Ever since we’ve started prayer meetings in Ilford, we’ve prayed for people we know to come to Jesus. I’ve not counted how many such prayers we’ve offered, but there have been many. And yet we’ve seen very few clear answers. The puzzle is this: “are we really more anxious to see people saved than God himself is?”. That’s how it can look and feel. We really want people to become Christians; if it were in our hands, we’d save everyone straight away. So, it looks like we’re more merciful than God.
In his book, “Only A Prayer Meeting”, the preacher Charles Spurgeon puts his finger on that issue and tackles it very, very helpfully. So, this is me basically regurgitating his answer!
Here’s the answer: it’s just an optical illusion. That’s only how it looks at a casual glance. But if we probe further, and examine ourselves a bit more, we’ll see that we’re seriously misrepresenting our own hearts. We’re being pretty puffed up about quite how zealous we really are. Isn’t our compassion pretty hit and miss? Are we as intense in our desire for people’s salvation as we like to tell ourselves? This kind of self-satisfaction is not a good sign at all. It suggests we think our work for God is up to scratch. We’re being pretty conceited. That’s hardly a good pre-condition for God to work. If God were to answer our prayers this Sunday, wouldn’t we be tempted to steal the honour and feel smug about ourselves, secretly thinking: “we’ve done things pretty well as a church; we somehow deserve this”?
God’s plan in salvation is always to make ourselves smaller that he might be bigger. The trouble is: “Some trumpets are so stuffed with self that God cannot blow through them. Some pitchers are too full of their own muddy water for God to pour the water of life into them” (p.29). So, part of our reaction to our unanswered prayers for conversions should be to ask: “what have we got to learn from our non-success?” Paul experienced “the anguish of childbirth” before Christ was formed in the Galatians’ hearts (Gal 4:19). The psalmist first sowed in tears, before he reaped in joy (Psalm 126:5). God wants to form us into men like Moses, who was ready to have his name blotted out of the book that Israel might be saved (Ex 32:32), and like Paul, who was ready to be cut off from Christ for the sake of his brothers (Rom 9:3). Spurgeon says: “We cry, ‘Arm of the Lord, awake!’ and he replies, ‘Awake, awake, O Zion!” (p.30). In other words, let’s not kid ourselves that God’s the one sleeping, when, really, it’s us!
So, don’t draw the wrong conclusion from our unanswered prayers for conversions. When God delays to answer us, let’s not secretly tell ourselves we’re more compassionate than him; rather let’s humble ourselves and pray we’ll start to show just a fraction of the compassion that he has for sinners.