‘Unanswered Prayer’ Deuteronomy 3: 12-29 February 16, 1992
If you read certain statements of Holy Scripture by themselves you could be forgiven for concluding that when a Christian in prayer asks his or her Father in heaven for something, that something will be given. ‘Ask and it shall be given you, seek and you shall find…’ ‘Whatsoever you ask in my name, it shall be given you…’ Those are but two of the striking statements our Savior made about the power and the effect of prayer. ‘You have not because you ask not,’ added his half-brother James, a man of great prayer himself.
Long before either of those two men spoke about prayer, David said similarly: ‘Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ And in many other places the Bible holds out to us the promise that ours prayers will be heard and answered. Young Christians often latch on to these promises and suppose that, in fact, God will give them whatever they want. I remember a young woman asking me whether I thought that promise about the Lord giving us the desires of our hearts meant that the Lord would give her a horse if she asked him for it. She loved horses.
But it is not as simple as that. Holy Scripture itself teaches us that lesson and our own experience has often enough confirmed it. We are, without a doubt, to believe those promises, and to pray with a confident expectation for the Lord’s answer. But there are conditions attached. ‘Ask and it shall be given you…’ if, the Scripture teaches us, if our motives are right, if we ask in Jesus’ name, if we ask for that which is according to God’s will, and if we ask importunately, proving the sincerity of our prayer in the urgency and passion and repetition with which we pray it.
Some prayers, many prayers are not answered in the affirmative. God often says “No!’ to the requests we make of him. Sometimes his ‘no’ is his judgment on us, his punishment. ‘If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me,’ we read in Psalm 66: 18. And Isaiah tells his contemporaries: ‘Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other… You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.’ (Isaiah 58:4)
Sometimes, he answers ‘no’ only to drive us to still more urgent prayer. A case in point would be the way the Lord Jesus put off the Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon who came to him pleading for her demon-possessed daughter. Twice he refused her, only to grant her request in the end. But sometimes our Father in heaven says ‘no’ to our requests because for his own reasons he has no intention of giving us what we are asking for. He did not hand over to us the running of the universe or even the rule of our own lives when he made promises to hear our prayers and answer them.
We have before us this morning in Deuteronomy 3 one of the most striking and important examples of God’s saying ‘no’ to the prayer of one of his children. This case is particularly helpful precisely because, as with the case of some of our requests which God refuses, it is not entirely clear why God should have said ‘no.’
Think of this particular case. Was there ever a man who served the Lord as faithfully as had Moses? In the teeth of one adversity after another: from the wrath of Pharaoh to the whining stupidity and ugly ingratitude of Israel, Moses had faithfully served both God and his people. What a man, what a lion of a man was Moses: the leader of his people; their priest — who more than once spared them by his earnest prayers to God; their prophet — who taught them faithfully the way of the Lord, wrote an immortal Psalm and the first five books of the Bible, and gave them the law of God first given to him by the hand of the Almighty himself; and their King — the general of the Israelite army which had swept all before it.
This was the truest warrior That ever buckled sword, This the most gifted poet That ever breathed a word;
And never earth’s philosopher Traced with his golden pen,
On the deathless page, truths half so sage As he wrote down for men.
Yes, he had stumbled once; stumbled badly. Once, in the wilderness when Israel was bitterly complaining because of a lack of water, Moses, when commanded by God to speak to a rock that it might give water, struck it with his staff instead, and in this public disobedience, made further sinful in other ways, he failed to honor the Lord as holy — so the Lord himself said in Numbers 20:12. And for this sin, he was told that he would not enter the promised land.
During the months, perhaps years, that had passed from that time until this, with Israel now poised on the west side of the Jordan, ready at last to enter Canaan, Moses had apparently often pled with the Lord, asking him to relent and allow him to set foot in the promised land. That is the suggestion of v. 26. How often and how sincerely this good and this great man, this man of towering holiness and depth of spiritual life and feeling, how often Moses had expressed his sorrow for his sin, had asked that God, in his great mercy, would forgive and forget it, as God promises to do when his people confess their sins and ask for his forgiveness. His sin had no doubt been forgiven that same day, the same long ago night it had been committed. Moses didn’t doubt that he had God’s forgiveness. But pray as he might, all those nights, God had remained silent regarding Moses’ entering the promised land. And now they had come to the Jordan’s banks and Moses renewed his prayer. ‘O Lord, do not hold my sin against me. In thy great mercy, grant me this one last kindness. 0 heavenly father, who pities your children, will you not let your servant set his feet in that land which has been my goal and my heart’s desire and longing all the years of my life?’ ‘I am not worthy, Lord; but pity your unworthy servant.’
And we think: Lord, surely you will relent. After all this great man has done, after all that he endured from enemies and so-called friends. For all the faithfulness he displayed when everyone else was unfaithful. Surely, Father, you will not rob this old and faithful servant of the greatest desire of his heart, for one sin, for one sin, which, if the truth be told, seems not so great a sin compared to so many others he might have committed and did not out of love and loyalty to his God and Savior. But, what does the Lord say to all of this: ‘That is enough! Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. You will not cross the Jordan. The case is closed!’
If you needed proof that God sometimes says ‘no’ to our prayers, a better demonstration would be hard to imagine.
But Moses’ case is hardly unique. The Bible is full of unanswered prayers offered by godly men and women who were not regarding iniquity in their hearts. And so it has continued through the years in the life of every Christian. Take any fulsome and searching spiritual autobiography you wish. My favorite of all such books is the Memoirs of Thomas Boston, the early 18th century Scottish pastor. What a great man of God he was! Humility, spiritual fortitude, love, and honor all compact in a single heart and life. And in that book you will read of his praying desperately for the life of six of his children who nevertheless died while very young. You will read his prayers for his church, his denomination, which all the while grew sicker. And you will read at the end his anguished confession that all his life he had prayed to be delivered from a particular sin and was still struggling with it months before his death.
Boston’s prayers are only particularly exquisite examples. It is not hard to open any book about any Christian and find the same. I was reading briefly this past week about Mary Slessor, the intrepid pioneer missionary to the interior of what was then Calabar in West Africa. She longed for and had often prayed for a husband and, like Moses, divine providence had brought her to the very border of her promised land. Another missionary in West Africa, Charles Morrison, loved her and she him. But, for reasons which are too complicated to explain and which actually reflected well on them both, the marriage proved impossible and she remained alone the rest of her life.
You could add your own long list of such prayer to which God either so far has not heard or has definitely answered in the negative. A loved one has died for whose life you prayed. A job was lost you prayed that you might have. An unbelieving family member remains indifferent to the gospel in defiance of multitudes of heart-felt prayers offered on his behalf at the throne of grace. A homosexual, now a Christian, seeks release from his unnatural desires, but finds them weighing him down still. Another Christian anguishes over another sinful tendency which has defeated him or her time and again, but pray as he or she might, there it remains, darkening life and dampening joy.
You too have your promised lands upon which you have longed to set your feet, and God has said ‘no.’ In some cases he has even as much as said, ‘Speak to me no more about this matter,’ as his providence has made null and void even the possibility that his ‘yes’ might still some day be given. The loved one is dead, the opportunity is past.
This morning, I want us to ask why God says ‘no’ to such prayers, to prayers which seem, at least so far as we can see, to be prayers he would be expected to answer being the God of mercy and kindness and large-heartedness that he is. Why did God say ‘no’ to Moses?
Now, I don’t mean to say that we can know all the reason for that. In God’s perfect wisdom and infinite sovereignty everything is connected to everything else, and there are innumerable reasons why Moses did not cross the Jordan river, reasons small and great. I want us to ask, rather, what might we say in general about such unanswered prayers, or, better, prayers to which God says ‘no.’ And, I think, if we will consider this matter carefully, we will find that such refusals are a most important part of our sanctification. Without them, we could never be the Christians we aspire to be, if true Christians we are at all.
In the first place, God says ‘no’ to our prayers to humble us, to give us a proper sense of our true place before him. Remember, I am not saying that there are not specific reasons why God says ‘no’ to any particular prayer. In this particular case, the Lord seems to have decided that it was necessary to say ‘no’ to Moses so that the people of Israel, already suffering from a seriously inadequate view of their own sinfulness would not be further confirmed in their tendency to take sin lightly. You will notice that Moses reminds the Israelites that it was because of them that he was provoked to commit the sin for which now he was paying so steep a price. In Moses’ punishment, the Lord was sending a message to Israel concerning the seriousness with which he took their disobedience. Further, the Lord forbade Moses to cross the Jordan in part because he wanted Joshua properly prepared for the task that would fall to him when Israel entered the promised land. Once Moses understood that he was not to cross the river, he could bend all of his energies preparing Joshua to take his place.
There no doubt are other reasons why God said ‘no’ to Moses and has said ‘no’ to some of your prayers. But, when he says ‘no’ he is also seeking something in us. That is my point. And the first thing he is seeking is our humility, our meekness, our poverty of spirit. Moses’ request, understandable as it was, even legitimate as it was, was, in effect, a request that he, that Moses be allowed to do something that he very much wanted to do. It was Moses’ desire, Moses’ wish that was being brought to God in his prayer. I do not say that it was an improper wish at all, only that it was Moses’ wish. God’s answer had the effect of saying this: that may be your wish Moses; but it is not mine! And your life and this world will be as I wish them to be. I am the Lord who does what pleases him in heaven and on earth.
Now, that may seem to be an obvious point, but you should not think so. More than you or I think or are willing to admit, our world revolves around ourselves; our happiness is a measure of our own personal peace and sense of well-being; our goals and aspirations are to a profound degree self-oriented and self-interested. Examine yourself, brother and sister: be ruthlessly honest with yourself for a change. To what extent, how often, and how seriously does your daily life and peace and happiness and purpose revolve around what God wills and not what you will, what he desires and not what you desire. And is it not often the case that we indulge the delusion that we are seeking God’s will often only because in a number of cases his will and our will overlap. When we think we are seeking his will, we are really seeking our own, which in this case is similar.
It is only when God’s will crosses ours that we are able to tell how genuinely we believe that his will alone is good and right and perfect, that we trust him too much to prefer our way to his, and that we really desire his will, not ours to be done. God’s ‘no’ in answer to our prayer, shows us what we are made of, and often reveals that, far more than we ever admit to ourselves, we think that we are the center of the universe, that our wishes should be God’s commands.
When God says ‘no’ he brings us back to our senses and makes us to see our true place and station. He is God, we are his creatures, the sheep of his pasture. He is the potter, we are only the clay. He wants us to remember that and to live accordingly. He wants us to have respect to the great distance that separates the creature from the creator. He wants us to take our proper place as his subjects, as his little children.
It is unseemly for a child to tell his parent what to do. It is still more unseemly for the children of God to tell, or seem to tell, their heavenly Father what to do. But we have a real penchant for doing exactly that. And so, for our own soul’s sake, and for humility’s sake — the bottom grace of any true Christian life — from time to time he says ‘no’ and reminds us that he is God and we are most definitely not!
Second, God says ‘no’ to our prayers in order to take us higher and deeper in the life of faith; he says ‘no’ in order to make us greater Christians, greater men and greater women, that otherwise we could ever be. We puzzle at that, but only because we so often and so easily entertain a very superficial view of what constitutes a real Christian life. We think that a person who always got his or her prayers answered would really be a great Christian. But, you don’t have to think very long or very hard to see that, in fact, it is not so.
It is a far stronger faith that honors and loves God, obeys and trusts him when he says ‘no,’ than a faith which always gets what it wants. This was precisely the Devil’s challenge regarding Job. His faith and godliness meant nothing, he charged, because his life was so easy and God had been so good to him. But, to have lost one’s loved ones, and one’s property, and then one’s health suddenly and savagely and still say from the heart: ‘The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord’ and ‘Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him,’ I say: THAT is faith! That is godliness. That is a Christian life that in a far grander way adorned the gospel and the gospel’s God than ever Job’s life did when he was rich and healthy.
Where do we find the true heroism of faith, where is its reality demonstrated to the world? In the Christian whose life is easy, who wants for little, and who hardly ever prays with passion because he can’t think of anything he needs that badly? Or, is the glory of God reflected rather in the man or woman who obeys when obedience is difficult, whose heart is sweet through great disappointment, and who will not doubt the Lord even when life is cruel and hard and discouraging?
Surely you see the point. God must be a great God and exceedingly good, his love must make a wonderfully indelible impression in the soul, and his glory must truly be above the heavens if even when he says ‘no’ to his children, they continue to cling to him, trust him, honor and obey him.
I say Moses was a greater man for God’s ‘no’ and his obedient and trusting submission to God’s will, than he would have been had God said ‘yes.’ I say Moses did a greater thing by far, cheerfully to obey the Lord’s command in the face of his great disappointment, than he would have done if he had got instead permission to cross the river. I say, Moses showed us much more about the greatness of God, about God’s truth and faithfulness and love and kindness when, in the face of God’s crushing refusal, he so readily accepted God’s answer as good and right, and bent himself to doing all that God had commanded him. I say, the reality of God and his glory, his presence in the lives of his children, the power of his love, and the truth of all that he has taught them especially about life after death, is more brilliantly displayed in Moses’ willing resignation to the Lord’s refusal than in almost any other moment in Moses’ life.
In the same way, Jeremiah’s acquiescence to the Lord’s ‘no’ in answer to his prayer for Judah’s deliverance, and Paul’s acceptance that God’s grace would be sufficient for him when the Lord refused to take away his thorn in the flesh, and Thomas Boston’s honoring the sovereignty of the Almighty when his little boys died though he had prayed his heart out that they might live, and Mary Slessor staying alone in Calabar when God said ‘no’ to a husband for her there, I say in the same way as Moses, these men and women of God, like multitudes of others, became something greater for the Lord and contributed something more wonderful and much more important than ever they would or could have done had God always heard and always said ‘yes.’ And they said something more glorious about God when they took his ‘no’ as readily as they would take his ‘yes.’
Who is a God like our God, who can order the most punishing disappointments for his children and have them only love and trust him the more! Only the living God who abounds in love and who delights to show mercy and who is faithful in all his ways would have children like that.
It is spiritual childishness which always seeks its own way and expects all of its wishes to be fulfilled. It is spiritual maturity really to believe that God knows more and knows best and that it is wise and right to submit to him. But it is spiritual manhood and womanhood of the most noble sort to honor God as much, to obey him as readily, and love him as deeply when he says ‘no’ as when he says ‘yes.’
What God wants most is to have his name in you! What he desires above all is that his glory should be reflected in your life; that you should become like his own Son. And he will order your life and answer your prayers always with that end in view.
And if you want to know what it is to have God’s name in you and to be conformed to the image of his own Son, well, I will tell you that no moment in all of our Savior’s life so completely comprehended and so perfectly illustrated and so wonderfully depicted all that our Savior was in heart and in life than that moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, when he offered up to heaven the most sincere and importunate and earnest and honest prayer that was ever prayed in this world, and his Father in heaven said ‘No!’ And the Lord Jesus then said, with all his heart, ‘not my will, Father, but thine be done!’
Unless God tells you ‘no’ in response to some of your very best and truest prayers, you cannot walk in your Savior’s footsteps, or be like him in his sufferings, or give glory to God as he did. In this way, then, God says ‘no’ to do us good: to humble us and to ennoble our Christian lives. P.T. Forsyth put it best: ‘Faith is sure that God refuses with a smile; that he says no in the spirit of yes, and he gives or refuses always in Christ, our great Amen.’