According to popular teachings that are promulgated from charismatic television networks and radio stations, if you have a robust faith and confidence in God—he will definitely hear your prayer and answer it as you’ve directed him. Benny Hinn once stated, “The day is coming when there will not be one sick saint in the body of Christ.” Benny Hinn wasn’t referencing Revelation 21 in his statement.
As we consider these teachings, we must look to the unanswered prayers of the apostle Paul as a fitting test. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, the apostle Paul talks about his “messenger of Satan” that was sent to harass him. Was Paul being punished for his lack of faith in God? Was Paul’s life full of sin that was causing him to receive a blow from Satan? What exactly can we learn from Paul’s unanswered prayers?
God’s Plan May Not Align With Our Requests
One of the things we learn in our time of prayer is that a foundational goal of prayer is to align our will with God’s will. This is not always easy. Sometimes this means that we submit to different plans, different goals, different agendas that might involve discomfort, distance from friends and family, and pain.
When Jesus taught us to pray in the model prayer (Matt. 6:5-13), we see Jesus saying, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, life is not about us nearly as much as it’s about God. The plans we have for ourselves must be yielded to the plans that God has for us. When they’re different, we must go with God and die to self.
Suffering is not Proof of Sin
In our day, one of the most pernicious teachings comes from the Charismatic Movement—more specifically the “Word of Faith” movement. Within this movement, a popular teaching has been popularized stating that it is the absolute will of God for all of God’s children to be healthy and wealthy. As we test the foundation of that teaching, we find that it does not hold up to the scrutiny of God’s Word.
Was Paul living in sin that caused him to learn to live with the “thorn” in his flesh? No. As we read 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, we see that Paul was given the thorn by God, not because of his sin, but in order to prevent him from sin. There is a clear difference in the two. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul writes, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
When the disciples inquired about the man born blind in John 9, they asked a vitally important question. They said, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? Jesus’ response is key to unlocking this puzzling story and it shines light of truth on our day as well. Jesus said, “Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). The same thing was true in Paul’s life. It could be the same situation you face in your life too.
Suffering is not a Sign of a Deficient Faith
As we read and study the life and ministry of the apostle Paul, it is clear that he stands out among the apostles. He is believed to be the greatest Christian to live in the history of humanity—outside of Jesus himself in the flesh. There is no question about Paul’s faith—and it was made more apparent as he suffered death in Rome by beheadding.
Yet, we see that Paul’s prayer for healing was not answered. According to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, he asked God on three different times to remove his “thorn” in the flesh, but God refused.
As we read and consider these facts about the unanswered prayers of Paul, what exactly can we learn? Consider the following lessons we can learn.
- It is God’s will for his children to suffer in specific ways that were charted out before the foundation of the world.
- God has chosen specific people to suffer in lesser or greater ways for his glory.
- Suffering is not a sign of sin or weak faith. Paul didn’t suffer from any of those problems—yet he suffered immensely.
- God uses suffering to prevent people from sinning as they otherwise would (as Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 12).
- God uses suffering to spread the gospel far and wide.
Before you buy into the lies of the Charismatic Movement, take time to consider the fact that perhaps the greatest Christian to ever live endured through a life of constant suffering, imprisonment, and it all ended with him being beheaded. Are we to believe the likes of Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen or Jesus and the apostle Paul? Consider the words of John Newton, “Can we wish, if it were possible, to walk in a path strewed with flowers when His was strewed with thorns?” 
- John Newton, The Works of John Newton, v. 1, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1985), 230.
One of the most comforting passages in the Bible is found in Romans 10:9-10 and Romans 10:13 where we see a clear promise to all who call upon the name of the Lord of salvation. This should bring comfort to us each time we read over this section of Scripture. We hear preachers stand and call people to respond to God claiming that God will never turn anyone away. Is that true at all times and in all situation? Is there ever a time when a sinner cannot be saved? Certainly we can all agree that after death, such a time exists. However, what about during the lifetime of a particular person, is there a time when he or she cannot be saved?
God Saves Sinners
In Acts 9, we see the story of Saul of Tarsus and how God humbled the learned Pharisee and brought him to a place of submission. If God can save a Saul of Tarsus (whose names was eventually changed to Paul), anyone can be saved. In fact, the story of the apostle Paul’s conversion should bring us hope that nobody in our family or on the school campus is beyond the saving reach of God. God is capable of saving the vilest offender. In fact, God loves to save sinners.
As we read about the city of Nineveh, we often focus on the story of the disobedient Jonah and his time in the belly of a large fish while completely missing the reality of God’s saving grace for a wicked people. When you study about the deep depravity of the people of Nineveh, it should cause our hearts to swell with joy as we see God save them. They didn’t deserve mercy and grace, but God acted through his grace unconditionally and delivered them from their condition of peril. In short, God loves to save sinners.
God Does Not Always Save Sinners
As we think about the work of God in saving sinners, is there ever a time when God refuses to save someone who requests salvation? Would God ever turn anyone down who called upon his name? Although greatly controversial, it’s true that God doesn’t always save everyone who calls on his name. In Psalm 18, we find the testimony of King David and how God spared him when he was on the run from Saul and his men. Notice what David says in Psalm 18:39-42:
For you equipped me with strength for the battle; you made those who rise against me sink under me. You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed. They cried for help, but there was none to save; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them. I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.
In this particular case, it’s clear that God was saving David—not his enemies. When the enemies of God surrounded David, he was spared by God’s plan which involved the destruction of his enemies. It could be that their prayer was insincere and selfish in order to manipulate God and avoid defeat. God knows the heats of men and cannot be fooled. We have here a clear example of people crying out to the LORD and he refused to answer them.
In another place in the Old Testament, we find in Micah 3 where those who were opposed to God’s people cried out and he chose not to answer their request for salvation. We see this in Micah 3:4:
Then they will cry to the LORD, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.
It could be once again that their prayers were insincere and selfishly motivated, but yet again, we find that God refused to answer them and went on to hide his face from them. Although we can say with certainty that God loves to save sinners and even the most vile person can be saved, we must also recognize that God is not obligated to save anyone. Furthermore, we must realize that God is not unrighteous by not saving everyone. God chooses to save sinners unconditionally and acts in mercy to save those who do not deserve it. That includes all of God’s children.
We find other passages in the Old Testament such as Jeremiah 11:11-14 and Ezekiel 8:15-18 where God says, “Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (Jer. 11:11). Be sure these are difficult passages indeed, but the difficulty of God’s holy justice and his choice to judge sinners is not removed by the sweetness of his mercy and grace on others. God’s choice to save sinners and God’s choice to judge sinners must never be held up in contradiction to one another (Rom. 9:20-24).
We must never approach God as if he’s merely a genie who offers up grace like a magic potion to overcome our sin. Nor should we approach God as if he’s simply at our disposal like a glorified cosmic bellhop. God is sovereign. God is good. God always does right. God is right to save sinners and to satisfy his justice through the death of his Son Jesus, and he is likewise right to deny salvation to sinners.
If you are a Christian today, this should cause your heart to swell with renewed gratitude. If you are not a Christian and know that you need God’s grace and mercy to rid you of your sin and to reconcile you to God—you should turn to him today and plead for salvation. God loves to save sinners. With a sincere heart, cast yourself upon his mercy trusting that Christ Jesus is your only hope in this life and for all eternity.
Over the past eleven weeks, our church has been studying through D.A. Carson’s book—
If Paul Needed Prayer—So Does Your Pastor
At the end of a powerful letter by the apostle Paul to the church in Ephesus and the surrounding cities, Paul calls upon the church to pray for him. Interestingly enough, the towering theological giant of the New Testament requested prayer for his words. Paul writes, “and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19). Paul was asking for the Christian community to pray for his words, so that he would have clarity of speech and bold speech when he was given opportunity to proclaim the gospel.
Over the years, I have talked with many people at conferences and different friends who have complained about their pastor’s sermons. As I was recently preaching through Ephesians, I came across Ephesians 6:19 and it made me consider the importance of praying for the pastor as he prepares to preach each week. Words matter. Clarity of speech is crucial in preaching. Boldness is a necessity for a gospel preacher. Prayer is central to the pastor’s ability to preach with power and without ambiguity.
Your Pastor Is Not Superhuman
Has it ever dawned upon you that your pastor is not superhuman? Often pastors are called to work 50-70 hours per week, and many of those hours are off-peak hours—working to accommodate the schedules and needs of the people within the church. Every person in the church should recognize the fact that their pastors are flesh and bone—real humans who need strength from the Holy Spirit to labor in the work of ministry. Paul came to the end of 1 Thessalonians and said, “Brothers, pray for us” (1 Thess. 5:25).
Many churches are served by bi-vocational pastors who are pulling many hours for their “9-5 job” and then many more hours in their study, prayer, and service of their local church. The work of a pastor is never finished. The work is often filled with discouragement, death, disease, and rare victories along the way. In short, the work of pastoral ministry is hard, and that’s why so many pastors quit along the journey. Don’t forget that your pastor is human. He needs your prayers.
Beyond the workload of a pastor is the need for his sanctification. How many parents desire their children to grow and mature physically? How many people expect to grow in the knowledge and skill of their occupation professionally? How many Christians expect to grow in their faith through the years? Why then do we expect our pastors to be superhero Christians who never grow and develop doctrinally? Shouldn’t the older Paul be more mature in his faith than the younger Paul? You should desire for your pastor to be growing spiritually and it would be wise for you to be praying for him in this process.
Your Pastor Is Watching for Your Soul
Have you ever heard someone ask their anesthesiologist if he slept well the night before their surgery? It’s a common question that you hear patients jokingly ask their doctor. Why, you ask? Because everyone wants a doctor who is alert and not distracted by mental fatigue. When it comes to your pastors, the ones charged with watching for your soul, you want a man who is alert and not suffering from distractions. In short, your pastors need prayer.
Immediately after explaining to the Hebrew believers that they should submit to their leaders who watch over their soul by obeying them, the writer to the Hebrews says, “Pray for us, for we are sure that we have a clear conscience, desiring to act honorably in all things” (Heb. 13:18). Prayer is essential to the work of a pastor, and a church that doesn’t spend time praying for her pastors doesn’t understand that prayer and ministry are inseparably linked together.
Your Pastor Is Hated by the Devil
If your pastors are men who stand firm upon the Word of God and preach the gospel faithfully—they are not loved by the devil. In 1 Thessalonians 2:18, Paul writes the following, “because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us.” It should be no secret that the devil hates the pastors who oversee and care for your local church. The plans, dreams, goals, sermons, prayers, and ambition of your pastors are often hindered by the work of spiritual warfare.
Jesus once said the following to Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat” (Luke 22:31). Do you recall the desire of Satan to test the sincerity of Job’s faith (Job 1)? The demonic beings, real and powerful, stand opposed to the work of your pastors on a daily basis. Have you spent time praying for your pastors? How would you feel if you discovered that your pastors weren’t praying for you? Would you feel neglected? Would you feel vulnerable? Why then, would you neglect praying for your pastors—the very ones given the charge of caring for you, leading you, feeding you, and watching over your soul?
Do you want your church to grow? Do you want to see souls saved in the community? Do you want to see your pastor’s sermons become more rich and clearly proclaimed? Do you want to see your church become more healthy and vibrant? All of this begins in prayer, and specifically, by praying for your pastors—those entrusted with leading the church forward. Alistair Begg writes:
Prayer is an acknowledgment that our need of God’s help is not partial but total… Yet many of our church prayer meetings have dwindled in size and influence. Ultimately, the explanation can be traced to spiritual warfare. If, as the hymn writer says, Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees,” then we may be sure that he and his minions will be working hard to discredit the value of united prayer. The Evil One has scored a great victory in getting sincere believers to waver in their conviction that prayer is necessary and powerful. 
- Alistair Begg, Made For His Pleasure, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 52.
Yesterday evening, our church gathered for a corporate prayer meeting. Our typical prayer meeting is during our midweek service on Wednesday evening, but we decided several weeks ago to hold one unique prayer meeting on Sunday evening and it was quite refreshing. The meeting was led by six different men who focused on different types of prayers. Each prayer section began with a Scripture reading and then went into the prayer. When a church gathers and seriously desires to meet with God in prayer it’s a sweet time for the entire church.
Vertical Prayer: We began our time of prayer focused on God. We spent time praising him for his character, his goodness, his grace, his power in creation, his sovereignty over the universe, and put our focus on the greatness of God.
Psalm 73:25-26 – Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.  My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
Horizontal Prayer: We engaged in a time of prayer for our church family. We prayed for the church to grow spiritually, numerically, and in diversity. We prayed for God to protect our pastors, to guard us from theological error, and to break our hearts for the things that God hates. Each of the members of the body matter, and we sought to pray for the needs of our people from a proper lens as we trust in God’s providential plan to be accomplished for his glory.
1 Corinthians 12:12-27 – For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.  For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body does not consist of one member but of many.  If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.  If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?  But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.  If all were a single member, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.  The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,  and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty,  which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it,  that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.  Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
Prayer of Confession: We spent time confessing our sin to God as we were led in a prayer of confession. We called out to God and asked God to forgive us for known sin in our lives and to revive our hearts to serve and worship from a pure heart with pure motives.
Psalm 139:23-24 – Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!  And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Prayer for Unity: We focused on the need for ongoing effort to be a unified church. Although each individual church, like ours, is diverse in many ways—we are called to strive for unity. A divided church is a really bad witness to a lost world, and during this time last night we spent time asking God to make us a more unified church who truly loves one another as we’re called.
Ephesians 4:29-32 – Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.  Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.  Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Prayer for Elected Officials and Leaders: We are called to pray for our elected leaders. Although we often overlook this responsibility, we took time to pray for our president, governor, members of congress, the senate, our local mayor, our chief of police, and our sheriff. As we know from Scripture that positions of leadership in our government are ordained by God and are put in place to uphold justice. Although the system is largely broken, we’re called to pray for them and we were given that opportunity last night as a church family.
1 Timothy 2:1-3 – First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people,  for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior.
Prayer for Individual Families: The family is the bedrock of our society and it was instituted by God. In recent days, the family has undergone much attack and remains under a fierce attack to this present day in America. As a local church in America, we were able to pray for strength to be faithful to God in our culture that hates God. We prayed for the mothers to be strong in prayer and for the hearts of the children to be turned to their fathers and the fathers to their children.
Deuteronomy 6:4-7 – “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.  You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.  You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.
We concluded the evening with a time of responsive reading through Psalm 18. Overall it was a sweet time together in prayer as a church family. It was a delight to be together and to pray corporately. As a benediction, we prayed for the evangelistic and mission work of our church to be strengthened for the glory of Christ. As we were leaving the campus last night, we prayed for God to send us out as faithful ambassadors who speak the truth of the good news of Jesus. Charles Spurgeon once said:
Oh! men and brethren, what would this heart feel if I could but believe that there were some among you who would go home and pray for a revival – men whose faith is large enough, and their love fiery enough to lead them from this moment to exercise unceasing intercessions that God would appear among us and do wondrous things here, as in the times of former generations.
I recently returned from a trip to Ecuador to preach, evangelize, and train leaders in our church plant in the Andes mountains. After six years of traveling to this remote mountain village, I always return overjoyed about how our sovereign God is working out all things for His glory—even in a small and relatively unknown part of Ecuador. During my trip, I heard many different prayers by different people. Some of the people prayed during worship while others offered prayers of repentance. In each case I heard prayers that were shallow, not theologically precise, and often very short. However, I believe God was honored with the prayers of His people.
Prayers of New Believers
As we met with people in small homes and discussed the gospel, a couple of times we witnessed people come under the conviction of the Lord and ask how they could repent and be saved. We explained the gospel to them, explained repentance, and they responded with a desire to call upon the Lord for salvation. This is a rare thing for us over the years since we don’t engage in high pressure sales techniques in our mission trips. We teach the truth of the gospel as we begin with the Law of God and move to the hope of salvation through Christ alone, but we never engage in manipulation techniques.
There were other times where we heard people pray who were young in the faith and didn’t have a fully developed theology of the Trinity offer prayers to God. In such cases, we heard prayers that were offered from the heart, but they weren’t organized properly nor were they filled with theological precision. No matter what, I truly believe that God delights in the shallow prayers of new believers. Just as a father or mother delights in the immature cries of their baby, so does our heavenly Father delight in the prayers of babes in Christ.
Prayers of Growing Believers
Through the years in our ministry in Ecuador, I’ve heard prayers from growing, but still immature believers in the church. Some were teenagers while others were men who attended our training sessions out of a desire to grow in their walk with Christ. Not one time did I listen to a prayer and think it was profoundly deep or theologically precise. Most of the prayers were short, shallow, and childlike. In all cases, I think God was honored. I never felt as if the people were praying in order to impress the ears of the people in the congregation. They were praying from a heart of devotion to God and a desire to know Him more intimately.
We can all learn a profound lesson from the prayers of new believers and growing believers alike. Although they pray with language that’s often childlike and shallow, their prayers are offered from a heart of love and praise to God. When we call on the Lord and engage in a time of prayer to Him, not only does He hear us, but He delights in such sincere childlike prayers. God loves to see our dependence upon Him and rejoices in the praise of His people. Even when people have limited knowledge regarding the absolute sovereignty of God, a simple, short, and childlike expression of dependence honors God. Jerry Bridges once said:
Prayer assumes the sovereignty of God. If God is not sovereign, we have no assurance that He is able to answer our prayers. Our prayers would become nothing more than wishes. But while God’s sovereignty, along with His wisdom and love, is the foundation of our trust in Him, prayer is the expression of trust. 
Over the years through my Christian life and pastoral ministry, I’ve repeatedly heard pastors, church leaders, and fellow Christians pray to impress others as opposed to communicating to God. When praying, they suddenly speak in the language of the King James Bible praying long circular prayers filled with theological accuracy. However, I often end such times of prayer feeling as if the individual was really seeking to impress me rather than praise God.
We need more simple prayers from the children of God who have a proper perspective of their ultimate dependence upon the God who saves sinners. Just as baby talk delights the father as he hears his son learning to speak, so does the immature prayer of an immature Christian delight our heavenly Father. Sometimes bad prayers can be good prayers. Sure, our prayers will get better over time, but I’m certain that the bad prayers of new believers are a delightful sound to the sovereign God who rules the universe.
Psalm 102:17 – he regards the prayer of the destitute and does not despise their prayer.
- Jerry Bridges, Is God Really In Control? Trusting God in a World of Hurt, (Carol Stream, IL: NavPress, 2006), 69-70.
In recent weeks, I’ve been working with my children on how to be more than one-dimensional in their prayer life. It’s really easy to fall into ruts when we pray. At times, we learn specific prayers and we repeat them over and over to the point that they become a mantra rather than an actual prayer. It’s important to realize that we should focus on people and upon God in our prayer. We would be wise to make requests and provide praises.
The Horizontal Prayer
As we look into the early church from Acts 2:42-47, we see that immediately they are gathered under the preaching of the Word and prayer. They prayed together and they prayed for one another. We can see later as Peter was imprisoned, the church was gathered together praying for Peter (Acts 12:6-19). It’s healthy for the church to pray for one another’s needs.
In the early church context, it was difficult and dangerous to follow Jesus. The church understood the importance of praying for the physical and spiritual needs of one another. The horizontal aspect of prayer has always been important among God’s people, and it’s vitally important today as well. We must not neglect praying for one another.
Consider the needs of the church:
- Are you praying for your pastors and deacons?
- Are you praying for the church’s missions ministries?
- Are you praying for the church’s discipleship ministries?
- Are you praying for the poor in your community?
- Are you praying for the sick among your church family?
- Are you praying for the salvation of the children of your church?
- Are you praying for the growth of the church spiritually and numerically?
The Vertical Prayer
Have you taken a look at the prayer sheet for your church in recent days? What does it look like? How much of your church’s prayer sheet is focused upon the attributes of God? Is there any point on the prayer sheet where the church is directed to praise God? It’s really easy to turn your church’s prayer meeting into a time where people only ask God to heal physical problems. There’s more to praying than asking God to heal uncle Joe’s bad back.
I’ve been instructing my children to spend time praying for others, but to finish by choosing one important thing about God and take time to not only recognize it, but to praise Him. In one prayer, it’s possible to end by spending some time focused on God’s mercy and praising Him for being a God of mercy. On another occasion, we could end our time of prayer by focusing on God’s justice and praising God for His promise to judge the lawless.
We need set times where we simply focus on God and praise Him for who He is, what He has already done, and what He promises to do in the future.
Consider the benefits of such praying:
- It’s edifying to be comforted by God’s attributes. Especially the attributes that are not communicable.
- It’s educational to spend time considering the bigness of God’s power and love.
- It’s worshipful to focus on God as He has identified Himself to us in Scripture — the Triune God who saves sinners.
- It’s joyful to look into God’s justice and have confidence that He will one day judge with righteous judgment.
Consider the words of J.C. Rye regarding prayer:
Prayer is the mightiest weapon that God has placed in our hands. It is the best weapon to use in every difficulty, and the surest remedy in every trouble. It is the key that unlocks the treasury of promises, and the hand that draws forth grace and help in time of need. It is the silver trumpet that God commands us to sound in all our necessity, and it is the cry He has promised always to listen to, just as a loving mother listens attentively to the voice of her child. 
Prayer is one of the easiest areas of the Christian life to neglect, but it’s one of the greatest privileges that we possess as children of God. We would be wise to develop strong praying families who in turn make up strong praying churches.
- J.C. Ryle, The Duties of Parents.