A Praying FaithPastor Lutzer | October 23, 2005
God may choose to deny our requests and yet give us what we really want.
Selected highlights from this sermon
God often answers prayer in ways we wouldn’t expect. In Genesis 18, God told Abraham that he was about to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. And what follows is an amazing story of intercession and how God chose to answer Abraham’s request. Though Abraham’s exact request wasn’t answered positively, what he probably wanted—the safety of Lot and his family—was granted by God.
But there is one very important fact that must not be overlooked: the closer our friendship with God, the more freely He shows us His intentions. We must develop that friendship in such a way that we are so satisfied with God that even if He doesn’t give us what we think He should, we don’t give up on prayer or on Him.
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So let me begin by asking you a question: how would you like to have a conversation with God? Amen! Years ago a book was written entitled Conversations with God. In the introduction the author said that he took this book and it was written actually by automatic writing. A “being” came and moved his hand along and that is how the book came about. That is known in occultism as automatic writing. That is why the book says many foolish things that only a human being and the devil would agree with, such as, “God says ‘I think whatever you think.’” Now if you come across a god who thinks whatever you think and that his thoughts are your thoughts, you’ve come across the wrong one. God says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts and My ways are not your ways.” That is a different God.
But Abraham had a conversation with God, the real God, and what a conversation it was! It’s recorded in the eighteenth chapter of the book of Genesis where Abraham has this encounter with a Divine Being. With your Bibles open let me tell you the story and then read part of the account as it is given to us in Scripture.
Here’s Abraham, he’s sitting at the door of his tent, it’s hot and time for a siesta and three men come to him. It almost appears as if Abraham realized that they were not three ordinary Bedouins, though perhaps they were dressed that way. Abraham not only bows before them and calls one of them “lord” but begins to act very quickly even though he is 100 years old. It says in verse six, “And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Quick, three seahs of fine flour and knead it and make cakes.’” Verse seven, “Then Abraham ran into the herd and took a calf tender and good, and gave it to a man who prepared it quickly.” He’s a man in a hurry. So the three men gather under a tree and he feeds them the very best that he possibly can.
Who are these three men? Well, we learn very clearly that one is Jesus Christ. Now if you’ve been with us in this series, and I believe this is the eighth message in the series, you know that we have encountered this before. In the Old Testament Jesus Christ about whom it is written, “His goings forth have been from with old and from everlasting,” was already appearing at times in the Old Testament for purposes of communication oftentimes referred to as, “The angel of the Lord.” Here He is simply referred to as the Lord, as we shall see in a moment. One is Jesus Christ and the other two are angels. In the book of Hebrews, it says that, “You should be very careful to entertain strangers. Because by doing that some have entertained angels unawares.” That is probably a reference to this particular account.
So they are eating together and one of them that is the Lord I’m sure, is speaking in verse nine and says, “Where is Sarah your wife?” Wait a moment now. How does he know that her name is Sarah? And Abraham answers and says, “She’s in the tent.” We are in verse ten now where the Lord answers and says, “‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.’
And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old and advanced in years, the way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself.”
She was told in the previous chapter that she was going to bear a son, but Sarah does not believe it. Abraham seems to believe, but she does not. And you’ll notice that even though she is laughing to herself, she is overheard by the angel of the Lord, by Jesus actually. In verse 14 the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child now that I am too old?’” Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is it possible for God to take a man who is 100 and a woman who is 90 and to give them a son? Is that too hard for God?
Sometimes in our praying we say, “Now Lord I am just praying about something that is very little.” I smile when we say that because to God everything is little. Hurricanes are little, earthquakes are little. To God everything is little. We are dealing with omnipotence.
So the angel rebukes her and says, “Why are you laughing, Sarah?” She denies it in self-protection. The first thing we do when we are embarrassed is to lie, which she does. She says, “No, I didn’t laugh.” He says, “Yes, you did.” She laughed to herself in the tent. She didn’t laugh loud enough for them to hear out there. But God knew that she was laughing.
After the meal is over, Abraham begins to go his way and the three men begin to go to Sodom. Two of the men move off, the angels, and Abraham is confronted and he stands in the presence of the Lord and we are allowed to enter into a divine soliloquy. The Lord of glory is talking to Himself and He asks this question in verse 17: “‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?’ Seeing that Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation and all the nations of the earth will be blessed in him. For I have chosen him, that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.”
Could I just pause and say that the primary responsibility for spiritual instruction in the home is the father? Whether the father is absent or whether he is present, God holds him accountable for the spiritual instruction that he gives to his children. And then the Angel says, or actually the Angel of the Lord if we may call Him that, the second person of the Trinity says, “I’m going down to take a look to see how bad Sodom really is.”
Once again you have to read this with some theological glasses. It’s not that Jesus is on a reconnaissance mission trying to find out the state of Sodom and Gomorrah. You have to put this in the same category of God asking Adam in the garden, “Where are you?” It’s not that God doesn’t know. But Jesus here is being represented as a human being. So He says, “I’m going to go down and check out how bad Sodom has become.” And that makes Abraham realize that judgment is coming to Sodom.
And that is now why we come to this great period of intercession in Abraham’s life. We have to look at it more carefully. Verse 22, “So the men turned from there and went towards Sodom, but Abraham stood still before the Lord. Then he drew near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within this city? Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked so that the righteous fair as the wicked. Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ And the Lord said, ‘If I find in Sodom fifty righteous in the city I will spare the whole place for their sake.’”
From here on out—and I’d love to see a video of this—from here on out, I think Abraham’s knees are quaking. He now realizes he is in the presence of God who can make the decision whether Sodom will be destroyed or not. And in his mind what he is thinking is, “Lot lives there, my nephew whom I rescued. And after I rescued him he went back to Sodom.” It’s amazing what it takes to change some hearts. And so what he’s saying is, “Lord, I am thinking of my nephew Lot, his wife and his daughters. Lord, I am not sure whether there are fifty in the city.”
He began rather high. He wanted God to agree on this. He appeals to the justice of God, not the mercy of God as we sometimes do, and that’s fine. But here he appeals to the justice of God and he says, “God you will not sweep away the righteous and the wicked together, will you, if there are fifty righteous in the city?” And God says, “It’s a promise. I won’t.”
Now he begins to tremble and he begins to intercede. He says, “Lord, what about forty-five? If I can get God to agree on forty-five, maybe I can get Him to agree on less than that.” He says, “Will you do it if there are forty-five?” God says, “I will not do it if there are forty-five.” Abraham is not bargaining with God. When you bargain with God you have something to give in exchange or you are haggling over a price. He has nothing to haggle with; he brings nothing to the table except for his concern for Lot and for God’s righteousness. That is all that he has. He pleads and he says, “God what if there are forty?”
And from now on I believe in Abraham’s mind he is thinking that, “Every advance in this prayer that I make might be my last. God might wipe me off the face of the earth.” You’ll notice how he begins to form his prayer before God. I’m going to begin here in verse 29: “Again he spoke to him, ‘Suppose forty are found there?’ He said, ‘For the sake of forty, I will not do it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh let the Lord not be angry and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there?’ He answered, ‘I will not do it if I find thirty there.’”
Abraham again is speaking, “‘Behold I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there?’ He said, ‘For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.’ Then he said, ‘Oh Lord, may the Lord not be angry and I will speak again this once.’” He believes that the Lord may be exasperated with him. “‘Please don’t be angry. One more time, suppose ten are found there?’ He answered and said, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went His way when He had finished speaking to Abraham and Abraham returned to his place.”
What do you think Abraham told Sarah that night in the tent? I can’t prove it, but I think he said, “Sarah I just talked God out of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah.” And I can imagine Sarah saying, “Oh Abe, you just glow in the dark. You and God have got this thing going. This is wonderful.”
Think about who was in Sodom. I can imagine that Abraham was maybe thinking this way: “There’s Lot and his wife and his two daughters, that’s four. They are about to be married to two young men, that’s six. If the parents of the two young men are believers, that’s another four. Four and six, that makes ten.” He goes home believing that Sodom and Gomorrah will not be destroyed. He got God down to ten.
I can imagine the shock that he had the next morning. Verse 27 in chapter 19 now, “And Abraham went out early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. He looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah, toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and behold all the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace.” He thought, “My, oh my.” He thought, “Either A, God has deceived me or B, I miscalculated the number of the righteous in the city. There weren’t ten.” And it’s true there weren’t ten. God could have destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah including Lot without breaking faith with Abraham, without breaking His promise because there were not ten righteous in the city.
And so Abraham begins to think to himself, “I didn’t go low enough. If I had said two or four maybe the city would not have been destroyed.” But it says that God remembered Abraham. “So it was when the Lord destroyed the cities of the valley,” verse 29, “God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when He overthrew the cities where Lot had lived.” The rest of chapter 19 talks about how God rescued Lot, his wife and his two daughters.
I am going to leave the account right there as we look at three transforming lessons that should enable us to look at life differently and look at prayer differently as we look at this remarkable story. First of all, let me remind you that the closer our friendship with God, the more freely He shows His intentions with us. Sometimes we hurry over accounts like this far too quickly, don’t we? Here is Jesus coming with two angels to eat at the table of Abraham sitting under a tree. That is awesome that the Divine Sovereign One would come from heaven and meet a Bedouin on his own terms. It blows you away!
The Bible says that, “Abraham was a friend of God.” That particular expression applies in Scripture only to him, and it is said three times. Abraham is a friend of God. You say, “Well, if I were a friend of God, God would disclose to me what His intention was, He would help me to pray.” You are right, you are completely right. The more intimate we are with God, and the more intimate our friendship, the more God discloses to us and He enables us to pray differently because we begin to discern His mind and His heart.
In the history of Evangelicalism and in churches today, including ours, there are hundreds of people whom I suspect do not pray regularly. And they say to themselves, “The reason I don’t is because I’ve been burned too many times. I’ve come to God and I’ve asked Him to heal people whom He hasn’t healed. I’ve asked him to bring my wayward son or daughter back into the faith and He hasn’t done it. I’ve asked Him for an end to the injustice that is being done against me, and it continues unabated. I have stopped praying because I have stopped believing and it doesn’t do any good. So I am glad that God is there for emergencies, when I go for surgery I’ll call for help and for prayer. But for the normal things of life I will not bother Him because nothing changes when I pray.”
I think of a woman who said these exact words when they prayed for their pastor who was dying of cancer. Thousands of people prayed and they had all night prayer meetings. She said, “If God didn’t heal him after all of that prayer I am not going to bother Him with another request again.”
What’s gone wrong? What’s gone wrong is that we forget that intercession is the second purpose of prayer and not the first. The first purpose of prayer is fellowship and intimacy with God. And by the way, Jesus said, “I no longer call you servants but I have called you friends, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. But I have called you friends because everything the Father has shown me I have withheld nothing, I’ve shared with you all of my secrets and that makes us friends.”
The purpose of prayer is really to develop that friendship in such a way that we are so satisfied with friendship with God that even if He doesn’t give us what we think He should, we do not give up on prayer. Prayer is first and foremost fellowship with the Almighty. What an amazing example of Jesus and the two angels sitting under a tree eating with Abraham. And today Jesus says to us, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If anyone will hear My voice and open the door I will come in to him and I will eat with him and he with Me.”
You will become disappointed with prayer very quickly if you think its first purpose is intercession. The first purpose of prayer is for us to come before the Lord in yieldedness, in faith, and simply learn to enjoy fellowship with God in such a way that whether He gives us what we ask for or whether He doesn’t, it does not shake us. It only deepens us in our desire to know Him better. You live like that and you’ll be at prayer meeting. Now the second purpose of prayer is no longer the first purpose.
Someday I am going to preach a message entitled “The idolatry of second things.” The gifts that God gives us, those are the “second things.” And when they take first place in our lives, when God doesn’t give them to us we say, “Why bother?” Abraham walked with God and so can we. God is waiting for you to give up all of your prayer lists. They are not wrong to have, but give up all of your requests and learn to spend time in quietness, in meditation, in submission, listening to His voice through His Word. That is where it begins.
Then what happens is God says, “Should I disclose to Abraham what I intend to do?” You walk closely with God and God will lay on your heart certain things He wants to accomplish, you begin to pray about them and they come to pass. I always say that Abraham and God had this thing going. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us could say, “Me and God, we’ve got this thing going, this friendship,” so that He can disclose to us where He’s at rather than us barging into His presence. “God, look at this request, look at this need.” No, it’s the second purpose of prayer and not the first.
There’s a second lesson which is that God may choose to deny our requests and yet give us what we really want. When God says “No” to a request, either the answer is denied or perhaps delayed and sometimes it is disguised, as it is here. When Abraham was praying and he was saying, “Oh God, please do not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah if there are a few righteous in the city.” There’s no doubt that his great concern was for his nephew Lot. And so what he was thinking is, “In order for Lot to be spared God has to spare the city in which he lives.”
It never dawned on Abraham that maybe God could have a different way of answering his prayer, namely getting Lot out of Sodom and Gomorrah and then destroying the city. That never crossed Abraham’s mind. So Abraham ends up getting what he wants, namely that Lot would be spared with his wife and his family. He got that, but he got it in an entirely different way than the way in which he had prayed.
And that’s the way it sometimes is. We pray for one thing and we think we know how God is going to do it. Have you ever noticed how often we’re wrong when we think we know how God is going to do something? God seldom does it in the way in which I think He’s going to do it. He’s so creative; He’s always got something else that He does instead. But sometimes it is an answer to our prayer that is disguised.
A good example is David. At the end of his life he says, “Lord, I’d love to build a house for you. I want to build a temple. I’ve got the time, I’ve got the money, I’ve got the organization, and I’m getting the materials ready. Let me build you a house.” God says, “David, the answer is no. But, I am going to build you a house.” Isn’t that wonderful? God says, “I don’t want you to build me one but I am going to build you a house. In fact, I am going to give you a house, namely posterity, that will go on and on and be part of the divine plan and the divine stream of history.”
Continuing on, God says, “I am going to do that for you. Furthermore, I am going to give you the opportunity to gather the materials and give instruction to your young son, because Solomon is going to build the temple. So David, even though your motives were right, you wanted to build it for My glory so that I could have a place where people could worship, I want you to know David that the desire of your heart is going to be fulfilled. The temple is going to be built not by you but by Solomon. It will come to pass and I will answer your prayer but not in the way that you think it’s going to be answered.” Sometimes therefore God gives us substitutes. And when He does it, you know it is exactly what He wants. So the second lesson is that God may choose to deny our requests and still give us the desires of our heart.
Third, the impact of the righteous is greater than their numbers would suggest. After all, if there had been ten righteous in Sodom and Gomorrah, God would not have destroyed it. Now you must understand that this whole world is under the judgment and condemnation of God. And the only reason why God withholds judgment is because this whole world is still populated in various places with His people. And because the world is populated with the people of God, God therefore restrains judgment and He blesses nations because of the believers that are in those nations.
I don’t know how to say this without the possibility of being misunderstood. I want you to know that the world has no idea of the debt that they owe believers. We are seen as obnoxious. And sometimes we are, unfortunately. We are seen as those who impede progress. We are painted by the media in various hues of people who want to impose our values. We are often misrepresented. But Jesus said, “Ye and ye alone,” that’s what the Greek says. “Ye and ye alone are the light of the world. Even a candle in a cave can do something. Ye and ye alone are the salt of the earth preserving society from total decay.”
What would happen if all of the believers would be taken out? Well, the final judgment of God would fall as it will during the great tribulation. Because as long as believers are here, they are salt and they are light, and they are helping preserve the world from judgment. Oh, I know what you are saying. You’re saying, “Weren’t there ten righteous in New Orleans?” I think there probably were. I am saying that with a smile on my face because I am sure there were hundreds of righteous in New Orleans. There are many fine churches there. I’m told.
You see, there would have been nothing wrong with God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah with Lot in it, by the way. And considering the way which Lot ended up, we can look back and say that perhaps that would have been part of God’s plan. There would have been nothing wrong with that. God chose not to do it that way. Abraham prayed for Lot’s safety and God gave Lot safety. It’s not wrong for judgment in this life to fall on the wicked as well as the righteous. In fact, they die in catastrophes together all the time.
But what would be wrong is if in the final judgment there was not made a separation. So that at last in the final judgment when eternal destiny is at stake, then of course God makes a very clear distinction between those who are considered righteous and those who are counted as unrighteous. But in this life, the wicked and the righteous often die together. There is so much more that could be said about natural disasters and even the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which by the way is the subject of the next message in this series.
Today I want to simply end by reminding you that in Jesus Christ we can draw near to the Holy of Holies. We can intercede for others, we can intercede for cities, and we can intercede for families. And by the way those of you who are married to unsaved spouses: did you know that the Bible says that the woman who is a Christian who is married to an unsaved man actually sanctifies him by her presence? The world doesn’t believe it, but that is actually what the Scripture says because it is His people that are a good influence on others.
But also to remind us that the final decision regarding judgment is in the hands of Jesus. It is Jesus, Lord, God, Christ who goes down to see Sodom and Gomorrah, who evaluates it. And the next day you have all of the sulfur and what have you falling from heaven on the city and destroying it. Ultimately Jesus is the judge of all the earth. He said, “I am He who was dead and am alive, and behold I am alive forevermore. And I have the keys of death and of Hades.”
I want you to visualize everyone at death going through into a castle. The only way out of the castle is either the way of life to heaven or the way of darkness and hell. And it’s Jesus whom you must encounter and He makes the decision where you will spend eternity. He made the decision for Sodom and Gomorrah, and He makes the decision for us. But if you trust Him you are exempt from the final judgment.
I love to tell that story of a forest fire or actually a prairie fire. And as it was blazing along as it did during the time when there was so much prairie in the United States and Canada, there was one farmer who realized that the only way he could be spared ultimately is if he lit his own fire. So he burned one patch of ground after another, after another, after another, so that when the real big fire came he had to stand where the fire already was. Of course he would not be consumed because the fire had already been there. When Jesus died on the cross He took our fire, He took our condemnation, He took the wrath of God and He says, “If you trust Me you will be exempt. You’ll be standing where the judgment already occurred.” Abraham in the presence of Sodom and we in the presence of Chicago stand before the Lord, the God of judgment.
Let’s pray. “Our Father we do not pretend that we understand all the nuances of this wonderful account. But we thank You today, Lord, that grace and mercy is a part of Your nature. Thank you that You remembered Abraham by rescuing Lot. Thank You today, Father, that we can intercede. But, first of all we must be Your friends. First of all, we need to discern Your mind and get to know You, to see that the primary purpose of prayer is fellowship under the tree and not interceding on behalf of a city. And we pray today that as Your Word says, ‘If you abide in Me and My word abides in you, then you can ask what you will and it will be done.’”
Has God talked to you today? Could we just have a moment of silence as you now talk to God? “Our Father, we ask today in Jesus name that You’ll help us to be the people that we should be in the midst of a country that is turning its back on You. Help us to know what it means to be salt and light, to be ministers of the Gospel of Light, to stand for righteousness and to believe that in grace You are there to help us. Lead us, we ask, and may many people trust Christ as Savior, coming to Him knowing that they are standing where judgment has already come, in Jesus’ name amen.”