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The Triumph Of Unanswered Prayer

When The Answer Disappoints

Dr. Erwin W. Lutzer | February 10, 2008

Selected highlights from this sermon

How should we respond to unanswered prayer? Should we give up on prayer? In Hebrews, we have a host of faithful servants as our examples. 

By going through the “hall of faith” in Hebrews 11, Pastor Lutzer shows us that even these heroes, who sometimes saw miracles, suffered and died without receiving divine assistance. These heroes realized that they would ultimately and victoriously receive the fulfillment of God’s promises.  

I’m sure it’s true to say that one of the greatest disappointments that you can ever experience in life is the disappointment of unanswered prayer. If you were to ask why so many Christians are cynical they would tell you some story about how God did not intervene when they needed him, sometimes when they needed him the most. We’ve all had the experience of praying for finances and then something happens. Maybe you even lose your job, and you say, “That’s not the answer I was seeking.” You pray for protection and sometimes God gives it to you, and then at other times there are accidents and we call on God.

One day I was on a plane and there were some other Christians there and they said, “Oh, Pastor Lutzer, we’re so glad that you are on this plane with us because if we hit turbulent weather we know that you have connections, and you can probably get the turbulence to stop.” I said, “No, I’m just in sales, not in management.” [laughter]

But the question is where is God when we need him? I suppose that the deepest disappointment that people ever feel has to do with divine healing. When you see a child suffer or a young mother die of cancer leaving three children behind, it is at those times that our faith becomes so eroded we wonder whether we can go on believing.

Barbara Sanderville, a quadriplegic, said these words. “Knowing God had the power to heal me but wouldn’t made me very bitter. I would read passages like Isaiah 53 and First Peter, accusing God of holding the promise of healing before me like a piece of meat before a starving dog. He tempted me with the possibility but never enabled me to reach it.” That’s why people are turned off. God does not come through for them.

Well, as you know, this is the sixth and last in a series of messages, “The Triumph of Unanswered Prayer,” and what we’ve been doing is seeing the triumph when prayer doesn’t happen – when the answer is denied, and when it’s disguised. I hope you get that message because that one emphasizes what it is like to worship God even if the answer isn’t there.

Today we’re going to turn to Hebrews 11, and we’re going to see that God does miracles for some people and not for others, and yet he expects us to go on believing anyway. I would like to give you today four facts about faith that we hope will put all of this into perspective and will enable all of us to go on believing and honoring God with our faith. The Bible says that when we have faith, we present it to Jesus at his appearing. “The trial of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.” (I Peter 1:7)

The first fact about faith is that faith sometimes changes our circumstances. Hebrews 11 is filled with heroes who saw huge miracles. We could talk about Abraham. We could always speak even more clearly in terms of miracles about Moses that begins in verse 23, but let me simply pick it up at verse 29, speaking about Moses.

“By faith the people crossed the Red Sea as if on dry land, but the Egyptians, when they attempted to do the same, were drowned.” What a miracle! Moses stands there with his staff in his hand and God parts the waters. Then if that isn’t enough in terms of miracles, by faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they had been encircled for seven days, and we could go on and on. The author knows that he could go on and on, so he said in verse 32, “And what more shall I say?”

There was a pastor who was preaching an interminably long message, and he got to this phrase and said, “Yes, and what more shall I say?” and someone in the back row said, “Try Amen.” [laughter] Ever since that time I keep my eye on the folks in the back row.

He knows that he could go on for a bit so he says, “What more shall I say? For time would fail to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets -- who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection.”

You talk about miracles and you’ve got dozens of them in this passage. Think of the different kinds of miracles. Here are women who received their dead back as it was during the days of Elijah. Talk about a resurrection – talk about a healing! You have miracles that have to do with the protection of God’s people. Stopped the mouths of lions is a reference to Daniel 6. You’ve got healed relationships, and you’ve got all kinds of battles that were fought, and God miraculously gave the victory.

Sometimes faith changes our circumstances but sometimes faith does not change our circumstances. Did you notice that I stopped reading in the middle of verse 35? Now normally I don’t stop in the middle of a verse, but here I did because there is a break in the middle of the verse but here I did because there is a break in the middle of the verse. You have to understand that when the manuscripts of the New Testament were written they did not have chapters or verse divisions. Those were added later to make it easier to find various passages, and I think that the person who gave the verse divisions here should have begun a new verse in the middle of verse 35, but he didn’t and so that’s where I stopped because the text is open. There it is – the middle of verse 35.

All right, “Women received back their dead by resurrection but some (oh, there’s another category) were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated -- of whom the world was not worthy -- wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth,” and we might add, “and there was no deliverance. None!”

“They were sawed in two,” he says. That’s a reference to Isaiah, the great prophet. Wasn’t he a person of faith? Why didn’t God come to his deliverance, may I ask? It’s a reference to that prophet, and then when he goes on talking about wandering about with goat skins and trying to live in caves and in poverty and being persecuted, very probably it was a reference to the time of the Maccabees. There was a man by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes who went into Egypt and then came into the land of Israel, and he offered a sow on the altar to insult the Jews, and then he began a horrendous persecution. Elieazar was the high priest, and he skinned him alive. I will not even tell you what he did with Elieazar’s seven sons because it’s too gruesome, but just know that he dismembered them in some very torturous ways. Where was God when that was happening, let me ask you?

Faith sometimes changes our circumstances. Sometimes it doesn’t change our circumstances. Now that was then. What about today? Let’s fast forward. We always think that the time when the church was persecuted is the early centuries. Let me be clear about something. More people have died as Christian martyrs in the last 35 to 50 years than ever died in the persecutions of early Rome. Thousands of people have been put to death.

There’s a magazine that I get, and Rebecca asked me recently whether or not I read it, and I have to confess that I don’t read it too often, but I should read it often. It’s called The Voice of the Martyrs, begun by Richard Wurmbrand, who has spoken here at the Moody Church, by the way, and who was imprisoned in Romania many years ago under Communism, but this magazine details all the persecutions around the world.

Yesterday I read the story of a young man by the name of Lorenzo, who was newly married and 22 years old. He went into a village and was identified as being a Christian, and asked to dig his own grave, which he did, pleading for his release. And after his grave was dug, a noose was put around his neck and he was strangled to death and left in the grave to die. It’s happening today in countries of the world, under Communism yes, and under some countries in Islam. Your brothers and sisters are crying up to God for deliverance, and they’re not seeing the walls of Jericho fall. They’re not seeing the Red Sea as it parts. What they are doing is crying up to God and saying, “God, where are you? Save our families. Deliver us,” and for the most part they see very little deliverance, though there are some surprising stories of God’s intervention.

Faith sometimes changes our circumstances but sometimes it doesn’t. You know, we love to tell the story of Daniel who closed the mouths of lions, and it’s a true story, but my wife and I have been to Rome, and we’ve walked through the Circus Maximus where all those Christians did die, and they were thrown to animals, and there was no angel that came out of heaven to close the mouths of those hungry beasts, and they were torn in two. Faith sometimes changes our circumstances. Sometimes faith does not change our circumstances.

Number three, faith never judges God by circumstances. Faith never says, “Well, God, since you haven’t healed that person, and since you haven’t done what I think you should, I’m out of here.” No, the reason that these people (the second category in Hebrews 11) are also in the catalog of faith, when you speak of the heroes of faith (the Westminster Abbey of Faith in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews) never forget to include the last category that never saw the miracles, but they didn’t judge God by circumstances. They believed that God was doing right by them even though he does things differently.

You have Acts 12. James is beheaded, and then later on, Peter is delivered. Both of them were in prison. One was saved and one not. I mean isn’t this the way life is? You see deliverance over here and no deliverance over there, but both are heroes of faith.

Sometimes what we need to do is to simply hang on to promises like this. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, for your sake we are being killed all the daylong; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul is saying, “What will separate you from Christ’s love? Will being killed do it? No, the sword won’t do it. Will sickness do it? Sickness won’t do it. Can angels do it? Angels can’t do it. Can demons do it? Demons can’t do it, and you keep on believing no matter what.

Some of you haven’t been taking notes yet. God bless you. A few of you have. We actually help you, don’t we, by giving you my outline in the bulletin. Do you like that, by the way? I do that for you every blessed week. [applause} But here’s what I’d like you to write down. Faith isn’t merely receiving from God what we want. Sometimes faith is simply accepting whatever God gives us. That also is faith. Look at Jesus in Gethsemane. “Father, if it be thy will let this cup pass from me,” Jesus pleads. See him there. “Nevertheless, not as I will but as thou wilt.”

An angry, bitter woman said to her pastor, “So, where was your God when my son was killed? and he said, “He was in the same place when his son was killed.”

Faith accepts whatever God gives us. We commit ourselves to God and then we leave the decision with him. Last week, when I preached on what commitment means (and I hope that you were here to hear that) and how we commit ourselves to God, someone asked me later a very good question. They said, “Well, does that mean we commit everything to God and then don’t pray anymore?” Listen, when you and I commit something to God we’ll pray more about it than we ever have, but our prayers will be filled with thanksgiving and praise and a sense of confidence that it’s off our shoulders, and it’s on God’s.

The true Christian does not believe that there’s no value in prayer unless you see an answer that you would like to see. Prayer has other values as we’ve been trying to help each other to understand. Prayer means that I draw near to God with my need. I come preoccupied with my need but I leave preoccupied with God, and I believe that what God does in me is sometimes more important than what God does for me, as he teaches me faith, as he teaches me love, even when I don’t see the miracles. Faith never judges God by circumstances.

Number four, faith always leads to ultimate victory. I’m back now looking at Hebrews 11 again. I want to give you an illustration of how people of faith accept disappointment. How do they do it and why is it that they can ultimately be blessed, even though they don’t see the miracle they desire? Let me read you a story that is very familiar to all of you. It’s found in the book of Daniel and it has to do with three friends – Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. In Bible school we used to say, "Shake the Bed, Make the Bed and Into Bed You Go." The king says to them, “Bow down before this image. If you do not bow down before this image I will throw you into the fiery furnace.” By the way, something not quite like that but something approaching it could end up being our lot as well. But this is what they say. I love this. “Oh, Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter.” In other words there’s no use even discussing this. “If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace and he will deliver us out of your hand, O King. (but now notice), But if not, be it known unto you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” God can deliver us if he wants to but if he doesn’t we will be people who die in faith, believing that God knows best.

Are you to that point in your Christian experience? “Oh God, we know that you are able to heal so and so. We know that you are able to take care of this situation, but if you don’t, let angels and demons and any one else around me know that I will not swerve in my commitment to you because faith isn’t merely receiving from God the things that I want. Faith is the ability to receive whatever God gives me. Let it be known that I will continue to believe.”

You say, “Well, what does the text mean when it talks about faith leading to ultimate victory?” I’m still in Hebrews 11 and I’m in verse 39. “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.”

What’s going on there in the text? First of all, they died in faith and they didn’t receive what was promised. As we mentioned in an earlier message, Abraham did not see the fulfillment of the promises that God gave him. God said, “Abraham, you’re going to have a land and I’m going to give it to you and to your posterity.” He says, “Abraham, you’re going to have children and they are going to inherit it, but this land is yours,” and he has to buy a plot of ground to bury his wife, Sarah – Cave of Machpelah. So there’s Abraham. He died without seeing the fulfillment of the promises.

Moses dies and his sins are forgiven most assuredly but he’s not seen the fulfillment of all of the promises. Jesus hasn’t come yet. That’s why the text says, “without us they couldn’t be made perfect.” During Founder’s week you’ll remember that I preached about how people were saved in the Old Testament. They were saved on credit, and so you see, until Jesus came, they could not be made perfect. Their sin could not be finally taken away, and because they were prior to Calvary, they had faith that Jesus would come eventually and take away at their sin. We look back and we thank God that he has come to take away our sin. Both are heroes of faith but they die without the promise of Jesus fulfilled and they had to wait for Christ, and for us so to speak, before they see its fulfillment.

The bottom line is simply this. We die without seeing many of the promises. I believe that it’s very clear in Scripture that God calls his people to suffer. There’s no doubt about it. If you look at the history of the Christian church and you look at the various passages of scripture about suffering, God does not promise instant deliverance from suffering. We always want it, and we want to see God come and deliver us, give us health, give us strength, work it out, do it for us, and God says, “No, I’m not because I want to teach you the value of faith whether I do it for you or not.”

Let’s talk about healing. Let’s talk about cancer, the Big C.” I think that whenever God gives somebody cancer he gives a Christian cancer too so that the world can see the difference as to how they suffer. And they do suffer differently. When my friend, with whom I played tennis for twenty years, and this might not the place to insert some humor, but I shall for he and I did play tennis for twenty years. That is with breaks in between of course. You know, we played once or twice a week and our wives put up with it because most tennis players are actually not very good husbands and fathers because, you see, to a tennis player love means nothing. [laughter] But on a more serious note, here’s this friend with whom I played tennis for twenty years, and he’s dying of cancer, and I visited him as often as I could. I would say to him, “Mark, have you ever thanked God for cancer?” I’ll never forget this because at that point he was so weak that he could hardly walk. He said, “Oh, I thank God every day for my cancer.” Did Mark love his wife? Did he love his children and his grandchildren? Of course, but he said, “I have seen the glories of heaven and the presence of God. Cancer clarifies your values. You finally really know what is important and what isn’t, and all of the things that we give so much attention to – our entertainment and our comforts – suddenly become very unimportant.”

It was Samuel Johnson who said, “There is nothing that focuses the human mind more than the knowledge that one is to be hanged in a fortnight.” There is nothing that clarifies it. He said, “The presence of God and the assurance of heaven is overwhelming.”

He suffered well. He died well. Cyprian, the great church historian and theologian, said that Christianity would never have encompassed North Africa and conquered it in the early centuries were it not for the plagues. He said the plagues were the greatest blessing to Christianity and the reason is because the Christians died differently than the pagans. The pagans said of the Christians, “They carry their dead as if in triumph.” And they said, “Where are you getting all this hope from? We want what you have,” and that’s why they accepted Christianity.

Faith always leads to ultimate victory. Sometimes it doesn’t change your circumstances. You think, for example, of John the Baptist. He was the forerunner of Jesus, related to him in the flesh, sort of like a half-cousin. He was a great man, and he was suddenly thrown into prison, and here was John’s problem. He was reading the Old Testament and he discovered that in the book of Isaiah it said, “When the Messiah comes the prison doors are to be opened and the captives are to be set free,” so he thought, “I am suffering unjustly under Herod.” Now this is the great guy who preached those sermons on the banks of the Jordan River, and he said to himself “If Jesus were the Messiah, then I would be delivered. Those are the kinds of things that Messiahs do. They deliver people,” so John, the Bible says, sent a delegation to Jesus, and there’s no doubt that he tried to be as tactful as he possibly could, but he said to his friends, “Go talk to Jesus and ask him this question. ‘Art thou he that should come for should we look for another?’” Jesus, you’re disappointing to me. If you’re the Messiah I don’t see how you are fulfilling Scripture.

By the way, is it okay to have doubts? Yes, it’s fine to have doubts. I sometimes say that he who has never doubted perhaps has never believed. I may be talking to many of you who have doubts, and one of the slogans that we could use here at the Moody Church in our ministry is, “Come here and bring your doubts, because we want to talk about doubts.” We want to even talk about evidence and all those other things, but it is possible for a Christian, through a low point in their lives, not seeing a miracle, to begin to doubt, but never forget this. It was when John was in prison doubting that Jesus said, “There is no man that is greater than John the Baptist.” Jesus didn’t say, “Well, you know, now that he’s begun to doubt my opinion of him is beginning to slide.” No, there’s no one greater than John the Baptist. It’s okay if you have doubts as long as they’re honest doubts. If you’re a dishonest doubter there’s nothing we can do for you, but if you’re an honest one that’s all right.

So, the Bible says that the delegation returned and told John, “Jesus said, ‘Tell John this, “Look, the dead are being raised, the deaf are hearing, the blind are seeing. And then, John, I want you to know this. Blessed is he who is not offended because of me.” Could I give you a Lutzer paraphrase on that? Jesus was saying, “John, blessed is the person who is not upset with the way I run my business. Blessed is the person who does not say, ‘If that’s the kind of God you serve, if he didn’t heal that child, I’m out of here.’ Blessed is the person who does not say, ‘In light of the fact that God did not resolve this situation and deliver this person, I’m never going to bother God with another request again (to quote the words of one Christian).’ Blessed is the person who says, ‘I’m going to pray. I’m going to seek God. I’m going to ask him to deliver. I’m going to ask for the miracles, but at the end of the day I’m going to be satisfied with the way in which God runs his business.’”

It is then that you and I can handle the disappointments of life. We can take unanswered prayer because we believe that God’s will is best, and we also know that the trial of our faith, as I mentioned, is more precious than gold that perishes. If you live that way you also will be in God’s catalog of the heroes of faith who went on to die without seeing all of the promises fulfilled.

Well, you say, “Pastor Lutzer, that’s wonderful but where do I begin this walk of faith?” Where do we begin this? Some of you say, “I can’t trust God for anything because I don’t know God. I’m disconnected from God.” Well, I have some good news for you. When Jesus came to this earth because he was willing to do the will of God, and because he said in Gethsemane, “Not my will but Thy will be done,” when he died on the cross he made a sacrifice for sinners. His sacrifice was so complete that the Father accepted it. Jesus said, “It is finished,” and to prove that God had accepted it he raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus is now seated in heaven, but he’s here by his spirit because God is everywhere. As a matter of fact, he’s even monitoring your heart and your mind and all that you are as a human being, and here’s the good news. If you receive Jesus as your savior that’s one of those promises that you can depend on one hundred percent of the time.

I can’t promise you that God is going to heal you, but I can promise you that God will save you if you will trust Christ as your savior, and if, while you are listening to this you know in your heart who you are, and you’ve never trusted Christ, and you have no assurance that you belong to him, this is your moment because God brought you here today. God enabled you to listen today on the radio or Internet (or by whatever means of communication) so that you would come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. That’s a promise that you can depend upon one hundred percent of the time.

And then we begin the journey of faith, and we say, “God, you know what I want you to do (a, b, c, d), but if you don’t, I will never stop believing you, trusting you and loving you, because at the end of the day, I don’t want to be upset with the way you run your business.”

Let’s bow together in prayer.

Father, I pray for all those who are angry with you because you haven’t answered prayer. I pray for all those, and certainly we include ourselves in all of this, who have been disappointed with you because you haven’t come through at a crucial moment, and we expected better and we didn’t get it. We expected you to deliver some missionary some time ago, and they ended up being shot to death. Father, we pray that we might confess that bitterness and that disappointment, and that we might say to you from the depths of our hearts, “We surrender to you today, and we don’t want to be upset with the way you run your business.” For those who have never trusted Christ, enable them to do it. Now, they are listening to my voice, but I pray that they may be listening to the voice of the Spirit through the word, saying, “This is your moment to believe.” Grant that, oh God, we ask in Jesus name. Amen.

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