In the Gospel of John, there comes a time when Jesus is at the peak of his popularity. You find it in chapter 6 – a point at which the reader is not even half way through the book of John’s Gospel.
After a full day of teaching this vast, vast crowd, Jesus knows the people are getting hungry, so he turns to this disciples and asks them what can be done to feed all of these people. Philip is one of the apostles, and he tells Jesus it can’t be done. After all, feeding that many people would take 8 month’s salary to even begin to feed such a vast, vast crowd.
As the story goes, there is one boy in the crowd who brought his lunch, and so Jesus takes it and has the disciples begin to distribute the food. The miracle is that the crowd is not only fed, but there are baskets full of left-overs.
Now, most of us know that part of the story. We were told as children about the boy who shared his lunch.
What we tend to forget is that the next morning when the crowd wakes up they are hungry again, and they look around for Jesus – their meal ticket, and he is nowhere to be found. When they catch up with him, they discover that Jesus has shut down the all-you-can-eat miracle buffet. No more free samples. Jesus tells them that the only food they get from now on is spiritual food that feeds the soul and he says to them, “I am the bread of life.”
John’s Gospel says that at that point many people no longer followed him. They deserted him, leaving him not with thousands, but with about dozen or so followers.
Kyle Idleman in his book “Not a Fan,” says that most Christians are not followers of Christ, but just fans.
The dictionary defines a fan as “an enthusiastic admirer.” Fans want to be close enough to Jesus to get the feel-good benefits but not so close that it requires sacrifice. Fans may be good with slapping a Jesus fish on their car bumpers, but beyond that there is little substance.
Jesus was never interested in having fans or admirers. Instead, throughout the New Testament he was more interested in getting followers and disciples rather than simple fans who are easily distracted.
What is it that makes a true follower?
What are the marks of discipleship?
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be looking at the Seven Marks of Discipleship, which will be printed on the front of each bulletin every Sunday during the next seven weeks.
I hope that each of these seven marks will become woven into the fabric of our church and into our own thinking so that everything we do will somehow reflect our commitment to be more than fans, but true followers of Christ.
One mark of discipleship is to pray daily.
In the New Testament we are told “Pray without ceasing,” but are we doing that?
A national survey reveals that 91% of Muslims pray daily or more than once per day.
Christians? Less than half – and in one survey it is as low as 16% who pray once per day.
For many, prayer is something Christians do about once per week, or even less.
Frequent prayer, however, is one of the marks of a true follower of Christ. Why then, do we not make this a daily spiritual discipline?
One reason, quite frankly, is that for some, prayer sometimes seems futile. Some people just do not feel that God is listening. It is the problem of unanswered prayers.
And even for those of us who do pray daily, this business of unanswered prayer is frustrating.
And the Bible is full of unanswered prayers.
In the Old Testament lesson from Habakkuk, we see such a prayer.
As we look at Habakkuk, we find that he opens the book with a struggle over unanswered prayer. In verse two of chapter one, the prophet is pleading with God, “How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you do not save?”
How do we deal with unanswered prayer?
Why is God sometimes so silent?
I. WE MISUNDERSTAND PRAYER
One reason is that we sometimes misunderstand the nature of prayer. We pray out of selfish motives.
True prayer is God-centered.
But we often turn prayer into a self-centered activity.
In the New Testament book of James, we are told (James 4:3), “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
The object of prayer is that God might be glorified. At times we think of prayer as an Aladdin’s lamp which we use to glorify self. We often think of God as a genie who is at our bidding and command.
A theologian once said, “Our prayers often reduce God to nothing more than a Cosmic Bellboy, who is neither very bright, nor very reliable.”
Can we not pray for ourselves? Of course, but we should pray for ourselves unselfishly. Unselfish prayer for self is prayer which seeks not self-centered comfort but Christ-centered conformity to the will of God.
The Bible promises that God will hear our prayers. It never says that God will obey our orders – and sometimes that is the way we treat prayer. So of course, God may not answer such self-centered prayers.
II. UNBELIEF BLOCKS PRAYER
Another reason why prayer may go unanswered is that the person offering the prayer does not believe. The prayer is simply an empty ritual, or perhaps it is simply spoken as a superstition. It’s like rubbing a rabbit’s foot. Or reading a horiscope. Even people who don’t believe in superstition may occasionally practice these, thinking, “What’s the harm?”
During World War II, General Patton was given the task of rescuing some soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. The weather was not cooperating, however, and the tanks could not reach the men, nor could the planes provide proper air cover. So on December 8, 1944, Patton called on Chaplain James O’Neill and asked, “Do you have a prayer for good weather? We need a break in this weather if we are to win the war.” O’Neill looked through some prayer books and couldn’t find the right one, so he composed the following prayer.
Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.
When the chaplain delivered a copy of the prayer to the General, Patton ordered the minister to make 250,000 copies and to see that every soldier in the Third Army got a copy. Two days after the copies were distributed, there was a break in the weather and the Americans were able to advance.
A few months ago, I saw an interview of one or Patton’s soldiers who had kept his copy of that prayer. He said he used it whenever he was in trouble. He said the prayer at the deathbed of his mother, and it didn’t heal his mother. He said the prayer when he was diagnosed with cancer, but it didn’t heal him. He concluded that prayer didn’t work at all.
But prayer had been nothing more than a superstitious ritual for him. Saying that prayer at the deathbed of his mother was meaningless, because it was not a prayer for his mother to be healed. It was a prayer for moderate weather and success in battle. That prayer had been answered.
But for this man, repeating the words of this prayer had become little more than a rubbing of the rabbit’s foot.
Prayer is sometimes spoken without any faith or belief.
In the New Testament book of James, we read in chapter 1, verse 6, that when a person prays, “he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.”
We often struggle with the problem of unanswered prayer as if it is a failure on God’s part. Many of us feel like we have a contract with God and that God is obligated to hear our prayers. We never stop to think that God might have something better in mind, or that we have misunderstood prayer.
No matter what happens in our prayers and with our desires, we should always be focused on the fact that God knows best.
Whether God answers our prayers literally and strictly, or seems to do as he did with Habbakuk and seems to be silent, we are given an excellent promise in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. He tells us in chapter 8 of his New Testament letter to the Romans, “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” (Romans 8:28)
Our responsibility is to commune with God in prayer, without ceasing. Every day, should be given to prayer.
Copyright 2013, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.