There is an arresting line in George Croly’s hymn ‘Spirit of God, descend upon my heart’ (New Christian Hymns, 342) in which he prays ‘teach me the patience of unanswered prayer’. There is another hymn, whose author I cannot trace, which thanks God for ‘the blessing of unanswered prayer’. At first sight the difference between patience and blessing may seem small, but in fact it is quite considerable. Delayed answers to prayer do demand and indeed develop patience, but they are delayed, whereas denied answers are different. They are prayers that God in His wisdom and mercy does not grant, yet they are a blessing, because they are not granted.
Can this distinction be established from Scripture? I believe it can. In a section of his letter which in the New International Version is headed Submit Yourselves to God (4:1-12), James charges the churches to which he is writing about praying with the wrong motives. ‘When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with the wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures’ (v.3). Wrong motives are at work because of fights and quarrels among them (v.1), covetousness (v.2), and pleasure-seeking (v.3). These factors shape their praying so that they ‘ask amiss’ (AV, v.3). They are rightly described as an ‘adulterous people’ who have forgotten that ‘friendship with the world is hatred toward God’ (v.4).
Now supposing that God had granted them their requests? What would have happened? They would have been confirmed in their spiritual adultery, believing it to merit God’s favour. They would have seen their prayers as answered for their sakes, as their means to obtain what they wanted. They would have had no reason to humble themselves before the Lord (v.10) and therefore no experience of His lifting them up.
When God grants such foolish requests it is not because He approves them but because He judges them. In effect He says that if this is what you want, you shall have it, but beware, ‘There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy’ (v.12).
More than once in their wilderness wanderings the children of Israel experienced God’s judgement. For example, dissatisfied with manna, crying out for meat, they brought down God’s wrath upon themselves. God gave them a flock of quails to eat but ‘while the meat was still between their teeth and before it could be consumed, the anger of the Lord burned against the people, and he struck them with a severe plague’ (Num. 11:33). Psalm 106 surely refers to this incident: ‘In the desert they gave in to their craving; in the waste land they put God to the test. So he gave them what they asked for, but sent a wasting disease upon them’ (vv.14-15). They got an answer, but in the form of judgement!
How thankful then we ought to be for the blessing of unanswered prayer. We ask amiss far more often than we care to admit. I have occasionally met men who have earnestly desired to enter the ministry, but it has been evident to me and to others that they had neither the gifts nor the graces for the ministry. They have become disgruntled because their prayers have not been answered. Or have you been praying for a better paid, more congenial job? Could it be that God wants to keep you in your present position in order to be a witness to your colleagues?
An overview of prayer
All truly Christian prayer is to be governed by one overarching principle: ‘your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10). Every prayer for the coming of God’s kingdom is a prayer for God’s will to be done for His glory here on earth as it is always done in heaven. It is God-centred prayer even when we pray for our daily bread – manna rather than meat!
In Scripture we find various kinds of prayer. First there are ‘arrow’ prayers uttered in situations of extremity. For obvious reasons they receive swift answers. For example when King Artaxerxes asked Nehemiah what he wanted, he sent an ‘arrow prayer’ to heaven; he ‘prayed to the God of heaven, and… answered the King’ (Neh. 2:4). Other examples of ‘arrow prayers’ are when Peter was about to drown in the Sea of Galilee (‘Lord save me’ Matt. 14:30) and the cry of the dying thief (‘Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom’ Luke 23:42). Both prayers received quick answers.
Then there are prayers that have delayed answers. Often the psalmists are told to wait for the Lord to vindicate them when they are being bitterly persecuted. ‘How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors?’ (Ps. 119:84). Meanwhile the servant of God learns patience and grows in hope. He does not forget that for centuries the church has prayed for the return of her Saviour, and still she prays, ‘looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness’ (2 Pet. 3:13). In the interim Jews and Muslims are coming to Christ in increasing numbers, so we pray on until the ‘great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’ (Rev. 7:9) is gathered before the throne of God. The promise of Christ that He will return is sure, the delay is great, but He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet (1 Cor. 15:25). Meanwhile we must learn the discipline of delay.
Your will be done
Every prayer should be marked by submission to God’s will, but some prayers are especially so. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed passionately that He might be spared the suffering of the cross. He really shrank from drinking the cup that our sins had mingled. But much as He wanted to miss Calvary He prayed with a submissive spirit: ‘My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done’ (Matt. 26:42). In the frailty of our humanity we must learn submission, especially when we enter the valley of the shadow of death.
I look back over the fifty years of my pilgrimage and thank God for the unanswered prayers I know about and for those I do not. How merciful God is in denying me answers to my foolish prayers.
When this passing world is done,
When has sunk yon radiant sun,
When I stand with Christ on high,
Looking o’er life’s history,
Then, Lord shall I fully know,
Not till then, how much I owe.
Robert Murray M’Cheyne, 1813-43
David Kingdon is a member of the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine.