A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor, Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga., on June 26, 2011.
What do you do when your prayers are unanswered? This question comes to my mind as I ponder the meaning of Psalm 13, one of the shortest in the Psalter.
Do you keep on praying? Do you quit praying? Do you stop believing in God?
What did the Psalmist do when he felt his prayers went unanswered, which was rather frequently based upon the number of times he wrote about it. Let’s look at one of those laments, Psalm 13, to see what advice he would give us.
By the way, a lament is a style of literature which has three characteristics: a complaint, a request and an expression of confidence in God and God’s ability to help. We don’t know the source of the Psalmist’s struggle in Psalm 13. He could be ill, suffering from a natural disaster, feeling homesick during the exile or dealing with an enemy who is getting the upper hand. Whatever the reason for his anxiety and stress, it was serious. He was confident he would perish if God did not intervene. This was why he wrote with a sense of desperation and urgency.
What advice would the Psalmist give this morning to those who are struggling with unanswered prayers? I think he would begin by telling them to voice their disappointments and frustrations. This is what he did. He was brutally honest about what was going on in his life and how he felt about it. He asked tough questions and laid his heart open before God.
“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God! Give light to my eyes or I will sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, ‘I have prevailed’; my foes will rejoice because I am shaken” Psalm 13:1-4.
Authentic persons of faith are not always on the mountaintop. The Psalmist certainly wasn’t, especially during and after the exile. Difficulties, struggles and challenges come our way, which fill our hearts with confusion, anxiety, fear and perhaps anger. These deep feelings need to be acknowledged and expressed. As a matter of fact, Old Testament scholar, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, says this is the stuff of life and should be the content of our prayers.
So, if this is a “how long” time in your life, go ahead and voice your deepest feelings with the same sense of urgency the Psalmist did. God understands your need to do so and will love you even as you do.
At the same time, don’t give up or give up on your faith. The Psalmist certainly did not.
There is an abrupt change in the tone and mood of this Psalm, beginning with verse five. This troubled man started singing as his cry of desperation turned into a bold assertion of faith. .
“But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord because he has dealt bountifully with me” Psalm 13:5-6.
Did the Psalmist write this because he felt God was on his way to rescue him and deliver him from his troubles? No, I don’t think so. I do believe, however, he expected God to accompany him along his journey, providing what he needed to remain faithful in the midst of adversity. As big and serious as his problems were, he knew he was not facing them alone. His faith was in a God who, like a good shepherd, would never leave or forsake him. His faith was in a God who is the source of hope.
Look at the word the Psalmist used to describe the nature of God, Hesed. If a single Hebrew word serves to describe the character of God, it is this word. Hesed rolls into one word the concepts of God’s grace, mercy, compassion, faithfulness, loyalty and love. It was frequently celebrated in Israel’s songs of praise and appealed to in prayers for help. I suppose the best way to describe this special word is that it is the love a parent has for a child: constant, unconditional and unalterable.
So real and powerful was God’s love that the Psalmist trusted God with his life, in the good and bad times. It was inconceivable to him that he quit praying or believing. Instead, he would wait with an expectant hope for God to respond out of His grace and mercy. It was as if the Psalmist said, “I trust you because I know you love me and your love will sustain me.”
Can you say this today with assurance and conviction or are you wondering how you can trust God and hold on to your faith when life is spinning out of control? How can you keep your hand to the plow and get on with your life while you are waiting on God? How can you live with mystery and unanswered questions?
I think it begins by understanding the purpose of prayer. In my opinion, the purpose of prayer is to develop and maintain a close relationship with God.
We pray for many reasons: we have problems and need help; we have sinned and need forgiveness; we have decisions to make and need guidance; we are afraid and need courage; we are weak and need power; we are sick and need healing; we are sad and need comforting; we are confused and need understanding; we are happy and need to express gratitude; we are dying and need assurance all will be well.
There are many reasons to pray. However, there is but one purpose to pray and that is to develop and maintain a close relationship with God. God, like all loving parents, desires fellowship with those He created and prayer invites us to begin that process through open and honest communication. Prayer opens the door for a partnership rather than a request list.
When my children were little, there were times when our relationship was based upon my ability to grant their requests. If I said yes to what they wanted, all was well. If I did not, the relationship was usually filled with tension and stress. They were unhappy and let me know it.
As they have matured, our relationship has become focused more upon companionship than requests. When they call now, it is because they need to talk, sharing their celebrations and struggles. They are looking for a listening ear and an opportunity to voice their feelings, both good and bad. Many times, they never even ask for anything other than advice. They are not looking for me to solve their problems, but walk with them as they figure out what to do and encourage them along their way. I think a healthy relationship with God is very similar.
Through prayer, we discover the God who came to dwell with us and develop a close relationship with the One who loves us as we are. Prayer invites us to listen closely for God’s voice so that what we hear and experience shapes our way of being in this world.
As Robert Jones writes in his book, Limited to Everyone, “The purpose of prayer is to put us in touch with God. Even though we may pray for healing, the communication with God about the healing becomes more precious than the healing. If the person is healed, this is wonderful. If the person is not healed, hopefully, this will lead to more conversations with God about the need for comfort, courage and strength.”
Biblical scholar, William Barclay, sums it up this way. “Prayer is simply being in the presence of God. When I am in trouble and go to my friend, I don’t want anything but him. I want to feel his friendship and concern, and then I go out into a world warmer because I spent an hour with my friend. It must be the same way with God.”
In addition to drawing close to God, though, we must develop and maintain a close relationship with others. Isolation is our enemy. Discouragement grows in this fertile soil and chokes the life out of us. We must never let this happen.
This is why we must find a safe place to fall, a loving community which will embrace and support us in our darkest hours. We must remember the answer to many of our prayers comes through loving relationships with family and friends. It is important to have a church family through whom we can give and receive encouragement.
How many times have our spirits been lifted by singing our next hymn with other believers? Have Faith in God was written in 1934 by B.B. McKinney during a revival meeting at the First Baptist Church of Muskogee, Oklahoma, in which he was leading the music. In a time of economic depression and uncertainty, he keenly felt the need to express a secure faith in God. Even while the preacher was delivering his sermon, McKinney began writing this great old hymn. Later that evening, upon returning to his room, he completed the song, both words and music.
Have faith in God when your pathway is lonely.
He sees and knows all the way you have trod.
Never alone are the least of His children.
Have faith in God; have faith in God.
Have faith in God when your prayers are unanswered.
Your earnest plea He will never forget.
Wait on the Lord, trust His word and be patient.
Have faith in God; He’ll answer yet.
Have faith in God; He’s on His throne.
Have faith in God, He watches o’er His own.
He cannot fail; He must prevail.
Have faith in God; have faith in God.
Have you planted your life in a church where you can sing this grand hymn of faith and find this kind of strength and encouragement? I know a good one if you are looking! We would love to have you join us on our pilgrimage.