This past Sunday we talked about Elijah and the Prophets of Baal from 1 Kings 18. We know from looking at James 5:17-18 that one “takeaway” from this story is about the power of prayer. The priests of Baal prayed fervently but “No one answered; no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29). It becomes apparent that the LORD is the true God because he paid attention to Elijah’s prayer. He answered. But we don’t always feel like Elijah on Mt. Carmel. Sometimes we feel like the prophets of Baal. “No one is answering. No one is paying attention.” What do we make of this?
First: It’s worth repeating what was said this past Sunday. “What does the Christian have when he feels like no one is answering or hearing his prayers? The Christian has the cross of Christ – the Christian has a Savior who actually said, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ And what is God doing in that moment where His own Son is crying out – bleeding all over himself like one of those Baal prophets with no answer? What is God doing in that moment? Here’s what: He’s saving the world.
Christ’s cross is certainly a greater trial than anything you or I will ever endure. Certainly the cross of Christ is a greater challenge to God’s power than any water soaked altar. At the cross his own Son is soaked in death and wrath and how does God answer this challenge to his power? How does God answer this challenge to his goodness? How does God respond to the prayers of His own Son on the cross? Here’s how: He raises him from the dead. He gives him a crown, a throne, and a multitude of forgiven sinners to call friends and brothers and sisters.
Second: It’s important to notice that everything Elijah did on Mt. Carmel, including his prayer was done according to the “word of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:36). In other words, Elijah’s prayer was in accord with how God told him to pray. Many times we feel like our prayers aren’t answered because, frankly, we’re just not paying any attention to how the Lord has told us to pray. Put another way: sometimes we’re praying “double-minded” prayers.
Let me give you an example: In James 1 we are famously told to count our trials as joy. We can have this joy knowing that our trials produce steadfastness and steadfastness leads to greater strength and maturity (James 1:2-4). What is not as famous is v. 5 which says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God.” We tend to read this verse in isolation from vv. 2-4. We think James is telling to ask for wisdom generally when, really, he’s telling us to ask for wisdom to “count our trials as joy”. We need God’s wisdom to have joy in trials. Then he says this: “But…ask in faith, with no doubting…[the doubter] will not receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man…” (vv. 7-8).
In other words, the double-minded man is praying (with his mouth) for wisdom in his trial but what he really wants is no more trials. In truth, this man doubts God’s power to provide for him in his trial and instead wants whatever power God does have to end all his difficulties. But this is not how God tells us to pray and the prayers of a double-minded man, we’re explicitly told, are not answered (v. 7).
Third: You might not being paying attention. One problem you and I frequently have when we suffer is not that there’s no help. It’s that we don’t notice the help that’s been sent.
Frequently one of my children will have something that belongs to the other one. Many times when the child notices this they will have a catastrophic melt-down. Almost as frequently as this happens the other one will just hand over what they have but the problem is that the other is so busy having a melt-down that they can’t tell that the other one is trying to give it back to them.
This can be what we are like in suffering. We want help but we don’t notice it. We can’t see that it’s right there. We long for community but never linger at church if we attend regularly at all. We wish our spouse was more affectionate but withhold affection from them. We long for friends that are trustworthy but frequently gossip about others. In other words we are frequently sabotaging ourselves. God has sent us community – it’s right there but we don’t take advantage. He’s sent us friends – they’re right there – but we resist true friendship. We don’t see that God has sent us what we’ve asked and then blame him for not answering.
Fourth: God might simply be saying “no,” in order to say “yes” to something else.
Paul knew what this was like. “8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord aboutthis, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficientfor you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I willboast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christmay rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content withweaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when Iam weak, then I am strong. “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Joni Eareckson-Tada speaks with the same spirit as she recounts what a friend told her after her crippling accident: “God lets you feel much of sin’s sting through suffering, while you are heading for heaven. And it should constantly remind you of what you are being delivered from. So, one form of evil, your pain and paralysis, is turned on its head to defeat another form of evil, and that is your bitterness, resentments, anxieties, fears, and I could go on — all to the praise of God’s wisdom.” You can read the full article about that conversation HERE.
One Final Note:
This is not all that could be said about unanswered prayer, but it’s a start. In all our doubts we must do the “counter-intuitive” thing and believe that what God’s word says is actually true. He does delight to answer his children. He does tell us to pray as a means of changing things down here (especially our hearts). We must doubt our doubts. We must be skeptical about our skepticism. And, finally, we must remember that even in our seasons of pain and doubt Jesus never ceases to be the one who truly said, “28 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I willgive you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I amgentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For myyoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30)