We constantly need the help of God in different situations, and we continually pray for individuals, but why does the Lord cause us to have to pray for some things repeatedly, often over a long period of time?
‘Men ought always to pray, and not to faint’ (Luke 18.1).
‘Continue in prayer’ (Colossians 4.2).
‘Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5.17).
Frequently, it is true, the Lord hears and answers relatively instantly, especially in times of emergency, but equally every praying Christian experiences long waits in prayer, extending even to many years.
Sometimes we wonder whether it is appropriate to pray for a person or situation repeatedly, but it must be because Colossians 4.2 says so – ‘continue in prayer.’ But why? What is God’s purpose in this? We would not treat one another in this way, waiting until people had asked us for something many times before responding. A number of answers are suggested here.
Five Reasons for God’s Delay
1. God surely keeps us asking in order to keep our perspectives rightly tuned. He will not allow us to turn him into a mere servant, constantly at our beck and call. If he did, we would soon be demanding, not asking. If he answered all our prayers instantly, our tendency would be to see ourselves as master, and the Lord as a servant existing for our convenience. We would forget to honour him as supreme and sovereign God. He therefore keeps us waiting and persevering in humble prayer, so that we remember who he is, and who we are – unworthy creatures saved by grace alone. It is because of our fallen hearts that prayer must frequently be persistent.
2. Then again, God may delay his answers to our prayers to keep another reality firmly in our minds. When we are obliged to ask for things repeatedly, it impresses upon our minds the fact that the desired outcome is not a simple matter, and that no human agency could bring it about. Our protracted asking will highlight the greatness of the answer, when it comes.
If we prayed just once for a sinner to be saved, and the next day he was saved, we would probably cease to believe in the doctrine of total depravity, and reject the idea that the human heart is rebellious, determined and obdurate in its resistance to God. We would believe instead that human beings are really very reasonable, persuadable, open and ready to respond to the Gospel. So the Lord holds us in sound doctrine by keeping us waiting, thereby confirming the teaching of the Word and providing a deep understanding of the difficulty, humanly, of the thing asked for.
3. Similarly, the Lord doubtless delays his response to our prayers to remind us of our own weakness and dependence upon him. If we had to ask for things only once, we would certainly lose sight of the extent of our impotence. If we had a thousand great answers to prayer in a single year, so that life was altogether victorious, we would probably swell with spiritual pride imagining that we were accomplishing these wonderful things with just a little help from the Lord. However, as he keeps us waiting, we realise that we could never bring about the things for which we pray.
Often whole churches experience this delay. They toil long and hard in the visitation of the community and no one responds, and then, once everyone has become convinced that people cannot be persuaded to hear the Word, the Lord moves.
4. It is probable that God has yet another objective in requiring us to persevere in repeated prayer, namely, to remind us of the conditions for prayer. When we have been asking for something for a while, with mounting desire and concern, we begin to wonder, ‘Is God withholding his hand because I am not striving to live a holy life, or because I am not witnessing for him, or reading his Word, or because I am not forgiving someone who has offended against me, or because I am not conducting myself in a true and in a faithful way?’ We begin to be challenged, and consider carefully the conditions for prayer. It is by delaying and requiring us to ask repeatedly, that the Lord brings us to this deeper self-examination.
5. Another likely purpose served by delay in answering prayer is that we soon begin to consider what really matters, and what does not matter. If God answered every request instantly, our prayer agenda might soon resemble a shopping list, greatly extended by requests for unnecessary comforts and luxuries. But when we are required to persevere over months, we come to see that such things are unworthy or inappropriate and find it impossible to ask for them. We realise that they should be left out of our prayers, and so delay helps to filter out selfish and worldly petitions.
Vigilance in Prayer
Alongside the exhortation to ‘continue in prayer,’ the apostle says, ‘and watch in the same with thanksgiving.’ This does not primarily mean that we should watch for the answers, although this is included. It means – keep alert; watch out; keep awake. Our trouble is that in prayer we very soon relax, or lose fervour, going into a kind of automatic mode in which we are not really thinking or longing for the objective. To watch, or to keep alert, means firstly that we keep a close watch on the quality, kind and range of our prayers. Are all the forms of prayer represented in our petitions? Are we praying only for ourselves and our own problems? Are we including all aspects of prayer, for example, praise and thoughtful thanksgiving? As we pray for our church and for its witness, do we also pray for power and strength to overcome our sins? There are many matters to pray for, and sometimes we fall into a rut, or into one little compartment of prayer, while the Lord wants us to pray about a whole range of matters.
To watch means also that the answer may bring some new responsibility, to which we must respond. God often answers our prayers by giving us the opportunity to play some part in the outcome. When, for example, we pray for the conversion of someone, the Lord may give us an unparalleled opportunity to speak to that person, but if we are not watching, we may not realise what is happening, and be spiritually comatose. We must never pray as though God will look after the entire matter without any action or involvement on our part. God’s purpose may be to make us instrumental. We cannot very well pray, ‘Lord, save all my colleagues, but please use other instruments, and don’t use me because I am embarrassed to witness.’
To watch is also to be diligent and methodical. Most people are extremely methodical in managing their secular affairs, poring over bank statements, bills and accounts, and yet, with prayer there is no ‘administration’ whatsoever. Prayer should surely be planned in some measure, that plan being reviewed from time to time, and all this is included in the term ‘watch’. Never should this greatest of all privileges, the ministry of prayer, be vague, ill-considered, casual or haphazard.
Drawn from The Lord’s Pattern for Prayer by Peter Masters, available from the Tabernacle Bookshop.
From The Sword & Trowel 2018, issue 1