Conflict With Unanswered PrayerErwin W. Lutzer | August 31, 1997
Selected highlights from this sermon
When God seems to shut the door on our prayers we tend to get frustrated. But God isn’t being silent; He may be saying, “not yet.”
David wanted to a build a temple for God, but God surprised him with a “no.” The Lord revealed that He had a better plan—David’s son was to take up the task of building the temple, and David’s kingdom and throne would never end. So though God may say “no” to your prayer requests, it may be that He has something bigger in mind for you.
I think we all have to agree that one of the greatest disappointments in life is unanswered prayer. I think of the little girl who held a doll in her arms, hoping and praying that the little doll would become a real baby. And when that didn’t happen, she said that she never prayed again until she was a teenager, she was so disappointed with God. Well, sometimes we should be glad that God does not answer our prayers.
But then I think of a woman who prayed that her daughter would grow up and become a missionary. Not only did her daughter not become a missionary, but she married a non-Christian. And here’s this woman in bitterness and anger saying, “Why should I ever bother God with another request again?”
I think of a young man who was dying of cancer. His church decided that they would have a prayer vigil. They prayed all night on a couple of occasions, and then they had a prayer chain. So they prayed for him around the clock, and still he died. And someone in that church was so bitter they also said, “I don’t think I’m ever going to pray again. Why should we?”
Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt that it is very difficult to believe and to go on believing when you think you knew what God should have done, and He didn’t?
Barbara Sanderville, a paraplegic, said, “Knowing that God had the power to heal me but wouldn’t made me very bitter. I would read Isaiah 53, and 1 Peter 2:24, and accuse God of holding the promise of healing before me like a piece of meat before a starving dog. He tempted me by showing me the potential but never allowed me to reach it.”
Does God answer all of our prayers? Some people say, “Well, yes, of course. Sometimes He answers them by saying no.” (chuckles) I don’t think that’s much of an answer. When our children were growing up, and if they had come in and said, you know, “Dad, I want five dollars,” and I said, “No,” I don’t think they’d have gone out and told their friends, “You know, one thing I like about my dad is he always answers all of my requests.” I don’t think they’d have done that.
Sometimes God answers no. He said to Paul who had a thorn in the flesh, “No, I’m not going to take it from you.” Sometimes the answer then is denied. Sometimes it is delayed, in the case of Abraham. God gave him a promise that he was going to have a son, and Abraham became so impatient that he ended up marrying Hagar and having a child by her to help God fulfill His promises. If only he had waited he would have noticed that sometimes the answer is delayed. It’s not denied. It’s just delayed. And the work that God does in us while we are waiting for Him to answer our prayer is sometimes as great as the answered prayer itself.
Sometimes the answer is disguised. It’s there but it’s not in the form that we expected it.
David had his own experience with a desire that God said no to. And it’s found in a book of the Old Testament, 2 Samuel, chapter 7, as we shall see in a moment, one of the most important chapters in the whole Old Testament. Second Samuel, chapter 7. You’ll notice it says in verse 1, “It came about when the king lived in his house, and the Lord had given him rest on every side from his enemies that the king said to Nathan, the prophet, ‘See now, I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells within tent curtains.’ And Nathan said to the king, ‘Do all that is in your mind for the Lord is with you.’”
You’ll notice that Nathan and David had talked about this before clearly because David just says, “Now, remember that I dwell in a house of cedar, but God, that is to say the ark...” I need to pause here and remind you that the ark was about four feet long and a foot and a half high and a foot and a half high wide, and that that symbolized the presence of God. The ark was not God. But it is there that the glory of God was localized, and as we noticed, when they came into the land under Joshua it was at Shiloh, and then it moved around some. And now David brought it back to Jerusalem. During the days, you know, of the desert, it was, of course, in a tent, and as I mentioned, it made its rounds. And now it was in Jerusalem, and David says, “I want to build a permanent structure for it, not just a tent, but a temple.” That was his desire. And Nathan says to him, verse 3, “Go and do all that is in your mind for the Lord is with you.” Good idea. Why not?
A couple of reasons why it was an excellent idea. First of all, because God wanted it. God wanted that ark to be localized in Jerusalem because Jerusalem was to be the capital of the nation. “I have chosen Jerusalem of all the cities,” it says in the book of Psalms. Secondly, David had a good motive. He was not trying to build a monument to himself. He was really intending to build a monument to God. Isn’t that wonderful? This was not to be David’s house. This was to be God’s house. Furthermore, David had the time and the energy to do it. Things were at a period of peace. He was a powerful king. The nation was unified. They could add some taxes. They could collect the funds. He had the workmen that could have been trained to do the work, and it could have happened. And so he thought that the answer was yes. The light was green.
But notice Nathan spends the night, and lo and behold, God comes to Nathan the next day, or rather Nathan comes to David the next day and says, “Guess what? I have to withdraw the building permit because God said, ‘Go and say to my servant, David, “Thus says the Lord. Are you the one who should build me a house? For I have not dwelt in a house since the day that I was brought up with the sons of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I’ve been moving about in a tent, even a tabernacle. Wherever I have gone with all the sons of Israel, did I speak a word with one of the tribes of Israel, which I commanded to shepherd my people, Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built a house of cedar?’”’” God says, “It is not as if this is something that has to be done immediately.” The Lord says, “Now, David, the answer is no. You’re not going to.”
Now if we were to read the book of Chronicles, we’d discover that the reason is because David was a man of bloodshed. David not only fought wars, but as we’ve learned, he seemed to love wars, and God says, “If you’re going to build a house for me, and it is to be known as a house of peace, you’re probably not the person to do it.”
And then the Lord says something to David that is very unexpected, and very beautiful. God says, “The answer is denied. You cannot build me a house, but rather than you doing something for me, I am going to do something for you.” God is speaking in verse 10. “I also will appoint a place for my people, Israel, and will plant them that they may live in their own place and not be disturbed again, nor will the wicked afflict them anymore as formerly, even as from the day that I commanded judges to be over my people, Israel, and I will give you rest from all your enemies.”
And now here’s the key verse. Notice it: “The Lord also declares to you that the Lord will make a house for you.” Well, that’s a wonderful twist. David said, “I’m going to make a house for God.” God said, “No, you can’t do that, but I’ll make a house for you.”
Now, you need to understand that the word house here is used in two different ways. When David says, “I want to build a house for God,” he is talking about the temple. When God says, “I’m going to build you a house,” He is thinking of posterity. He is thinking of descendants, and this becomes very, very important.
Now, I want you to notice that when God says no, that’s not the end of it, that’s not the end of it. God says, “David, I’m going to give you a new promise.” And that’s what God does to us when He says no to our prayers. It is not as if we receive a new promise independently of the Scriptures, but suddenly within the text of Scripture we see promises for ourselves that come to us in a new way. God reminds us that He is with us. He reminds us that the suffering of this present world is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us. God reveals Himself in a new way when He says no.
Now I mentioned a moment ago that this is one of the most important passages in the whole Old Testament because it contains the covenant that God made with David. So with your Bibles open, let’s continue to read at verse 12 of 2 Samuel, chapter 7. “When your days are complete and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your descendant after you who will come forth from you, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name. (That, of course, is Solomon.) And I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he will be a son to me. When he commits iniquity I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the son of men. But my lovingkindness shall not depart from him as I took it away from Saul whom I removed from before you.”
Just that far for a moment.
God says, “David, you’re not going to build a house, but you’re going to have a descendant who will. And of course, that descendant was Solomon. It’s time to have a parenthesis here. We need a little recess from the text and remember something. Solomon had not been born yet. As a matter of fact, David is going to have Solomon as his son from Bathsheba with whom David is going to commit adultery, as we shall see in the next message. Isn’t that the amazing incredible grace of God? In no sense should we think that God was somehow in any way diminishing the impact of David’s sin. If you ever think that, be sure to come as we speak on that text, and you will see that David paid tremendously for his sin. In fact, David went through more grief because of that immorality and murder that it engendered than anyone could possibly imagine. It destroyed his family, destroyed his kingdom, but in the midst of it there is grace. God says, “Solomon.” He’s not named here and David didn’t know his name. David couldn’t have predicted who it was. Even if he had a computer with a Bible code, he could not have seen into the future to know who the next king was going to be who would do this. But God said, “You’re going to have a son, and he will do it.
Now, the Lord doesn’t stop there though. And therefore we shouldn’t either. We have to keep reading. Verse 16! And there are three words in this text that you should lightly underline in your Bible. “And your house (that’s the first word) and your kingdom (that’s the second one) shall endure before me forever and your throne (there’s the third) shall be established forever.”
Imagine what God is saying to David. He is saying, “David, I want you to know that I am making a covenant with you so that your house, that is your descendants and your kingdom (that refers to territory over which you will rule) and your throne (that is, political power) shall endure forever.”
Now, we need to just relax a little bit here, get our minds in gear and ask a very important question. Has this passage been fulfilled? Has the Word of God been fulfilled? And the answer is no because surely David had descendants, but they were not ruling forever, and as a matter of fact, later on, you have the divisions of the kingdom, and you have Israel taken from the land, and you have a terrible, terrible gruesome history that takes place, and somehow we read this and we say, “It’s unfulfilled.” There are those who say, “Well, it is being fulfilled in heaven. Jesus is ruling in heaven, and that’s the fulfillment in Jesus.” Well, it is true that the fulfillment is in Jesus, as we shall see in a moment, but David could never possibly have understood this to be Christ ruling in heaven or a descendant of his ruling in heaven. He’s talking about the earth. He’s talking about Jerusalem. He’s talking about a territory with certain boundaries geographically. Could it be that this was a conditional covenant? Might it be that God said, “Well, because the Jews were unfaithful, therefore I don’t have to fulfill it?” No, it can’t be that because listen to what God’s Word says about that. I’m reading from Psalm 89.
Verse 3: “I have made a covenant with my chosen. I have sworn to David, my servant, ‘I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations.’” Just listen to this, “My covenant I will not violate, nor will I alter the utterance of my lips. Once I have sworn by my holiness I will not lie to David. His descendants shall endure forever, and his throne as the son before him.”
How is that to be fulfilled? Well, you know, about a thousand years later, an angel appears to the virgin Mary, and he says to her, “You shall have a child. He shall be great. He shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father, David, and he shall rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
You see, folks, this is why some of us are naive enough to believe that there is a day coming when Christ is still going to rule over the territory of David and much beyond that, actually still rule in Jerusalem on this Earth through what we call the millennial kingdom. Some people find it difficult to believe that. They say, “Well we know that Jesus rules in heaven, but you mean when He comes back in all of His glory, He still is going to rule on this Earth?” An we say “Yeah, on this Earth because God says, ‘David, you’re going to have a house, and you’re going to have a descendant, and your throne is going to endure forever, and it is going to be over the territory that you ruled, which is Jerusalem. It is Israel. It is the Middle East. It is time, space. It is Earth.’”
When do you think all of those prophecies are going to be fulfilled when it says, “They shall beat their swords into plow shears, the spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more?” That will be fulfilled during that kingdom when Christ rules. And that’s now a complicated subject that we can’t get into here. At some point we will, but not today, but that’s what we anticipate is that Christ will yet rule from this Earth. And when do you think it will be that the lion and the lamb shall lie down together in peace, because as I have often mentioned, nowadays when the lion stands up the lamb is missing? But someday, they’ll live together in peace.
Now, here’s what God said to David that day. David said, “Lord, I want to build you a house.” And he’s thinking of a temple. God says, “David, I want you to know that I am going to build you a house (namely, descendants). The temple that you build will not last forever, but I’m going to build you something that is going to last forever. You’re going to have a descendant that is going to rule forever. And that, of course, is fulfilled in Christ. And that’s why in the book of Revelation Jesus is spoken of as the root and the offspring of David as Christ fulfills the Davidic Covenant.
Do you see that when God says no to us that it is His intention to give us something else in the place of the no? It isn’t a cold harsh “no” like some fathers might be with their children, simply saying no. It’s a loving no. And I might say that God says yes as often as He can, as long as that yes is consistent with His purposes and His plans. But sometimes God does say no, but when He does, He gives us a new promise.
There’s something else that God gave David that day. God gave him new intimacy in a new relationship with Him. You’ll notice it says in verse 18, “Then David, the king, went in and sat before the Lord, and he said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house that thou has brought me thus far, and yet this was insignificant in thine eyes, O Lord God, for thou has spoken also of the house of thy servant concerning the distant future. And this is the custom of man, O Lord. And more again, what can David say to thee for thou knowest thy servant, O Lord.”
Verse 22, “Thou are great, O Lord, for there is none like thee and there is no God beside thee according to all that we have heard with our ears.” And David spills out before the Lord his own heart. And he and God are closer than they have ever been.
You know, sometimes when God says no, here’s what He does. He says, “Look, I’m not going to fulfill that desire that you’re asking about, but I am going to give you the fulfillment of another desire which is even more basic, which is even more necessary, and that is a need for Myself,” because at the end of the day, that is always our greatest need.
As George McDonald says, “You know, a child runs away and then comes home because he’s hungry. But he needs his mother more than he does his supper.” And I want you to know today that our great abiding need is always for God.
You know, in biblical times it was an agricultural society, so people would pray and they would ask God for a good crop, just like we used to do out on the farm too. You need a good crop? Yeah, you’ve got bills to pay? And I know that during the harvest it’s such a time of rejoicing. Do you know what it says in Psalm 4:7? It says that the gladness that you, O Lord, give me within my heart is greater than the grain and the new wine. It’s better than a good crop. God says, “When I say no, it’s an invitation for you to draw closer to Me and to know that I may say no to your request, but I’m saying yes to more intimate fellowship.”
You look at what people desire today, and how can it be described except for pleasure. Right? Isn’t that what everybody lives for, a good time? And there’s nothing wrong with that. (chuckles) You know the problem that the world has is not it’s going for pleasure. It’s just that it’s satisfied with such puny pleasures. There are better pleasures, pleasures at the right hand of God the Father. But there may be Christians even who know nothing of those kinds of pleasures, you see.
I like what C.S. Lewis says. He says, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition. When infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he can’t imagine what is meant by the author of a holiday at sea, we are far too easily satisfied.” You want to live for pleasure? Live for pleasure, but when you do, go for the greatest of pleasures, and that is the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God.
So David sits before the Lord. He says, “God, I can’t believe this. I was going to do something great for You. You’re doing something for me that is far greater than my plans were for You. Your dream for me is much bigger than my dream was for You. And I’m just going to sit before the Lord, and I’m going to worship You.”
And you know, that’s another example of intimacy that God brings about through unanswered prayer. Sometimes God even takes us and we are sick and we are laid aside because it is there on the shelf, away from all the hustle and the bustle, that we finally give God His due. We finally give Him the time that we thought we never had when it was all going well.
Intimacy. “Martha, Martha,” said Jesus. “Thou art careful and thou art troubled about many things, but one thing is needful and that is you’re sister, Mary, is sitting here at my feet.” David sitting with God.
I have to ask you. How far along are you in your Christian walk? Do you ever just plain enjoy God? Do you come into His presence, not because you have a request, not because you absolutely need this request answered, so that you might be fulfilled? No. There are all kinds of unfilled desires that people have in life, and they live with those unfulfilled desires, but their greatest desire is fulfilled, and that is for God. But you come to enjoy Him and you say, “God, I am sitting in Your presence, and through Your Word, and through Your promises You’ve revealed Yourself to me, and I just want to tell You how great You are, how wonderful You are, and I want to have some secrets that only You and I know about at the secret place of sitting in His presence.”
What did God say to David when He said no? He said, “David, first of all, I’m going to give you some new promises. Secondly, I’m going to give you some new intimacy. And thirdly,” he says, “I’m going to give you a new project.”
In 1 Chronicles 29 we have the very interesting story of how the text tells us that David decided that, though he was not permitted to build the temple, he would help Solomon build the temple by preparing all the materials. And it says in that passage that David said, “With all of my heart, Lord, I have gathered silver, and I have gathered gold, and I have gathered timber to prepare for someone else to do what I couldn’t.”
Now, there’s an idea. You have an unanswered prayer, why don’t you get in on somebody else who is able to do what you can’t, and get in on their dream? Let me put it a little more clearly. Your dream is broken, smashed. Find someone else whose dream you can help be fulfilled. You want to go to the mission field, but you can’t. Send somebody else. Be their support system. Be their prayers and their money, and you help them fulfill their dream, and God will bless you because of your servant role.
You desire children, that is the great desire of your heart? You say that “I just can’t live with this sense of unfulfillment and God has not given you children.” Become surrogate parents. Find some other children who need you and fulfill your dream in their lives. You want a certain vocation and God has not allowed you to have that vocation? The education that you hoped that you would have has not come to you? Find someone who is able to do perhaps what you cannot, and get next to them and help them. Selflessly help them fulfill your dream. And do you know what God will do? He will bless you for it.
The text says in the Old Testament, “If you give yourself to the needs of the hungry, and if you remember the poor, and if you knock yourself out for somebody else...” That’s a very loose Lutzerian translation. He says, “If you do all that,” God says, “then your light shall arise within your own soul, and you will be blessed.” God says, “David, the answer is no, but you’ve got some new promises, new intimacy, and a new project. You can help.”
What is the bottom line? Well, I think the bottom line is this, that when God says “no” to us, the reason that He says no is because His dream for us is greater than our dream for ourselves. He’s got a better dream. Now, I know that’s a tough sell, so just grasp it in faith and hang on to it.
One day the Apostle Paul was going through a very difficult time. He said he had a skolops (that’s the Greek word), a “thorn in the flesh.” We don’t know what it was. Was it malaria? Was it bad eyesight? Was it some people with whom he worked? I’ll tell you there are some thorns in the flesh that sometimes come about, not the ones that are on the platform, I might say. (laughter) I don’t know what it was, but Paul said, “Three times I prayed to the Lord, and I said, ‘O God, remove it, remove it!” Talk about a very specific prayer. And God says, “No. Answer denied.” But God is not harsh. It’s not as if He just says (claps), “No, out of here!” No, no, no. God says, “Paul, my grace is sufficient for you. My strength is perfected in weakness.” Paul says, “Most gladly will I therefore rather glory in my infirmity. I glory in the very thing I ask God to remove that the power of Christ may rest on me.”
You see, God’s dream for Paul was a better dream than the one he had. His dream was, “Get me out of this.” God says, “I’m going to leave you in it, but I’ll give you the grace to bear it, and My power and My blessing will be upon you in a way that you would not have experienced if I had answered your prayer. My dream is bigger and it is better than yours.”
One day there was a man sitting in prison. His name was John the Baptist. John...God bless John. I mean there he is. He’s telling a king what to do and telling him he’s living in immorality, and he gets thrown into jail. You know the whole story, and here he is. And dungeons in those days were not like the prison systems in Illinois. I’ll tell you they were terrible. And there he is in jail and his half cousin, Jesus, is preaching about all these wonderful things and doing all these wonderful miracles, and he’s beginning to think, “You know, that’s really neat. That’s really, really neat. Here He can pull all this off. I’m in jail because of righteousness and He won’t lift a finger to get me out of this mess.” And he began to doubt whether Jesus was the Messiah or not.
There’s nothing wrong with some doubts. It’s sometimes said that he who has never doubted has never really believed. He’s just trying to put it together. I mean, it doesn’t add up. If he were German he would have said, “es stimmt nicht.” It’s just not the way it’s supposed to be. And so he sends a delegation to Jesus, you remember, and he says, “Jesus, are you the one who should come, or should we look for another? Have I misread the divine intention?”
And then you remember the story. Jesus sends a delegation back and says, “You know, tell John a couple of things. Tell him that the dead are being raised. The blind are seeing. The poor are having the Gospel preached unto them, but don’t end your little speech there. Add a little footnote and say, “Blessed is he who is not offended because of Me. Blessed is the person who is not upset with the way in which I run My business. Blessed is the person who goes on believing even when he’s not delivered and his prayers are unanswered.”
And John, of course, had no answer to his prayers. He was beheaded and that was the end of it. You know what? John died before he heard Jesus say these marvelous words. Jesus said to His disciples, “I want you to know that there is none born of woman that is as great as John the Baptist.” He didn’t know that Jesus had that kind of an opinion of him. There’s this person who is going through all this suffering, all this despair, all of the disappointments of life, one after another, after another, continually being knocked down. And there does not seem to be any help from heaven. And they would like to give up, and they don’t know but that Jesus might be saying to the Father, “Of those born of woman there is no greater,” and then name the person.
Why? Because Jesus says, “I know that your dream isn’t there but I’ve got a bigger and a better one. Your suffering is precious, and speaking eternally, there will be such an explosion of wonder over the life that you lived, and the glory that will be revealed that you will say in sincerity, “It was worth it all.” But you don’t see that here, but in the end you will because my dream is bigger than yours. And when I say no, it’s because I’m saying yes to something much more grand.”
I asked the Lord for strength that I might do great things.
He gave me infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
He gave me poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might sway men.
He gave me weakness that I might learn God’s grace.
I asked for companionship that I might be fulfilled.
He gave me loneliness that I might be feeling my need of God.
I received nothing that I asked for but really all that I hoped for.
Please believe me when I tell you that when God says no, it’s always because He has something better in mind—something more eternal, something more lasting.
There’s another man who prayed and God said no. He was agonizing in the Garden of Gethsemane, laid out before the Lord. And as He prayed, and the sweat came to His brow, and as He was in great agony, He prayed and said, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. If there is some way to get out of the horror that I am about to partake of, do it. Nevertheless, thy will be done.” And do you remember? The Father did not deliver Him. He went all the way to the cross. And because He went to the cross, and because He bore our sins, and because He was nailed there as the Son of God, and the sins of those who believed were laid upon His shoulders and He became legally guilty of their iniquity—because of that, God had something greater for Him.
Because He humbled Himself, God has highly exalted Him and given Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. You say, “Well, that would have been true even if He wouldn’t have died.” Yes, of course, because He was God, but in a new way it now became true. It became true because He earned that right as the God-man, because God’s dream for Him was greater than the dream that He had when He was wrestling with the will of God in Gethsemane. And do you know that because He was obedient to accepting a “no” from God, there is now a prayer that all of us can pray that God will always accept. Isn’t that wonderful?
You know, there are some things that God will not necessarily give us. There are many promises, but He’s not promised to do everything that we ask, as we’ve learned today, but there’s one prayer that we can pray that we can have the assurance that when it is prayed it will be answered.
The Bible says, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” He that believes in Him has eternal life. Why? Because there was someone who took His dreams and gave them to God and believed that when God said no, it was because there was something better and greater and more grand and more eternal that He had in mind.
And if you agree, let us pray.
Our Father, in all the busyness of life, help us to sit before the Lord, to know that when You say “no,” You always give us a greater measure of Yourself. You fulfill the greater need though the lesser is unfulfilled. Grant us that, Father.
We pray for all those who have been disappointed in God, for those who long since have given up on prayer. Bring them today. Sweep them into Your presence we pray, and show them Your glory, and show them Yourself, and show them Your interest in their lives. And then, Father, may they pray as they’ve never prayed before with the promises, the intimacy, the optimism of those who walk with God. Grant us that, Lord.
There are so many injustices, so many reasons why sometimes You’ve answered prayers, and sometimes You haven’t, and it just makes no sense to us. Help us to know it doesn’t have to. What makes sense is Your presence.
Grant that, Father, and may we this week take time to sit before the Lord. And for those that have never called upon You, and have been saved, we pray in the name of Jesus that You might grant them the ability to do that this morning, in Christ’s name, Amen.