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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Why? Why Do My Prayers Go Unanswered?

Part 2 of a Sermon Series based on Adam Hamilton's "Why?"
"Why: Why Do My Prayers Go Unanswered?"
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)

Psalms 22:1-11
Psalm 22
1  My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?
2  O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.
3  Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4  In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
5  To you they cried and were rescued;
in you they trusted and were not put to shame.
6  But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
7  All who see me mock me;
they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
8  "He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him;
let him rescue him, for he delights in him!"
9  Yet you are he who took me from the womb;
you made me trust you at my mother's breasts.
10  On you was I cast from my birth,
and from my mother's womb you have been my God.
11  Be not far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is none to help.

Matthew 17:14-20
Jesus Cures a Boy with a Demon
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, knelt before him, 15 and said, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him." 17 Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me." 18 And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly. 19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" 20 He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."


So we're doing this series of four sermons called, "Why?" And, I've gotta tell you, it's not easy. You think they're hard to listen to? Try writing them.

We're asking, "Why?" with the help of a really good book, called Why? Making Sense of God's Will. It's by Adam Hamilton. He's a pastor. Methodist. So, you know, handle the book carefully. If Adam Hamilton read my sermons, he might sue me for libel. They're more of a companion than an exposition. For that, we have a Sunday School class that's studying the book and (gulp) the sermons, too. If you want the real connections and better answers, try the class. And buy the book. You can get it on Amazon, or www.AdamHamilton.org, or at the Holy of Holies, McKay's.

Today's message is part 2 of the series on "Why?" and it's "Why Do My Prayers Go Unanswered?" Yeah. I think we can wrap this one up in time to get out before the Baptists.


Do any of you drive a motorcar? Oh, they're miraculous contraptions. I postulate that horseless carriages shall soon fill the streets. Our cars used to be miracles; now we take them for granted. We get in them. We turn the key. We drive.

Except, when you turn the key and nothing happens. In disbelief, you turn again. More disbelief. Turn again. Disbelief, plus the invocation of God's curses. Disbelief. God. Evil words. Angry thoughts. Anxiety. The detouring of plans. The destruction of dignity. The march of time, rolling over you.

OK, maybe I'm being a little dramatic, but when your car won't start, you get dramatic. Right? I'm usually late to start with, and I drink a lot of coffee. So it doesn't take much for me to go all drama. That's the good thing about drama. It's like an extreme closeup. It shows the wrinkles and acne beneath the thin foundation. We see someone else losing it over something like car trouble. We think, "Oh, I'd never be like that." We laugh at them because we see our fears in their reflection. Upon self-reflection, we know we're not that different.

A lot of the time, we treat prayer like a car. It's a vehicle from getting from A to B. "God, please just get me to the church on time." I pray that one a lot. "Sweet Jesus, please" - and I'm sure he likes it when you crush on him like that - "Sweet, loving, compassionate, loving Jesus, please start. So I can go from being like this to being like that." "Give me gas in my Ford, keep me truckin' for the Lord. Keep me truckin' 'till the break of day." (How come the Choir never sings that one? Scott, write that down.) A lot of the time, we treat prayer like a car. Kind of like a mechanical contraption that we start, and it goes, and it takes us to someplace better.

I think if you want to think of prayer in a mechanical, if-this-then-that kind of way, you should think of it more like a Rube Goldberg machine. If you don't know what that is, search for it on YouTube. The band, OK Go uses a lot of them in their music videos. It's like someone trips a line of dominos, that then move a bowling ball, that then pushes a chicken, who lays an egg, that rolls down a chute, that presses a lever, that turns the key and starts the car. It would be an awesome Science Fair project. I think we kind of treat prayer like a Science Fair project. It works. Or it doesn't. And then we get graded. And God's like the clumsy parent who's supposed to know how to get us an A, and sometimes come through. And sometimes not. We grade ourselves on a curve. We grade God Pass/Fail. So, I think if you're going to think of prayer mechanically, Science-Fair-y, it's going to be a pretty complicated project.

Why didn't God answer my prayers? Because you didn't do something right. Or God didn't start when we hit ignition.


Do any of you paint? I mean, like, on canvas? Or walls. Are any of you musicians? Artists? Craftspersons? Another way people treat prayer is like an art form. I like thinking of prayer as art better than thinking of it like a machine. Because art's never finished. It's never perfect. It's why Monet painted thousands of water lilies. It's why Thomas Jefferson kept remodeling Monticello. It's why Precious Moments keeps making kittens. The big eyes are never quite perfect. A couple of years ago, this guy started a movement called, "Dance Your Ph.D." He wanted people to give up paper and PowerPoint, and hire professional dancers to interpret dissertations on physics, and contract law. It didn't work. But it was entertaining. That's also on YouTube. The thing about dance, and painting, writing poetry, and singing opera, is that nobody's ever 100% sure what you're doing. It's very subjective. Prayer is subjective. Your prayers in someone else's voice wouldn't be the same. And if you think of prayer like you and God working on an interpretive dance - as elegant or as uncoordinated as your dancing may be - then whether prayer "works right" or not isn't so important.


My favorite scripture about prayer comes from the Apostle Paul. In the Book of Romans, chapter 8, verse 26, he says of himself, "...for we do not know how to pray as we ought." I figure if the Apostle Paul doesn't know how to do it right, I can cut myself some slack.

In the Gospel According to Mark, Mark tells the same story we read earlier about how the Disciples couldn't cure the boy with epilepsy. In Mark's version, the boy's father cries out (with tears) to Jesus. He says another of my favorite lines from the Bible. "I believe! Help my unbelief!" Yeah. Especially when it comes to prayer. I've got belief. But I've also got a lot of questions, and some unbelief, too. I hope it's OK for a preacher to say that. Please don't become Atheist because of me. Ironically, I think the church has always been the greatest evangelist for atheism. The church has this funny way of turning people off of religion. Usually because we back-door ridicule people for having any percentage of unbelief.

Adam Hamilton has this genius paragraph about this. He says,

Some Christians explain the failure of... prayers by placing the blame on you.

He quotes a website that lists some "common reasons" why your prayers go unanswered.

Among the reasons,
  • You are not seeking to please the Lord
  • You have unconfessed sin in your life
  • You pray with improper motives
  • You lack faith

Hamilton's genius is to say, (quote), "I find this list obscene."

Dang. Makes me want to become a Methodist. I'd join his church to hear more talk like that. Luckily, I can just buy his books, and not have to change churches every four years.

What's even gutsier (man, this guy is good), is that he says this in a chapter based on a piece of scripture, where Jesus - JESUS - seems to be saying what Hamilton calls obscene.


Matthew 17:14-20. Oh, it's a horrible situation. It breaks your heart. This man comes to Jesus. And he says, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly."

I can only imagine how it must feel as a parent to watch your child have a seizure. I'm sure some of you have been there. Total helplessness, total fear, total guilt, total worry. Awful.

The man goes on, "...he often falls into the fire and often into the water."

Oh, it gets worse. You can imagine this child with burns. And bad lungs. Missing hair, missing flesh. Everyone's afraid to go near him because they think he's possessed by demons. Rips your heart out.

But wait. It gets even worse. The man says, "...and I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him."

And the disciples are thinking, "Awwww. Did you have to go and say that?"

Sweet Jesus, meek and mild, gives the last answer in the world you'd ever expect. Instead of saying, "Oh, they're new. Interns. Bless your heart. I'm so sorry." Instead, Jesus inflicts guilt, reveals his own anger.

Matthew 17:17 says, Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me."

Appalling bedside manner. Jesus rebukes the disease, it comes out of him, and the boy is cured instantly.

So. The disciples. Whose prayers went unanswered. Whose healing did nothing. The disciples come as a committee to Jesus when no one else is around. Privately, they ask, "Why could we not cast it out?" They're asking, Why did our prayers go unanswered?

And again. A second time. Jesus seems to be bending over backwards to make people feel bad.

He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."

Oh. That helps. Thanks a lot. Now we're incompetent AND faithless.

The most dangerous thing you can do with your Bible is read it. Because the answers almost always aren't what you'd expect.

Hamilton makes another genius point. In my opinion. He talks about how Jesus (i.e., the gospel writers) really often uses hyperbole to make his point.

No, if you want to read the Bible literally, this isn't going to set well with you. If your answers to "Why?" are "Because," and "Because God said so," you aren't going to like this explanation. But when Jesus talked about camels passing through the eyes of needles, he didn't mean it literally. He was using hyperbole, hyper-speech, to get peoples' attention. When he talked about taking the log out of your eye, he didn't mean to visit your ophthalmologist. (Although regular eye exams are a good idea.) Same thing here. Jesus never moved a physical mountain with prayer. That's Yoda. Jesus isn't Yoda. Jesus doesn't teach Luke, or Matthew, or Mark, to use The Force.

I think the point Jesus is trying to make is a lot simpler said, and a lot harder to do, than moving mountains. I think the point he's trying to make, vividly and memorably, is simply, "Don't give up." I think that's all he's trying to say. Even if you don't get the healing you want, don't give up. Even if you don't get the answers you want, don't give up praying. Even if that dang mountain is so huge you can't go over it, can't go under it, can't go around it... don't give up.

And honestly. If you've lived a few years, and seen a few heartbreaking things, it might be easier to move a mountain than to not give up on prayer.

I think the Bible shows us Jesus as frustrated to show us that it's OK to get frustrated. Especially when you're praying. Especially when it doesn't work like you think it should. You turn the key and the prayer engine gets you nowhere. It's only natural to get frustrated. To get angry. To blame yourself. To blame God.

The one right thing the disciples did when their prayers didn't work, was that they didn't quit. They didn't quit the ministry and go back to fishing. Which, trust me, sounds very attractive some days. The right thing the disciples did when their prayers didn't work, was that they did go to Jesus, privately. The Bible says they asked him questions. I would imagine they might also have voiced some complaints. They were human. And they'd been publicly embarrassed by their boss. I'd complain. Wouldn't you?

The one right thing the disciples did was that they didn't quit, and they did go to Jesus, in private, for more lessons, more discussion, more... what's it called when people go to Jesus? Oh yeah. Prayer.


Robert Frost, the poet, said, "If there is one thing in life that I have learned about life it is... it goes on." I think that's kind of at the heart of what the Bible says, too. After you muddle through all the impossible mechanics of miracles and resurrection and eternal life, which nobody can honestly say with a straight face they get 100%, after you get through all the questions of "How do they do that?" and even past the question of "Why?" you're left with this assurance. This weird blessing. Life does go on. Even when life doesn't work right. It goes on. Even when prayers aren't answered, that's no reason they can't go on.

How does an artist ever know when she's finished? When does the craftsman reach perfection? When are your prayers completely and finally answered? Just because you stop praying them, doesn't mean the dance doesn't keep going on.

If you've got unanswered prayers. If you've got disappointment with things that look like your final answers. I want to encourage you to go back to Jesus, maybe in private, and ask some questions. Maybe voice some complaints. Life goes on. God goes on. Maybe even the answers go on. Dance with them. And see where it takes you.