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The Triumph Of Unanswered Prayer

When The Answer Is Delayed

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | January 13, 2008

Selected highlights from this sermon

Some teachers assert that if we simply speak with confidence, we’ll receive blessings from God. They say that God has promised us peace and healing right now, and that we only need to claim it.

But a closer examination of the Scriptures, especially the life of Abraham, gives us a different picture. Abraham never saw the complete fruition of God’s promises to him, but he still followed God’s leading and looked forward to the city of God. 

I’d like to begin today with two quotations from Word of Faith preachers. One says, using Philippians 2, “Who being in the form of God thought it not robbery to be equal with God (speaking of Christ).” Now, if I am to take what is said here and put it on, then my whole attitude should be that I have equality with God. Now somebody says, “Well, that’s hard to think that way.” Well, keep saying it. Talk yourself into it. You have equality with God.

Here’s another. “But it was not in Christ’s mouth that got Bartimaus healed. The power was in Bartimaus’s mouth. He could have whatever he said. Jesus was saying, ‘My hands are tied because I can’t do anything for you other than what you say,’” and then he goes on to say, “God now has your attention and he’s looking at you, saying, ‘What do you want? Name it, Baby. Declare it. Speak it. Confess it. Get your list out.’”

Millions of people are buying into that. We need to rethink the whole business of what the Bible says about the promises of God, and what can be claimed and what can’t be claimed, and why it can’t be claimed. Today I need to say that the faith healers and those who speak this way are not wrong in urging us to have faith. Indeed the purpose of this message is to increase your faith. They are not wrong in telling us to do that, but they are asking us to believe things that God hasn’t promised, and to claim things that God doesn’t want to give us, and we need to understand what’s going on.

Yes indeed, the purpose of this message is to increase faith and to help us begin to understand what God is up to in our prayer life so that we pray more, so that we believe more, so that we trust more, and we honor more and we submit more. That’s the agenda for the next little while. Thank you for taking this trip with me.

In order to do this I want you to take your Bibles and turn to Hebrews 11. Many of us have been in London and we have seen Westminster Abbey, which is basically a cemetery. It’s filled with all the heroes of the past in England. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews basically is the Westminster Abbey of the Bible. Here are the heroes of faith, not in the hall of fame but in the hall of faith, and this mighty chapter begins with these startling words. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Those two phrases - the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen, basically are parallel expressions, and the word faith is the assurance. That’s the word hoopastasus, and it can be translated in many ways. Many of us who have memorized the King James remember that faith is the substance of things hoped for. That’s good. It can be assurance. It can be conviction. It can be essence. It is the firm conviction that what we have hoped for and what we believe for is true and shall come to pass.

He goes on to say, “For by it – that is by faith – the people of old received their commendation. We think of the fact that God gave a promise that Jesus was going to be born, didn’t he? Way back in the Garden of Eden God promised that, and centuries went by but people continued believing the promise, and eventually the promise happened.

A good example of that is Noah. For example, in verse 7 it says, “By faith, Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed the ark.” Do you realize that when Noah built that ark, it had never rained yet on the earth? The earth was actually watered by a subterranean phenomenon, and so God said, “I’m going to send the rain,” and Noah hasn’t even seen rain, and he begins to build the ark. You talk about a man of faith.

And then you have various others, and the Scripture also says, if we may go to verse 3, that “By faith we understand that the understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” In other words, we believe it by faith. Is it a rational faith? Of course it’s a rational faith. Atheistic evolution cannot account for the world as it is. If reason means anything, if two plus two is equal to four, you cannot be an atheist and be rational, because you cannot account for the world as it is. You can’t get from chemistry to biology to human consciousness and to thought. Did all that happen because some dumb molecules were messing around in some slime and they decided without any outside help to get together and become very complicated? You can believe that? No wonder a French journal said many years ago that evolution is a fairy tale for adults and it was Huxley who said, “The reason that we believe in evolution without proof is because we don’t want God to interfere with our sexual morays.”

Of course we can’t prove that the universe was made exnihilo by the command of God, but that’s reasonable, it’s rational and it accounts for what we have in the world today. Psalm 33:6 says, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made and the host of them by the breath of his mouth.” I won’t even tell you today about the stars. A number of years ago some of us went to visit an astronomer, and he showed us pictures of the stars. They were absolutely mind-boggling with millions of light years between them, and God says he calls them all by name. He’s got that one named and that one named and they are all different names. Why does the Bible tell us that? It’s because God wants us on our faces. God wants to show that he is absolutely almighty and by his word the heavens were made out of something that did not exist – nothing. He spoke and it happened. Wow. By faith we believe that.

Now with that introduction you’ll notice in verse 6 (one of the most important verses in the Bible), “Without faith it is impossible to please God, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who diligently seek him.” Now, we’re not going to emphasize that today because that’s going to be part of the next message, but what I’d like to do today is to give you an example of someone who believed God, and how he believed God, and why he is known in the Bible as a man of faith, and an example of faith. His name is Abraham. And then we’ll connect it with the promises of God, the Word of Faith movement, and the whole bit. It’s all going to come together in the end. Trust me. I know where I’m going even though you don’t know yet where you’re going, and that’s perfectly Biblical. Abraham, the Bible says, went out not knowing whither he went.

Now, notice it says in verse 8, “By faith, Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place he was to receive as an inheritance, and he went out not knowing whither he went.” You’ll notice that in the life of Abraham what he did is he believed in the future against the present. Abraham was living in Ur of Chaldeees. It was a very culturally astute city for those times, and here God says, “Abraham, leave Ur of Chaldees, and go into a land that I will tell you about.” He went from high culture to no culture. He went from a city to an agricultural lifestyle, and wandered around and the Bible says that when he left Ur he knew not where he was going. Can you imagine the discussions he had with Sarah? Sarah is saying, “Abraham, I love you but I do have to ask you again. How do you know that that was the voice of God? How do you know where we are going?” He says, “Well, we really don’t. All that we know is we’re supposed to go and maybe it’ll get clear later.”

I’m reminded of when Rebecca and I came to America. This was 1970. We crossed the border with I think about a hundred dollars and an old 1965 Buick packed with stuff. Everything that we owned fit into the back seat. We were actually on our way to the East Coast. I was supposed to do some graduate work there, and we got stopped in Chicago. We came and we often thought, “We’re going whither we do not know.” We had no idea what God had planned for us, and in the very same way, you and I sometimes have really no idea.

Now, when it comes to the land Abraham learned the guidance of God. God guides you to the land. When it comes to the tents, you’ll notice that the next verse says that he was in a tent. “By faith he went to live in the land of promise as a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob.” Now he became a nomad and he learned about the provision of God. And then if you look at the life of Abraham in the book of Genesis, you’ll notice that he often built an altar and it was the altar that taught him the presence of God. But when God came to Abraham, he believed in the future over against the present. He said to himself, “The present is more rational. It is better for me. It is more comfortable,” but Abraham believed in a future, and he says, “Belief in God and the future is more important than believing in what is best for you in the present.”

There are some of you to whom I’m speaking today and God is leading you, and you’re not sure exactly where you are going but you are on your way, and when you get there, God will clarify the issues. So Abraham believed. He believed in the future against the present.

Secondly, notice that he believed in the invisible over against the visible. I am looking now at verse 10. “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations whose designer and builder is God.” Now, remember that Abraham was a city dweller in Ur. God plucked him up and said, I’m bringing you to this land, and God gave him the dimensions of the land. God said, “I’m giving this to you and to your descendants as an everlasting possession.” Abraham wanders in the land (What does the text say?) as a foreigner. He wanders there as an alien. He really doesn’t belong even in the land that God gave him, but why was Abraham so motivated? Why was he so willing to do it? It’s because he looked beyond the present. He looked beyond that which you could see and he could see a city whose designer and builder was God. That is amazing to me, because Abraham did not have the benefit of Revelation 21, “And I saw the holy city descending from heaven, from God, as a bride adorned for her husband. And a great voice came saying, ‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men and he will walk with them and they shall be his people, he shall be their God.’” And then you go into that marvelous description of the heavenly city.

Abraham didn’t have as much revelation as we do, but he looked for the city, and there were two things about the city that he knew that he loved. First of all that it was designed by God whom he had come to trust and to love, and secondly, he loved the fact that it was in the world to come and that the chief person who dwelt in it would be the God that Abraham loved, and that’s what makes the eternal city so beautiful, and so filled with anticipation in the heart of every single Christian. You look forward to the city built by God.

By the way, it’s this expression, you know, that gave birth to Augustine’s title of that famous book entitled, “The City of God,” because he said that really in this world there are two cities. There’s the city of man with its hopes and dreams and disappointments, and when Rome was sacked the people who belonged to the city of man lost everything because this is all they lived for. No wonder they felt so violated, but to the people who belonged to the city of God, they lost nothing important because they belonged to that eternal city and they have treasures in heaven where neither moth and rust doth corrupt and where ________________ who sacked Rome cannot steal. So, Augustine said, “Let’s look forward to the heavenly city.”

So here’s Abraham who believes in the future against the present. He believes in the invisible over against the visible, and he knew that world was not his home. I don’t want to be an obnoxious Christian, so you should pray for me that I not become too obnoxious at times, but I’ve done it on at least two occasions, maybe more. I prefer to forget some of them, but you know how it is. You’re at an airport and the woman behind the counter says, “Well, Mr. Lutzer, is Dallas your final destination?” No, Dallas isn’t my final destination. Heaven is my final destination, but for today, I’m stopping in Dallas. You’re right. You’ve got that right.

Folks, we belong to another world. We’re headed to somewhere else, and Abraham is saying that he can believe in the invisible over against the visible, which is exactly what faith is. By faith we believe in the unseen, because we’ve heard a word from God. By faith we believe that we’re headed to heaven because God has birthed faith in our heart, and God has given us the confidence that we belong to him.

Abraham also believed in the reward over against the suffering. I can imagine that Abraham often thought about the decision that he made to leave Ur of the Chaldees. He often thought about the discussions that he had with Sarah and with other members of his family about his decision and it seemed so silly. Why give up a good culture and a safer environment with all of your friends and go to a place where you don’t know anybody and you are a nomad, and you’re with a bunch of pagans who all that they really know is violence? Why would you do that? It makes no sense, but Abraham knew something about the call of God. He knew about the reward. It’s the Old Testament version of the New Testament statement that the suffering of this present world is not worthy to be compared with the glory that shall be revealed in us.

Now you look, for example, at Moses. It says about Moses in verse 26, “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt.” What a sermon that is about Moses, for he was looking to the reward, and if you know anything about King Tut’s tomb you know something about the treasures of Egypt, and Moses was willing to say no to all that. Why? It was because he looked forward to an even greater reward, and so Moses and Abraham and all of the other saints listed in this Hall of Fame – the eleventh chapter of Hebrews – believed in the eternal reward over against present suffering, present questions, present hardship. For them there was this faith that reminded them that this world was not their home. They were just passing through, as the old song tells us.

Now I can imagine that when Abraham was there in the land there were discussions that took place from time to time. In fact, the Bible tells us about all of the discussions with the Hittites (and what have you), and the Scripture is clear that Abraham interacted with the people of this world. And I can imagine they’d say to him, “Abraham, what do you own?” Well, how is Abraham supposed to answer that? God had told him as soon as he got there, “Walk the length and the breadth of the land. All that you can see I’ve given you from this river to this sea,” and God gives him the dimensions and says, “This is yours and your seed. I’m giving it to you as an everlasting possession.”

But now a Hittite says to Abraham, “How much do you own?” and Abraham has to say, “Nothing. I own nothing.” As a matter of fact, when Sarah dies he buys the cave of Machpelah. He buys this cave for Sarah, and he gives the Hittites (I read the story yesterday. It’s near Hebron.) four hundred shekels. They say to Abraham, “We like it. The fact that you’re a good guy we’ll give it to you.” Abraham says, “No, I’m not going to take a dime from you,” and he counts out four hundred shekels of silver. The Bible says it was weighed out. So he buys it, and then later on when he dies, he gets put into the same cave. Because he bought the cave he could be buried there too. So that’s the way in which Abraham dies. Well, isn’t that interesting?

Now notice what the text says. I’m in verse 13. “These all died in faith, not having received what was promised.” Well, that’s interesting, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth, they died. Verse 16, “But that is they desire a better country that is a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Verse 39, “And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised since God had provided something better for us that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” The idea there is they did not receive the benefits; they did not receive the experience of the promise of the coming Messiah. For example, “that they could not be perfected until Messiah came,” so they all died in faith, and Abraham dies not seeing the promise. I can imagine if he had lived in our day a Word of Faith preacher would have come to him and said, “Abraham, what’s the deal? What’s the deal? Claim the land God has given you. God even gave you the boundaries. Simply claim it. Talk yourself into it if you have to because the word of faith means that whatever you speak is yours, and most assuredly you can speak over what God has given you and it will be yours.” But Abraham doesn’t do that. He dies, the Bible says, not having received what was promised. Why? It was because he believed in another world.

I want to give you three conclusions – three important statements that will help us tie all this together and help us to sort out what’s happening and also to provoke us in a proper way to pray more.

First of all, let me suggest to you that our promised inheritance is yet future. Oh sure, we see glimmers of it here. Like I pointed out last time we get the flower here but the flower is proof that the garden is coming, but we do not enter into the fullness of the inheritance. Jesus said that if you are an over-comer you shall inherit all things and you shall sit on my throne. That’s in the eternal city. That is in the coming world, and if you believe that, you have to believe in the invisible over against the visible. You need to believe in the future over against the present. You need to believe in the reward over against the suffering and the heartache that you are going through, but that is Biblical. Let me take, as an example the sensitive and the most difficult area, namely faith healing.

Is healing in the atonement? Is it our promise? Absolutely. Jesus died for us body, soul and spirit. You see the Bible says that Jesus died to put away all sin. Well, entailed in sin is sickness and furthermore, there are passages of Scripture that say that with his stripes we are healed, and of course, Jesus came and did healings. Now here’s the fundamental question. Does that mean that we can insist on healing whenever we want it? Can we demand it from God because we say this is part of my inheritance?

Listen to a Word of Faith preacher. “Words control the body. Oh, glory be to God, and regardless of what’s going on in your physical body you’ve got to talk to it. I’m telling you I talk to my major organs. I speak words to them. The tongue in your mouth will control every inch of your physical body. Do not tolerate sickness and disease as long as you’ve got a working tongue that can speak the established word of God. Oh, that’s so good,” he says. Interestingly this particular Word of Faith preacher wears glasses.

My parents knew a family. God bless them. They were wonderful Christians, but they believed that because healing was in the atonement, and because Jesus had provided it, that we could have it all now, and they said that they intended to not die, that they would just moment by moment, as they became sick, continually appropriate the work that Jesus did on the cross and resurrection, and it would be theirs, and they intended to live until he returned. That’s what they told my mom and dad. Well, I’m here to simply bring you the news. They died about forty years ago, just like all other faith healers die.

Yes, of course, it is true that Jesus died body, soul and spirit for us, and that our resurrection body was included in the work of the cross, but we don’t inherit that. We pray for the sick, but we cannot demand it and say, “You must heal because of this verse,” as some people say we should say.

You know there’s another Word of Faith preacher who said this. He said, “As long as Jesus was talking on the cross he couldn’t die. The reason that he died is because he quit talking because there is so much power in your mouth, that if he had just kept talking, he wouldn’t have died.” You know, sometimes I weep because there are so many of God’s dear saints who can’t tell the difference between grass and Astro turf = the sheep, the sheep.

And you look at those rallies and they are filled with poor people. Why? It’s because they’re saying, “I want what my guru has. If I have enough faith I can drive the kind of car he does. I can live in the kind of home in which he lives,” and on and on it goes, and my dear beloved friend, this is just between you and me and nobody else listening. Things in that department are out of control making promises. I remember somebody coming to me absolutely weeping and saying, “God has forsaken me. I claimed my healing and it hasn’t come.” No, that’s no proof that God has forsaken you. The Bible says very clearly that if you suffer according to the will of God, and sometimes the will of God involves suffering, that that indicates great reward.

There’s a member of our church who recently had knee surgery and he said that that one knee was so painful (these are his words), “I’ll never have the other knee repaired until I’m in the presence of Jesus.” Wow. Yes, my dear friend, in the presence of Jesus you get two brand new good knees. You get some good hips. You get a good body. You get a good mind. You get some good feet. You get it all, and the Bible says that when we see him we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is. Until that time there is sickness, there is heartache. It is mean; it is cruel.

I witnessed a person go into a hospital room and tell the patient that he was sick because he didn’t have enough faith, and that if he had more faith God would heal him and he laid that guilt on him. I remember one person telling me that people brought him books with all kinds of things marked about how if had the faith that he could walk out of the hospital. No, my dear friend, some of the best and the most Godly people have suffered physically and died, but my dear friend, this isn’t the end. The inheritance, the full inheritance is coming. Abraham saw some things. He saw the fulfillment of the promise regarding Isaac, but he didn’t see the land of promise. Abraham is still waiting. Some of us still think that the promises that God made to Abraham have still not been fully fulfilled to him and to his seed. He’s still waiting, but he died in faith believing in a city built by God.

Second, it’s very important for us to realize that faith is needed for endurance, not just for miracles. Sometimes we just need to endure. Sometimes I’ve had to say to people regarding circumstances that simply will not change, I have said, “What you are doing is right. All that I can tell you to do is to keep doing what you are doing – to trust and to believe and to be patient.” How else can God develop faith in our hearts except that we look at circumstances that we think God should change, and he doesn’t, and we keep on believing anyway.

You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, this message is throwing a bucket of water on people’s faces. Don’t you want us to believe God for great things?” Yes, I want us to believe God for great things, preferably the things that God wants us to believe him for. Should we pray more? Yes. Next week I’m going to present, God willing, one of the most important messages I think I’ve ever given; certainly the most important I’ve ever given on prayer, because we’re going to take that verse that he rewards those who diligently seek him out, and we’re going to have a whole new paradigm for prayer (a whole new way of praying), so you be here. You say, “Well, we can’t be because we’re visiting from Atlanta.” Well, listen, the same plane that brought you from Atlanta to Chicago this week, the same schedule can bring you back next week. Okay? So you be here. Let death be the only reason why you don’t show next Sunday, and bring some other people with you, and if you die it’ll be proof that all of our inheritance isn’t in this life. There’s another world coming.

Endurance and what it means to God is going to be explained in the message after next. A young man came to a pastor and said, “You know I don’t have patience.” The pastor said, “Let me pray for you. ‘God I pray that you’ll bring trouble and sorrow to this young man.’” Excuse me. Good prayer. Romans 5:3 says, “It is suffering that brings about patience and patience brings about hope and hope brings about faith and in that God is glorified.”

So, my dear friends, there are some of you who are hanging on and you are tempted to give up in your faith. Keep on believing; keep trusting and keep committing, and we’ll talk about what that means in a future message. Keep committing in such a way that you draw nearer to God and he grants you the ability to endure.

Yes, we do pray for healing, and here at the Moody Church we anoint people with oil when they come to us, and we’ve had a couple of instances where people would say, “Yes, there was definitely a healing that took place.” There are many instances where we can’t say that, but there’s still a purpose in that anyway that will become clearer next week.

Finally, it’s so important to realize that faith for our future, which is what we were talking about today, is actually based on faith that looks backward. Today we talked about the faith that looks forward, but you need to look to the faith that looks backward. In the writings of the Apostle Paul faith is seen as something that we look back toward, because you’re looking at the work of Jesus Christ. You are looking at what he did on the cross for you, and the completeness of the redemption and that’s where our faith begins, and then we commit to God for the future, and we trust God for whatever lies ahead, knowing that eternity is coming.

Let me put it to this way. There are some of you who are listening to this message who do not yet belong to the city of God. You belong to the city of man. I don’t mean to say by that, that you don’t believe Jesus is a savior, because I think you probably believe that, or you wouldn’t be listening to this message, but you cannot say with assurance (and notice the Bible talks here about the assurance of faith; it is the assurance of things hoped for; it is the assurance that we have met God all the way through this text), that Jesus is “my” savior. You cannot say, “I have personally trusted him as mine,” which you must do to be translated from the city of man to the city of God.

Here’s another way in which you know whether or not that translation has taken place. Augustine said in his book that when we belong to the city of man we have in our hearts such a love for this world, almost to the contempt or the neglect of God because we’re ‘this world’ absorbed, but once we belong to the city of God, once God does that miracle in our hearts, and our desires are transformed, and we’ve been given new hearts, then we love God so much that we have contempt or very little regard for the things of this world, because the love of God swallows up all other loves.

So the question that I need to ask you today, which I end with, is simple this. Have you trusted Christ as Savior so that you become a member of the city of God? Once you are a member of the city of God, like Abraham, like Noah, like Moses, you begin to look for and live in light of the city which has foundations whose builder and maker is God – the eternal city. And that’s your hope, and that’s your motivation, and that’s why you can put up with what you put up with in this world, and all the while believing and trusting all the way to the end.

Let us pray.

Father, we thank you for Abraham because even though he had lapses in his journey, spiritually speaking, on the whole he really did believe you, and I don’t know how much you showed him, but he had confidence in a city that was designed by you. I think of all the architects who are listening today. They’ve done some wonderful things, but imagine a city whose architect is God, and we thank you for that eternal hope that has been birthed in our hearts through your word and by your Spirit, and we ask, oh Lord, that those of us who are members of the city of God, may go on our way with joy, accepting whatever you give us. And for those who are members of the city of man, turn their heart today toward Jesus.

And now, before I close this prayer, it is time for you talk to God if God has talked to you. You tell him whatever you believe you must.

Our Father, would you accept the cry of our hearts? Make that cry acceptable through Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we come into your presence, and we ask today that you will grant us the grace to be great men and women of faith, to continue believing, even if we don’t see all the promises in this life. Grant that, oh God, we ask in Jesus’ blessed name. Amen.

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