Steven Furtick - When Prayers Go Unanswered
This is an excerpt from: Never Stop Knocking
What kind of power is in you? You've been through some things, and you've been asking God for answers. Faith is the ability, sometimes, to lay down and sleep and let faith answer the questions. I'm picturing Peter sleeping, and I'm realizing in Scripture that this is not the first time we've seen Peter asleep in the Bible. In the garden of Gethsemane, that place before Jesus went to the cross where he gave his Father an unqualified… Remember, he asked God, "If it's possible, take this cup away from me" as he went to pay the price for your sin and my sin, as he went to take on the punishment we rightly deserved, as he went to be the sacrifice to atone for our sins. I'm not trying to use a bunch of fancy words, just to let you know that he canceled the debt that was stood against us, but it cost him. As he considered and counted that cost, he prayed, and he asked God, "If there's any other way, take this cup from me".
God did not answer by removing the cup of suffering. He answered by filling Jesus with the strength to endure what he had to do. So, for the joy set before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and then sat down at the right hand of God. If Jesus is seated, I can sleep. I can sleep through anything when I know he's seated. I can sleep through anything. I can rest through anything. In the garden of Gethsemane, while Jesus prayed, Peter slept, and he said, "Wake up! My soul is in anguish". He was sweating like drops of blood, and Peter was sleeping. He said, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak". Peter was sleeping out of weakness in the garden, but he's not sleeping out of weakness in Acts, chapter 12. He's sleeping from a place of knowing, "I am seated in heavenly places with Jesus, and if I'm seated with him, it doesn't matter what Herod has planned. It matters what God has purposed for my life".
That's how he slept. No matter what we come to this text in Acts, chapter 12, looking for, we certainly find an incredible picture of persistence. On one hand, the passage is about peace, that Peter has peace to sleep on the worst night of his life. Y'all, they didn't have Lunesta in Acts, chapter 12. Peter didn't even have a white noise app on his iPhone to put on. I'm thinking that this is a passage about peace and persistence. Remember it said the church was earnestly praying. I think the word earnestly is important. Let's be honest. I know there are, like, five prayer warriors in this room, but for the other thousands of us, we passively pray. Okay. I'm going to say it stronger, because y'all are really fake right now. We worry out loud and call it prayer. (Too strong. Back it off. Back it off. It's a day of celebration.) We give God our grocery list like he's Instacart.
Holly said last time she preached… It was such a good thing she said. She said, "Telling God what to do is not praying". I was like, "Who are you? I like what you just said, and you are right, and I have done that". It's exactly right. The church is praying for Peter, but it doesn't say what they were praying about for Peter. Remember, although the passage gets kind of funny, it doesn't start funny. It not only takes place in a time of famine (there was a famine in Acts, chapter 11, you can read about), but if this is chronologically the next thing in sequence, then at the same time that the church in Jerusalem is recovering from famine, Herod is persecuting the church, and he has just killed James. Do you think the church prayed for James? So, understand. When it says they are earnestly praying for Peter… That takes more faith when you've just lost James.
Have you ever had to pray and ask God and believe God and trust God when he didn't answer the last thing you prayed for? That's hard. Whether we will admit it or not, our faith deteriorates when our expectations are not met. I wrote a book called Sun Stand Still early in the church. Go get that book, and you will hear my version of faith before I lost my dad to ALS. I don't take it back. I believe God can do anything. I haven't changed what I believe about God. It's just that on the other side of some unanswered prayers… You don't think I asked God to heal my dad? You don't think I asked him for a miracle and sat by his bed and watched him breathe his last breath anyway? It becomes a challenge.
Next time you're faced with something that seems impossible, you are tasked with having to believe God on the other side of your last unanswered prayer. I think what really draws me into this text for our anniversary on this day, because I've prayed a lot about it… I mean, I think I have sermons for the next year that I went through looking for this one for today. I wanted to see God. "What do you want me to say to our church? What do you want me to say to them as individuals? What do you want me to say about the moment we're in kind of on the other side, maybe, of a pandemic…maybe"?
My favorite word of 2020 and 2021 and 2022 is maybe. Now I have that "maybe" faith, that it may be this or it may be that. The problem is, as a leader, people want answers, and we don't have any right now. In the absence of answers, what grows? It could be either one for you. It could be cynicism. Some of you have gotten really, really mean over the last two years. In the absence of answers, you have allowed anger to grow.
"I'm mad that I can't control it. I'm mad that nobody will tell me what to do. I'm mad that I'm wearing a mask and they're not or they're wearing a mask and I'm not. I'm mad that I don't know whether to wear a mask. I'm mad that you're looking at me because I'm wearing a mask. I'm mad that you're looking at me because I'm not. I'm mad because I can't figure out… Would somebody tell me what to do? I need answers"! "When is the church going to open back up"? I heard that for a year. I was like, "It's still open". I said that all through the pandemic. "What do you mean"? Oh! "We've never been through anything like this before".
Herod was cutting off heads and the church prevailed! We are so silly. We think it's the first time there has ever been unanswered questions in the history of the Christian faith. That's one reason I like this passage. They're still praying in the face of a prayer that God just didn't answer. The miscarriage, the end of the relationship, the addiction they went back to, the relapse…
It gives it a little different shade of meaning when I said, "The church is earnestly praying" to know that James just had his head cut off and there's no expectation that anything different will happen to Peter. That's a dangerous place, because in that place… If the Devil knocks in that place and tries to tell you, "This is how it will always be. You can't really believe all that stuff you were singing about mountains moving and chains breaking. God doesn't really do that stuff, or he does it for other people, but not for you," it can deteriorate your faith.