If you have found yourself praying repeatedly about something, no doubt you’ve wondered: ‘How long should I persist? Why doesn’t He answer?’
George Müeller shocked the wealthy widow as he shook his head, refusing her generous offer. Even Mrs. Müeller was surprised – both she and George knew that 500 pounds would pay the bill for their orphanage. But more than that, Mary Müeller knew that for more than a month her husband had prayed daily for this woman, asking God to move her to give her legacy to the orphanage. Now here she was, admitting, “The Lord has told me to give up my money.”
God has answered prayer, Mary thought. What is holding George back?
“I don’t know how to tell you,” he said. “I guess it’s just this: I’m frightened by the power of prayer.”
If anyone was qualified to say that, it was George Müeller. In everything, he prayed fervently. Some answers came as quickly as an immediate stilling of a storm at sea, and others not during his lifetime. George Müeller took God seriously Do we?
Why Pray Persistently?
The old adage is true: “Prayer changes things.” In prayer we apply our wills to move God to alter the course of events. Otherwise, the urgency of prayer is removed; it is mere ritual, “a soliloquy only overheard by God.” By His own sovereign design, God has ordained that He will act to do certain things only in response to believing prayer. Although God’s eternal purposes and desires are fixed, prayer can affect how He acts.
For example, suppose we are in the factious church described in 1st Corinthians and some sin of ours has caused God to discipline us as He did those Christians – we are physically ill (1 Cor. 11).
Now, in response to the exhortation of another Christian, we admit our sin to the church elders. They pray for our healing, and God answers (Jas. 5:16). What is God’s response? We are healed. We have moved Him to change His tactics because of the effective prayer of a righteous man.
The Nature of Prayer
But prayer is not a will-against-will tug-of-war with God. Our struggle in prayer is primarily against ourselves and Satan. Often our desires are at odds with God’s; meanwhile, Satan seeks to thwart God’s purposes for us.
Ultimately, prayer is the struggle of the redeemed but still sinning saint to find God’s will and to implore Him to act in keeping with that will. We do not pray to get our own way, contrary to some contemporary teaching. God is not a vending machine requiring sufficient faith in lieu of the desired goodies.
God loves us too much to grant our every request; the overruling principle is “Your will be done” Only when God’s will prevails is God glorified and His kingdom advanced.
God’s Purpose in Prayer
In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:7-11), Jesus used three common terms to urge people to pray persistently: “ask,” “seek,” and knock.” The verbs are in the Greek present tense, suggesting continual action. Disciples are to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking.
“Ask,” a word commonly used with prayer, means to solicit what we want from God.
To “seek” God is a concept prevalent in both testaments. In the Old Testament, it emphasizes the need for repentance. A reverential fear is often present if one is to find God, as sin hides Him from individuals. Thus Jesus promises that God will not stay hidden if a person will truly seek Him.
Knocking” pictures one seeking to gain entry. Rabbis often used this metaphor to refer to prayer. Here again, Jesus conveys God’s willingness to respond to those who desire to find Him.
Certainly God could (and does) give us things without our asking. On the other hand, God says, at times “you do not have because you do not ask” (Jas. 4.2). If even sinful parents provide for the basic needs of their children, Jesus reasons, how much more will God grant His children’s requests (Matt. 7:9-11).
Jesus emphasized not only that we pray, but also that we do so persistently Consider His parable of the importunate (unrelenting; persistent) friend (Lk. 11:5-8), remembering it is Oriental in nature.
A certain man ran the great risk of losing face when he found he had no food to provide for a late-arriving visitor. A sleeping friend was his only recourse. But the friend was not inclined to help, for the request was extremely inconvenient. Friendship was not reason enough to grant such an outrageous request.
But something else did move the friend to action – persistence, or “importunity” The Greek word used, anaideia, can mean simple persistence, but here it also carries the sense of shamelessness. The man reduces himself to shameless begging, even after his friend says “no.”
The point is this: If even a reluctant friend, in spite of great inconvenience, will eventually grant such a “shameless” request, how much more will God respond to our needs. In other words, don’t give up hope.
We must be careful, however, to note that in no way does Jesus imply that if you pray long enough, God will eventually rouse Himself to come to your aid. Rather, we should pray because God delights in responding to the needs of His children (Lk. 11:9-13).
A similar theme is conveyed in Christ’s parable of the unconscionable judge (Lk. 18:1-8), who at first refused to take any action to aid a helpless widow. If he would not assist her, she had no hope for justice. So she nagged him until he finally did grant her request. Jesus’ point is clear: If such a hard and ungodly judge could be moved to action by dogged persistence, how much more will our righteous and compassionate God respond to the prayer of His elect.
Jesus does not suggest that God can be worn down like this judge; His illustration is not license to nag God until we get what we want. Christ’s emphasis rests on the contrast between the cooperation of an unrighteous judge and God, the righteous Judge.
Unlike the dilatory judge, God acts quickly to vindicate His elect.
Both parables indicate that continued prayer pleases God. Perseverance in prayer is an important spiritual discipline.
Yet another insight is portrayed by Jesus’ reluctance to heal the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Matt. 15:21-28), a request similar to our petitions in prayer.
It is unlikely Jesus did not wish to heal her, that He changed His mind at the last moment because she persisted. Had He not wanted to heal her at the outset, He could have taken the disciples’ advice and sent her away.
In principle, Jesus was not opposed to healing Gentiles (Matt. 8:5-13), and such a refusal would have been out of character for Him.
Jesus was simply testing the woman’s faith. He did not want to heal her; He merely set up an obstacle to demonstrate her faith. She willingly appealed to Jesus to act in keeping with His character.
Jesus welcomes all who come to Him in faith, weary, needy, helpless, and humble. His delay in answering her no doubt taught the disciples, whose hard hearts would gladly have rejected her desperate cries. Jesus responds to faith.
This ties in closely with the parable of the unjust judge, which the Lord summed up by saying, “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Lk. 18:8, NIV). Prayer characterizes those with faith. Will we continue in prayer until Jesus returns, or will we abandon it, betraying our lack of faith?
Why Doesn’t He Answer?
Apart from our failure to meet the conditions necessary for prayer (for example: praying in faith, in Jesus’ name, according to His will), still other reasons may explain why prayers are not answered as we wished. For one thing, God may delay answers to impress on us our need of Him.
I recall my anguish years ago when God seemed to delay answering an urgent request. As an American living in Aberdeen, Scotland, I was not allowed to accept employment. In our church, however, a part-time job opened for a “church officer,” a glorified term for “janitor.” But this seemed ideal for my family, as the job included a rent-free flat with the small salary. I knew this arrangement would enable us to survive while I finished my doctoral work.
So I applied to the authorities, asking them to waive the regulation in my case. Meanwhile, we prayed and prayed. The church had set a deadline, for they needed someone to care for the property. Soon we were within a few days of that deadline; if we didn’t hear from the officials, I would have to abandon the idea.
Why doesn’t God answer? I wondered. Why do the bureaucratic wheels turn so slowly?
At that time, I had no idea that this “delay” would so tremendously enhance my prayer life. I was helpless to act; the matter was out of my hands. Only God could move the bureaucracy. I realized how much I needed to depend on Him, not only for that answer, but also for life itself and all its details.
A second reason is that we may not be spiritually ready to receive what we have requested.
For example, I did get that job, but only after praying fervently. Scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets are not fun tasks. However, instead of being tempted to complain, I could look back and see it as God’s provision. Because I knew that job was His answer, no feelings of pride or ingratitude could overwhelm me. Our persistent prayers prepare us spiritually so that we can graciously accept God’s answer.
Third, for His own inscrutable reasons, God may answer “not yet.” In His wisdom, according to His economy, now is not always the best timing.
Jesus instructed His disciples to pray: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10, NASB). Obviously, this prayer is according to God’s will, yet the complete answer has not been granted, although the church has prayed persistently for more than 1,900 years. Indeed, in some measure He has, as many have responded to His invitation to enter the kingdom and believers have accomplished God’s will. But the consummate answer awaits the end times.
Thus, when a prayer that is clearly God’s will has not been answered, we must persist in faith, knowing God’s answer appears to be “not yet.”
Why Deny Requests?
Sometimes God chooses to deny our specific request while He honors our desire. At times, what would best fulfill the desire of our hearts is not what we requested.
Recorded in Augustine’s Confessions is an incident involving his mother, a devout Christian who prayed that God would prevent Augustine from going to Italy. She longed for his conversion and thought that her influence could best bring him to Christ. Nevertheless, Augustine did sail for Italy. But there, under the influence of Ambrose, he became a Christian. God granted the mother’s desire, but to do so, He denied her request. Certainly, such a response doesn’t really qualify as unanswered prayer.
So what about a “no” response? Is it consistent with all the promises about prayer? Of course it is, for God is God, and all that happens in the universe is subject to His will.
Scripture reports many cases in which God answers “no.” Once, for example, David fasted and prayed with tears for seven days and nights, asking God to spare the life of his child that Bathsheba bore (2 Sam. 12:14-18). But as Nathan had prophesied, the child died on the seventh day.
At one time the prophet Elijah prayed in the desert, “I have had enough, Lord… Take my life” (1 Ki. 19:4, NIV). But God denied the godly man’s foolish request.
Even Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane was not answered with a “yes.” He prayed, “Abba, Father… everything is possible for You. Take this cup from Me” (Mk. 14:36). Jesus then acknowledged His readiness to accept the Father’s will, saying, “Yet not what I will, but what You will”; nevertheless, His initial request was not granted.
God does not reject our prayer. But at times He does reject our proposal as to how our request ought to be answered.
Because God desires to give the best gifts to His children, He accomplishes His will rather than ours, by providing His answer. Yet our prayers still prove effectual – an answer has come that would not have apart from believing prayer.
When we reject “no” as a valid answer, we neglect the personal dimension of prayer. A rubber stamp approval is sometimes less than best. God may, in fact, respond by giving us better insight or more energy to do a task ourselves, guiding others to act in ways that inevitably answer our request or influencing events that provide an answer.
If we continue to demand a “yes” answer, we may fail to discern how God has actually answered our prayers. Surely we cannot confine an all-knowing and all-powerful God to our plans or our methods of working in this world.
Whatever served as Paul’s thorn in the flesh, we know Paul viewed it as a negative obstacle to his ministry, “a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Cor. 12:7). Paul figured it wasn’t simply an unpleasant physical trait or disability Therefore, he concluded that removal of the thorn would be consistent with God’s will. To that end he prayed.
Three times he pleaded that God might remove it. But although Paul’s motives were right, God did not grant his literal request. We have no reason to doubt that Paul prayed in faith, God simply had a better idea.
For Paul’s benefit and the advancement of the gospel, God allowed the thorn to remain. God knew its presence would accomplish more than its removal. So God said “no,” but He also added a great spiritual insight: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
Persisting or Pestering?
It would be foolish for us to persist in making a request when the answer is consistently “no,” a request we are not certain is God’s will. It’s one thing to pray daily for our sustenance, as we know that is God’s will. But concerning the removal of the cross, Jesus prayed only three times. And concerning his specific “thorn,” Paul also prayed only three times.
It’s doubtful that three is the divinely appointed number of times we ought to request something, but there does come a time when we must accept a “no” and go on from there. Paul urges believers to pray about everything rather than be anxious, and he adds that in doing so we will have God’s peace (Phil. 4:6-7).
In and of itself, persistence in prayer is not an indication of faith. In fact, it may indicate just the opposite – that we are full of anxiety about the issue and don’t really trust God.
Apart from biblical evidence that reveals a certain matter is God’s will, we might be guilty of badgering God by constantly praying for something. Even something we sense would enhance our ministry might be of lesser concern to God. What He has in mind might seem to us less comfortable although it is better.
If we sincerely desire to please God, we must be willing to accept with thanksgiving even a “no.” We rest assured knowing God has answered us, and for our own good, He has denied our request.
Because we know God delights to give us what is best, we have no need to come to Him with frivolous or faithless requests (Matt. 6:7).
Somehow I cannot imagine the apostle Paul asking God to find him a convenient parking place. Paul accepted and expected inconvenience. In fact, he knew it comes with following Christ (2 Cor. 4:7-18).
To pray for our comfort or ease or for our material and financial success indicates a lack of faith in God, who has promised to care for our needs. It also reveals a frightful insensitivity to God’s concern for the poor and needy of the world.
How can we ask for more for ourselves, when many of God’s children are literally starving? The “good gifts” God wants to give us will benefit us spiritually, not simply make our lives more comfortable (Matt. 7:11; Lk. 11:13).
When Should I Persist?
The surest source for knowing what kinds of prayers to persist in is God’s Word. In it we discover what conforms to His will. We ought to pray for fellow believers who fall into sin, that they will repent and seek God’s forgiveness (1 Jn. 5:16). Both troublesome times and times of joy should also spur us on to prayer (Jas. 5:13).
It is appropriate to pray for healing (Jas. 5:15). But as we recall Paul’s experience, we know our sovereign God is the One who determines whether healing is the best course of action.
Because Jesus pronounced His blessing upon peacemakers (Matt. 5:9), we know it’s appropriate for God’s children to persist in praying for peace (Rom. 12:18; 14:19; 2 Cor. 13:11; Eph. 4:3; 1 Thes. 5:13; 2 Tim. 2:22).
God has called us to holiness, and He’s seeking to conform us to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. Therefore, we ought to persist in prayer for our own spiritual growth, as this is one of the good gifts He longs to give us.
Jesus urged His disciples to “pray for those who mistreat you” (Lk. 6:28). And we know that He urges us to do likewise.
The world needs the gospel desperately, and we ought to persist in following Jesus’ command to “ask the Lord of the harvest …to send out workers into His harvest field” (Lk. 10:2).
The list could go on and on; God’s Word gives us much guidance in knowing how to pray. If we believe that prayer really works, there are no shortages of concerns worthy of our prayer. The biggest danger is not to pray.
Dr. William W. Klein, Moody