When Promises Don’t Come True
It was another exasperating, faith-challenging confrontation with the Indonesian Immigration Office. Our yearly visa renewal was in trouble again. We’d experienced this numerous times during our ten years in the country and so, once again, I reminded the Lord of our desire for an extension and recruited others to pray on our behalf. I reminded Him of Philippians 4:19, stating that this visa was a need and He had promised to meet all of our needs. I also prayed over Psalm 37:4, saying that it was our heart’s desire to stay and serve Him there, so please grant yet another renewal. We had seen several miracles in previous years regarding visa renewals, so I was confident that God would once again come through.
Imagine my shock and disappointment when the letter that came from Immigration was not our yearly renewal, but a denial of any extension and an “invitation” to leave the country. Why had God not answered? We had prayed over the same request, used the same promises, recruited the same, if not more, people to pray with us. But this time God had said “no.” Can God’s promises be trusted? Why weren’t our prayers answered according to our desires?
Some time later I was studying Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified. In Mark 14:32-42 we see a remarkable exchange between Jesus and His Father. Jesus was deeply distressed and troubled by the reality of the crucifixion and having to become sin for all mankind (vv. 33-34), so He came to His Father with a specific request, “Take this cup from me.” He based it upon the reality that, “everything is possible for you,” (v. 36) therefore certainly there must be another way other than this death. Had not God promised that if we call upon Him in times of trouble, He will deliver us (Psalm 50:15)? Had not Jesus Himself said that if we ask anything in His name He will do it? He prayed three times; certainly the Father would know His sincerity. Certainly the Father would answer.
But we find an amazing thing! The Father let His Son die on the cross the next day, taking upon Himself the sin of all mankind. Why did God not answer Jesus’ request? But then it hit me—God had answered! But, the answer was “no.” Jesus Himself had received a “no” answer in prayer! Why? Was it because He had some unconfessed sin? Certainly not—He was sinless! Was He not sincere in His request? No—He repeated His request until he sweat blood (Luke 22:44). The Father did not grant His request because His perfect plan required His Son’s sacrificial death. There was no other way!
A key insight is found in Mark 14:36b where Jesus says, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Though Jesus made a specific request, His underlying attitude was not a demanding of His own will, but rather, a surrender to the will of the Father. We too must assume this attitude when we pray. Not a fatalistic attitude in which we subliminally say, “I know it isn’t going to do any good to pray, but just in case…” But rather a prayer life that is bold in it’s specific requests, yet surrendered to our Heavenly Father’s higher will, knowing that His will is best. Someone has said, “God’s will is what you would choose if you knew everything that He knows.”
Praying over and claiming the promises of God as found in Scripture is a wonderful means of praying. But the promises are given as anchors for our hope when times of pressure come, not levers to make God do what we want He to do. We make specific requests related to specific Scriptural promises, but we also submit to the good and perfect will of our Father. We trust Him even when we don’t get the answer we expect, when it does not feel so good, and even when don’t understand.