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Unanswered Prayer

Unanswered Prayer

Luke 11: 1-4 and 5-13


In the readings from Luke’s Gospel that we heard today, Jesus had been praying, and when he had finished, one of the disciples had asked him to teach them how to pray. At first this appears to be a straightforward request, but have you ever wondered why the disciple felt the need to ask?

Prayer was a long established and integral part of the Jewish faith with which the disciples, like all Jewish men, were completely familiar. They would have been able to recite the Pentatuch, that is the first five books of the Old Testament, and they would have known the rituals and the prayers just as well as the priests did. The first mention of prayer, or talks with God, is right at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis, and there are many references to prayer throughout most of the books of the Old Testament. The disciples knew all this, so why did they need to ask Jesus to teach them how to pray? After all, we tend to think of the disciples as holy and religious people; they were close to Jesus, so surely they would have known all about prayer.

Luke’s Gospel doesn’t tell us why they felt that they had to ask Jesus for help, but could it be because they realised that they did not have the total confidence that Jesus showed when he prayed to his Father? Maybe they felt that sometimes their prayers went unanswered. If this is so, then it would appear that the disciples had exactly the same problems as we have today.

To answer their question, Jesus taught them what we all know as “The Lord’s Prayer”, which is a prayer for his followers to use. He then went on to tell the story that we read today.

In this story an unexpected visitor had arrived, but the householder did not have any food to give to his guest. Hospitality was very important, and it would have been shameful to be unable to offer his guest anything to eat.

It was late at night, so he could not buy any food. There were no 24 hour supermarkets, so he needed to get help from somewhere if he was to give his guest anything to eat. His only possible source of help was a neighbour, but to get the help he needed he had to overcome his shame, and he had to admit to his neighbour that he had a problem. The neighbour’s family were in bed, and initially the neighbour refused to get out of bed to give him what he wanted. Now in such circumstances most people would give-up, and go away empty-handed, but we are told that if the man was not ashamed to keep-on asking, that eventually the neighbour would give him the bread that he needed.

Jesus then went on to say, “Ask, and you will receive; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. For those who ask will receive, and those who seek will find, and the door will be opened to anyone who knocks.”

I’m sure that these words are familiar to most of us, but do we really believe them?

Jesus clearly said that we will get whatever we ask for if we keep on asking God for it. Doesn’t that sound great? Just think about it for a moment. This seems to say that we can get anything we want if we ask God for it. But let’s be honest, is this our everyday experience? Do we always get what we ask for?

I know that there are many people here today who can tell of times when they are absolutely certain that their prayers have been answered. However, for many of us, or perhaps for most of us at some time in our lives, if we are honest, we have to admit the we didn’t always get what we asked for.

Our common experience is that things don’t always turn-out the way that we want, and there have been times when it has seemed that our most sincere prayers have gone unanswered. But why should this be so? Is there any point in praying?

We know that God answered Jesus’ prayers, but our own prayers sometimes seem to go unheeded. Why is that? Could it be because we are not good enough? Some people think that God doesn’t answer their prayers because they are not good enough.

The answer to this is very simple, “Rubbish!” (Perhaps Mr McNeil would say, “Garbage!”) We have all done stupid things, but God will not turn us away if we are truly sorry and ask for forgiveness. Of course, if we want to receive God’s forgiveness, we will have to keep our side of the bargain. We must forgive other people, and we must do our very best to avoid making the same mistakes again.

But if God will not turn us away, why have we not seen an answer to our prayers? Some people may solve this problem by putting the blame squarely on God. How often have you heard someone say, “God must have other plans.”; “It was not God’s will.”; or perhaps, “The time was not right.”?

Perhaps, deep down, they think that they may have asked God for the wrong thing; for something he was not willing to do. Obviously, we are not likely to get something which God knows would be bad for us or for others, but even when we are convinced that we are asking for a good thing, there are still times when we fail to see an answer to our request. We can sincerely believe that we are asking for a good thing; yet we do not always see an answer, so what is wrong?

Let us imagine that we have been praying for some time for the recovery of a friend who has had an accident. However, in spite of our prayers, our friend is still housebound, and recovery is extremely slow. Is it possible that in this case we are asking God for the wrong thing?

No, I don’t think so. If we are genuinely concerned for our friend how could we possibly be wrong if we are praying for help, healing, comfort and peace? It seems to me to be a perfectly good and reasonable thing to do, so why does it appear that God has not answered?

Well, how do we think God should have responded? Are we expecting a miraculous happening? Well miracles do happen, but not very often as an instantaneous, astounding event. It is even possible that the miracle may have already taken place, and perhaps we have just not looked carefully enough. Let us remember that the Holy Spirit has already motivated people to work in the caring, and associated professions, and there are people, such as researchers and medical staff, and many others, who have spent their working lives developing treatments, and techniques, and improving the skills which they use for the benefit of others.

If we were living in the middle ages, or even up to much more recent times, today’s level of care, and the treatments available for our housebound friend, would undoubtedly be considered miraculous. Remember that God has put many people into our lives, and he can use ordinary people to do extraordinary things. In our prayer we should remember to thank God for all these people, and we should ask for God’s guidance and support for them.

This puts all the responsibility on God to use other people to work his miracles, but I think that there is still something missing. What is our part in this? We must be prepared to take our share of the load because we may be the hands that God wants to use for his purposes.

It is obvious that in a case such as our housebound friend, the help and advice from professionals is essential, and we may make the excuse that we do not have the knowledge, nor the skills, to be of any help. It is true that the majority of us do not have any specialised medical training, but we do not need to be specially trained to do simple acts of kindness. Most of us can do something positive by doing simple things such as shopping, sitting and chatting with them, or household chores such as loading a dishwasher, or putting out the bin. Even a telephone call may make someone feel valued and cared for.

In our prayers we should offer ourselves; and ask for God’s guidance on what we can do. Now it is easy for me to say that we, as Christians, should do all that we can to follow Jesus’ example and help others, but the fact is that many of us are hesitant to offer help. We fear that our offer of help will be rejected, and often there are excuses like, “I don’t like to disturb her.”, “She has plenty of visitors.”, or “Her sister calls most days.”

We make excuses like these because we lack the courage to do what we know we ought to do. We are afraid that we will be in an embarrassing situation if our offer of help is turned-down, so let us also remember to pray for the courage to offer what help we can.

However, sometimes we can feel that we really are unable to offer to do anything worthwhile. If, for example, we have been praying for a national, or international situation, it can appear that we as individuals are powerless, but often we are not completely powerless! Maybe we could support charities which are trying to alleviate the situation, or perhaps we could contact our political leaders, make them aware of our concerns, and so encourage them to use their influence to improve things.

In all situations we all have our parts to play, and it is up to us to look for the opportunities that God will give us, to do our best to show his love and care to others. Yes, it will take courage, and there may be difficulties; but we should not be surprised if we find things difficult, because being a follower of Jesus has never been easy.

Now what should we do if we truly believe that we have asked for the right things, thanked God for all that he has already done, offered to do our part, but we still haven’t seen an answer to our prayer?

Simple; we should do what Jesus told us to do, “Keep praying.” We should not give-up, we should be persistent and keep-on asking. In the story that he told, Jesus said that the man would get what he had asked for because he was not ashamed to keep-on asking. So according to Jesus, it can pay to be persistent! The lesson for us is that we should not give-up if we don’t immediately get what we ask for.

The disciples were like us in many ways, and although, as Jewish men of the first century, they would have had a far more rigorous religious education than most of us, they also struggled with prayer. Jesus understood their problems, so he spent time teaching about prayer.

As Christians we should do our best to follow Christ’s teaching and example, so we should pray too. Another very good reason for praying is that it puts us in our place. It reminds us that we humans are not all-powerful, and that we are completely dependent on God for everything.

Remember that God will not turn us away if come seeking his forgiveness and help.

God will answer our prayers, but we may not be listening, or looking, in the correct way, or in the correct places to see the answer, and too often we simply don’t get the message. God answers prayer in many ways, and sometimes in completely unexpected ways. Sometimes an answer has already been put in place before we ask for it, but at other times we may have to be patient and wait for an answer. God does not work to our timetable.

Frequently God does extraordinary things through the actions of very ordinary people, and we should thank him for all the help that they provide. It may be that each of us could be one of the very ordinary people whom God wants to use for his purposes, so we must be willing to let him use us too. We should ask for his guidance to show us what we can do, and we should ask for the strength and courage to do whatever we can.

Now I have no doubt that sometimes God will have other plans, or God may see that the time is not right, or that whatever we asked for would not be good for us, and there will be times when the answer to our sincerest prayers is, “No”, but that will be for our own good.

Don’t give-up praying; thank God for all the things that he has already done, and for all the people he has put in our lives, but let us not forget that God can see the bigger picture, and he knows what is best for us.


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