God’s Word Has Not Failed
April 19, 2006
For many people no question seems as puzzling as the problem of unanswered prayer. Why is it that some things we pray about are never answered? We could all spend hours remembering times when we prayed and prayed, often with tears, only to conclude in the end that our prayers had not been answered.
—Every cemetery reminds us that not all our prayers are answered.
—Every cancer diagnosis testifies to the suffering of this life.
—Every divorce proves that good intentions are not always enough.
—Every lawsuit demonstrates that we live in a fallen world.
—Every violent crime teaches us that perfection will not be found in this life.
The question of unanswered prayer is difficult precisely because we don’t know what happened. Did we not pray hard enough? Or long enough? Or fervently enough? Did we use the wrong words? Or ask for the wrong things? What if we had asked more people to pray? If we had lived a better life, would that have made a difference? If we had given more money or tried harder or been better people, surely that would have helped, wouldn’t it? Maybe we didn’t confess our sins. Or maybe our hearts were filled with pride. Did we wait too late? Should we have gotten on our knees? What if we had made a vow to God? Would that have made any difference?
You can torture yourself for a long time with questions like that. And you still won’t know the answer. That’s the ultimate frustration. The worst part is not the “No.” It’s the “No” that comes without any explanation from above. If only we knew why. But we don’t.
Unanswered prayer can make you lose your faith. I think that’s what makes a lot of people drop out of church. They lose heart after a great disappointment. They prayed and prayed and when the answer never came, slowly their faith slipped away.
Deep down, in moments like that, when there is no answer and no explanation, one thought grips the heart and mind: Perhaps it’s not true at all. Perhaps God isn’t there, or if he’s there, he doesn’t know or doesn’t care. Who knows? Maybe there’s no God at all. Or maybe his Word isn’t true, after all.
Paul’s Unanswered Prayer
That thought brings us to our text to for today. If you’ve ever wondered about God, this text is for you because you’re not the first person to grapple with the disappointment of unanswered prayer. Paul knew all about it. If you opened his heart, you would soon discover that his greatest prayer was never answer. More than anything else, Paul prayed for his Jewish brothers and sisters to come to Christ. In fact, he even said that he would be willing to go to hell himself if it would help them be saved. No one ever prayed harder. No man was ever more sincere. Yet his prayers for the most part were unanswered. Most of the Jews rejected Christ. For every one who said “Yes” to Jesus, 100 said “No.”
Therein lay the greatest mystery of all–the mystery of Jewish unbelief. How could the Jews be God’s chosen people and still reject Christ—who was himself a Jew? If Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, how could his own people reject him? Paul lived and died knowing that his greatest and most fervent prayer had not been answered. But he also died in faith, still believing in God.
How do you reconcile faith in God with the mystery of unanswered prayer? Here is Paul’s answer in verse 6, “It is not as though God’s Word had failed.” Whatever else you can say, you can’t say that God has not kept his Word. No matter how disappointed we may be, God’s Word has not failed.
That leads me to ask to crucial questions:
*Is God free to do whatever he wants?
*Is God fair in the way he treats people?
I raise those questions because they apply directly to the problem of unanswered prayer. I raise them also because Paul raises them in this passage.
I. God’s Freedom Seen In …
1. His Choice of Isaac Over Ishmael
“It is not as though God’s word had failed. For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel. Nor because they are his descendants are they all Abraham’s children. On the contrary, ’It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ In other words, it is not the natural children who are God’s children but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring. For this was how the promise was stated, ’At the appointed time I will return, and Sarah will have a son’” (vv. 6-9).
This passage reminds us that although Abraham had two sons–Ishmael and Isaac–only one son (Isaac) was the son of the promise. Both were truly his sons, but God chose to give the promised blessing to Isaac, the son who was born of Sarah when she was very old.
Don’t miss the point. Abraham had two sons, but one was chosen and the other was passed over by God. Isaac and Ishmael were both sons of Abraham by birth, but only Isaac was considered the son of the promise.
There is only one problem with that illustration. Isaac was the son of Abraham and his wife Sarah, while Ishmael was the son of Abraham and Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar. Someone might object that Ishmael was ruled out since was he the product of what you might call an Old Testament heterosexual domestic partnership.
God’s freedom is also seen in …
2. His Choice of Jacob over Esau
“Not only that, but Rebekah’s children had one and the same father, our father Isaac. Yet, before the twins were born or had done anything good or bad—in order that God’s purpose in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls-she was told, “’he older will serve the younger.’ Just as it is written, ’Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated’” (vv. 10-13).
That last phrase has given many people problems. How could God “hate” Esau even before he was born? But the word “hate” doesn’t imply animosity or bitterness. It simply means “not chosen.” Here are two sons from the same parents. One is chosen, the other is not. And in case we miss the point, Paul stresses that God’s choice happened before either brother had done anything good or bad. There is no inherent reason to choose Jacob or Esau. In many ways, Esau appears to be the better choice and indeed, he often appears to be a much nicer person. He certainly is more forgiving than his brother. It is at least as remarkable that God “loved” a cheater like Jacob as it is that he “hated” Esau before he was born.
Before you get too hung up on this, think of it this way: No doctrine is as repugnant to mankind as the doctrine of the free grace of God. Rightly understood, it means that no one deserves salvation. If you got what you deserved, you would go to hell. And so would I. So would we all.
The amazing miracle is that God saves anyone. No one deserves it. Why some are chosen and others are not is mystery we will probably never be able to understand. But if you are saved, remember this: You didn’t deserve it. God didn’t choose you because of your good looks or your good life. Your religious background had nothing to do with it. You intellect mattered not at all to him. If you are a Christian, it is because of God’s free grace–and nothing else at all.
Is God free to do whatever he wants? Absolutely. His freedom is seen in his choice of Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau.
That’s why they call him God. He can do whatever he likes.
We come now to the second crucial question: Is God fair in the way he treats people? The answer again is yes–although it may not seem fair at first glance.
II. God’s Fairness Seen In … .
1. His Mercy to Moses
“What shall we say then? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ’I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy” (vv. 14-16).
One day Moses killed an Egyptian who was beating a fellow Jew. After killing him, he hid his body in the sand. When Pharaoh found out, he tried to kill Moses who fled to the desert where he lived for forty years. Not a very auspicious beginning for a hero. He was a murderer and a fugitive. But it didn’t matter to God. God had determined to raise up Moses to lead his people out of Egypt, and he was going to keep at it even if it took 40 years—which is in fact how long it took to prepare Moses for greatness. When God was looking for a man to lead his people out of Egypt, he reached down into the royal courts and found a man named Moses. He tapped him on the shoulder, whispered in his ear, and said, “I want you to deliver my people.”
Moses wasn’t a very likely candidate—but God chose him. Verse 16 plainly says it wasn’t because of desire or effort on Moses’ part, but simply because of God’s mercy. Moses didn’t plan to be a great deliverer. It wasn’t his desire at all. It was God’s plan and God’s desire that made Moses what he was. God chose to show mercy to a man who didn’t particularly deserve it. Is that fair? Sure it is. After all, if he deserved, it wouldn’t really be mercy. It would be a reward for good behavior.
That brings us to the second example of God’s fairness:
2. His Justice to Pharaoh
“For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, ’I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” (vv. 17-18).
Just remember two facts about Pharaoh when you read this passage: 1. Pharaoh was a pagan through and through. At no point does he become a believer in the true God. 2. The Bible says that Pharaoh hardened his heart against the Lord.
The sequence is this. God raised up Pharaoh as the ruler of Egypt. When Moses said, “Let my people go,” Pharaoh said, “No.” Not just once but over and over again. He didn’t want to lose all those hard-working Hebrew slaves. So God used his stubbornness as the backdrop against which he displayed his power to all the world in the 10 plagues—the flies, the frogs, the river turned to blood, the boils, the hail, all leading to the greatest plague of all, the death of the first-born sons of Egypt. Pharaoh never got the message. He fought against God and against God’s people. The more miracles God worked, the harder he fought against him. He had his chance to believe, but he didn’t. So God–who raised him up in the first place–hardened his heart that was already hardened in the first place.
Is that fair? Sure it is. Pharaoh got what he deserved–total destruction in the Red Sea.
Think of it this way. Did Moses deserve mercy? No, but he received it anyway. Did Pharaoh deserve mercy? No, he deserved God’s justice. And that’s what he received.
The case is settled. God is completely free to do whatever he wants. And he is completely fair in the way he treats each person. We all deserve God’s judgment. The fact that anyone receives God’s mercy is nothing short of a miracle.
III. Making This Truth Personal
When you stand back and survey this passage, it is easy to understand why some commentators call it one of the most difficult in the entire Bible. It raises many questions about God’s sovereignty versus man’s freewill. Let me close by giving five statements that summarizes what this passage does for us.
1. It humbles us by putting us in our proper place.
Whatever else about this passage may be obscure, this much is clear: Salvation begins with God, not man. We often talk about freewill as if that were the central issue of life, but these verses ignore it altogether. Don’t get me wrong. The Bible does teach that we all have choices to make, but that’s not what Paul talks about, because that’s not the central issue.
The central issue is God. Salvation begins when we understand that without God choosing us we would never choose him. He gets the first move, he makes the first choice, he pursues us before we pursue him.
An old Shaker hymn states this truth eloquently: “’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free. ’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.” Most of us spend our days trying to “come up” to a higher place in life. How much happier we are when we “come down” to our rightful place.
2. It glorifies God by putting him in his rightful place as the ruler of the universe.
This text states it with almost shocking bluntness. He shows mercy on whom he wants to show mercy, and judgment on whom he wants to show judgment. Every time I read this verse I am reminded of an uneducated preacher I heard on the radio many years ago when I was a student during my college days in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There was a primitive Christian station called WRIP—”Rip Radio.” Every country preacher for miles around had a weekly broadcast during which he would shout his message to any sinners who might make the mistake of tuning in. One day as I was flipping across the dial, I heard one of those preachers expounding on the sovereignty of God. He made his point with great emphasis—and poor grammar—by shouting repeatedly, “God do what he want to do! God do what he want to do!”
I’ve never forgotten the simplicity of that statement. God does exactly what he wants to do. No one can question him. No one can stand against him. No one can overrule him. Talk about freewill. The only person in the universe who truly has freewill is God. All of his creatures are limited. He is not. God is therefore glorified when we proclaim his absolute and unlimited freedom in all things.
3. It challenges us to consider the basis of our relationship with God.
This passage teaches us that not everyone is going to heaven. Isaac is in, Ishmael is out. Jacob is in, Esau is out. Just because you call yourself a Christian doesn’t mean you are truly born again. Just because you go to church on Sunday doesn’t mean you truly are a child of God.
It’s not enough to be raised in the church.
It’s not enough to be baptized.
It’s not enough to go through confirmation.
It’s not enough to read the Bible.
It’s not enough to pray for your soul.
It’s not enough to be born in a Christian family.
It’s not enough to have Christians parents.
All of that is good. But it’s not enough!
No one goes to heaven on the basis of their race, their family background, their ethnic affiliation, or their church membership. None of that matters to God. The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus Christ personally. Salvation begins when you lay aside your trust in yourself and your background and come humbly like a little child to Jesus.
4. It reminds us that if we won’t accept God’s mercy we will one day face his justice.
I’m sure you’ve heard the story of the judge who announced to the accused man standing before him, “Sir, you have nothing to fear in this courtroom. We will make sure that you receive justice.” To which the man replied, “I don’t want justice. I want mercy.”
The only way any of us will ever go to heaven is through the mercy of God. But God will not force his mercy on you. If you persist in refusing God’s offer of forgiveness through Christ, if you insist on going your own way, then at length you will not receive mercy. You will face God’s justice.
It was C.S. Lewis who reminded us that there are only two possibilities in the universe. Either a man says to God, “Thy will be done,” or God says to man, “All right then. Your will be done.” If you choose to do your will in this life instead of God’s will, then one day you will face God’s justice.
So I press home the question to your heart. Have you ever believed on Jesus Christ as your only hope for eternal salvation? God’s mercy has been extended to you at the cross of Jesus. What have you done with Jesus? What about his cross? What about his blood? What about his death for you?
5. It teaches us that God’s Word has not failed—and indeed cannot fail.
It’s true that the Jews have mostly rejected Christ. But that is no reflection on God. He knew about their rejection long ago. The fact that some of our prayers are not answered does not mean God has somehow failed. The fact that our loved ones may believe doesn’t invalidate the gospel.
True Christianity has always been a minority point of view. Many people respect the Bible, but they don’t read it, or believe it, and they certainly don’t take it seriously as a guide for modern living. How else can we explain so-called spiritual leaders who claim to be Christians publicly defending gay rights? It’s a sad spectacle, but it shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus himself warned us about wolves in sheep’s clothing.
A survey of church history shows that the true Christian faith has always run afoul of prevailing public opinion. What is happening today is nothing new. Whenever the gospel is boldly proclaimed, it will meet with stiff resistance from those who do not like its call to repentance and righteousness. And there will always be those who would rather trim our message to make it more acceptable for the powers that be. Go easy, they say. Speak softy. Don’t offend anyone. Don’t be negative. But the speak-softly crowd has been proven wrong over and over again. It is precisely those churches that have dared to speak the Word of God without compromise or apology that have prospered the most in the long run.
His Word Will Stand
What does it all mean? This much is clear:
1. Some will be saved, others will be lost.
2. God chooses some, others are passed over.
3. God is merciful; he is also just.
4. He blesses those who respond to his word in faith.
5. He punishes those who harden their hearts against him.
Most of all, this much is clear: God’s Word has not failed. It is living and true and has not failed nor will it ever fail. Indeed, we may confidently say that God’s Word cannot fail. Let God be true and every man a liar.
That brings us back to the question of unanswered prayer. What can you say when your prayers are not answered? You can say what Paul said, “God’s Word has not failed.”
Many times we will come upon situations that seem to argue the opposite. But we will be helped if we remember that God is still firmly upon the throne of the universe. Our unbelief so often comes because we see through a glass darkly. But soon enough the scales will be removed and we will clearly, face to face. The darkness will lift, the mystery will be explained, and our questions will be answered. And the ones that aren’t answered will simply not bother us any more.
In the end we will discover that though we failed him a thousand times, he never failed us, not even once. You can trust him in the darkest hours of life because his Word has not failed. We may fail him, but he will not fail us. His Word will stand. Amen.