Monday, 24 August 2009

When prayers fall on deaf ears

Please note: I will not write out all scriptures here, otherwise this will get way too long. Please refer to a Bible.

On Sunday we had a sermon on this topic, and I wanted to share some of the thoughts arising from the talk. I know it's helped me to put many things in perspective, and I pray that it will also help whoever reads this.

First, let's consider the closing passage from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount - Matt 7:24-27. This is where Jesus contrasts the house built on rock to the house built on sand, the conclusion being drawn that we will build our houses (lives) on rock (solid ground, safe etc) if we do the things Jesus exhorts us to do in the sermon that precedes this imagery.

The problem with this is that it falls down when we start experiencing trouble in our lives - something can be tormenting us, causing us a great deal of pain, and when we cry out to God,- it seems as though He's not there - we wonder where that rock is, never mind the shifting sand ... it feels like there's absolutely nothing there.

The speaker, who himself has been through troubles, attempted to share an answer to this 'nothingness', which he had found, if not a solution, at least a comfort through the trials. This answer, or comfort, is found in Paul's testimony, as related in 2 Corinthians. The passage here is 2 Cor 12:1-10 - where Paul speaks of pleading with God to take away a 'thorn in the flesh' - and God's answer is effectively 'No' - instead, He says "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (NIV)

Before I go further, I want to consider Psalm 22. This was written by David - and he was clearly in such a spot - going through trials, praying, pleading, trusting ... and yet he was getting no answer from God except silence. This is a psalm well worth a read - if only to know that one is not alone, that other people have felt exactly the same and asked the same questions. I will just quote the first few lines here:

"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
Oh my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, and am not silent."

Clearly this can be akin to Paul's 'thorn in the flesh' - David is being tormented - and this is a metaphor that, I think, all people can relate to. And as with David, so with Paul - they plead with God that He will come quickly to relieve them from the torment, that He will take away the pain. And yet, in verse 9, God clearly says 'no' - that He will not remove the torment.

This should serve as a reminder that there are two answers to our prayers - 'Yes', and 'No'. However, what it should also remind us is that the yes's and no's can come in very different forms to what we may imagine how our prayers should be answered. Many times we wait and wait for an answer - when all along, God has already answered our prayer - we just haven't heard it. To illustrate, there is a couple, where the wife becamed deeply depressed. The husband has prayed for years that the wife may be healed - as this depression affects not only the wife, but the husband, children, family and friends. But healing has not occurred - and this is the answer to the prayer - "No".

Now let's consider what Jesus said to Paul: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." We live in a fallen world which is not fully under God's will. This is not by accident, but rather, this was planned, so that people may freely choose whether or not to love God. Now, when we ask for a torment to be taken away, what we are in reality asking for, is for His kingdom to come in a situation - because this is the promise at the end of the Bible in Revelations - that there will be no more sickness, no more crying, no more pain. What the Bible promises us, in other words, is that, one day, God will answer a resounding "Yes!" to every prayer prayed - but until then, we live in a necessary time of grace - when people can still respond to his offer of salvation (and are not punished NOW for their sins), and also, when His grace needs to be (and IS) sufficient in our time of torment. Until He says yes, suffering, sickness and pain will be with us.

Revelations 21:1-5 reads (and this is one of my favourite sections of the Bible): 'Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."' (NIV)

We are still living in the time of the old order. In essence, what God is saying is, "at this time, in the old order when my rule is not complete, my grace is sufficient for you." Or, to put it another way, "Enough for you is the grace of me". It is evident from Paul's testimony that, from this answer to his pleas, he found the strength and courage to face the difficulties of his time. And these are comprehensively listed in 2 Cor 11:23-29. Furthermore, Jesus says that His power is made perfect in weakness. In other words, when we are weak, we are strong in Christ, and we should therefore boast in our weaknesses, because when we are weak, then Christ shines through and He is strong in us. It is completely converse to our need to feel strong. However, this is a promise for our whole lives - for every situation we find ourselves in where we are in torment - that God's grace will be sufficient.

There are three types of trouble that we can expect to receive in this, the 'old order' of things:
1. permitted by God - both two and three can only occur if 1 is true - it is permitted by God.
2. being a human being living in the old order - this can encompass sickness, death of a loved one, or the choices of those around us which, when made, hurt us.
3. being a Christian in the old order - when we receive punishment and/or abuse from others because of our relationship with Jesus.

but Jesus says, in John 16:3s, "In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world." (KJV)

In conclusion, the scene of human weakness is the best possible stage for a display of divine power. There is however, a warning for times of strength: when we are strong, humanly speaking, then we are weak - we are then at the most danger of relying on ourselves, and not on God.

So, if we again consider the passage from Matthew 7, then we see that it is when we are battered by the storms - and we will have many storms that will batter us down in weakness - when we are weak, then we have a rock - even if we cannot feel that rock, the rock is the promise that God will one day answer 'Yes' to our prayers.

The following are the lyrics from a song that carry this message well.

Because of You
words by Paul Oakley

There’s a place where the streets shine
with the glory of the Lamb
There’s a way we can go there
we can live there beyond time

Because of You, Because of You
Because of your love Because of Your blood

No more pain no more sadness
no more suffering no more tears
no more sin no more sickness
no injustice no more death

Because of You because of you
Because of your love Because of your blood
all our sins are washed away and we can live forever
now we have this hope because of you
Oh we’ll see you face to face and we will dance together
in the city of our God because of You

There is joy everlasting,
there is gladness, there is peace
there is wine ever flowing,
there’s a wedding, there’s a feast

Because of You because of you
Because of your love Because of your blood
all our sins are washed away and we can live forever
now we have this hope because of you
Oh we’ll see you face to face and we will dance together
in the city of our God because of You