I love cricket. At least, I love watching it; I was never any good at playing it. But I know many people don’t like cricket and don’t even understand the rules of it (especially if they come from a country where it isn’t a popular sport). So I hope you will forgive me for using a cricketing analogy.
When two batsmen are running between the wickets on a cricket pitch, they need to co-ordinate the decision about whether to run or not. One will shout to the other ‘Yes’ (that is, ‘Let’s run’), or ‘No’ (that is, ‘Stay where you are’), or ‘Wait’ (that is, ‘Let’s see what happens before we decide whether to run’).
God hears all our prayers and, in one sense, he answers all our prayers. But we do not always receive what we ask for. When we ask God for something, the response will be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ or ‘Wait’.
When our prayers don’t seem to be answered, it may be that we don’t see all the implications of what we are asking for. John Stott writes that God will answer ‘No’ if the things we ask for ‘are either not good in themselves, or not good for us or for others, directly or indirectly, immediately or ultimately.’
In the passages for today we see examples of all three types of response from God.
1. God says ‘yes’
What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning? David sets us a great example: ‘As for me… I shall be fully satisfied when I awake to find myself beholding your form and having sweet communion with you’ (v.15, AMP). He started each day seeking God’s presence and finding satisfaction in him.
This is the heart of what prayer is all about. It is not just about asking for things; it is about seeking God’s face and enjoying ‘sweet communion with him’.
This is the context of David’s request. He cried out to God for help in the face of his enemies (vv.13–14). God heard and answered his prayers with a positive response, ‘Yes’.
Lord, thank you that nothing that this world offers can compare with the satisfaction of seeing ‘your face’ (v.15a). Each day, when I awake, may I ‘be satisfied with seeing your likeness’ (v.15b).
2. God says ‘no’ (to one request, ‘yes’ to another)
Bill Hybels writes, ‘If the request is wrong God says “No”. If the timing is wrong God says “Slow”. If you are wrong God says “Grow”. But if the request is right and the timing is right and you are right, God says “Go”.’
In this passage we see two requests. The first receives the answer ‘No’ (vv.20–28) and the second the answer ‘Yes’ (vv.29–34).
In both cases Jesus asked, ‘What do you want?’ He said to the mother of Zebedee’s sons, ‘What is it you want?’ (v.21). He said to the two blind men, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (v.32).
In a way it must have been obvious what they wanted (in the second instance they were blind, so they must have wanted to see), but God wants us to be actively involved. The apostle James says, ‘You do not have, because you do not ask God’ (James 4:2). Jesus says, ‘Ask and it will be given to you… For everyone who asks receives’ (Matthew 7:7–8). It may seem an obvious point, but the starting point of answered prayer is actually asking.
In the case of the request of the blind men, Jesus’ response was ‘Yes’. ‘Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him’ (v.34).
On the other hand, Jesus, in effect, said ‘No’ to the mother of Zebedee’s sons. This response also stemmed from compassion. Her request was for glory, power and promotion for her boys. He points out that she does not seem to understand all the implications of her request.
He said, ‘Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?’ (v.22). The Old Testament prophets spoke in several passages of the ‘cup of his (God’s) wrath’ (for example Isaiah 51:17–22; Jeremiah 25:15–29).
Shockingly, Jesus speaks of drinking this cup himself. He is going to ‘give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28). The Greek word for ‘for’ (in ‘ransom for many’, v.28) is ‘anti’, which means ‘instead of’. This is the clearest example in the whole New Testament of Jesus explaining his death in terms of substitution.
The apostle James writes, ‘When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives’ (James 4:3). Behind the requests here lay different motives. Both requests were to do with lordship. The request of the blind men came from the recognition that Jesus is Lord, and a desire for something good (Matthew 20:30–33). On the other hand, Jesus points out that the mother’s request came from a desire to ‘lord it over’ others (v.25).
Jesus points out that true greatness does not come from lording it over others or from what the world regards as success (wealth, position, fame or having a ‘successful’ ministry). Rather, he says that true greatness comes from becoming ‘a servant’ – following the example of Jesus who came ‘to serve, not be served’ (vv.26–28). This is an example of where the disciples were wrong and God said ‘Grow’.
I think I have learnt more in my own life from the times when my prayers have not seemed to be answered than from the times when they have been answered with a ‘Yes’. Certainly the disciples must have learnt a huge amount from this ‘unanswered’ prayer.
Lord, thank you that even when you don’t appear to answer our prayers it is also out of compassion. Thank you for the lessons that we learn from ‘unanswered’ prayer. Thank you that you showed us what true greatness is all about. Help us to devote our lives to your service and to the service of others.
3. God says ‘wait’
Do you realise that, whatever difficulties you are facing, right now Jesus is praying for you?
Poor Job had to put up with increasingly irritating speeches from his friends in which they condemned him more and more. They wrongly accused him of all kinds of sin, guilt and wickedness. Job described them as ‘miserable comforters’ (16:2), with their ‘long-winded speeches’ (v.3a). He pointed out he could make similar speeches if he wanted to (v.4). They were absolutely no help to him at all.
Some people believe that our suffering in this life is always caused by our own sin, or even by sin in a former life. As a result, if they are born in poverty or with some genetic disorder, it must be their fault. To be regarded in this way must be a terrible additional unnecessary suffering (the idea of reincarnation is totally repudiated in the Bible, see Hebrews 9:27.). This is how Job’s so-called ‘friends’ spoke about him.
When our friends are suffering we need to avoid being ‘miserable comforters’ (v.2). Job tells us what we should do. He says that if the situation were reversed he would ‘encourage’, ‘comfort’ and ‘strengthen’ them and ‘soothe their suffering’ (v.5, NIV and AMP).
One thing we can always do is to intercede (pray on their behalf) for them. Job said:
‘My intercessor is my friend
as my eyes pour out tears to God;
on behalf of a human being he pleads with God
as one pleads for a friend’ (vv.20–21).
We are not told who the intercessor was, but whoever it was, he was a real friend to Job because he was pleading to God for him.
The prayers of the intercessor may not seem to have been answered immediately, but they were eventually when God restored Job’s fortunes. His answer to Job’s intercessor and to Job was ‘Wait’. Later it was Job’s intercession for others that was the immediate cause of his restoration (42:8–10).
Who is Job’s intercessor? Job says, ‘Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high’ (16:19). In the New Testament we see that the one ‘who represents mortals before God’ (16:21, MSG) is Jesus. He is our ‘advocate with the Father’ (1 John 2:1, RSV). He is interceding for us (Hebrews 7:24–25).
Jesus was Job’s advocate. He was interceding for him. Jesus was pleading with God ‘as one pleads for a friend’ (Job 16:21). We see here a similarity between Job’s experience and that of Peter. Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail’ (Luke 22:31–32).
As John Wimber used to say, ‘The good news is that Jesus is praying for us. The bad news is that we are going to need it!’
Lord, thank you so much that you promise to be our advocate. Thank you that in the times when, like Job or Peter, it seems that Satan is sifting us like wheat, you are praying for us. Thank you that we know that even if it seems like we are having to wait, the answer to our advocate in heaven’s prayer will always ultimately be ‘Yes’.