In my fifty years of leadership and teaching at Dallas Theological Seminary I saw many dramatic answers to prayer. But I have also seen many of my prayers go unanswered. The answered prayers have built my faith, strengthened my walk with God, and given me hope in the midst of perplexing problems. But the silence of God creates tension for me. I find God's silence difficult or sometimes impossible to explain.
Is God Really Silent?
Because of this tension, I have done a great deal of thinking and a great deal of Scripture-searching. I want to know why the same God who miraculously supplies a faculty member to the Seminary allows the family of another faculty member to experience grief and tragedy in the midst of our prayers to the contrary. I want to know why some of our needs are met so miraculously while other needs are seemingly ignored.
In the midst of these questions I remain firmly convinced that God answers prayer. This is my testimony and yours. But all of us have also experienced the silence of God. We have echoed the experience of Habakkuk, "How long, 0 Lord, will I call for help, And Thou wilt not hear?" (Hab. 1:2).* We share David's prophetic anticipation of the experience of Christ, "O my God, I cry by day, but Thou dost not answer; And by night, but I have no rest" (Ps. 22:2).
The Secret of Answered Prayer
What is the secret of answered prayer? Why are some prayers unanswered? I find my answers to those perplexing questions in the Bible. The same Scriptures that assure us God will answer prayer also explain why some of our prayers are seemingly unanswered. These passages have taught me to ask four basic questions about my prayers.
Have you prayed? The first and fundamental principle of answered prayer is faithfulness in prayer itself. Paul urged the Thessalonians, "pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thess. 5:17-18). Paul exhorted the Ephesians, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests" (Eph. 6:18a). Christ assured His disciples, "Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened" (Matt. 7:7-8).
Faithful continued prayer is one key to answered prayer. As James expresses it, "You do not have, because you do not ask God" (James 4:2b). In the words of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus":
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.
If we expect God to answer, we must be faithful in prayer. Yet there is also the wonderful principle of grace that enables God to give us more than we ask. Countless blessings are showered on the Christian every day. Paul expressed this, "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Eph. 3:20). But it all begins with faithful prayer.
Have you prayed according to the will of God? Again and again in the Bible the truth is emphasized that prayer must be according to God's will. Prayer is not a means for us to persuade a reluctant God to do something which is against His better judgment. Prayer, rather is coming to God for the fulfillment of His will, coming to a God who delights to answer prayer.
Praying in the will of God means that the prayer must be in harmony with what God has revealed to be His plan for the world. Our petitions must be in harmony with God's holy and righteous character. What we desire from God must be to the best interest of ourselves and others, even though we may not always know what is ultimately best.
If we pray in the will of God, we can be sure that God will answer. The Apostle John wrote, "We have this assurance in approaching God, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us —whatever we ask — we know that we have what we asked of him" (1 John 5:14-15). These are great promises. In prayer we can approach God with complete assurance of His ability to answer us. There is no limit to what we can ask, if it is according to His will.
John goes on to say that there are prayer requests that God cannot answer because they are not according to His will and not for our best interest (1 John 5:16). James expressed it, "When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures" (James 4:3). Selfish prayers will not be honored by God. Prayer is God's appointed means to receive what is best for us and others and to realize what Paul called "what God's will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom. 12:2b). But what infinite power and possibilities there are in prayer that is according to the will of God.
Is it God's time to answer your prayers? Many times in the experience of those who pray faithfully, God does not say, "No," but, "Wait." There is a proper timing for answered prayer. Sometimes God needs to wait until we are ready for the answer, or perhaps others need to be made ready. Sometimes a delay is necessary to fit into God's overall program. Daniel learned that lesson.
For sixty years Daniel prayed for the return of Israel to Jerusalem, for the rebuilding of the city of God which lay in ruins. It seemed that there was no answer from God. Then Daniel discovered the word of the Lord to Jeremiah, which had said that there would be a wait of seventy years before the captives of Israel could return to their city (Jer. 29:10). With this information, Daniel went to the Lord in fervent prayer. His prayer is one of the great prayers of Scripture (Dan. 9:3-19). When Daniel began to pray, about sixty-eight of the seventy years had already passed. In answer to Daniel's prayer — and in keeping with God's timetable — the Book of Ezra records the return of Israel to its ancient land and capital city. So delay in answering prayer does not mean that God has not heard.
I know a godly Christian family that had a wayward son. For many years they prayed for that boy, but there was no answer. Long after the parents had gone to glory, God wonderfully touched that son and restored him to Himself. The prayers were answered, but in God's time. God is never late and never early in answering prayer.
Is Your Prayer to the Glory Of God? The most searching question we face in prayer is whether our petition is for our own selfish interest, pride, or attainment, or whether it is really to the glory of God. Answers to prayer must always honor God and bring glory to Him. This is one reason prayer must be offered in the name of Christ. Christ assured His disciples, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you... . the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name" (John 15:7, 16b; cf. John 14:13-14).
God delights in honoring His Son. He loves to recognize what His Son has done on the cross to open the floodtides of grace for the believer. Prayer that is offered in the name of Christ and to the glory of Christ is prayer that God can answer. Praying in the name of Christ is a recognition of His infinite person, His deity and majesty. It is recognition of His power to do anything He wills to do. It is recognition of His grace that makes it possible for Him to answer the prayers of imperfect believers. Answered prayer also honors God's promised word, for God cannot lie.
But prayer which glorifies God requires that the person who prays be one whom God delights to honor. We must do some heart-searching to be sure that there is no hindering sin in our lives. As the Psalmist prayed, "Search me, 0 God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way" (Ps. 139:23-24). As the Psalmist expressed it elsewhere, "If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear" (Ps. 66:18). The Psalmist goes on, however, with the reassuring word, "But certainly God has heard; He has given heed to the voice of my prayer" (Ps. 66:19).
Answered Prayer Is Not a Reward for Perfection!
Prayer is not a reward for perfection, but rather is God honoring His servants who earnestly seek to please Him. James writes, "The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective" (James 5:16b). John expressed it, "Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him" (1 John 3:21-22).
God has promised to answer prayer according to His marvelous grace, according to His infinite power, and in keeping with His infinite love and faithfulness. When prayers seem to be unanswered, we must first ask ourselves if we have met the four conditions for answered prayer. Then we can continue to be faithful in prayer. Our attitude can be one of implicit confidence that He "is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us" (Eph. 3:20).
As we praise Him for His faithfulness, seek His will and glory, pray faithfully, and wait patiently until God's time, He will answer us.
*Old Testament quotations are from the New American Standard Bible. © The Lockman Foundation 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968. 1971. 1972. 1973. Used by permission.
*New Testament Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
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