“Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him.”
“… The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
As people warm up for the usual “intensive new year prayers,” I wish to talk on things that won’t sit well with most Christian minds of the age, yet I think it is imperative to speak about it because such things cause unnecessary pain, sorrow, and even loss of faith and backsliding to Christians. One major problem for Christians of today is that we have been more keen to hear others preach to us than to read the scriptures for ourselves. So once one error is introduced and people find it fancy it spreads like wildfire and becomes accepted far and wide as though it were a fact. This then results in trying to hold God to promises he never made. And when you expect God to act in ways he never promised to act, because you have believed what is false, God begins to seem like an undependable Creator.
Sometimes this even lead men to fetish practices because no one wants to move with a person who is unpredictable, undependable and unreliable. In fact the book of Proverbs speaks strongly and severally against relying on unreliable people. When people go out to preach armed to the teeth with all the fancy yet erroneous interpretation of scriptures, they deceive people who come to God with an erroneous expectation, but when they come to him and finding him not being what they had been convinced he is, they naturally begin to pull away. And having in their subconscious that God is not the way you would expect him to be, rather go to fetish means where they feel they can be more sure of what they’re in for.
Many having this erroneous view of God rather than admit the resultant resentment will cover it with all manner of religious thoughts, declarations, and activities, but that resentment that we naturally have for independable people is still there towards God all the same. What can be more injurious to the Christian man than to hold such a view of his Maker?
I have heard instances where people held to promises God never made and expected him to fulfil. Dr. Selwyn Hughes of extremely blessed memories narrated how a woman held to a passage where Paul and Silas told the jailor, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” (Acts 16:31). She held to that that God promised her that once she believes in the Lord Jesus Christ and becomes saved her husband who was an unbeliever would be saved also, but she became extremely devastated when the man died without knowing the Lord. She felt God had failed her. But it is certain that what the apostles said was that if he and his house believed they shall be saved. Not that the salvation of the jailor automatically meant that every member of his house would be saved.
Another of the popular misconceptions of Biblical verses is how people misunderstand the verse, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” (Philippians 4:13). People hold this widely to mean that there’s no limit to what they can do. Meaning that they can fly like superman to the moon, mars, jupiter, and beyond if they wish. But the error in this view is obvious. Let someone put their fingers in the eyes of any of such people and you’d see that they probably can do nothing. Let their property be stolen, they probably can’t recover it also. They swallow things because they can’t do anything about it, but they’ll still hold to the view that they can do all things.
By experience I knew that it was obviously not what the Bible meant but didn’t quite bother to see how or why it wasn’t what the Bible meant, that is to say we can do all things, but one day I heard a sermon where the preacher did justice to refute this heresy. He went to the previous verses that led up to this verse and explained how that the apostle Paul meant that he has both learnt to suffer need and abound, and that when he says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him, he meant he has been given strength to both suffer hardship and enjoy plenty. A truth the lovers of the idea of being able to do all things wouldn’t like. Rather than mean we can do all things, it means we have both the grace to suffer need and to abound.
The last misconception, which is my focus in this article, is closely tied to that of Philippians 4:13, which is that there is no limit to what can be achieved by prayer. The main verses used for this assumption says, “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13 – 14), and 1 John 3:22-24 where it says, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight. And this is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ, and love one another, as he gave us commandment. And he that keepeth his commandments dwelleth in him, and he in him. And hereby we know that he abideth in us, by the Spirit which he hath given us.”
Experience has taught me, and probably everyone else, that it is not every prayer that ends with the words “in Jesus’ name have I prayed” is answered. Does it therefore mean that what Christ said is contrary to what experience teaches each and everyone of us? If that were the case, does it therefore mean that Christ promised what he won’t fulfil? He who believes that John 14:13 – 14 means that every prayer that is prayed by a believing Christian and ends with the words, “in Jesus’ name have I prayed” is bound to be answered by Christ, such a person is bound to be disappointed in Christ. Not because Christ lied but because he or she was misinformed.
I have a friend who made a lamentable post on Facebook about the past year going so bad. I felt really sad and chose to chat with her about it. And though there were a number of things responsible for her sadness, a key part of it was an unanswered prayer and I felt her pain because she’s a teenager and I had gone through similar pains as a teenager. Like I had she probably had the erroneous view that once we pray about something it’s done. And it was my conversation with her that birthed this article.
When Christ says, “whatsoever ye shall ask in my name,” he doesn’t mean as is commonly believed that every prayer that ends with “in Jesus’ name have I prayed” is going to be answered. Rather, praying in his name means praying according to his will or how he has instructed. We can understand this in the statement that goes, “Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord.” (Mark 11:9). To come in the name of the Lord does not mean to announce “I come in the name of the Lord” upon your arrival at a place. If that were so then anyone that can say this comes in the name of the Lord. Rather he that cometh in the name of the Lord is he that has been sent, ordained, and comes according to the will of that Lord. This in turn implies many things including the fact that any thing done to him that comes in the name of the Lord is done to that Lord, whether honour or dishonour. If my father sends me to one of my siblings and they obey the instruction I bring in his name, they have not obeyed me but obeyed him. If they answer with scorn saying, “get lost,” that response is not to me but to my father who sent me. And for this reason that Christ came in the name of the Lord he says, “… he that despiseth me despiseth him that sent me.” (Luke 10:16). So doing things in the name of another is far more weightier than how we tend to think. Praying in the name of Christ is far more weightier than declaring, “in Jesus’ name have I prayed.”
So what does it mean? It means in summary, to pray according to his will, approval, purpose, command, or ordination. Meaning the declaration of “in Jesus’ name have I prayed” does not have any bearing as to whether or not we have prayed in his name. Of course it is still an important aspect of our prayer, but as we are careful to add that clause to all our prayers so must we be careful to ensure that our prayers are according to his purpose for whatever we pray about. So this makes it clear that Christ never promised to answer everything we ever pray for.
One of our key texts for this article says, “… The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” (James 5:16). From this alone we can see that it is erroneous to think that prayers or praying can achieve everything. It says the fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much, but not all things. Meaning even when the righteous man prays fervently it goes far but there are still limits to what his prayers can do. But not many people are truly righteous and not many people pray fervently. So though the unrighteous and the unfervent may still avail something it won’t avail as much. When the righteous prays fervently, however, it avails much but not everything. So let’s be clear that God did not vest on us the power to become little almighties that control the big Almighty by means of prayers.
Our prayers also have a limited influence on the actions and purposes of God. It is an error to assume that by prayer we pilot God to whithersoever we wish him to go. We therefore must not assume we can get just anything from God by prayer.
The only way to get rid of resentments towards God which we have on account of unanswered prayers is to reengineer our thoughts and align it to what the Bible says, not to the fancy things we’d like to believe. For when we align our understanding to what the Bible says, our expectations shall not be cut short and we shall be happy.
The Bible says, “Whoso keepeth the commandment shall feel no evil thing: and a wise man’s heart discerneth both time and judgment. Because to every purpose there is time and judgment, therefore the misery of man is great upon him.” (Ecclesiastes 8:5 – 6). The evil of feeling disappointed in God because of false expectation can be avoided by keeping the commandments of God. By aligning our ways and expectations to his words. And it goes on to say that the misery of man is great because there is a time and judgment to every purpose. This informs us that to every purpose of God he has fixed a definite time for those events. And those times he fixes are based on judgment. This means that in his infinite wisdom he has thought carefully to set those times. Meaning to choose another time would be contrary to wisdom and judgment. How then will God change his time and purpose to be even contrary to wisdom just because mere mortals prayed that he should change it? And in all the senses in which judgment is used it denotes finality. So there are things that we can’t expect that God should change even if we die praying about them.
King Solomon says, it is for this reason that the misery of man is great upon him. It is natural to be miserable when we live in a life that is fixed and there are things that we don’t have power over which must happen. Not this alone, we don’t know those things nor when they shall be. This is the misery of man.
This misery is further aggravated when we assume we can fix, dictate, change events by prayer. The ground and pillar of misery is an unrealistic expectation. It is written, “Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12). When you go nursing unfounded and baseless hope, those hopes will surely be deferred and that would make your heart sick. But when you align your expectation to God’s word in truth and they come to pass according to your expectation it is a tree of life.
So there are things, especially unpleasant ones, that even prayer can’t change. The psalmist says, “For the needy shall not alway be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish for ever.” (Psalm 9:18). This means that there are times when the needy shall actually be forgotten, but it won’t be always. There are times when the expectations of the poor shall actually perish, but it won’t be always. This is the stance of scripture. Prayers won’t change that. And so many are surprised to see the wicked prosper when they thought the wicked ought to suffer for their foolish choice to be wicked. They pray and are surprised that the wicked prosper more after much and fervent prayer. In fact some lose faith in God when they observe these things.
During the last election in Nigeria, Christians prayed and fasted for a particular politician and everyone was convinced he was going to win, but to the greatest surprise of everyone including myself, someone no one thought could win won. We were devastated, which is natural, but what surprised me was what some people started posting. One said, “you all can see that there’s no God and your prayer is useless.” Men could not really understand how so much prayer could go unnoticed. It was while I reeled at such a time that I recalled to mind that the event we were witnessing had been revealed to me in a dream but I failed to understand it until it began to be fulfilled. Then I realised that truly God reigns supreme in the affairs of men. His counsel is what will stand irrespective of our prayers and the direction of it. As it is written, “Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure.” (Isaiah 46:10). His pleasure not ours shall be done.
The misery of man is because our prayers reflect our pleasure and not his pleasure. Of course his pleasure as regarding events is hidden from us, and that is why king Solomon said the misery of man is great upon him. We know his pleasure as revealed in the Bible regarding the salvation of man, the conduct of man, etc., so we can align our will to this. But to events, times and seasons we don’t know. Even Christ said to us, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.” (Acts 1:7). Not being able to know these things therefore we can’t align our wills and pleasures to it absolutely. So we are bound to be upset from time to time when his will goes against our expectations. And when this happens we must draw solace from the fact that he knows best, better than we do.
Before we close this article let’s also look at the second verse I mentioned that makes people think God will answer each and every prayer, 1 John 3:22-24. This too does not mean that whatsoever we pray for will be done, but having the condition of obedience attached to it it means that every prayer we pray according to his purpose will be done. It is easy to assume that we are in a state of righteousness, but not very many examine themselves well enough to see the inadequacies of their ways. It is written, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts.” (James 4:3). Many pray prayers that even to themselves look good, else they won’t pray it to God, but deep within the purpose is to consume it on their lust of any kind. It is an established fact in the Bible that prayer of sin and prayers prayed amiss would go unanswered. However we must also be cautious not to assume that when people pray and it goes unanswered it is because of one sin or the other. People can pray amiss in spite of their righteousness and the goodness of their prayers. Their prayers may still be amiss if it still goes against God’s purpose and wisdom. As the apostle says, “For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” (2 Corinthians 12:8 – 9). He prayed thrice but as good as his prayer was it went unanswered. Why? Because God had appointed and ordained that weakness because his strength is made perfect in weakness. So we must be careful when judging on these things.
I do not claim to know God well or well enough, but I’m convinced that the more we know God and walk with him the better and clearer we shall understand his ways and why he chooses whether or not to answer prayers. When we get to such a state, we shall, like the blessed apostle, rejoice in those things which he ordains despite the fact that they go against what we pray for. He rejoices saying, “… Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9 – 10). In rejoicing in such a way and taking pleasure in the things which God ordains, he testifies that what God ordained was infinitely greater and better than what he prayed for. The lot of every Christian who walks close to God is such glad rejoicing and pleasure at the realisation of God’s will, not misery.
Seeing God has set a time for everything by wisdom and judgment, what is our duty? It is simple wisdom for us to focus on what we know, not what we don’t know. Since we don’t know the times, purpose, and judgment, we must focus on aligning our will to his known will as revealed in scriptures. That is to be like him and pray, “Thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.” To advance ourselves always in the knowledge of his word and in this knowledge to align our lives and wills to what we learn as we advance. And the primary essence of our prayer is to help us in this endeavour of aligning our wills with his known will, not trying to bend him to satisfy our lusts.
So, let’s not make too much of the efficacy of prayer. I do not speak against prayer but have only sought to put it in proper perspective. The Bible says enough to make us pray, but not to make us hold some of the popular views about prayer.
When coining the title of this article I first titled it as “THE LIMITATIONS OF PRAYERS…” but when I checked the meaning of limitation and discovered that it had to do with deficiency I changed it to, “THE LIMITS OF PRAYERS…” Prayers have no deficiency. It is very efficacious, yet the efficacy is limited. The limits of prayers are not on account of defects but on account of the judgment, sovereignty, and wisdom of the Most High. So we must pray as prescribed by Christ. Not lengthy prayers as though lengthy prayers or much speaking moves God to answer us, but sincere and simple prayers of trust and faith.
When we are commanded to do everything by prayer it doesn’t mean we try to change God, it means we acknowledge and accept his authority and so present our wishes to him. The wish, if truly out of a Christian heart, is already in line with his will, and we also accept his decision to act or not to act upon our request. This is prayer. The acknowledgment of his authority and not challenging it.
Lastly, an important point to make, your feelings and desires matter. Don’t go assuming that for God to be this way it means your feelings and desires don’t matter. He cares for you. It is written, “Casting all your care upon him; for he careth for you.” (1 Peter 5:7). I am a living witness of this. Most of my wishes that were expressed to him through prayers were thrown out and washed down the sewer by time never to be seen again. Yet I’ve found one thing ever sure in his dealings with me, he cares for me. He had his own plans for me and took me by the path of his own noble plans rather than my own vain plans. If he cares for me, he cares for you too.
In Psalms 107, after saying a lot of things about the judgments of God of how he punished people with many dire and unpleasant things, and also how he delivered them. One would look at these unpleasant things and wonder what a God would do such things. But that Psalm ends with these words, “Whoso is wise, and will observe these things, even they shall understand the lovingkindness of the LORD.” (Psalm 107:43). There’s much to say in this regard, but from experience of which I too have had almost a fair share of my own unpleasantness in life, all I’ll say is, “blessed is that man who by observation can see through the seeming unpleasant things to realise the lovingkindness of God in them all.” Blessed is that man.
His every action is for your good. This is why you ought to just surrender to him, live according to his will, pray rightly, and blessed shall your life be under the orchestration of his providence.
Prayer: Dear Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, we thank you for the sovereign power and will with which you govern the affairs of your creation. We know and are sure that all you do are all in supreme wisdom and judgment. Teach us to acknowledge this and have a right perspective of prayer. And from this year henceforth, let us grow in the right understanding of you and your ways. May the end of prayers be glad rejoicing and not misery. This I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.