This was a question asked by my brother-in-law who is a Buddhist. He meant supplicatory prayer where you ask God for some request. The Bible is full of promises about asking believing and receiving. “Ask and you shall receive that your joy may be full” etc. We can point out times where our prayers were answered but why is it that we don’t see this to the extent that the Bible seems to promise?
@harrisrat That is a great question! You might try asking your brother-in-law a question in response. For example: When you were a child, how did asking your father for something work? Did your father every tell you no?
God is our Heavenly Father. Prayer is not mechanistic - it is not like putting a coin in a candy machine and getting a piece of candy out. Prayer is the act of placing our burdens at the feet of our Father who loves us and whom we have come to know through Jesus.
But why are prayers not always answered? Here are a few thoughts.
- Jesus is the ultimate reward - if you read Paul’s prayer, he never asks for God to stop the persecution, for God to make life easy or to give him prominence. What does Paul pray for? Ephesians 1:17 - I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. Paul’s prayer echoes Jesus’ definition of eternal life in John 17:3 - Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.
- We are not promised freedom from suffering, but we are promised that God will walk with us through the suffering. We trust God’s hand when we cannot trace His heart.
- God’s goals are not always our goals - think of Elijah after calling down fire from Heaven and defeating the prophets of Baal or John the Baptist in prison. They both thought God was going to come crashing in with physical force and defeat their enemies. But that was not God’s plan in those situations.
- a no is not a never - it may not be the right time to receive what we are asking for
Also, prayer is more than just making requests. The old acrostic ACTS comes in useful here - prayer is Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. Prayer is not mainly about asking for things. Rather, it is about worshiping and giving thanks to our King, Lord, God and Savior and being conformed to His image by the Holy Spirit.
I hope that was helpful Here are some additional threads you may find useful. May the Lord Jesus grant you wisdom on the topic of prayer and in sharing this truth with your brother-in-law. May Christ open his eyes to see the glory and grace and beauty of our Lord!
Excerpt from Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey
I thought this excerpt really highlighted the fact that prayer is not pragmatic - it is not a pursuit of the things the world so often seeks - power, stability, safety. Prayer is a pursuit of God Himself and such faith thrives in places where many of this world hopes have been dashed. Something to ponder.
My Church in Chicago, a delightful mixture of races and economic groups, once schedule dan all-night vigil of prayer during a major crisis. Several people voiced concern. Was it safe, given our inner city neighborhood? At length we discussed the practicality of the event and finally put the night of prayer on the calendar.
The poorest members of the congregation, a group of senior citizens from a housing project, responded the most enthusiastically to the prayer vigil. I could not help wondering ow many of their prayers had gone unanswered over the years — they lived int he projects, after all, amid crime, poverty, and suffering — yet still they showed a childlike trust in the power of prayer. “How long do you want to stay - an hour or two?” we asked, thinking of the logistics of van shuttles. “Oh, we’ll stay ll night,” they replied.
One African-American woman in her nineties, who walked with a cane and could barely see, explained to a staff member why she wanted to spend the night sitting on the hard pews of a church in an unsafe neighborhood. “You see, they’s lots of things we can’t do in this church. We ain’t so educated, and we ain’t got as much energy as some of you younger folks. But we can pray. We got time, and we got faith. Some of us don’t sleep much anyway. We can pray all night if needs be.”
And so they did. Meanwhile, a bunch of yuppies in a downtown church learned an important lesson: Faith appears where least expected and falters where it should be thriving.
Thanks Sean. I appreciate your response. However, I am not sure whether the answers you gave address the question as to how prayer works. Does God hear our prayer and make a decision as to whether to answer it or not depending on His overall plan? It is logically possible of course but it is difficult to reconcile with a loving God allowing a sick parent to die when the children are praying for the parent to be healed or vice versa. How do we reconcile this with so many promises of ask and you shall receive? Or does it depend on our amount of faith? The Bible seem to indicate that; “If you have enough faith you can say to this mountain …” “Let him ask in faith nothing wavering …”
@harrisrat That is a good question and near to my heart I remember when Nabeel Qureshi was dying of stomach cancer. Many people declared that because they prayed in faith he would be healed, but he was not… While I do not believe that all who have faith will be healed, I was definitely one of those people praying for him. Why did God let that happen? Nabeel had great faith - he came to Christ at great personal cost. Why did God not heal him, of all people? A bright, intelligent, godly, motivated young man with a beautiful family making a difference for the Kingdom.
William Lane Craig wrote this on Facebook after Nabeel’s passing:
We learned this morning of Nabeel’s passing out of this earthly life. While I am saddened by the loss of one so young and full of promise, we know that God works all things together for the good of those who trust Him (Romans 8.28). Nabeel shared with us that he prayed for healing, lest Muslims interpret his dying as a judgement of Allah upon him for converting to Christianity. There may be some who seek to exploit his death in that way. But I hope that many Muslims will instead reflect upon the faithfulness unto death of a man who was under tremendous pressure to recant, renounce Christ, and return to Islam. Nabeel never waivered but remained faithful and stalwart to the end. Like Job, he said, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him.” Thoughtful Muslims need to ask themselves what sort of radical change in a person’s life could issue in such undying faith and commitment. This should be the legacy he leaves to Muslims of the life-changing power of Christ. William Lane Craig
Your question is real. It touches so many lives. We all suffer. We all experience pain in this life. But what I think we must remember is that Jesus told us to expect suffering.
John 16:33 - “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
And Paul told us that Christians are called to lay down their earthly lives, but that not even death can separate us from the love of Christ:
Romans 8:36-39 - As it is written:
“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
From Job when he lost everything he had to Habakkuk when his nation was being ransacked to John the Baptist in prison before he was beheaded to Paul with his thorn in the flesh, God has never explained why bad things happen, but has rather pointed us to trust in Him in the midst of suffering. The key to the passages you are talking about - moving mountains - is reading them in context. The Bible never - ever - assures us freedom from suffering - real, heart rending suffering. But it does promise that Christ will be with us in the midst of it.
I hear two questions in your statement:
- how could God possibly have a reason for allowing suffering?
- what do these texts about moving mountains mean?
I hope that the following will help you begin to think through both questions. I am a fellow sojourner with you and it brings me to tears to see people suffer. Why God? Let Your Kingdom come!
I don’t have the answer to why any individual suffers, but I find peace in my own suffering when I come to the feet of Jesus, the Savior who suffered for us and who suffers with us. And I trust His love for others as well. May Christ grant you peace and discernment in this matter
No-Seeums vs St. Bernards
Perhaps God’s reasons might be more like no-seeums than St. Bernards? Here is an excerpt from Tim Keller’s book ‘The Reason for God’.
Flaw: If suffering/evil appears pointless to me, it must be pointless.
“Tucked away within the assertion that the world is filled with pointless evil is a hidden premise, namely, that if evil appears pointless to me, then it must be pointless. …Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order.”
St. Bernards and No-seeums
Christian philosopher Alvin Plantinga provides an illustration to address the above flaw in reasoning. “If you look into your pup-tent for a St. Bernard, and you don’t see one, it is reasonable to assume that there is no St. Bernard in your tent. But if you look into your pup tent for a ‘no-see-um’ (an extremely small insect with a bite out of all proportion to its size) and you don’t see any, it is not reasonable to assume that they are not there. Because, after all, no one can see 'em. Many assume that if there were good reasons for the existence of evil, they would be accessible to our minds, more like St. Bernards than like no-see-ums, but why should that be the case?”
What does it mean that our faith moves mountains?
Why is it true that mustard seed faith can move mountains and uproot mulberry trees? Jesus plainly tells us. It isn’t because of the quantity of our faith but the object of our faith. If our faith is in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, then it has a great effect. Our faith makes a difference not because it is so great but because God is so great, because he is the sovereign one who rules over all things. Our faith doesn’t thrive when we think about how much faith we have; it springs up when we behold our God—when we see Jesus as the One crucified and risen for us.
First, it’s critical to note Jesus is using an illustration. He’s not literally talking about moving mountains and uprooting trees. There’s no example in Scripture of mountains disappearing because someone had faith. Jesus is teaching that stunning things happen if we have faith. The question is, what kind of stunning things should we expect?
Mustard seed faith, then, is faith that kills works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19–21) and produces the fruit of the Spirit ([Gal. 5:22–23]). Love, joy, peace, and patience are mountains that can only be climbed by faith; faith, after all, expresses itself in love (Gal. 5:6). Mustard seed faith believes the gospel will go the ends of the earth and triumph over the gates of hell. And the clearest evidence of mustard seed faith is whether you love God and your neighbor.
Our greatest enemies are not outside of us but within. Our greatest foe is the hate and rebellion that overtakes us, and mustard seed faith—because it is placed in Jesus Christ—gives us the victory over our sin.
Suffering - No Story But Our Own
One point from C. S. Lewis’ work that I really like - specifically from his book ‘The Horse and His Boy’. The main character Shasta had a very hard life growing up and at one point in the story Aslan is explaining Shasta’s story to him - how everything worked together to make beauty out of suffering. Then Shasta ask to know something about another of the character’s story - a girl named Aravis. Here is a bit of the dialogue.
Fuller Dialogue Here
And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued. “I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis. I was the cat who comfroted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you as you slept. I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time. And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.”
“Then it was you who wounded Aravis?”
“It was I.”
“But what for?”
“Child,” said the Voice, “ I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own .”
“Who are you?” asked Shasta.
“Myself,” said the Voice, very deep and low so that the earth shook: and again “Myself,” loud and clear and gay: and then the third time “Myself,” whispered so softly you could hardly hear it, and yet it seemed to come from all around you as if the leaves rustled with it.
Shasta was no longer afraid that the Voice belonged to something that would eat him, nor that it was the voice of a ghost. But a new and different sort of trembling came over him. Yet he felt glad too.
Jesus expresses a similar sentiment when the apostle Peter asks about whether or not the apostle John will also die a violent death. Jesus tells Peter that he is not called to understand everyone elses’ lives - but to follow the Master. So often we want to evaluate how God has worked in other peoples’ lives - but God calls us to give our life to Him. We cannot deflect our responsibility by focusing on how confusing other peoples’ suffering or lives are - God can reach each one in the midst of their story. We must live out our story.
John 21:17-22 - Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”
20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
22 Jesus answered, “ If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me. ” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”