Does God Always Answer Prayer?
We now come to one of the most important questions that anyone can ask. Very much depends upon the answer we are led to give. Let us not shrink from facing the question fairly and honestly. Does God always answer prayer? Of course, we all grant that He does answer—some prayers, sometimes. But does He always answer true prayer?
Some so-called prayers He does not answer, because He does not hear them. When His people were rebellious, He said, “When ye make many prayers, I will not hear.” (Isaiah 1:15) But a child of God ought to expect answers to prayer. God means every prayer to have an answer; and not a single real prayer can fail of its effect in heaven.
And yet that wonderful declaration of Paul, “All things are yours… [for] ye are Christ’s,” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23) seems so plainly and so tragically untrue for most Christians. Yet it is not so. They are ours, but so many of us do not possess our possessions. The owners of Mount Morgan, in Queensland, toiled arduously for years on its barren slopes, eking out a miserable existence, never knowing that under their feet was one of the richest sources of gold the world has ever known. There was wealth, vast, undreamt of, yet unimagined and unrealized. It was “theirs,” yet not theirs.
The Christian, however, knows of God’s “riches in glory in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:19)RV but he does not seem to know how to get them.
Now, our Lord tells us that they are to be had for the asking. May He indeed give us all a right judgment in “prayer-things.” When we say that no true prayer goes unanswered, we are not claiming that God always gives just what we ask for. Have you ever met a parent so foolish as to treat his child like that? We do not give our child a red-hot poker because he clamors for it! Wealthy people are often the most careful not to allow their children much pocket-money. Why, if God gave us all we prayed for, we should rule the world, and not He! And surely we would all confess that we are not capable of doing that. Moreover, more than one ruler of the world is an absolute impossibility!
God’s answer to prayer may be “Yes,” or it may be “No.” It may also be “Wait,” for it may be that He plans a much larger blessing than we imagined, and one which involves other lives as well as our own.
God’s answer is sometimes “No.” But this is not necessarily a proof of known and willful sin in the life of one requesting, although there may be sins of ignorance. He said “No” to Paul sometimes (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). More often than not the refusal is due to our ignorance or selfishness in asking. “For we know not how to pray as we ought.” (Romans 8:26)RV That was what was wrong with the mother of Zebedee’s children. She came and worshipped our Lord and made a request. His prompt reply was, “Ye know not what ye ask.” (Matthew 20:22) Elijah, a great man of prayer, sometimes had “No” for an answer. But when he was swept up to glory in a chariot of fire, did he regret that God said “No” when he cried out, “O Lord, take away my life” (1 Kings 19:4)?
God’s answer is sometimes “Wait.” He may delay the answer because we are not yet fit to receive the gift we crave—as with wrestling Jacob. Do you remember the famous prayer of Augustine—“O God, make me pure, but not yet”? Are not our prayers sometimes like that? Are we always really willing to “drink of the cup” (Matthew 20:22; Mark 10:38)—to pay the price of answered prayer? Sometimes He delays so that greater glory may be brought to Himself.
God’s delays are not denials. We do not know why He sometimes delays the answer and at other times answers “before [we] call.” (Isaiah 65:24) George Müller, one of the greatest men of prayer of all time, had to pray over a period of more than sixty-three years for the conversion of a friend! Who can tell why? “The great point is never to give up until the answer comes,” said Müller. “I have been praying for sixty-three years and eight months for one man’s conversion. He is not converted yet, but he will be! How can it be otherwise? There is the unchanging promise of Jehovah, and on that I rest.” Was this delay due to some persistent hindrance from the devil (Daniel 10:13)? Was it a mighty and prolonged effort on the part of Satan to shake or break Müller’s faith? For no sooner was Müller dead than his friend was converted—even before the funeral.1
[The editor of this edition has been unable to find a definite source for these statements. A quote found in An Hour with George Muller, edited by Albert Sims, is slightly different:
“The great point is to never give up until the answer comes. I have been praying every day for fifty-two years for two men, sons of a friend of my youth. They are not converted yet, but they will be! How can it be otherwise? There is the unchanging promise of Jehovah, and on that I rest.”
Other references to these persistent prayers of Müller state that those men were finally converted years after his death, so although the details may be inaccurate, the author’s point is still valid.]
Yes, his prayer was granted, though the answer tarried long in coming. So many of George Müller’s petitions were granted him that it is no wonder that he once exclaimed, “Oh, how good, kind, gracious, and condescending is the One with Whom we have to do!… I am only a poor, frail, sinful man, but He has heard my prayers tens of thousands of times.”2
[An Hour with George Müller]
Perhaps some are asking, How can I discover whether God’s answer is “No” or “Wait”? We may rest assured that He will not let us pray sixty-three years to get a “No”! Müller’s prayer, so long repeated, was based upon the knowledge that God has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33:11); He “will have all men to be saved.” (1 Timothy 2:4)
Even as I write, the postman brings me an illustration of this. A letter comes from one who very rarely writes me, and did not even know my address—one whose name is known to every Christian worker in England. A loved one was stricken down with illness. Is he to continue to pray for her recovery? Is God’s answer “No,” or is it, “Go on praying—wait”? My friend writes: “I had distinct guidance from God regarding my beloved… that it was the will of God she should be taken… I retired into the rest of surrender and submission to His will. I have much to praise God for.” A few hours later God took that loved one to be with Him in glory.
Again may we urge our readers to hold on to this truth: true prayer never goes unanswered.
If we only gave more thought to our prayers we should pray more intelligently. That sounds like a truism. But we say it because some dear Christian people seem to lay their common sense and reason aside before they pray. A little reflection would show that God cannot grant some prayers. During the Great War every nation prayed for victory. Yet it is perfectly obvious that all countries could not be victorious. Two people living together might pray, the one for rain and the other for fine weather. God cannot give both these things at the same time in the same place!
But the truthfulness of God is at stake in this matter of prayer. We have all been reading again those marvelous prayer-promises of our Lord, and have almost staggered at those promises—the wideness of their scope, the fullness of their intent, the largeness of the one word “whatsoever.” Very well! “Let God be true.” (Romans 3:4) He certainly will always be found true.
Do not stop to ask if God has granted all my prayers—He has not. To have said “yes” to some of them would have spelled curse instead of blessing. To have answered others was, alas! a spiritual impossibility—I was not worthy of the gifts I sought. The granting, of some of them would but have fostered spiritual pride and self-satisfaction. How plain all these things seem now, in the fuller light of God’s Holy Spirit!
As we look back and compares our eager, earnest prayers with our poor, unworthy service and lack of true spirituality, we see how impossible it was for God to grant the very things He longed to impart! It was often like asking God to put the ocean of His love into a thimble-heart! And yet, how God just yearns to bless us with every spiritual blessing! How the dear Savior cries again and again, “How often would I… and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37) The sadness of it all is that we often ask and do not receive because of our unworthiness—and then we complain because God does not answer our prayers! The Lord Jesus declares that God gives the Holy Spirit—who teaches us how to pray—just as readily as a father gives good gifts to his children. But no gift is a “good gift” if the child is not fit to use that gift. God never gives us something that we cannot, or will not, use for His glory. (I am not referring to talents, for we may abuse or “bury” those, but to spiritual gifts.)
Did you ever see a father give his baby boy a razor when he asked for it, because he hoped the boy would grow into a man and then find the razor useful? Does a father never say to his child, “Wait till you are older”—or bigger, or wiser, or better, or stronger? May not our loving heavenly Father also say to us, “Wait”? In our ignorance and blindness we must surely sometimes say,
“…In very love refuse
Whate’er Thou knowest our weakness would abuse.”3
[John Keble, The Christian Year]
Rest assured that God never bestows tomorrow’s gift today. It is not unwillingness on His part to give. It is not that God is ever unable in Himself. His resources are infinite, and “his ways [are] past finding out.” (Romans 11:33) It was after bidding His disciples to ask that our Lord goes on to hint not only at His providence, but at His resources. “Look at the wild birds; …your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26)MNT How simple it sounds. Yet have you ever reflected that not a single millionaire, the wide world over, is wealthy enough to feed all “the birds of the air,” even for one day? Your heavenly Father feeds them every day, and is none the poorer for it. Shall He not much more feed you, clothe you, take care of you?
Oh, let us rely more upon prayer! Do we not know that “he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Hebrews 11:6)? The “oil” of the Holy Spirit will never cease to flow so long as there are empty vessels to receive it (2 Kings 4:6). It is always we who are to blame when the Spirit’s work ceases. God cannot trust some Christians with the fullness of the Holy Spirit. God cannot trust some workers with definite spiritual results in their labors. They would suffer from pride and vainglory. No, we do not claim that God grants every Christian everything they prays for.
As we saw in an earlier chapter, there must be purity of heart, purity of motive, purity of desire, if our prayers are to be in His name. God is greater than His promises, and often gives more than either we desire or deserve—but He does not always do so. So, then, if any specific petition is not granted, we may feel sure that God is calling us to examine our hearts. For He has undertaken to grant every prayer that is truly offered in His name. Let us repeat His blessed words once more—we cannot repeat them too often—“Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
Remember that it was impossible for Christ to offer up any prayer which was not granted. He was God—He knew the mind of God—He had the mind of the Holy Spirit.
Does He once say, “Father, if it be possible, let…” (Matthew 26:39) as He kneels in agony in Gethsemane’s garden, pouring out “strong crying and tears” (Hebrews 5:7)? Yes, and He was “heard for his reverential awe.” (Hebrews 5:7)Haweis Surely not the “agony,” but the son-like fear, gained the answer? Our prayers are heard not so much because they are urgent but because they are filial.
Fellow Christian, we cannot fully understand that hallowed scene of dreadful awe and wonder. But this we know—that our Lord never yet made a promise which He cannot keep, or does not mean to fulfil. The Holy Spirit “maketh intercession for us,” (Romans 8:26) and God cannot say Him “Nay.” The Lord Jesus makes intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25), and God cannot say Him “Nay.” His prayers are worth a thousand of ours, but it is He who bids us pray!
“But was not Paul filled with the Holy Spirit?” you ask, “and did he not say, ‘We have the mind of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 2:16)? Even so, he asked thrice over that God would remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7)—and yet God distinctly tells him He would not do so.”
Yes, it is remarkable that the only petition recorded of Paul seeking something for his own individual need was refused! The difficulty, however, is this: why did Paul, who had the mind of Christ, ask for something which he soon discovered was contrary to God’s wishes? There are doubtless many fully-consecrated Christians reading these words who have been perplexed because God has not given some things they prayed for.
We must remember that we may be filled with the Spirit and yet err in judgment or desire. We must remember, too, that we are never filled with God’s Holy Spirit once for all. The evil one is always on the watch to put his mind into us, so as to strike at God through us. At any moment we may become disobedient or unbelieving, or may be betrayed into some thought or act contrary to the Spirit of love.
We have an astonishing example of this in the life of Peter. At one moment, under the compelling influence of God’s Holy Spirit, he cries, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16)! Our Lord turns, and with words of high commendation says, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17) Yet, a very little while after, the devil gets his mind into Peter, and our Lord turns and says unto him, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” (Matthew 16:23) Peter was now speaking in the name of Satan! Satan still desires to have us.
Paul thought that he could do far better work for his beloved Master if only that “thorn” could be removed. But God knew that Paul would be a better man with the thorn than without it.
Is it not a comfort to us to know that we may bring more glory to God under something which we are apt to regard as a hindrance or handicap, than if that undesired thing was removed? “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)RV Remember that
“God nothing does, nor suffers to be done,
But what thou wouldst thyself, couldst thou but see
The end of all events as well as He.”4
Paul was not infallible—nor was Peter, or John; nor is the Pope or any other man. We may—and do—offer up mistaken prayers. The highest form of prayer is not, “Thy way, O God, not mine,” but “My way, O God, is Thine.” We are taught to pray, not “Thy will be changed,” but “Thy will be done.” (Luke 11:2)
May we, in conclusion, give the testimony of two who have proved that God can be trusted?
Sir H. M. Stanley, the great explorer, wrote: “I for one must not dare to say that prayers are inefficacious. Where I have been in earnest, I have been answered. When I prayed for light to guide my followers wisely through the perils that beset them, a ray of light has come upon the perplexed mind, and a clear road to deliverance has been pointed out. You may know when prayer is answered, by the glow of content which fills one who has flung his cause before God, as he rises to his feet. I have evidence, satisfactory to myself, that prayers are granted.”
Mary Slessor, the story of whose life in West Africa has surely thrilled us all, was once asked what prayer meant to her. She replied, “My life is one long, daily, hourly record of answered prayer for physical health, for mental overstrain, for guidance given marvelously, for errors and dangers averted, for enmity to the Gospel subdued, for food provided at the exact hour needed, for everything that goes to make up life and my poor service. I can testify with a full and often wonder-stricken awe that I believe God answers prayer. I know God answers prayer!”