What role does our faith play when we are praying for the faith of others? It’s an important question related to our prayer lives.
“I have become discouraged in my prayer life. None of my requests ever get answered. I have been praying for family members to be reconciled, friends to come to faith, Christ’s glory to be made evident to me, and other requests. I faithfully read Scripture and cannot think of any unrepentant sin in my life that would hinder my prayers. It just seems my answers are always ‘no,’ and I have become discouraged because of it. Do you have any sustaining counsel for a weak brother who is enduring the silence of God?”
Although I do share some of your deep disappointments, and I am fighting the same fight you are fighting in regard to extended years of unanswered prayer, especially as it regards salvation of people we care about.
I don’t know if what I say will be what you need, but it is what I have to give. It is how I press on. Outside the Bible, no one has taught me more about prayer than George Müller.
Perhaps you know that he was famous in the nineteenth century for founding and running orphanages in Britain. He did so by asking God for every need. He asked God to meet the needs of these children, and he saw amazing answers to his prayers.
But listen to him in 1864. He was 59 years old when he wrote this:
I am now, in 1864, waiting upon God for certain blessings, for which I have daily besought Him for 19 years and 6 months, without one day’s intermission. Still the full answer is not yet given concerning the conversion of certain individuals, though, in the meantime, I have received many thousands of answers to prayer. I have also prayed daily, without intermission, for the conversion of other individuals about ten years, for others six or seven years, for others four, three and two years, for others about eighteen months; and still the answer is not yet granted. (Autobiography, 296)
Müller had an explanation for why some prayers like this were not answered for twenty years, while thousands were answered. His explanation was that his prayers for the salvation of particular people to be saved did not have explicit biblical promises to rest on. There was no promise that those very individuals would be saved.
And the promise that whatever we ask would be given is always qualified, he would argue, by praying according to God’s sovereign will. Read 1 John 5:14–15, and read it carefully because in one half of the verse it sounds totally sweeping — “whatever you ask” — and the other half of the verse sounds very qualified — “according to God’s sovereign will.”
But Müller said that when he prayed for the needs of the orphans to be met, the prayer was based on an explicit biblical promise in Matthew 6:33: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
He cited that specifically. He did not decide ahead of time what the all things had to include. Be careful — don’t over expect with specificity when the Bible hasn’t been specific. But he did believe God had promised to provide what was needed for the doing of God’s will and the glorifying of God’s name, which is what we’re commanded to do.
The Grace of Faith
We could go to many other passages of Scripture to see this same explicit promise.
- Philippians 4:19: “My God will supply all your needs.”
- Romans 8:32: “He will give us all things with him.”
- Psalm 34:10: “Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”
And on and on we could go. Müller believed that it was a sin not to believe that God would give us what these passages promise.
People thought he had the gift of faith that was in a class by itself, and other Christians didn’t have this. Müller emphatically denied this. He insisted that he simply had the grace of faith, not the spiritual gift of faith from 1 Corinthians 12 (like the gift of prophecy or the gift of wisdom).
Here is one of the most illuminating passages from Müller that has been helpful for me:
The difference between the gift and the grace of faith seems to me this. According to the gift of faith, I am able to do a thing, or believe that a thing will come to pass, the not doing of which, or the not believing of which would not be sin; according to the grace of faith, I am able to do a thing, or believe that a thing will come to pass, respecting which I have the word of God as the ground to rest upon, and, therefore, the not doing it, or the not believing it would be sin. For instance, the gift of faith would be needed to believe that a sick person should be restored again though there is no human probability, for there is no promise to that effect; the grace of faith is needed to believe that the Lord will give me the necessaries of life, if I seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, for there is a promise to that effect. (Narrative, 1:65)
So here’s the implication. His wife, Mary, was dying. He’s about 60 years old. He prayed that she would be healed. She was not healed, and here’s what he wrote:
The last portion of Scripture which I read to my precious wife was this: “The Lord God is a sun and shield; the Lord will give grace and glory. No good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” [Psalm 84:11]. . . . I said to myself, with regard to the latter part, “no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly” — I am in myself a poor, worthless sinner, but I have been saved by the blood of Christ. And I do not live in sin; I walk uprightly before God. Therefore, if it is really good for me, my darling wife will be raised up again, sick as she is. God will restore her again. But if she is not restored again, then it would not be a good thing for me. And so my heart was at rest. I was satisfied with God. (Narrative, 2:745)
Don’t Lose Heart
Perhaps the encouragement for you and me is, first, don’t grow weary in praying for your lost friends and family since it may be that the very perseverance is a sign that the faith you are exercising in the perseverance is itself a gift. That’s what Müller believed. He did see some saved after fifty years of prayer.
Second, don’t miss or minimize the answers you are receiving. You say there are none; I doubt that. Are you still a Christian? God is hearing your prayer for keeping you. Are you in any measure of health? God is sustaining. Are you in any way at all influential in pointing others to Christ? God is working. Are you inclined to God’s word? That’s an answer to prayer.
Are you able to see any beautiful, spiritual things in God’s word? God is answering. Is Christ precious to you? That’s a miraculous answer. Do you have any measure of satisfaction in him? He’s acting. Do you hallow his name? Seek his kingdom? Do his will? Eat daily bread? Escape from temptation? Defeat the devil’s lies?
Oh my, God is answering. Let us not make too little of these glorious acts of God.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
A version of this article previously appeared on the Desiring God website under the headline, “What Is the Place of Faith in My Unanswered Prayers?”
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