When I came to Christ, I was taught that God answers prayer, especially prayer offered up in ‘faith’. I witnessed miraculous answers to prayer.
Faith itself was a mystery to me. It sounded like the self-effort to accomplish the prayer. However, I was encouraged to ‘only believe’ and see God answer.
I was exposed to men of faith, usually Pentecostal believers, whose prayers availed much. This was exciting. So, I tried to stretch my own faith to mimic their faith, and to achieve as their faith-prayers achieved.
But alas, my prayers sometimes did not accomplish what I prayed for! Still, I had some evidence and stood my ground to testify that, “God answers prayer,” meaning He gives what we pray for. I thought that effectual Christian prayer is judged by the result!
In time, I asked myself: Why do some of my prayers go unanswered? The explanations I got were varied: sometimes God answers as we have prayed, sometimes He says, “No”, since He knows better what we need. And sometimes we may not have prayed according to His will, or sometimes He says, “Wait.” Or my faith may not be equal to what the Lord desired to act!
Now, there may be some legitimacy in each of these answers. The problem is all answers left me with more questions. I could not apply any of them with accuracy to understand my ‘unanswered prayers’.
If God has promised and He wills something for me, why are my prayers hitting a stonewall? For example, I have prayed for the salvation of my siblings for 40 years! Their salvation is clearly God’s will.
Similarly, Martha and Mary pleaded for their brother, Lazarus’ healing. Jesus’ immediate comment on his sickness and the end of the story both tell us that Jesus indeed willed Lazarus’ good health. But Lazarus to died!
Did Martha and Mary have the faith that Jesus could or would answer their prayer? Yes, they believed Jesus to heal Lazarus. But they did not have the faith to believe that He would raise Lazarus from the dead! And He raised him all the same without this faith, as if He did not need their faith to raise him from the dead!
Prayer then becomes more mysterious. But Jesus promised, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
Does God answer the prayer of faith or not? Yes, He does, but this does not bind God to our faith either to act or not to act. He remains sovereign.
Martha and Mary believed in Jesus but not in or for the miracle. I obstinately believe in prayer. But I do not believe in prayer because of the miracles or the visible answers to my prayers. This story shows us a deeper reason for prayer, the relationship with Jesus.
Prayer is more, much more than answered prayer. It is about the primacy of our relationship and conversation with a loving God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is the heart of prayer. If our desire falls below the need to know and fellowship with God, our prayers are the poorer for it.
When we come to God we must chiefly seek God for who He is. Christian prayer is not a duty to be performed, and neither is it coercing God to our side; He already is on our side. We pray to a God who is our friend in Christ Jesus.
When we understand this, faith finds a place in prayer. Faith is the language that unites us with our divine Friend. Two friends remain in fellowship as they believe and trust each other. Doubting God, and especially unbelief, tells God that we are not sure of Him, as we walk with Him! Any relationship without faith is untenable.
Approaching Him with a pure heart becomes imperative for us. The Bible says that our God is of “purer eyes than to see (look at) evil.”
Sin is the reason for sending His Son into our world. God the Father and God the Son were alienated in their eternal fellowship because of sin. Sin must never stand between our God and us.
Similarly, obeying God is necessary to our relationship with Him. Obedience is the expression of our love for God. Without obedience we bring tension to the relationship. We obey Him; He does not obey us. Doing His will assures us of His purpose for our lives. He made us and knows what is best for us.
The greatest treasure Martha and Mary had when they came to Jesus with their prayer was their relationship with Him.
What if Jesus had not raised their brother, Lazarus? I believe they would have still loved Him.