Summary: In today’s sermon I want to suggest some reasons why perfectly proper prayers may go unanswered.
Some time ago I read a story about a young boy who was praying for a bicycle for Christmas. But his family was very poor, and when Christmas morning came there was no bicycle.
A family friend, who was not very sensitive, said to the boy, “Well, I see that God did not answer your prayer for a bicycle.”
“Oh yes, he did!” replied the boy, “He said No.”
Most of you are aware that No is an answer every bit as much as Yes is an answer. But I think that the story of the little boy’s prayer does not quite get to the heart of the prayer problem. To receive a bicycle might be nice, but it is clearly not essential. Nor is it spiritual. Most of us understand that when we pray for things like bicycles—such as a better job, more money, success in a business deal, or the resolution of certain personal problems—there is no real reason why we should expect Yes for an answer. God may give what we ask for, but then again he may not. And we accept that.
But what about prayers that really are spiritual? What about prayers that are (or at least seem to be) unselfish? What happens when these prayers are not answered? This is where the real problem with prayer lies and why people who have trouble with prayer are not usually novices in prayer, as we might expect—for novices usually do not expect much from prayer anyway. But rather it is the church’s mature believers who usually are the ones who struggle. Usually it is the mature saints who feel the burden of unanswered prayer. It is the godly who wrestle with it strenuously.
So what happens? Unfortunately, some Christians become somewhat fatalistic about prayer. J. Oswald Sanders pointed to this problem when he wrote, “It is easy to become a fatalist in reference to prayer. It is easier to regard unanswered prayer as the will of God than to . . . reason out the causes of the defeat.”
In Romans 1:9-10 the apostle Paul indicates that he has been praying that he might be able to visit the Christians in Rome: “God, whom I serve with my whole heart in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.”
However, he has been unable to do so, as our text for today says. Today, I want us to see some reasons for unanswered prayer. So, let’s read Romans 1:13:
"I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles" (Romans 1:13).
This section is an excellent example for helping us understand the problem of unanswered prayer. Why is it such a good example?
First, it is a prayer by an apostle. The fact that Paul was an apostle does not mean that he was without sin, of course. Nor does it mean that all of Paul’s prayers were spiritual prayers. Paul did not pray by inspiration, the way he wrote his letters. Yet he was an apostle, and that means something. It is significant that even an apostle did not have his prayers answered positively, at least, not initially.
Second, it is a proper prayer. Previously I said in Romans 1:9-12 that this section is not a treatise on prayer in the sense of providing a theological explanation of prayer. It is a model for prayer. It is an example for prayer. Still, it is a proper prayer. It is addressed to the Father on the basis of the atoning work of Jesus Christ.
Third, it is a prayer for right things. Paul might have prayed for something that would only have enhanced his prestige or personal comfort; that is, he might have prayed selfishly. But that was not the case here at all. Paul was praying to come to Rome in order that (1) he might “impart some spiritual gift” to the end that (2) the Christians in Rome might be made “strong” (1:11). In other words, Paul wanted to assist in the spiritual growth and fruitfulness of the Roman Christians.
Even though Romans 1:9-10 is a prayer by an apostle, is a proper prayer, and is a prayer for right things, Paul was prevented from going to Rome. His prayer was not answered positively.
Paul does not give us an explanation of why his proposed visit to Rome was hindered, at least not here. He simply acknowledges that he has been prevented from going to Rome, even though he had planned many times to go to Rome. I am sure that Paul could have suggested a number of reasons why his prayers were unanswered. But he does not, and the fact that he does not opens the door for us to reflect on why prayers like his—including the best of our own prayers—go unanswered.