When The Answer Is DisguisedErwin W. Lutzer | January 20, 2008
Selected highlights from this sermon
We must diligently seek God before making our requests. But how do we go about seeking Him and His will?
Silence, confession, and adoration are a daily must. Only when we have truly sought the face of God and His will throughout the Scriptures can we prayer more effectively.
“I’m never going to bother God with another request again. Why should I? I don’t want to be hurt.” Those are the words of a woman who was angry with God because he refused to answer the prayer that she and hundreds of others had prayed for their pastor. He was a young man diagnosed with cancer with a young wife and small children, and the church loved him, and they decided to sign up for all-round the night prayer meetings, everybody taking a half hour, and so prayer was being offered to God on his behalf 24/7, and then they prayed all night too. I remember being at a conference with about a thousand people, and all of us stopped to pray. The young man was there at the time in a wheelchair, and we all prayed for him, and yet he died, and now she’s bitter because God did not answer her request.
How do we relate to unanswered prayer? We’ve been talking about the answers being delayed and today we’ll emphasize the answer being disguised. We’ll also be talking about the answer when it is denied, and about disappointment with God, because haven’t we all been disappointed with God? We can relate to this woman, can’t we? We maybe didn’t say the words but we’ve all felt it. Where was God when we offered a request in his name for his glory, meeting (we think) all of the conditions, and it did not happen? Well, that’s what we’ve been discussing in this series of messages, The Triumph of Unanswered Prayer.
Today what we’re going to do is to shift focus and talk about a paradigm shift in our own minds regarding prayer, and what we’re going to stress is that in our praying we have to move from the mentality of getting to the mentality of relationship, so that we understand that we have to know God before we ask of God. And we have to understand God’s ways, and another way to describe it is that the emphasis no longer on my desires and what I think God should do, but on God’s desires, and what he wants to do. It is a paradigm shift that can transform your prayer life and make it into a time when you earnestly look forward to it, and you can hardly help yourself when it’s time to pray, and prayer becomes entirely different than simply asking. And maybe afterwards we can understand a little better some of those extravagant promises that we’ve all heard from the lips of Jesus.
Another way to say this is, can you imagine praying in such a way (to quote the words of John Piper) that “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied with him.” It’s praying differently, and maybe in the process, receiving the answer to our prayers.
Well, today’s text is Hebrews 11. That’s the section that we’ve been camping on in the last couple of weeks. Hebrews 11:6, I think, is one of the most important and explosive verses in the entire Bible. All the Bible is inspired but there are some words that certainly ought to be transforming and this verse should leave us changed forever.
“And without faith it is impossible to please God, for whoever would come to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” If you check the Greek text you’ll know that the word that talks about diligently seeking him actually is emphasized, and I like the translation that says God rewards those who diligently seek him out. Today we’re going to learn how to seek God out, and for many the journey is going to begin today.
Now as we look at this text a couple of things become very obvious. First of all, it’s clear that our faith should have an object, namely God. You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, I’m not a person of faith. I don’t like this idea of faith. I don’t exercise faith.” Oh yeah? You go to a doctor whose name you can’t pronounce. He gives you a prescription that you can’t read. You take it to a pharmacist whom you’ve never met. He gives you a substance that you haven’t analyzed, and yet you take it. That is faith. [laughter] All right?
Everyone who has ever eaten in a restaurant has exercised faith, sometimes more than others. Of course, we all live by faith, but what is it that the text is telling us. It is to come to God in faith. You must believe that he is and that he rewards those who seek him out.
What god are we talking about? It is God with a capital G. It’s the God who created. I marvel at how scientific the Bible is. Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” There you have all of the elements of science in those ten words. In the beginning – you have the concept of time; created – the concept of energy; the concept of God – there you have personality; created the heavens – there you have space; and the earth – there you have matter. It’s that God who created the stars and calls them all by name so that you and I might know whom we are worshipping. It is that God whom we worship and it is that God to whom we come. He is a creating God.
Einstein was enamored with the universe. In fact, someone who knew him said that they thought that Einstein was a fundamentally religious man but he had no time for organized religion because the preachers of his day were talking about a god that was a lot smaller than the one that he had encountered in nature. Wow!
May it never be said that at Moody Church we have a small God. We have a great God. He’s the God who redeems. When people give a testimony they often say, “Well, you know I came to know Christ, or I found Christ as my savior.” We understand what they mean, but strictly speaking my friends, you didn’t find Christ. Christ found you. [applause] There isn’t a sheep on planet earth that goes looking for the shepherd. The shepherd came looking for you. He’s the God who created, but the God who seeks, and the God who finds, and so you should really say when you give your testimony, “You know, God found me back in, and then give the year and the date.” Well, he’s always found you but that’s when he zeroed in on you and said, “I am working in your life to bring you to faith,” and it happened.
He’s also the God who speaks, and what does this God say? From the book of James it says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” This is the God who said when he was on earth – Jesus, “Come onto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me for I am meek and lowly of heart and you shall find rest to your souls.” This is the God who invites. He who comes to God must believe that he is, and so we come. We come because of the God of nature, but because of this word. He’s a God who speaks and a God whom we can, at least a little bit, understand.
Now notice what the text is saying also, that as we come into faith it has a reward. God rewards those who diligently seek him. He rewards. You know there is a form of Christianity that does not have a reward. There is a form of Christianity that says, “We need to obey God because that’s what you ought to do.” Why should you go to church? That’s what you ought to do. Why should you read the Bible? That’s what you ought to do. Why should you witness? That’s what you ought to do. It’s what you should do. That kind of Christianity is legalistic, and it is dead, and it’s proven by the fact that young people (not our young people) across the nation who leave high school oftentimes when they go into college never return to church, but go their own way, because they’ve only been introduced to an “ought” kind of Christianity. You should do this. That’s anti-Biblical.
Yes, there may be times when you do something even though you don’t feel like it, and when you do I should say this. What should happen if you come to church and you don’t feel like praising God, and yet you get to the church, and there they are praising God as we did this morning. What do you do? Do you sing or don’t you? Do you want to be a hypocrite or not? Here’s the answer. If all that you do is sing, then you could be a hypocrite, but the way in which you do it is this. You sing, yes, and while you are singing you are repenting and saying, “Lord, my heart is cold. Lord, I’m distracted because of A, B and C, and therefore, Father, bring me into the joy and the gladness of this moment.” Then you can sing and the gladness of heart begins.
The Bible says God reward those who diligently seek him. You know, why is it that people were willing to give up their homes, and that their property was plundered back in Hebrews 10. It says in verse 34 it was because “they knew had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.” Here it talks about a reward. Why did Moses leave the treasures of Egypt (verse 26)? It’s because he was looking forward to the reward, reward, reward, and reward! God rewards those who seek him out, and what is the reward? Well, let’s begin with joy. Whenever I am asked to autograph something (maybe a book or a Bible) usually people ask me to give them my favorite verse. I usually use Psalm 16:11 where it says, “In thy presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Imagine joy in the presence of God. In fact, the Bible commands us in Psalm 37 to delight ourselves in God. Imagine delight. Now just think about this for a moment.
Imagine a relationship with God where the darkness has been pushed out by light, and the emptiness has been filled with his own glory and grace. Imagine a Christian life in which there is that sense of accomplishment and fulfillment, not because of what you do but because of the relationship that you’ve established with God, and you walk with him and love him and within there is a sense of contentment and rest. Imagine it!
This past week Rebecca and I flew to Florida and we had to come back on a Saturday when the wind chill index was 21 degrees below zero, but on the way I read something by David Brainerd. Now you may not know who he was, but he was a missionary among the Indians who lived in a different time frame many years ago, and this was sort of a compilation of some of the things that he had written in his diary. Can I just give you a few lines?
“I enjoyed the light of God’s countenance and my soul rested in God,” he says. “One hour with God infinitely exceeds all the pleasures and delights of this lower world.” Let me give you another quote. “I desired nothing but God; nothing but his holiness. He had given me these desires,” and I love this, “and he alone can fill them.”
God gives us a desire for himself and then God is the only one who can fulfill the desires that he himself gives, and it’s very clear in Scripture that salvation when you are born again goes down to the level of desire. Imagine loving somebody whom you have never seen; passionately loving someone whom you have never seen, and yet it says in the book of First Peter, “Whom having not seen (speaking of Christ) ye love.” That is birthed in our hearts by God, and you see, people will never give up their sin. Can you imagine trying to convince a man to give up his pornography? Why would he ever do that? It is like trying to convince a lion to give up meat and begin to eat straw. The desires and the appetites are there. How can he give it up? I’ll tell you how he can give it up. It will be when he begins to realize that God is more satisfying than his lusts. That’s the bottom line.
In fact, there’s a man who wrote a long article about his struggle in that regard, and the verse of Scripture that brought deliverance to him is taken from the Sermon on the Mount where it says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” He said, “The thing about my sin was it was cutting me off from God. The sense of guilt and shame was blotting the face of the heavenly father whom I love.”
It’s the passion for God that is greater than our passion to sin. See, sin tells lies. Sin always lies. It says, come my direction, and you’ll be better off with more pleasure, and more satisfaction. Notice what the text says regarding Moses. I read it a moment ago but look at it very quickly. You’ll notice it says in Hebrews 11:24, “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God (catch it now) than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” Moses says, “Of course there is pleasure in sin, but for a season, and these are fleeting pleasures. These pleasures always have a bad aftertaste.”
And so, the way in which we do it is we discover that in seeking God there is great reward. God said to Abraham, “Abraham, you don’t have to fear because (I love this) I am your exceeding great reward. I’m here, and when I’m here there is a sense of rest and satisfaction and gladness.” That’s why the Psalms are so filled with exhortations to rejoice in God. It is because God himself rewards those who seek him.
Well, of course, the $64,000 question is very, very apparent now, and that is how do we seek God? How does a generation who has not sought God and who has looked at God as a kind of slot machine seek God? In other words, how does a generation that has said, “Lord, I want this, and this is what I want you to do for me; and keep me from harm, and keep me healthy; and help me to no longer have the problems that I do, and prevent me from accidents” seek God? All those may have their place, but to a generation where prayer is primarily that, how do we stop in our tracks and say to ourselves, “I want to seek God.” I mean if it is true that he generously rewards those who seek him, I want to be among those who take him up on it. Do you, too, want to take him up on it?
How do we do it? Well, aren’t you glad you asked? I mean that’s such a good question. I need to commend you for asking it. Notice in your bulletin this morning that there is a card that I prepared entitled The Rewards of Faith. Larry Crabb wrote a book entitled The Papa Prayer and it’s really a discussion of this mega-shift that I am talking about, where prayer goes from asking to relationship, and in the book he has a system outlined. Mine is different from his, but nonetheless I do commend to you what he has to say, and actually have some quotes from his book, which I might give you if we have enough time.
So this is what I have prepared because this reflects actually where I am at in the journey of seeking God. You’ll notice (and now with your card in front of you) first of all how you do it. You choose to agree with God. This has to begin with silence. “I wait silently before the Lord,” the Psalmist said. What you are doing now is exposing your life and all of the intents of the heart to a God who already sees you, and what you’re seeing is, “God, not only do you see me, but show me what you see so that I can deal with it. What are the stones that have to be moved in my life in order to have a clear relationship with you? What is standing in the way?” This is known as confession. You’ve heard many times that the word confess means to agree with God. It says, “God, whatever you show me I agree that bitterness is sin, I agree that this relationship I am in is sinful. I agree that the anxieties that I am bearing are sinful because I have things on my shoulders that you are supposed to carry and I’m carrying them,” and that is the time when we come and we agree with God. I usually do this in silence. When I pray this way, as I try to do, if not everyday, that’s the way I want to pray. So, it begins with silence. By the way, I do pray everyday, but possibly not exactly in this order, and I might say, sometimes I don’t follow the order. This is not some kind of a new formula. All right? We’re talking relationship here. You choose to agree with God in honesty, confession and surrender.
You choose to adore God. You begin to read the Psalms possibly. You read about the blessings of God. Use a hymn or chorus. Those of you who belong to the choir have certainly a jump on us here because you know you’re constantly singing those songs of glory. I notice that the songs that we sing on Sunday oftentimes are in my mind during the week. And so what you do is you use the Bible; you use a hymnal. I love to be able to just look into the face of God and say, “Jesus, the very thought of thee with sweetness fills my breast, but sweeter far thy face to see, and in thy presence rest.” What you are doing is reminding yourself of God. You are reminding yourself of his attributes but you are also reminding yourself of his relationship with you, and you are building that relationship. This is a relationship that is going to be built in confidence and so you come into God’s presence and you do that.
Third, choose to assure yourself. By that I mean that there are some of you who really aren’t willing to let God love you because you know right well that you are so unlovable that he really shouldn’t. [laughs] Isn’t that true of all of us? Is there anyone here not shaking his head affirmatively. Maybe I’m all alone up here, but the better we know ourselves the more likely we are to say, “God, you really shouldn’t love me,” and we all agree that naturally speaking he shouldn’t. The good news is he does. He does love you, and you are the object of his affection, and you are number one on his list of things to take care of in this befuddled universe. Indeed the very hair of your head is numbered, and as I look over the congregation today I can see that for some of you that might not be a big deal. You might have your own hair numbered, and some of us are getting that way. Can you imagine the particular interest that God takes that not even a sparrow falls to the ground but that the heavenly father notices it and sees that sparrow fall to the ground? So there is a time in this praying when you assure yourself. This is a time when you worship God and you give him glory because of the fact that “he exults over you with praise” it says in the Old Testament, and so you’re spending time thinking about what God has said in his promises in relationship to you that you actually are valuable to God. Indeed Jesus made the statement; he said “If your heavenly father takes care of the birds of the air, and they are here today and the grass is here today and is gone tomorrow, will he not much more do so to you oh ye of little faith, for you are of more value than many sparrows.” God cares about you. He cares about whom you should marry, and he also cares about whom you should not marry, and he cares equally. Isn’t it better to seek him out? I think so.
Now we hurry on. You choose to assure yourself, and you choose to ask of God. Now this is where the requests come in. The Bible says this very clearly. “Be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God.” Now notice Paul does not give the same promise as Jesus. The promises of Jesus have certain conditions certainly, and Paul has certain conditions, but listen to this again. “Be anxious for nothing but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving (very important because you don’t have faith unless you offer thanksgiving) let your requests be made known unto God and the peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your heart and mind through Jesus Christ.”
This has to do with commitment. This has to do with so surrendering our concerns. In fact, I’m toying with the idea of preaching an entire message on that topic. This means that we so give our situation and ourselves to God that we no longer fret about it because we see it as completely in God’s hands. So we do make our requests, but we bring those requests and we leave them submitted to the will and the plan of God. We think of Jesus in Gethsemane. “Father, if it be thy will let this cup pass from me but not as I will, but as thou will.” You make the request and you submit it to God.
Finally, choose to affirm your relationship. You affirm your relationship through taking a verse of Scripture with you throughout the day. You see when you read I know that it is often said you know that a chapter a day keeps the devil away. Well, not really if you can’t remember what you read the moment you finished reading it. What you do is you read it to look for a promise, to look for an affirmation, and so that actually is put into your mind for the rest of the day. You savor it for the rest of the day. That’s the verse and that’s the promise that you camp on, and when this time is over, you leave I say on good terms with God. By that I mean you leave in such a way that you say, “Father, you know I have to go to work. I have to catch the el. You know I have to go to the bank (or the office or the hospital or whatever) and so just know though that I’m not breaking fellowship with you. We’re going to keep in touch all day.” That’s the way you begin to seek God.
Well, you say, “How much time does it take?” Well I’m not going to tell you how much time it’s going to take because if I gave you a time it would be one more legalistic thing to do to fill your half hour or your twenty minutes, or whatever. Let you and God figure that out. You ask God how much time this should take. It is amazing how a heavenly father can sometimes convey his will to a child who is willing to listen and to respond.
Now here’s what you do. You take this. That’s why it’s separate from the bulletin. Don’t put it on your refrigerator unless you pray an awful lot before you open the door, and that might not be entirely bad. This is for your reading room. This is for the wall where you pray. This might go into your Bible if this is what you need each time as you begin. That might be a good place for it. But one thing is sure. This is considered very important as a guide, and it is only a guide. Sometimes these steps might be interspersed. They might be different, but here is your guide, and it will introduce to seeking God, because remember what the Bible says. He rewards those who really do seek him out. It takes time, it takes surrender, and it can be painful, but there’s no way to compare the reward.
The bottom line is knowing comes before asking. “This is life eternal that they might know thee, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent.” Knowing comes before asking, and God’s will comes before our will. That is essential. God’s will comes before ours – a whole shift in the purpose of prayer.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, this message has just blown right past me because I don’t think I even know God well enough to suddenly show up and say, ‘Here I am,’ and now I’m supposed to submit. How do you even connect with a God like that? I mean, what’s the first step? How do you get into it?”
Well, I’m so glad you asked. Once again, you’re really thinking. Thank you so much for your thoughts. Here’s a verse. It says in the book of Hebrews that “we have boldness to enter into the most holy place.” That was known in the Old Testament as the Holy of Holies. “We have boldness to enter into the most holy place by the blood of Jesus.” That’s the way you get to God. You acknowledge your sinfulness. You realize that you need redemption and forgiveness and Jesus Christ’s blood was shed specifically for the purpose to take away the sin of sinners, and I know that on that point you are eminently qualified, whoever you are, because we are all in the same boat when it comes to sin. We’re born with it and we do it. But that’s the way you come. You say, “I come through the blood of Christ. I come to be forgiven. I come to be cleansed. I come to agree with God,” and then you begin your journey of knowing him, and you look back in a year’s time, and I think I can this is true of me. This is a little dangerous to say, but I really do believe that I know God better than I did last. I certainly want to know God better in a year’s time than I do now.
Think of this. “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom. Let not the mighty man boast of his might. Let not the rich man boast in his riches, but he who boasts, let him boast in this, that he knoweth me, and understandeth of me, for I execute loving kindness, judgment and righteousness on the earth, for in these things I delight,” says the Lord. That’s Jeremiah Chapter 9. Let us be people whose joy is God, and let us pray.
Father, this congregation of Moody Church with all of its abilities and gifts and diversity, may we move together as one person coming to know you better. We ask, oh Lord God, that you might use this message as a beginning point for us to be taught how to seek you, and your word assures us that if we seek we find, and your word also, oh Lord, gives us the assurance that you reward those who seek you out. Make it our passion, and may we be able to say with sincerity, “Knowing you, Jesus, knowing you, there is no greater thing. You’re my all, you’re the best; you’re my joy, my righteousness and I love you, Lord.” We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.