“Teach Me the Patience of Unanswered Prayer”

By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor

“A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, ‘Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.’ Jesus did not answer a word” (Matt 15:22–23).

It can be severely trying and highly perplexing to us to cry out to Christ in prayer for something, and to have Him seemingly pass by without saying a word. Unanswered prayer is one of the hardest tests of faith. In the account cited above, a Canaanite woman followed Christ crying out for Him to heal her daughter. But Jesus did not answer a word. How striking is this! How shocking, really. Yet, how true also to our own experience. Most of our prayers go unanswered, at least at the moment we speak them. We get no “angel visitant, no opening skies,” and we rise from our prayer time with no sensory evidence that our prayers got any further than the ceiling when we uttered them. Faith alone enables us to walk away from the hour of prayer confident that God has heard.  Yet, we are urged to persist, to persevere, to “always pray, and never give up” (Luke 18:1). That means we are to keep asking until God answers! And how frequently does He makes us wait!

Richard Sibbes, 1577–1635

In 1639, the great Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes published a sermon entitled “A Breathing After God,” subtitled “A Christian’s Desire of God’s Presence.” In that message, which he based on the text “As a deer pants for the water, so my soul pants after you” (Ps 42:1), Sibbes took up the issue of why God makes us wait in prayer. He discerned five reasons:

1. God loves to hear the desires of His servants. God enjoys being pursued, being sued unto, because He knows it is for our good and His glory. If He were to give us what we want immediately, we would spend less time asking for it.

2. God desires to keep us in a perpetual humble subjection and dependence on Him. Our hearts are prone to independence and self-reliance. God yields to our requests little by little to keep us in humble dependence on Him. If God immediately granted to us anything we ask, we would grow pompous toward Him, forgetting who is the Master and who the servant!

3. God seeks to exercise all our spiritual graces, for a spirit of prayer is a spirit of the exercise of all grace. We cannot pray but that we exercise faith toward God, love for His church, sanctified wisdom to discern what are the best things to be prayed for, and the mortification of the fleshly desires that take us from God. All these graces grow stronger the longer we pray. Sibbes also said that the spirit of prayer itself is usually better in God’s sight than whatever we’re asking for!

4. God also would have us set an ever higher value on what we are asking for. The longer we ask for something the greater we desire it. God finds our desires too weak, and His delay in answering our prayers helps us value it properly and to be filled with incredible joy when it is finally granted.

5. God instructs us during the delay, so that we might better use what we are asking for when we get it. Without the delay, we would not have time or cause to think how the matter fits into God’s overall plan for the world.

In 1854, George Croly wrote the classic hymn, “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart.” In the fourth stanza, he wrote, “Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh; Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear. To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh, Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.” In our modern Baptist hymnal, some editor thought it would be best to change the final line to “Teach me the patience of unceasing prayer.” Croly’s original is far better! God has enrolled us in the school of unanswered prayer that we may grow in Christ. Do not murmur under this discipline, but pray all the more!


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