THE PARADOX OF PRAYER
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Monday, June 13, 2011 at 1:17pm
THE PARADOX OF PRAYER: JAMES 5:13-18 (A SERMON PREACHED 5/29/11)
THE PARADOX: If God can do whatever He chooses, and if He really loves us, why doesn’t He answer all of our prayers? Here I will comment on James 5:13-18, and will use this text to help resolve the paradox of prayer.
PART ONE: COMMENTS ON THE TEXT.
Verse13 – “Suffering” means any time things are going bad for you in any way. “Cheerful” means any time things are looking good for you in any way. In either case, we should TALK TO GOD about it – either in petition or in praise.
Verse14 – This is very important: the word “sick” can refer to physical illness or spiritual weakness. James has BOTH in mind. When elders are called, they first apply oil to the sick person, for medicinal purposes (Isa. 1:6; Luke 10:34; Mark 6:13) and perhaps a symbolic purpose, representing God’s blessing. The main thing elders do in this situation is pray over the sick, for their healing.
Verse15 – The word for “restore” is the usual word for “save.” Sometimes it means “to heal a physically sick person.” But—and this is very important—sometimes it refers to salvation from SINS (see 5:20). There are two kinds of restoration: being “raised up” from the physical illness, and being forgiven of sins.
Verse16 – As in v. 15, the word used here for “healed” can refer to physical healing, OR to spiritual healing from sins (for the latter, see John 12:40; Acts 28:27; 1 Peter 2:24). Sometimes there is a connection between physical sickness and sinful deeds; thus confession of sins is necessary for physical healing.
Verses17-18 – Elijah is an OT hero who prayed some mighty prayers: that God would raise a dead boy to life (1 Kgs 17:22), that God would send fire from heaven to consume an offering (1 Kgs 18:36ff.), that God would stop and start rain in Israel (1 Kgs 17, 18). Why is Elijah cited as an example for us? After all, he was a prophet and a miracle-worker, and we are not! Answer: because he was still JUST A MAN. He had no more inherent power than you or I. The answers to his prayers came from GOD.
PART TWO. APPLICATION TO OUR PRAYER LIFE: There are three kinds of prayer.
I. The first kind of prayer is prayers God will NEVER answer. These are prayers contrary to his nature, and prayers contrary to his purposes.
A. Prayers contrary to God’s nature, contrary to WHO GOD IS. For example, God is a rational, logical being. He will not answer a prayer to do something that contradicts logic, e.g., a prayer to make a square circle. For another example, it is God’s nature to exist on a time line, with a past and a future. For God, the past is past and the future is future. Thus he will never answer prayers to change the past. Also, God is a holy being; he cannot do evil. Thus he will not answer prayers that make it easy for us to sin.
B. Prayers contrary to His purposes. Here are three such purposes:
1. E.g., his purpose of CREATION, which includes his purpose of creating beings with free will. When God created us with free will, it was his purpose to make our relationship with him depend on our own free-will choices. Thus, God will NOT answer prayers that require him to violate our free will. Specifically, he will never answer our prayers for the lost that require him to force or cause a sinner to believe. See Matt. 23:37. Of course, God can and will do all sorts of things that influence a lost person toward faith, without pushing him over the line. So it is still valid to pray for the lost. But in the end, accepting Christ must be the lost person’s own free choice.
2. E.g., his purpose of REDEMPTION. He will never answer a prayer that interferes with his plan to save us from sin and restore us to fellowship with himself (Acts 2:23)—even if that prayer is prayed by Jesus himself (Luke 22:42)!
3. E.g., his purpose of placing the physical world under a CURSE. Once sin entered the world, it was God’s purpose to put a curse upon the entire physical creation: see Genesis 3, and Romans 8:18-22. This curse is summed up in the word DEATH.
a. Christ has laid the groundwork for removing this curse on the physical world, but it will not actually be done until the second coming, via the resurrection of our bodies and the making of the new heavens and new earth.
b. Sickness and death are not natural for human beings, but they are a part of the world as we know it: FALLEN and CURSED.
c. This is why God will not answer prayers that remove this curse ahead of time. (E.g., see Heb. 9:27.) So there is no need to pray that we will NEVER get sick, get old, or die.
d. God may give TEMPORARY relief from the curse: he may heal sickness, ease pain, postpone death, protect from storms. Obviously he does this in answer to some prayers.
e. But note: these are exceptions to the general purpose of the curse, and we cannot complain if our prayers in this area are not answered. James 5 should be read in this light.
f. Living in this fallen/cursed world is like living on a hillside down which is flowing toward us a steady sea of volcanic lava. We can pray for God to enable us to endure it, or temporarily avoid it, but ultimately it will engulf us. This is part of the fruit of sin.
II. A second kind of prayer is prayers God MAY or MAY NOT answer, according to his choice. [Let us be assured that God has complete sovereignty over the laws of nature. He can “tweak” or manipulate them (as with the weather); he can even suspend or bypass them (as with miracles). Thus:]
A. God can and does sometimes “tweak” the laws of nature in answer to our prayers, so we should always pray. He can cause people to DIE, if he has reason to do so (see 2 Sam. 12). He can RAISE people from the dead, if he has a reason to do so, e.g., Elijah and the widow’s son; Jesus and Lazarus. He can also make sick people well (as King Hezekiah, Isaiah 38; Epaphroditus, Phil. 2:27). Remember: sickness and death are the essence of the curse upon the world because of sin. This curse has been reversed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, nevertheless it will not be removed until his second coming. BUT – in individual cases – God CAN and sometimes does intervene, and heals, or eases pain, or slows down a killer disease, or gives new insight to doctors, or gives inner peace. Thus we should ALWAYS pray for God to thus intervene. This is one point James 5 is making: the prayer of faith will restore the sick! Sometimes God will answer such prayers, giving temporary and exceptional relief from the curse; so we should never cease offering them up to him.
B. But here is “the paradox of prayer” that continues to haunt us: Even though God is all-powerful and truly loves us, sometimes he will decide NOT to answer such prayers. Why not? Because God always sees a bigger picture than we do, and he knows of an ultimate good that will result from allowing the present course to continue. In a sense it is the same reason why loving parents, even those with unlimited means, do not always grant every request of their children. As the old TV show title rightly said, “Father knows best!” And our heavenly Father knows best of all, since he is indeed all-knowing and all-wise. Thus, sometimes, in His infinite wisdom, God knows that a BETTER purpose will be accomplished by NOT answering our prayers; so we must trust His wisdom.
1. Elijah prayed for God to take his life (1 Kgs 19:4), but God did not answer this prayer!
2. Paul prayed for God to remove his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-9), but God did not answer this prayer!
3. Garth Brooks has it right: “Sometimes I thank God, for unanswered prayers.”
4. The bottom line is: we must trust the wisdom of God, and trust his promise of Romans 8:28. Thus when we pray, we must always say, “If the Lord wills” (James 4:15).
III. The third kind of prayer is prayers God will ALWAYS answer. Specifically, God always answers a sinner’s prayer for personal salvation.
A. Remember: James is writing about not just physical sickness, but also about the spiritual sickness of sin. The prayers he is talking about are not just prayers for the healing of physical sickness—which God may or may not answer. But he is also talking about prayers for salvation from sin – which God will always answer when they come from a heart of sincere repentance and faith.
B. God has ALWAYS been willing to answer this prayer: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” See Joel 2:32; Romans 10:13; Acts 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21.
C. Ananias said to Saul of Tarsus: “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). This “calling on his name” in Christian baptism is the only true and Biblical “sinner’s prayer.”
D. If you are not a Christian, you can pray this prayer RIGHT NOW, and you can SEE it answered with your own eyes, when you meet Jesus in Christian baptism! 1 Peter 3:21 says that baptism now saves you, not by washing dirt off your body, but because it is an appeal to God – a prayer to God, a calling upon the name of God – for forgiveness of your sins, and therefore for a good conscience before him!
E.. If you are not yet saved, I guarantee you that there are many people praying for you and for your salvation right now! But God cannot answer those prayers against your own free will. The only prayer for YOUR salvation that God can answer is YOURS. Pray it now!