Understanding the Answers to Prayers

Pastor Kim Gilliland
October 17, 2021
SCRIPTURE: Job 38: 1-7, 34-41
Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
Job 38:4

RECAP

We continue this morning with our series on prayer. Two weeks ago we talked about how we need to make prayer a priority in our lives. Last week we talked about how we can find God and grow in an intimate relationship with him through prayer. Today, we turn our attention to answered prayers; how are prayers are answered and how we can recognize those answers when they come to us?

But before we do that, I want to reiterate the three main reasons for this series. The first reason is because I hope to encourage all of us as individuals to be more intentional about our own prayer lives. Second, I want to encourage us to pray more as a community of faith, the body of Christ. Finally, I want to remind everyone here that it is only as we pray that the ministry of the Church of Jesus Christ will thrive in this place. We need constantly to soak ourselves, each other and the leadership of this congregation in prayer. It is only through prayer that we will succeed in the ministry which has been set aside for us.

The interesting thing about this series is that in the past two weeks I have heard people begin to talk about prayer. Prayer is an integral part of who we are as the church and the people of God in this place. And just to remind you, we do have a prayer group that meets on line every Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm and you are more than welcome to join in. Just let me know and we can set you up without a problem.

GOD ANSWERS JOB

So what does it mean that God answers prayers? To talk about that, we are going to turn back to the story of Job chapter 38. Do you remember that last week, Job’s complaint was that in the darkest time of his life, after his children had all died in an accident, and his livestock had all been stolen, and his servants killed by bandits, God seemed to be absent. Job was smart enough to know that God was there. He just didn’t seem to be able to connect.

In Job 38:1-7 (NIV) God begins to answer this complaint:

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm. He said:

“Who is this that obscures my plans

    with words without knowledge?

Brace yourself like a man;

    I will question you,

    and you shall answer me.

“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?

    Tell me, if you understand.

Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!

    Who stretched a measuring line across it?

On what were its footings set,

    or who laid its cornerstone—

while the morning stars sang together

    and all the angels shouted for joy?

This passage marks a huge change in the tone and character of the book of Job. Up until this point in the book, after the first chapter, the book of Job has been conversations was between Job’s friends who claimed that he must have done some horrible thing for God to treat him so poorly and Job who insisted that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and didn’t deserve all the rotten things that were happening in his life.

But here in chapter 38, God has had quite enough. It says in verse 1 that God speaks out of the storm. That indicates how ticked God is. These verses read like a parent who has watched two children trying to settle an argument which neither one can win. God hears their arguments. God listens to their debate and their reasoning and finally, when God can not take any more of it, he responds. It’s like God saying, “Will you folks get a grip? So, pipe down, put a lid on it for a few minutes while I tell you the way it really is!” Verse 2-3 reads, “Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge. Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me.

Can you hear the sarcasm in this passage? It’s as if God is saying, “Okay, you guys, you think you’re so smart. You think you know so much. So, answer me these few simply questions. If you are so smart and so wise and so knowledgeable, this should be a snap!”

This is an interesting response to a very difficult and painful situation. But we need to note one very important thing: It is that God actually responds. That’s the very first and most important thing that we need to say today. God hears Job’s struggle. God listens to the words of Job’s friends. And God will not be silent. God has something to say and God says it. Later on in the book of Job, we will learn that God not only has something to say, God has something to do and God does it.

The point is this. God responds to the cries of our hearts. God cares about what happens to us. God sees what we do, hears what we say, discerns the thoughts of our hearts and God does something about it. Our prayers are not meaningless words that float into the netherworld when they pass our lips. They are heard by God and they compel God to action. That is really an amazing thought.

MAKE SURE WE ASK

The problem, however, lies in the question that inevitably arises when talk about prayer. Someone is bound to be thinking: “If God is so great and so powerful and so loving, how come God hasn’t answered my prayers?” That’s a tough question. And there are really only three answers that make sense to me. We’re going to have a look at each of them right now.

The first reason why it sometimes appears that God hasn’t answered our prayers is because we’ve never really asked. That’s something that we often don’t even consider. After all, God is all knowing, every present and all powerful so doesn’t it stand to reason that God knows what I want? Why should I ask God for something when God already knows what I need? Shouldn’t God be a bit more proactive?

The reason we need to take our requests before God in prayer is because of what I said the last two weeks. It is through prayer that we grow in our relationship with God and build intimacy and understanding. It is through prayer that we begin to get to know God on a personal basis. God’s desire is that we grow closer to him and grow in love with him. Yes, God knows everything about us. God knows the days of our lives and the number of hairs that are on the tops of our heads (Mt. 10:30). God knows our every thought, word and action. But God also wants us to talk with him and get to know him.

That’s why we should make the time to take our praise and our prayers before God. The book of James is a very practical letter. In that letter James addresses this very concern. People were wondering why they weren’t getting what they thought they needed from God.  His answer to them is crystal clear in James 4:2 (ISV): “You want something but do not get it… You do not get things because you do not ask for them!” If we want God to grant us something, we need to take it before God in prayer. One of the reasons why our prayers are not answered is because we’ve forgotten to ask.

BE IN ACCORDANCE WITH GOD

The second reason why we don’t see our prayers being answered is because what we want is not in accordance with God’s will. Always remember that God has a plan and a purpose for the life of every person here today. There are things that God wants you to accomplish. There are things that God wants you to do. There are missions that God wants you to fulfill. The problem is that sometimes the things that we want are directly contrary to the things that God wants for our lives. I can think of so many times in my own life when I thought that I knew what was best for me even though I also had a pretty good idea that what I was planning was somehow wrong. I also can tell you that whenever I tried to make those things happen, I was always disappointed because what I wanted never quite worked the way that I planned.

It is so great when we finally figure out God’s purpose for our lives because then we can get about to the business of fulfilling it. But even then, we make decisions that are contrary to God’s will. Just because we may know God’s direction for our lives does not mean that all of our decision will be the right ones. Even the person whose heart is always turned towards God will blow it from time to time. Remember that God didn’t make us perfect; God made us human and there’s a big difference between perfect and human.

When we want something that is contrary to God’s plan and purpose for our lives, we should not be surprised when God is reluctant to answer our prayers in a positive way. We should not be surprised if things don’t turn out exactly the way we thought they should. One of the most difficult learnings that we will ever get in life is that just because we really want something that does not mean that God will help us get it. Furthermore, if we insist upon going down a path of our own making, God is under no obligation to bail us out. That is a tough, tough thing to understand because when things go wrong, we really want God to make everything right.

It would be great if God did that except that’s not how it works. The reality is that sometimes we suffer the consequences of wandering from God’s path for our lives. We are held accountable for what we do and we need to be accountable for all of it. In our family, we have a saying which simply says, “You make a mess; you clean it up.” That applies to the dishes. It applies to spills and accidents. It applies when someone kicks the cat food dish and spreads it all over the kitchen. It applies to the mud that sometimes gets tracked across the living room floor. You make mess; you clean it up.

Not surprisingly, God often says the same thing. If you make a mess, you need to clean it up. That being said, I want to add that in cleaning up the mess, God will still support you, cares for you and loves you but God will not clean up your mess for you. You have to take some of that responsibility yourself.

The reason for that is not because God enjoys watching us suffer. I don’t particularly enjoy watching the kids clean up their messes. I don’t exactly enjoy cleaning up my own messes but it is a good learning process. Those who never have to clean up after themselves never learn very much. They keep on making the same mistakes over and over again.

God wants us to learn and God wants us to build character. That’s why he won’t always bail us out when we blow it. Having said that, I can think of more than once where God has been very active in my life to help me clean up a mess that I’ve made – it’s called grace – but I also know that I can’t expect that all the time. Sometimes, the very best thing for me is to do it myself.

RECOGNIZE THE ANSWERS

The third reason why we don’t see our prayers being answered is because we don’t recognize the answers when they come to us. I’m convinced that God answers all kinds of prayers but people miss those answers because they haven’t trained themselves to see them. I led you through this exercise before but it’s a good one so we’re going to do it again. What I want you to do is look around the room and notice everything that is green. There is a lot of green in this room so it isn’t very hard to see it. And if I was to ask you to name some of those green things, unless you’re colour blind, you’d have no difficulty doing it. Now, close your eyes. No peeking. Now I’m going to ask how many red things you saw in the room. Can you think of any? Just think about that for a few seconds. Now open your eyes. Now do you see the red things? Granted there are a lot more green in this room than red but there is red and, ironically, most of the red stuff is beside green stuff. So why was it difficult to bring red things to mind? It’s because you were focused on green and not looking for red.

The same holds true with answered prayers. We are far more likely to see them when we are looking for them. If we don’t look for them, then they can happen all day and we won’t realize what they are if we trip over them. In order to see answered prayers, we need to train ourselves to look for them. Otherwise, we run the risk of not recognizing them when they do happen.

If you want to train yourself to recognize God’s answers to your prayers, the best way to do that is to keep a prayer journal. A prayer journal is simply what it sounds like. It is a small book in which you can record your prayers. Most people whom I know who keep a prayer journal keep it weekly but you can keep a daily one if you want. In that journal you can write down the things for which you are praying. That way you have a record. The fun thing is to review the prayer journal on a regular basis.

I know on man whose mother-in-law kept a prayer journal of sorts. She was a prayer warrior who prayed for various people to come to Christ and recorded their names in the front of her Bible. When she died a few years ago, this man was going through her things and found her Bible with the names recorded in it. Beside each name was the date when each of these people accepted Christ as their Saviour. As he was reading down the list of names, he found his own and beside it was the date when he came to Christ. What a record of answered prayers that Bible became and what great evidence of God working in the world as a result of our prayers.

The point is this; God is active in the world. Nothing happens by accident. There are not such things as coincidences. God’s purpose will be fulfilled and more often than not that purpose is fulfilled when people pray and God answers those prayers. The challenge for us is to see those answers when they come and to give God the glory.

GOD’S ANSWERS

One of the challenges is that God doesn’t always answer our prayers the way that we want. God isn’t bound by our finite understanding of the world. God sees all, hears all, knows all. There are only three answers that God can give us: they are yes, no and not yet.

It’s great when God answers, “Yes,” to the cries of our hearts. It’s wonderful when God gives us exactly what we think we need. In fact, there are prayers to which God will almost always answer, “Yes”. “O God, I don’t know what to do in this situation. Please grant me wisdom so that I will know what to do.” If that is your prayer, I will guarantee that God will give you wisdom in that situation. You will know what to do. It might take a bit of time but God will answer that prayer. In times of great trial, someone might pray, “O God, give me the strength to get through these next few days because, apart from your strength, I don’t know how I will do what I have to do.” Again, I will practically guarantee that God will do as you ask and give you the strength that you need.

Some prayers, however, are answered with a, “No”. I remember, as a child, I would pray every night for a pony. I never got one and now I’m glad because I now realize that ponies are a lot of work. God knew that I didn’t have the resources to look after a pony and so God say, “No”. So did Mom and Dad. We do the same thing as adults: “Dear God, I really want that promotion at work. I will do anything to get it. Please make it happen.” I don’t know how God will respond to that prayer because God may have something else in mind for you. If you don’t get the promotion, it’s because God has something better for you than you could ever imagine. We may not always understand God’s answers but God has reasons for what he does and we need to understand that.

The final answer that God can give is, “Not yet”. Sometimes God wants us to have what we think we need but the problem is that the timing is just not right. Maybe God does want you to get the promotion at work but God knows that now is not the right time. You’re not quite ready or there are things coming up in that job that someone else is better equipped to handle. In these situations, you simply need to wait your turn and wait upon God’s timing which is always perfect. The difficult part of this is that a, “Not yet,” feels a whole lot like a, “No”. But it’s not a, “No,” and you will see that according to God’s timing.

Even Jesus, the Saviour of the world, had to wait upon the Father’s timing. All of the prophets, for hundreds of years, had foretold his coming. But none of them saw those prophecies fulfilled. Do you think the prophets didn’t pray? Do you think that they didn’t plead with God to send the Messiah who would reconcile the world to himself? Of course they did. They wanted to see the reign of God as much as anyone but they didn’t see it. The reason why is because the timing was not right. God could have come in Jesus any time he wanted. But God had to choose just the right time. Paul reminds us of that in Romans 5:6 (NIV) which reads, “You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.” We don’t necessarily know why it was the right time but it was. We simply have to trust God on that one and put everything in his hands.

Job discovered that God was active not only in the world, but right there in his life. God heard his prayers. God listened in on the conversation that was going on between Job and his three friends. And God responded.

In his response, God made one thing perfectly clear; nothing on the face of this earth happens without God knowing it. There is nothing that we can say, do or even think that can be hidden from God. Not only is God all knowing, God is also all powerful. On our own, we cannot do what God calls us to do. On our own, we cannot be the people whom God created us to be. But with God, all things are possible.

In the end, that’s why we pray. We believe God is listening. We believe that God loves us and cares for us and wants the very best for us. And we believe that God not only hears our prayer; God also answers them in ways that we might never understand. But God’s ways are always the right ways. God’s timing is the right timing. Like our brothers and sisters before us, we must trust God to work out everything for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

Next week will be the final message in this series on prayer. Come back next week and hear about why and how prayer pays off.

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE

Great God of Love, we want to sing praise to you every morning, every afternoon and every evening. we want to praise you in our homes, at work, when we play, without hesitation or reservation! When difficult times arise, you are our refuge and strength. Thank you that in faith we are never alone. You are worthy of praise and glory.

We thank you especially today for the salvation that is ours in Jesus Christ. May we know his love and share it with the world that lives may be transformed and communities made whole according to your promises.

Lord God Almighty, help us to be mindful of the things that we sow life, our words, our actions, and the way we treat others. We want always to follow the leadership and direction of your Spirit, trusting confidently in your faithfulness. Your words and promises will never fail.

We lift up in prayer the sick of our congregation and community, especially Mark, Carol, Richard, Angela and others who have been in the hospital this past week. Grant them healing and patience.

Holy One of Israel, we are glad that we can chose to love you, that it is a choice of our will and not dependent upon circumstances, situations, or others. Enable us to choose to love you for you have promised never to leave us or forsake us. There is nothing in the entire universe that can separate us or void your word and promises. Thank you for coming to be with us and for loving us without condition. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

WORSHIP RESOURCE PAGE

October 17, 2021 / Pentecost 21 / Proper 24

SCRIPTURE

Job 38:1‑7, 34‑41; Psalm 104:1‑9; Mark 10:35‑45; Hebrews 5:1‑10

CALL TO WORSHIP

ONE:   Praise the Lord in the highest heaven.

ALL:   Praise the Lord in the deepest valley.

ONE:   God’s glory is seen in the wonders of Creation.

ALL:   God’s glory is experienced in the joy of worship;

Praise the Lord, O my soul.

PRAYER OF APPROACH

God of Hope and Peace, your Spirit leads us in directions that we sometimes find difficult to understand. But you are wiser that our wisdom and you have more knowledge than our combined intellect. We come to you seeking your presence, without hesitation or reservation. Your plans for us are always good. Prosper us, O God, and give us the hope of your constant love. We come to you trusting in your unfailing grace and eternal presence.

PRAYER OF CONFESSION

God of Mercy and Joy, we are so grateful that you offer us peace of heart and mind. In Jesus Christ, you take away our guilt. As we confess our sins, you are faithful to forgive, always without condition or hesitation. We know that you will not condemn us, regardless of what we have done in the past. Your mercy and forgiveness are freely given to all who ask with an honest and open spirit. Thank you for your great unfailing and unconditional mercy.

ASSURANCE OF PARDON

The peace of God is ours to hold in the faith of Jesus Christ. In him we find true forgiveness and healing. There is no need to grasp on to guilt and allow it to be a burden in our lives. We need to let it go and receive the peace the only Jesus can offer. His mercy and forgiveness are for all of us.

DEDICATION OF OFFERING

Your gifts, O God, have been showered upon us. We are truly blessed in more ways than we can count. We give back to you, with joyful hearts, from our wealth asking only for the wisdom to use our resources for your holy glory.

COMMISSIONING

God calls us to be with one another through the joys and sorrows, the tears and laughter. As Jesus walks with us, we are called to walk with one another. Our mission, this week, is to touch the lives of those who need to hear the Good News. By the Spirit’s guidance, we will do it.

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