God, Are You Still Listening? Hope for Imperfect Prayers
Does God really listen to our prayers? Does he really hear us when we cry out to him?
Sometimes we pray for a long time about big things, like a health issue or a prodigal child or a difficult work situation, and things don't get better. We wonder if God's been paying attention.
I prayed for my wife regarding a life-threatening disease for 27 long years. We prayed and prayed, but her condition only worsened. Why aren't you answering, God? How could it be true that you have "heard my voice and my pleas for mercy" (Psalm 116:1)? It doesn't feel like you have "attended to the voice of my prayer" (Psalm 66:19).
Perhaps my faith wasn't strong enough. Maybe I wasn't good enough. Such questions assaulted me like a tribunal of vicious accusers. They wore me down, leaving me doubting and discouraged.
"How many of us can say we've prayed single-mindedly for something huge we were looking to God for?"TweetShare on Facebook
I continued to look to God's word for encouragement. There was certainly no shortage of it. For example, Jesus told the people "a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart" (Luke 18:1). This was the story of the persistent widow who only received an answer because she kept coming and asking - she refused to give up. Jesus then asked, "And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?" (Luke 18:7).
Is that the sort of persistence in prayer that's required? Many of us who have prayed for years for the same thing have sometimes lost heart amid the ups and downs of waiting for God. And then we've wondered how God could possibly answer our inconsistent prayers. This is how the accuser can use God's word to discourage us.
Jesus is also clear that faith in prayer is vital. He's bold in his promises about what will happen when we pray in faith. Jesus said,
"If you have faith and do not doubt . . . if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and thrown into the sea,' it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith." (Matthew 21:21-22)
How many of us can say we've prayed that single-mindedly - without doubting - for something huge we were looking to God for? If we had, this passage tells us that we'd have seen the answer and been left rejoicing rather than discouraged due to our doubts and double-mindedness (James 1:6-8). Many of us likely feel like we're lacking that kind of faith.
So what do we do when important passages like these leave us struggling with self-recrimination rather than encouraged amid lengthy battles in prayer? Will God only answer our prayers when we measure up to such impossible standards like praying day and night or having faith to move mountains? Such teachings might leave us thinking that we're just not good enough.
But perhaps that's exactly what Jesus wants us to realize. Perhaps the liberation we long for from that tribunal of accusers is that very admission: We are not good enough! Our prayers aren't good enough. And there is nothing in our life with God for which we are good enough!
Yes, God certainly looks for faith. Yes, we must persist. Yes, earnestly seek God to believe and endure. But even as we do, we recognize that we'll always be deficient in faith and deficient in persistence on this side of heaven. Yet, this should not hinder us from embracing the reality that when "this poor man cried . . . the Lord heard him" (Psalm 34:6).
"Because Jesus has earned his Father's ear, we can rest assured that God hears our every prayer."TweetShare on Facebook
We need God's help to endure in faithful prayer when things are not going well. The most confident and steadfast saints put no trust in the level of faith they attain, but only trust that Jesus himself is "the founder and perfecter of our faith" (Hebrews 12:2). They know that "the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). Prayerful saints trust Jesus to be our "advocate with the Father," who covers our sinful inconsistency and unbelief with the very blood he shed for us (1 John 2:1-2).
This gives us boldness as we persist in crying out to God, even though we know that our prayers are never good enough. God more than makes up for our inadequacies when our trust rests first in the person of Jesus, rather than first in our own disposition in prayer. Yes, the disposition matters. But the decisive factor is God's riches of mercy and grace to meet us in our need.
And speaking of God's mercy, God certainly did answer all those prayers for my wife, when in his perfect timing, she finally received a kidney transplant in 2015. We are daily grateful for God's gift of life to us!
We aren't good enough, but Jesus is. And because he has earned his Father's ear, we can rest assured that God hears our every prayer.
Ken Peters is a husband and father of three, and has been a pastor at Gateway Church in Winnipeg, Canada for twenty-five years.