Editor’s note: The below essay was written by the late E.M. Bounds and can be found in the book Prayer and Revival.
All prayers may be divided into three classes: answered, unanswered, and rejected. The Bible and Christian experience are filled with instances of the first class. Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Samuel, David, and many others, men and women, received responses to their petitions. In the New Testament, Zacharias and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, Paul and Silas, Peter and Cornelius prayed and were answered. And we read of another
who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared. [Hebrews 5:7]
These examples serve to illustrate the fact that prayers are not in vain. Often the answers come in time to be known by those who prayed. Sometimes the answer is sent before the prayer has been made. While Daniel prayed for his people, the angel Gabriel was sent to tell him that at the beginning of his supplication the commandment came forth. In Isaiah 65:24 it says, “Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear.” If any man still lacks faith, let him hear the words of the Lord Jesus: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7).
Of unanswered prayers we have some notable instances in the Bible. The ancient saints who prayed for the coming of the Messiah thought their prayers were of this sort. Prophets and kings desired it long, but died without the sight. Our Savior’s last intercessory prayer that his followers might all be one is yet to be answered. The souls beneath the altar that have been slain for the Word of God cry for vengeance upon them that dwell upon the earth. Their cry has been put on record, but judgment is delayed. The promise of the resurrection and the life to come, of the new heaven and the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness are among the pledged but unfulfilled assurances of prayer.
Of rejected prayers we notice first the prayers of the wicked. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18). “Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me” (Prov. 1:28). “Unto the wicked God saith, What hast thou to do to declare my statutes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth?” (Ps. 50:16). These prayers are rejected because of the character or purpose of the petitioner. But we also find in the Bible that some of the prayers of the saints were rejected. Where human nature cries for one thing, and the Spirit of God dictates another, it is mercy that heeds not our request. An instance of this is found in the plea of the sons of Zebedee to sit in heaven on the right and the left of the Son of man. Several times they had been the recipients of special honor. At the raising of]airus’s daughter and at the transfiguration they had been selected, with Peter and to the exclusion of the others, to accompany their Lord. Now that the kingdom of God seemed near they thought it would be a good time to make their claim. “Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” (Matt. 20:22). They said they were able, but when the time came they forsook him like the others and fled. Many times our ambitious desires are better refused. God knows what is best for us.
Again, we find one who had done much service for his Lord, praying plaintively that a thorn in the flesh might depart from him. How reasonable this appears! It was not for ambition’s sake that he asked, but to remove a disability for service. It was a bodily affliction, yet so severe that he considered it a messenger of Satan sent to buffet him. Would he not be a better man without it? Three times he prayed, yet the jagged edge was thrust deeper into his side. There was no promise of removal, only the assurance, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). How little do we know where our true gentleness lies! By suffering we are made perfect.
And lastly, there comes One who knew no sin and who had the assurance that all he had done was pleasing in the sight of his Father. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” If atoning blood had to be shed, he was ready to shed it; but why the agonies of the cross? Three times he prays, but the answer does not come. The prayer is rejected.
And yet in all these instances may we not safely say the prayer was heard? Do not james and john sit upon thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel? Has not the thorn long since ceased to rankle in the side of the apostle, only an honourable scar marking the place? As the maimed soldier is everywhere accorded the place of honor when the war is ended, so shall the marks of suffering in the service of Christ be the marks of distinction in the kingdom of glory. And after the resurrection we hear the risen Redeemer himself arguing from the Scriptures: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Suffering and glory are integral parts of redemption. The prophets prophesied of the “sufferings of Christ and the glory that should follow.” The apostle argued that “we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.” ·
For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. [Hebrews 2:10]