Unanswered Prayer

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So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently by the Church to God. Acts 12:5

We have talked a lot about prayer here at Genesis. Jesus spends a considerable amount of time talking about it toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount. As I studied these passages in preparation for preaching, I was forced to ask some hard questions, both with what the passages say, and what I know from my own experience of prayer.

I hate to say it, but this verse disturbs me a bit as I hold it up against a passage I had to preach on not too long ago. “Ask and you will receive, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you…” I won’t go into that much now, but this story of Peter doesn’t exactly sit well against those promises.

If you know the story, you know that an angel appears to him and the chains fall off in jail. There are sixteen soldiers watching him, and yet they all “sleep” through the escape. The angel leads him out of the prison into the city and then disappears. It’s a wonderful example of answered prayer! Unfortunately for the guards, they all are executed for letting their prisoner escape.

What disturbs be about this passage is actually the second verse in the chapter. Acts 2:2 – “and he [Herod] had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.” That action pleased a lot of Jewish authorities, and so he goes after Peter. James is not quite as well known to us as Peter, but that may be because he was the first Apostle killed, and it was pretty early in the history of the church. Prior to the Disciples became Apostles, James was one of Jesus’ top three guys. It was fairly normative for Jesus to take Peter, James, and John on special events without the others (Mount of transfiguration, healings, Garden of Gethsemane…).

Why did Jesus spend so much time with these three? I think it’s safe to assume that it was probably because they were going to be the leaders of the Apostles and the church. If these three were going to take such an important role, why did James have to be the first to die, and die so early? Some estimate that it was a full decade or more after Christ’s resurrection, but we really don’t know. As we read Acts, it’s pretty early on to see any of the apostles die, much less one of their leaders.

So, were there people praying for James also? Definitely! We don’t know how much time passed between his arrest and execution, but there were certainly people praying for his deliverance. So, why were their prayers answered for Peter (complete with angel and self-opening doors), whereas James saw no such blessing, rather the edge of a sword swinging toward his neck, and then …heaven?

Why would Jesus even put so much time into James, knowing he would be so quickly executed? Is that inappropriate to ask? I know, I’m thinking “efficiency”, not necessarily value of human life. But, why did God answer the prayers offered for Peter, and not those offered for James? Were more righteous people praying for Peter than James? Were there more of them? Did they have more urgency in their prayers the second time? Did everyone just mistakenly assume that James would be delivered like before? I realize I am asking questions to which no one has the answer, but that’s what happens when it comes to the issue of prayer. Why will God sometimes answer our prayers for lost keys, but not for a lost child (and vice versa)? Sometimes he will miraculously heal a believer of a terminal illness, but not another. Well, I can’t wrap this one up with a nice little bow of an answer. I can only come to the conclusion that God is good, and much wiser than we are.

Did good come from James’ death? Yes. Though I won’t know the majority of what that is until I can ask him. What is amazing is that despite these questions that have plagued believers for thousands of years, the Bible is unashamedly bold in the instruction to aggressively pursue requests in prayer.


Author: Brad Bruszer