It seems so obvious to us that our prayers should be answered. They are things we long for and about which we are burdened. Surely they are good things and would bring glory to God. Why doesn’t God answer? Such questions put faith and patience to the test especially when we reach the point of desperation. There is a deep mystery here that may be very painful. But we must also recognise that there may be a purpose of mercy when our desires are not fulfilled.
There are some especially helpful insights in a series of sermons preached by Christopher Love on refusing to give up in prayer. Christopher Love (1618-1651) was born in Cardiff, Wales. He was converted at the age of 15 and later became a puritan minister in London. He held firmly to the engagements of the Solemn League and Covenant and was arrested together with other puritans such as Thomas Watson on a charge of treason. It was alleged that they were plotting to bring Charles II to the throne. After being imprisoned he was executed under Cromwell’s government on 22 August 1651. His speech before execution and his final letters to his wife are especially moving.
What God Looks for in Your Prayers
Love observes that Luke 11:8 speaks of the request in the parable being answered not because of the state of friendship but because of the importunity. He notes that sometimes it is not enough that we are reconciled to God and are His friends for certain requests to be answered. We must keep going and not give up. Yet, even when we persevere in prayer – we may not experience the fulfilment. Not only this but prayer must be engaged in by a person in a right relationship with God, in a right way and manner and with a right end in view. God does not say that he will hear our prayers no matter how we pray. This would make us careless.
God requires that prayer is done with feeling, fervency, faith, fear, and reverence. It must be done in a right manner.
There are five things that God requires of us in accepting your prayers.
- Your heart must be prepared (Psalm 10:17)
- Sin must be removed (Job 11:13-15)
- Your affections must be raised (Psalm 25:1)
- Your mind must be fixed and not distracted (1 Corinthians 7:35)
- Your desires must be enlarged after God (Jeremiah 29:13; Psalm 81:10)
When Does God Refuse to Answer Your Prayers?
1. When you indulge sin
Indulging and approving sin in your heart provokes God so that He will not give an answer to your prayers (Psalm 66:18).
2. Asking for things for sinful reasons
We must not seek for mercies from God which we will make fuel for our sin (James 4:3; Matthew 20:21).
3. Asking for things you will not use in the right way
Perhaps God sees that enlarged gifts would make you proud. In Genesis 26:1-2 God denied Isaac from going to Egypt during a famine but in Genesis 46:3 He commands Jacob to go there. Isaac was weaker and would have fallen into the sins of the land. But now Jacob is stronger in grace and would resist their idolatrous ways and not be guilty of their sins. If God denies you something, say to yourself, “this denial is in mercy, for He did not think me fit for it”. This would silence all the murmurings of our hearts against God.
4. Asking for things in a cold and careless way
God promises to be found, if we seek Him with our whole heart. But if we are regardless ourselves how can we expect that God will regard us?
When Can it be a Blessing for God Refuse to Answer Your Prayers?
God does not hear the prayers of the wicked but denies them in wrath. He only denies His people’s prayers in mercy. This is so in the following situations:
1. If it is something sinful in itself
God will not always give His people what they pray for but what is best for them. If God gave His people all they ask for, they would be undone. It is mercy to deny a mad man a sword, for he would cut his own throat with it or to deny a child a knife, for he would cut his fingers with it. In Luke 5:8 Peter says, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord”. If Christ had granted Peter his request, he would have been undone forever. This denial was in mercy.
2. If it would cause us to sin
A man may ask God for wealth but God sees that having wealth would make him proud. Such denial is mercy.
3. If He gives something better in exchange
Moses desired to go into the land of Canaan but it was better to him to go to the heavenly Canaan. God therefore took him there. The apostles asked Christ to tell them when he would restore the kingdom to Israel. He would not not tell them but gave them a greater mercy, He gave them the Holy Spirit. David prayed for the life of his child but God took away the illegitimate child and gave him Solomon. As Bernard of Clairvaux says, God will either give us what we ask or what He knows to be better for us.
4. If He intends to increase your desire for it
God may deny us in order to increase your desires and affections in prayer and make you more eager in pursuing mercy. God often denies what we seek for not because He is unwilling to listen but to see how your heart will be drawn out towards Him in prayer. He wants to make you more vehement and importunate in your desires.
You find this in the woman of Canaan (Matthew 15:22). Jesus Christ takes no notice of her; He answers her not a word (verse 23). That is discouragement. One would have thought she would desist, but she prayed again, and the disciples besought Him to send her away. That is another discouragement, which would have knocked off many; but she continues her request still. Jesus Christ Himself answers her, “I am not sent but to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” That is a third discouragement; and yet that does not cool her affections, but she comes afresh to Christ, and worships Him, saying, “Lord, help me.” She found yet another repulse, and that worse than the former (Matthew 15:26). Christ calls her a dog but she takes encouragement even from this discouraging answer. She was resolved not to give up till she got what she came for. The denials and discouragements God’s people meet with make their desires stronger and their affections to burn hotter.
God was angry with the prayers of His people (Psalm 80:4) so that they might be more fervent. Anselm says that God does not delay to hear our prayers because He has no intention to give but so that our desires may be kindled. This gives Him a reason to give more plentifully.
5. If He sees that we have an excessive desire for it
It may be merciful for God to deny us something in mercy if we set our heart on it too much. If we love it too much in asking we will be excessive in having. Rachel was better to lack children than to desire them with an impetuous desire and rash words (Genesis 30:1). She had a child and died in child-bed. God turns mercies desired too passionately into curses and snares to us, or else takes them away from us.
1. God gets glory even by denying your prayers.
It is better that God should be glorified than that we have what we ask for when we want it (John 11:3-4 and 40).
2. If you do not listen to God’s commands, no wonder if He does not listen to your prayers.
It may be God has been calling you to repent and believe for many years – to be reformed, to forsake the evil of your doings, yet you have not heeded His call. Is it not just for God to let you call and He not hear you? (Micah 3:4; Zechariah 7:13).
3. If you ask coldly.
Do you think God will listen to that prayer which you yourself do not listen to? Do you think God will accept a prayer in which your yourself do not know what you are saying?
4. Perhaps God has given a blessing that you do not acknowledge.
God may have answered your prayers, yet you have not taken any notice of it (Job 9:16-17).
5. Perhaps you are not ready for the answer.
God is always ready to give an answer to our prayers but we are not always ready to receive the answer. God may deny us so that we open our mouths wider (Psalm 81:10).
6. God’s people may wait long for an answer.
It was fifteen years from the time of God’s promise of a child to Abraham until it was accomplished. Zachariah and Elizabeth prayed for a child and while God heard their cries and prayers He did not answer until they were old. So it is often for the Church (Lamentations 3:8 and 44; Habakkuk 1:2).
7. Sometimes God is angry with His people’s prayers.
God may not only defer or deny an answer but even be angry at some times and in some situations with His people’s prayers (Psalm 80:4; Job 30:20-21).
8. God may accept you and listen to your prayers but not grant your request.
In one sense this was even true of Christ in praying for the cup to pass from Him (Matthew 26:39) yet He was heard in that which He prayed (Hebrews 5:7). Moses was a godly man and prayed to see the promised land and go over Jordan to possess it. But God was angry with him and commanded him to pray no more (Deuteronomy 3:23-26).
9. God may give you something better.
Abraham prayed that Ishmael might live before God. God did not hear his prayer as Abraham desired but gave him Isaac and the covenant which was a greater mercy.
10. God may deny your request because to grant it would be a token of wrath.
This would be so if someone asks for something sinful in itself, or that which would be an unavoidable cause of sin or for sinful reasons.
11. God may answer someone else’s prayers for you even if He does not answer your own.
This is a great comfort to every poor weak Christian in the world – they have a stock of prayers going for them to the throne of grace. God forbade Job’s three friends to pray but told Job to pray for them (Job 42:8-9).