that alienates others because of this Jesus is not the Christian faith that these Ephesians knew and Paul had preached. His gospel transformed lives and made new people, people who would love other people just like they were – just like Jesus did!

As the news of this growing church in Ephesus gets back to Paul he is just overwhelmed by what he hears. Yes, he had preached the Gospel there and it had born fruit and the church had been established, but now he hears that it is growing and going on with God, that they are strong with a real faith in Christ that produces love that reaches out to one another and into the world. This thrills him and he just can’t help giving thanks to God because he knows that it is all the work of God. Yes, he had the privilege of starting it off but the Holy Spirit has carried it on through others and so there is growth and blessing. When you see the work of God you cannot help but give thanks as you realise the wonder of what he has achieved. Paul is just so grateful that he has heard of it.

But it is more than just thanks. There is a flow here. He knew of them in the past, and now he’s heard of them again. What he hears now evokes thanks in him for the wonder of what God has done there, and as that brings them to even stronger remembrance it stirs him to pray for them. We’ll see in the next meditation what he prays but for now, see something significant. This appears to have been a church which has grown and grown healthily. You would think that they wouldn’t need praying for, but Paul thinks otherwise. He knows we are all in need of God’s ongoing grace, whether we are doing badly and have very obvious needs of help, or whether we are doing well, in which we need God’s grace to keep us, sustain us, and keep us growing.

Oh yes, we all need God’s grace and Paul knows that when he prays he can be a channel through whom God can move to bring ongoing blessing. For him prayer was a vital element in the Christian life. He blessed people, not only by bringing them the Gospel, preaching, teaching and discussing, but also by praying for them. It wasn’t prayer or witness, but both. Have we caught the realization that we can bless people even when we’re not with them, simply by praying for them and releasing God’s goodness to them in that way? May we learn it and live it.