Why pray if God doesn’t answer?

“Dad, can I go over to a friend’s place?” and Dad replies, “Well, I’ll have to think about that, son,” leaving the son hopping with frustration that he didn’t get an instant answer. Life can’t wait until Dad makes up his mind!

Does that ring a bell in our prayers to God? “Come on, God, the reason I’m praying is to get an answer. Waiting for an answer is no answer, because what’s the point of praying if I don’t get answers when I need them?”

But isn’t that holding God to ransom, or forcing his hand? “Hey, God, if you don’t answer, then I might as well give up praying.” It’s like a child saying, “What’s the point of coming to you for help, Dad, when your mind seems elsewhere?” For the relationship to continue, in other words, Dad had better drop everything and help.

So does that mean I have power over God, that he’s now expected to come to my beck and call every time I ask? Is God like a windmill, as one author phrased it, whose sails automatically move with the wind of my prayers? Is God only truly “God” to us when he fulfills our expectations?

Well, Jesus knew this would be a problem for us, because he encouraged his disciples to “always pray and not give up,” Luke 18:1. But why shouldn’t they give up? Because, Jesus asks in verses 7-8, “will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly.”

God isn’t like the unjust judge in that parable, who keeps refusing a widow’s request to deal with a difficult problem. God is instantly onto it. He goes to work on it “quickly.” No delays, no putting it off to a later time when he isn’t so busy, no dismissing the request as not worthy of an answer. God hears our cries, and Jesus says he’s moved to action immediately.

But God isn’t interested in just answering, he wants to give the best answer – and isn’t that why we pray to him and not to anyone else? We believe we’re in contact with a God who knows our needs before we even ask him for help, and he created us to have these needs so we’d turn to him, and in his answers to us we’d realize he knows us backwards, and knows exactly what’s best for us because he loves us, just as a child learns that Dad sometimes delays his answers because best answers need time.

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What’s the point of prayer?

“We don’t even know how we ought to pray,” Paul writes in Romans 8:26, so if prayer is that difficult for us, why bother? If we can never quite cotton on to what prayer is for, or what to pray about, or how to pray properly, what’s the point of praying at all? Lots of scriptures tell us to pray, but why pray if scripture also tells us we’re hopeless at it?!

Do I go ahead and force myself to pray anyway, fearful of what might happen if I don’t? Will things start going wrong if I don’t pray? Will I start falling apart mentally and emotionally, revert back to bad habits, mess up my relationships, get weird thoughts and nightmares, feel horribly lost and lonely, and gradually drift away from God all together if I don’t pray?

On the other hand, don’t good things happen when we pray? – like our health improves, so do our decisions, our moods, our relationships and concern for others. We become much nicer, calmer, wiser people when we pray. Is that what prayer is for, then, where it acts like an inner therapy to settle our conscience, soothe our worries, and feel like we’ve done our bit to get God’s favour?

But it all sounds rather selfish, doesn’t it? To balance that out, therefore, we pray for others in their troubles, pray that we’ll be fine examples of Christian living, pray that the gospel reaches more people, etc., but after a while it all becomes a bit repetitive and not very satisfying. We daren’t stop praying, though, because isn’t it our Christian duty to pray? So prayer now becomes an awkward mix of superstitious fear, selfish motives and dutiful routine. No wonder Paul said prayer isn’t easy for us. He totally understood the difficulty we have with it.

But he didn’t offer any techniques or advice on how to pray. He simply explained in Romans 8:26-27 what happens when we pray. The “Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express…in accordance with God’s will.” When we pray the Holy Spirit joins us with a prayer of his own, putting into words what we don’t even know we’re feeling deep down inside us or know how to express. And why does the Spirit do that? Because it’s “God’s will.” It’s God who wants the Spirit to come to him communicating the depths of our heart and inner being to him, because the Spirit expresses it so well and the Father loves hearing it.

The point of prayer, then, is to realize this is what happens when we pray. It starts an incredible ball rolling, that God just loves!

Praying in the Spirit

Paul said, “Pray at all times in the Spirit,” Ephesians 6:18, meaning “in accordance with the Spirit,” as Paul phrased it in Romans 8:5. And “in accordance with the Spirit” means having “our minds set on what the Spirit desires.”

To pray in the Spirit, then, simply means “praying in accordance with what the Spirit desires.” And it’s not difficult knowing what the Spirit desires because the Spirit is constantly  communicating with our spirit the things God wants us to know, think and live by (verse 16). To have the Spirit of God living in us means a steady stream of GOD’s mind and heart pouring into our minds and hearts, so that what God finds when “he searches our hearts” is “the mind of the Spirit,” verse 27.

So now that we have the mind of the Spirit inside us, we can pray “in accordance with” the Spirit’s desires. And if we’re still not quite sure what that means or whether we’re truly in tune with the Spirit’s mind, heart and desires, or not, that’s not a problem either, because “the Spirit helps us in our weakness,” verse 26. The Spirit can reach down into our inner being to express the thoughts and words we’re having trouble coming up with ourselves.

And this is exactly what Paul asked God to do for the Ephesians. He prayed that God would “strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being,” Ephesians 3:16, because the Spirit can reach down to the core of our being, to what makes us tick, to the engine that drives us. The Spirit can get right at the source of our thoughts and desires, to that “inner being,” the real “us,” much of which we probably have no idea about. No wonder we have trouble praying and we need the Spirit’s help, because it’s only by the power of the Spirit that all those hidden thoughts and yearnings in the depths of our inner being can be brought to the surface (at last).

Praying in the Spirit, then, is praying in the power of the Spirit in our inner being, enabling us to express our innermost thoughts and yearnings – that God put in us in the first place, but life and weird ideas muddle up our thoughts and crush our yearnings to the point we have no idea we’ve even got them anymore. But the Spirit does, so while we’re having trouble knowing and expressing what’s really inside us, the Spirit helps us, so that all those lovely desires God gave us come to the surface and bubble out from us in prayer. Now we’re really “praying in the Spirit”!

How can there be an “unpardonable” sin?

If all our sins are forgiven because of Christ’s death, why is there a sin that cannot be forgiven (Luke 12:10)? And if God loves us while we are yet sinners, why is there “a sin that leads to death” that no prayer can prevent (1 John 5:16)? And if God still shines his sun on the worst sinners in the world, still pours rain on their crops, and still allows them to enjoy the good things of life, why are some sins exceptions to his boundless mercy?

Because the purpose of God extending all that mercy, love and forgiveness is to stir up repentance (Romans 2:4). If there’s no repentance then all that love, mercy and forgiveness is useless. If a drunk driver kills my child, for instance, I may be able to forgive the driver, but what is the point of forgiving him if he doesn’t STOP drinking and driving? His drinking and driving will always be an unpardonable crime and a constant danger until he repents of drinking and driving and never wants to do it again.

Unfortunately, some people abuse and exploit God’s forgiveness. It doesn’t stop them being bullies, gossips, cheats and liars. They continue lording it over their wives and children, making money at other people’s expense, stealing other people’s property, treating animals cruelly, damaging people’s reputations, and saying whatever they like no matter who it hurts. They like the power, the intimidation and the fear they create. And they have no intention of changing.

Does God still love them? Oh yes. But he sent the Holy Spirit into every human heart to clean us up. To stop us sinning. To soften our hearts toward God and each other to eradicate the ugly attitudes inside us that make life hell. But we can shut out the Spirit’s influence. We can stop listening to our conscience. We can justify our ugliness, blame others, make ridiculous accusations and deliberately resist the one source of help that enables us to grasp the enormity of God’s love and want to get rid of the junk inside our heads and hearts.

It’s like the drunk driver who has no remorse. He deliberately covers his ears to blot out the cries of the injured and hides his eyes from the horrendous results of his crime. He doesn’t care. And it’s that state of mind that makes his sin unpardonable. Does God love him? Yes. Does God forgive him? Yes. But all that endless love and forgiveness is useless until the person’s attitude and behaviour change. And the Holy Spirit will never give up helping a person to change, so that God’s amazing forgiveness fulfills its purpose eventually.