Sermon for 02-19-12: “In Good Faith, Part 6: Unanswered Prayer”

February 22, 2012

St. Peter and St. Paul. Notice Paul is wielding the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17).

Today’s sermon tackles the difficult question of unanswered prayer. No less a prayer warrior than the Apostle Paul himself prayed three times that the Lord would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” and the Lord said “no.”

Think about that… It wasn’t because God was angry with Paul. It wasn’t because Paul failed to pray sincerely enough. It wasn’t because God was incapable of intervening to solve this problem. The hard truth is that God says “no” out of love. As I say in my sermon, God’s “no” is another way of saying, “I love you.”

Sermon Text: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Are you buying into “Linsanity”?

This is a question many sports fans and commentators have been asking in the past ten days or so. I admit that before last week, like most Americans, I had never heard of the guy. Oh… sorry! By “the guy,” I’m referring, of course, to Jeremy Lin, the sensational new starting point guard for the New York Knicks basketball team.

There are a lot reasons to wonder whether he’s for real. Lin is a 23-year-old undrafted player out of Harvard—not exactly a basketball factory—who had already been cut by two NBA teams and had been riding the bench for the Knicks all season. Plus he’s Asian-American, and how many Asians play in the NBA? And it’s not as if Lin has the intimidating physical stature of a Yao Ming.

No, I had never heard of Lin, but I watched him play from Mom’s hospital room the Friday before last. The ESPN announcers talked about his unexpected success the previous few games, after his coach decided to start him. But tonight’s game, they said, was different. It was the Lakers. It was Kobe Bryant. It was prime-time ESPN. It was a sold-out Madison Square Garden. On this side of the Super Bowl, the lights don’t get any brighter in the world of sports. Now… now we’ll really see what this kid is made of.

So how did he do that night? He ended up outscoring Kobe himself with 38 points, and the Knicks—a team that had struggled mightily before Lin—have won nearly all their games since. As someone who couldn’t stand the pressure-cooker of church-league basketball when I was 11, I don’t know how Jeremy Lin does it… Or maybe I do. You see, Lin, like so many Asian-Americans, is also a Christian. He was actively involved in an Asian-American Christian organization at Harvard. He was asked in a recent interview if he could believe the way his basketball fortunes had turned around so dramatically in so short a time. He said, with a smile, that he believed in a God who works miracles.

Wow! Can you believe it? When given the opportunity to hog all the credit for himself, a professional athlete actually said, “No, the credit belongs exclusively to God.” Given the many obstacles working against Lin’s improbable NBA success, who could doubt him?

Lin understands firsthand those powerful words spoken by Jesus to the Apostle Paul: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.”

Power is made perfect… in weakness?

Can I be honest and say that this idea really bugs me? I bristle at the thought of being perceived as weak. Honestly! I grew up as a very sensitive child who cried often and easily. It embarrassed me. At least once a year, between first grade and sixth grade, something would happen to me at school that would cause me to cry… in front of my classmates… in front of my friends…. in front of my enemies… Or worse, in front of whichever girl I happened to have a crush on at the time. I wanted to be tough, not weak.

The very last time I ever had a fistfight with anyone was the last day of school in sixth grade. My enemy was Doug. He had been cruising for a bruising. Doug was considered by everyone to be a tough kid. He’d been picking on me all year, and finally, on that last day of sixth grade, on the playground at recess, I had had enough! Doug made the mistake of shoving me. That was it: It was on like Donkey Kong—and this was back when we actually played Donkey Kong.

So Doug started punching me, but he punched me in this hyper, spazzy sort of way. He was flailing his arms. (And, Doug, if you’re watching this on the internet, please understand that there’s no hard feelings, and I’m a lover not a fighter! No hard feelings, please.) But my point is I realized that his punches didn’t hurt very much. So I punched back, and I punched back with fewer punches, but I made sure my punches landed. One on the nose. One on the jaw. One in the gut. One of the teachers saw the crowd of kids gathered round, as kids always do when there’s a fight, and she was making her way toward us. Reluctantly, we stopped fighting. Cooler heads prevailed. And guess what? When it was all over, I sort of won.

Then the bell rang, and recess ended, and I’ll never forget: I was walking toward the school building. My friend Carlton came up to me and patted me on the back: “Hey, Brent. Great job! You kicked his butt.” Carlton sounded surprised. Didn’t know I had it in me. And guess what happened next? Tears welled up, and I started crying! Not because anything hurt, but because I was overcome with emotion. Even here, in what should have been my moment of great victory over a school bully, I couldn’t look tough. I’m sure that Kristen or Shannon or Kim or Christy or any other girl I might have otherwise impressed with my strength and toughness thought that I was crying because Doug hurt me—and that wasn’t it at all!

“Power is made perfect in weakness”? Yeah, right! I’m struggling to believe it, Paul! But I bet Paul struggled to believe it at one time in his life, at least before he had this experience with his “thorn in the flesh.” The contentious issue in 2 Corinthians that Paul is addressing is related to power. Paul has these opponents at the church in Corinth—sarcastically, he calls them ‘Super-apostles,’ who are telling Paul’s people that Paul doesn’t measure up to them, that he’s not charismatic enough, or credentialed enough, or eloquent enough, or spiritual enough, and why should they bother listening to him? And, Paul says, in so many words, they’re exactly right. “By their standards, I don’t measure up.” Fortunately for Paul, Jesus takes their standards and turns them on their head.

You want to be successful in life? You want to be powerful and dynamic and charismatic? You want to be tough? You want to find the strength you need to face any challenge that life throws your way? I’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news, according to today’s scripture, is this: We’ll never measure up. We’ll never be tough enough. We’ll never be strong enough. Not on our own.

Remember the original Star Wars, the one that George Lucas now calls Episode IV? In the movie’s climactic scene—assuming Lucas hasn’t tampered with it and changed the ending—Luke Skywalker is trying to blow up the Death Star. In order to destroy it, he has to make a pinpoint missile strike at just the right place. And while he’s thinking about this, anticipating this, felling nervous about this, he hears the voice of his old friend and mentor, Obi Wan Kenobi, who tells him, “Use the Force, Luke.” In other words, Obi Wan is saying, “Stop trusting in all these machines and instruments and other people and trust in the power of this unseen force.” And Luke takes the risk to believe him. He puts away the viewfinder he’s looking through, turns off the computers and monitors and instruments, and dares to trust in something he can’t see. And if you’re a pilot for Delta Airlines, please don’t try this! That’s not my point.

My point is, it’s no stretch to say that we also have access to a “force” in our lives—a real force—the Holy Spirit, the very presence of Christ, empowering everything we do.

And if we have this power in our lives then everything in life will be smooth sailing, right? We won’t have any problems to speak of. Yeah, right! 

No one knows what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. Was it a disease or a disfigurement or a speech impediment—a physical problem of some kind? Something external and noticeable to everyone? We don’t know. But it was chronic. Like a real thorn, it was something that Paul would have been constantly reminded of. Paul calls it a “messenger from Satan.” If so, I wonder what its message was? I wonder what it was whispering in Paul’s ear.

Back in the first century, a Roman general or emperor would occasionally parade through a throng of cheering crowds, perhaps after a great military victory. When he did so, he would employ a slave to stand alongside him in the chariot telling him, as he’s being cheered, “Remember, you are a mortal.” In theory at least, this messenger would keep this mighty warrior, this great man, from getting a big head or thinking too highly of himself or losing perspective.

Similarly, God used this thorn of Paul’s to accomplish a very good purpose in Paul’s life. It brought him to his knees. And be honest: When do you pray most effectively? When do you trust in Jesus the most? When do you grow closest to God? When life is smooth sailing or when you’re struggling with something? Three times, Paul says, he prayed to the Lord to take this thorn away. And guess what? God told him “no.”

A part of being a faithful follower of Jesus means learning to ask for what we want. By all means. Can’t hurt to ask. I struggled with a cold a few weeks ago, and it really brought me down; made me depressed; took me off my game. And I didn’t like it. And it made me grumpy. And I just figured I had to endure it. I never prayed once that God would take my cold away and make me feel better. But why? Do I not really believe that God has the power to do that? If so, that’s my problem. We need to boldly ask for what we want God to do for us.

But another part of being a faithful follower of Jesus means learning to accept “no” for an answer.

Let’s notice a few things from today’s scripture, from Paul’s experience of the Lord telling him “no”… God’s “no” is not the same thing as God saying, “I’m unhappy with you, Paul. You’ve disappointed me with your sin, and I want to punish you for it. Therefore I’m not going to give you what you ask for.” No. God wasn’t disappointed or angry with Paul.

And God’s “no” is also not the same thing as God saying, “You’re not praying sincerely enough, Paul. You’re not praying with enough faith. You’re not ‘naming it and claiming it’ as the TV preachers say, and if you were, I would of course give you what you ask for.” No. We can’t manipulate God into doing our bidding by having the “right kind” of faith or asking in exactly the right sort of way. We can trust that the greatest apostle asked in the right sort of way. Paul’s faith was just fine, thank you very much.

Finally, God’s “no” is not the same thing as God saying, “I wish I could help you, Paul, I really do… but I’m not the kind of God who does that sort of thing. Don’t you understand, Paul, that while it’s true that I set the world in motion at the beginning of time, I mostly just let it run on its own, according to well-ordered physical laws, without any outside intervention from me. I love you and wish you well, and I hate that you’re suffering, but I can’t do anything about it.” No. God has the power to intervene in Paul’s life and take the thorn away if God wants to. Incidentally, believing this is what I struggle with the most.

As many of you know, my mom died last week after a series of health problems over the past year. But you know what else? She also died last week after a series of unanswered prayers on my part. I prayed first of all that she would recuperate successfully from her first health crisis six months ago, which landed her in the hospital. She didn’t recuperate. When she went to visit my sister in Florda, a little while later, she had another episode that landed her in the hospital. I prayed that she would get healthy enough to come home to Atlanta, where she would be surrounded by most of her family, her friends, and her church family. But she didn’t get healthy enough. Instead, she died 600 miles from her home. And even last week, I prayed that I could be at her bedside when she passed away, as I was for my father. That didn’t happen, either.

But notice I said that God didn’t answer my prayers, but even that’s not right. God did answer them. And the answer was “no.” Having faith in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ means accepting that God sometimes says “no.”

And I’ve already talked about a few things that God’s “no” doesn’t mean. But here’s the hard part: You know what it does mean? God’s “no” means nothing less than “I love you.” It means, “I know what’s best for you and all the people you care about, and you don’t. It may not make sense to you on this side of the dim mirror into which you’re gazing, but it will make sense on the other side. In the meantime, you can trust me when I say ‘no’ because, believe it or not, it’s for your own good. I only want what’s good for you, and I’m always working, even through some horrible circumstances, to bring good to you.”

May the Holy Spirit give us the faith to believe it.


N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 132.

2 Responses to “Sermon for 02-19-12: “In Good Faith, Part 6: Unanswered Prayer””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, a good sermon, and could I respond by making a prayer request of my own in a somewhat similar situation? My wife, kids, and I are taking care of my father-in-law (Jim) at our home following his wife’s death, and he is degenerating and things are getting tough. As an “in particular,” the wife and kids have a prepaid trip to Colorado for a church ski trip for Spring Break in March, but Jim is getting to be in a condition where it is a bit dangerous to leave him at home all day until I get home from work. We really don’t know what to do. (I’ll try to remember to “re-comment” to let you know how things turned out in response to these particular prayers.)
    Thanks! Tom

    • brentwhite Says:

      Tom, I’m sorry. This does feel familiar to me. I will pray. Is there a way you can arrange for someone to watch him during the day for that week? Well, I’m sure you’ve thought of that. It’s tough, but I pray that the Spirit leads you to a good solution.

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