As God performs his sanctifying work in us – conforming us to the image of his Son, “the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2) – there will be times when answers to prayer seem out of all possible reach. When we try to discern the cause for this, we may find that self-examination doesn’t help. Maybe we have been diligent in trying to kick our pet sins out of the house, we’re unaware of any ongoing conflicts or offenses with other believers, and we’ve been fighting diligently against self-righteousness and an independent spirit.
Nevertheless, it seems that God has closed his ears to our cries. That’s when we may begin to ask a question that God’s people have been raising for millennia.
How Long, O Lord?
This question is asked in ten different portions of the book of Psalms. Isaiah sought an answer to it, as did Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Zechariah. Surely the Hebrews asked it as they languished in slavery in Egypt for 400 years. Surely the Israelites asked it as they wandered in the desert watching an entire generation die off. Undoubtedly the captives asked it in Babylon during their 70-year exile. Perplexed and weary believers in Christ certainly ask it every day in various forms, and have been doing so since the resurrection. Indeed, all creation asks continually “How long, O Lord?” as it groans, yearning for the return of the Lord and the completion of all things (Romans 8:22).
One answer spans across every expression of that question, in whatever age it may be asked: the delay is there because God is at work, and the delay itself is serving his purposes. Let’s think about this matter of delay. Imagine if all our prayers were answered swiftly and we never had to wait. It would be as if we each had a genie in a bottle who gives endless wishes. Our prayers would be more like commands than requests, and God would be rightly called our servant in heaven.
We would never endure any lingering, ongoing, bothersome challenges and difficulties. Everyone would be healthy, wealthy, and biblically wise. We would feel great all the time, our jobs would be wonderful, the weather report would always be accurate, and even civil governments would work right. We would be living as if there had never been any original sin, as if we were still in the garden before Adam and Eve fell. And that means we would never have any reason to change. Unfortunately, in nearly every case, discontentment is necessary for our sanctification. God often leaves our prayers unanswered so that we might become increasingly conformed to the image of his Son. Unanswered prayer is a gift from God for our growth—in holiness and in every other good and godly way.
[written by Paul Tautges, a senior pastor]