A sermon by Rod Benson
Christians are people who pray. We love prayer. We love answers to prayer. We believe it is vital to our identity as Christians. And yet we are not immune to the malady of unanswered prayer.
Is God indifferent to our cries for help, our desperate pleas, our intercession on behalf of those we love and cherish? Is he judging us? Is the silence of God a sign that he has rejected us?
Sometimes unanswered prayers are met with a shrug of the shoulders, and we press on, but there are times when we entertain what seventeenth-century Puritan theologian John Owen calls “hard thoughts” about God when it seems he is silent in the face of our earnest persistent godly prayers.
In The Still Hour, nineteenth-century American theologian Austin Phelps writes on the absence of God from personal experience, reflecting on Job 23:2 (“Oh that I knew where I might find [God]”). Phelps says that a consciousness of the absence of God is normal, and a sense of God’s abiding presence with us is at best intermittent.
Why might this be true? It may be that prayer feels like a burdensome duty. If that’s your experience, keep on praying in a disciplined way, trusting God’s promises, until you “get through duty to delight.”
It may be the distraction of an over-busy life; or settling for less; or habitual sins; or deep spiritual emptiness or dryness; or an unhealthy self-reliance; or lack of good examples and encouragement in the practice of prayer; or the fact that we rarely talk about how hard it can be to pray.
It may be that we allow the devil to convince us that God is not love, and he doesn’t know who I am, and prayer does not work; or we are not genuinely united to Christ by God’s grace through faith.
If you are a true believer, then the confidence Jesus had that his Father always hears him can be your confidence too (Jn 11:41-42). But you and I are not God, and there is much that we do not know, let alone understand, about the world. We cannot afford to petition God and expect him to be under obligation to answer all our prayers. As we pray, we should ask that God’s will be done, and pray in the name of Jesus, confident that “Jesus Christ has great claims on God.”
We should rest with confidence – but not complacency – in Jesus, and his finished work, and his present ministry of interceding on our behalf, as our Advocate with the Father (1 Jn 2:1).
Even when prayers seem unanswered, we should pray with the assurance that, as Tim Keller puts it, “God will answer us when we call because one terrible day he did not answer Jesus when he called.”
Unanswered prayer is rarely due simply to sin, or rebellion, or God catching up with your failures. Those who make a habit of sin, and feel no remorse, are not those who seek God in prayer. Spiritual rebels rarely seek help from the object of their rebellion.
Jesus himself, the most perfect and godly person who ever lived, knew what it felt like to have the door of heaven slammed in his face. Jesus experienced the profound and terrifying silence of God in his hour of greatest need, even as he prayed, even as he suffered.
The problem of unanswered prayer is most acutely experienced amid personal suffering, or amid the realisation that someone we love does not love God and may die tomorrow without saving faith in Christ.
Thoughtful theories and impressive explanations have been offered to make sense of the fact of innocent suffering and human freedom in a universe created and ruled by an omnipotent God who is love, but as Tim Chester observes in his book The Message of Prayer, such theories and explanations “work in the classroom, but shatter too easily when on our knees we hear only the echo of our own voice.”
Having said that, it is still sensible to ask: why does God not answer some prayers? Why does God not grant my request?
The reality of our world and our personal experience is that evil is real and very evil. It cannot be justified. Pain and suffering and loss are terrible burdens, unbearable for some. But just as certainly, the Lord God Almighty really is Lord. God is love, and his actions are always good, never evil. He allows evil to occur, for a time, for a purpose, within limits set by him, but he never does evil.
If God knows all things, and is aware of everything in advance of events, then it follows that as he created Adam and Eve, God knew they would eventually sin, and he knew all the horror and misery, the madness and sadness, the unfulfilled dreams of every person and community in history, and yet he went ahead and created our first parents anyway.
He is the Lord. He is the Sovereign. He is God. His will is perfect, his wisdom is beyond question, his love is deep and pure and true and everlasting and personal.
What draws together the evilness of evil, the lordship of the Lord, and the goodness of God is the cross of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. “On the cross the evilness of evil is demonstrated. On the cross the complete sovereignty of God is demonstrated. And on the cross the unadulterated goodness of God is demonstrated.”
As twentieth-century German theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it:
Anyone who suffers without cause first thinks he has been forsaken by God. God seems to him to be mysterious, incomprehensible God who destroys the good fortune that he gave. But anyone who cries out to God in this suffering echoes the death-cry of the dying Christ, the Son of God. In that case God is not just a hidden someone over against him, to whom he cries, but in a profound sense the human God, who cries with him and intercedes for him with his cross where man in his torment is dumb.
In Mark 15:34, at the cross, we find a desperate, earnest, sincere, unthinkable prayer – the cry of a vulnerable child for his dad; the cry of an innocent sufferer shocked at the silence of heaven; the cry of a helpless victim visualizing the evaporation of the last drop in what had appeared to be an endless ocean of peace, love and hope.
The imagined horror from which his mind recoiled as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane is now fully felt (see Mk 14:33-36). Now nailed to a cross and suspended between earth and sky, Jesus cries out in his hour of greatest need, and his cry is met with silence.
His abandonment by God was more than a feeling – it was actual abandonment in every way, body, mind and spirit. He was left utterly alone, completely cut free from the rich and deep relationship he enjoyed with his Father, from the moment of his birth, and beyond that throughout the limitless expanse of eternity.
On the cross, God abandoned Jesus when he most felt the need for his Father in heaven. This is the only recorded prayer of Jesus where Jesus prays, “My God…” rather than “Father…” All who feel the silence of heaven in response to our prayers, all who are familiar with the thought of being forsaken by God, may find in these terrible words of Jesus an echo of their own experience.
And then Jesus dies (v. 37).
And then another unthinkable event happens (v. 38).
And then we read an extraordinary statement from a soldier (v. 39). The centurion has just heard Jesus’ last prayer, and unwittingly becomes the first Christian apologist! “At the moment at which God is most absent, we see the presence of the living God.”
For Mark, the cosmic cross of Jesus is the centre of God’s saving work, and the centurion’s astonished affirmation is the heart of the gospel, and there is nothing more true, or more worthy of attention, or more deserving of response, than the discovery that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of the living God (Mk 8:29), the flesh-and-blood Messiah who suffers and dies to pay the price of our sins, and through whose death and resurrection we find new life and new hope – eternal life, and eternal hope.
Jesus experienced our godforsakenness for us, he suffered the judgment we deserved, and bore the awful absence of God, in order to unite us with God, and revoke the sentence, and replace the absence with his abiding presence.
His actual abandonment by God makes possible our acceptance by God and our fellowship with God. You may feel abandoned, but God has not abandoned you. He loves you with the greatest love the world has ever seen. Tim Keller again:
God is your Father now, and he is committed to your good. Jesus gives you access to the throne of the universe because he is your mediator, advocate, and priest. The Holy Spirit is God himself within you prompting and helping you to pray, so you can know that if you are praying, God is listening.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Php 4:6-7; see also Heb 4:12-16).
Sermon 661 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 20 March 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
 Austin Phelps, The Still Hour: Our Communion with God (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1974), p. 9.
 Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014), p. 25.
 Keller, ibid., p. 237.
 Tim Chester, The Message of Prayer (Leicester: IVP, 2003), p. 234.
 Chester, ibid., p. 235.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (ET London: SCM, 1974).
 Chester, The Message of Prayer, p. 237.
 Tim Keller, Prayer, p. 248.