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Biblical, battle-tested, real-life help for "living by faith in the Son of God" (Galatians 2:20). — Steve Fuller

Mary and Martha’s Unanswered Prayer

Unanswered prayer

Two days ago I raised the question of unanswered prayer.

I shared a passage that encourages me when my prayers seem unanswered — Matt 7:7-11 —

In this passage Jesus teaches that —

Whenever we pray, God will either give us exactly what we are asking for — or something even better.

I illustrated this with Paul’s unanswered prayer about his thorn in the flesh — that God did not remove this thorn, but gave Paul something even better — a greater experience of Christ’s grace and power (2Co 12:7-9).

And today I want to share another illustration of the same truth —

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus

Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus was seriously sick.

But they knew Jesus healed the sick — so they sent Him an urgent message —

Lord, he whom you love is ill. (John 11:3)

What did Jesus do?

It’s shocking when you first read it —

So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. (John 11:6)

You read that right.

When Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, and that they’d like him to come immediately to heal him — he decides to stay where he is two days longer.

Not two minutes.  Or two hours.  Two DAYS.

Sounds unloving, doesn’t it?

Especially when we read that during those two days – Lazarus died.  Sounds very unloving.

When our prayers go unanswered — it’s easy to think Jesus is unloving.

But John goes out of his way to show us that Jesus is —

Not unloving at all

Look at verse 5 —

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus (John 11:5).

He loved them.

And then notice the first word of v.6 — the word “so.”

That word “so” shows that Jesus’ love is THE REASON WHY He stayed two days longer.

To see this, read verses 5 and 6 together —

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.  So [because He loved them], when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

So why did Jesus say No, stay two days longer, and not answer their prayer?

Because He loved them. 

How is this loving?

It’s because instead of giving them what they asked — He gave them something even better.

He raised Lazarus from the dead.

How is that better?  Jesus’ delay cost Lazarus physical suffering — and cost Mary and Martha emotional suffering.

So how was it better for all of them to have Lazarus raised?

It’s because through Lazarus’ resurrection Jesus gave them a greater display of His glory than they otherwise would have had.

That’s what Jesus said when the messenger first came to Him —

This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. (John 11:4)

Jesus said No to their request — so He could give them something even better — a greater display of His glory.

How was this a greater display of glory?

  • It allowed Mary to experience Jesus looking her in the eyes and saying “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  Think of how those words would have consoled her as she faced death.
  • It allowed Mary and Martha to see Jesus troubled and weeping at the tragedies of death and unbelief (John 11:33-35).  Never again could they see death as natural — or unbelief as acceptable.
  • It enabled Mary and Martha to see with their own eyes Jesus raising Lazarus and conquering death (John 11:43).  Think of how often that memory empowered their worship.
  • It allowed Mary, Martha, and Lazarus to see many brought to faith (John 11:45) — more Gospel-advance than would have happened apart from Lazarus’ resurrection.

Every time you pray, God will either give you exactly what you ask for — or something even better.

From doubt — to worship

Before Lazarus’ resurrection here’s what Mary said to Jesus —

Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. (John 11:32)

Can you feel the doubt?  The struggle?  The unbelief?

That’s how we can feel when our prayers are unanswered.

So — how does Mary feel AFTER Lazarus’ resurrection — when she what Jesus had been planning all along?

We get a clue from the next chapter of John — where Jesus is having dinner with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.

Martha serves the meal.  Lazarus is at the table with Jesus.

And what does Mary do?

She takes a vial of perfume worth thousands of dollars — pours it on Jesus’ feet, and wipes his feet with her hair (John 12:3).

She worships Jesus.

Why?  Because she now sees — what He did was better than they had asked.

Because she now sees — Jesus loved them.

You will worship, too

Maybe your unanswered prayer is giving you doubt, struggle, or unbelief.

So use this story to help you fight the fight of faith.

Because it’s not that your prayer is unanswered.

It’s just like with Mary and Martha —

  • Jesus is loving you
  • Jesus is answering your prayer
  • Jesus is bringing you something even better than you are asking.

And one day you will see it — and join Mary in worship at Jesus’ feet.

So — fight the fight of faith to trust Him now — and worship Him now.

Do you have feedback?  Comments?  Thoughts?

I’d love to hear them — leave a reply below.  Thanks!

If you know someone who’s struggling with unanswered prayer — email this to them using the “share” button below.

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And here’s some related posts you might find helpful —

 

(Picture is by Gustav Dore and is in the public domain.)

Category: Help with Prayer

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5 Responses

  1. Brian says:

    Steve,

    I have read both commentaries because I didn’t feel it right to comment on the second half of a subject. I respect the comments and responses although I suspect mine might differ.

    To put it simply, I see this as an extension of the discussion that trials come from the loving hand of God.

    You have been there when we prayed for another’s healing. Like the four who lowered their paralytic friend to Jesus (Mark 2:3-5) we lifted the person of our prayers to Jesus.

    Jesus responded to the prayers of Mary and Martha and raised Lazarus, though he was dead. Jesus also responded to the faith of the friends (in Mark) and healed the paralytic. In our situation the person whom we prayed for didn’t receive healing. Ultimately the person we prayed for received their “something better” as they entered into His presence.

    We who prayed received only the answer Paul received (2 Cor. 12:9) “My grace is sufficient for you.”. While we could be analytical about the situation I , personally, am uncertain how to reconcile this except to say:
    ¤ “I can trust You Lord!”
    and
    ¤ “Shower me with Your grace, my Lord!”

    Brian

    • Steve Fuller says:

      Good to hear from you Brian — someone who speaks of these things from much first-hand experience.

      Truly it was a great honor to be with you as we prayed so earnestly for healing. And, yes, like you said, this person beautifully entered into God’s presence.

      I agree that the Lazarus story is about how trials come from the loving hand of God. And when we ask the Father to take the trials away, even when He chooses not to, He’s always answering by bringing us something even better than we asked for.

      The day is coming when you will see just how much better the Father’s answer has been.

      I am so thankful for God’s grace enabling you to continue to trust.

      Much love to all of you,

      Steve

  2. I had never thought of this story quite in this way before, especially picking up on verses 5 and 6, that it was because Jesus loved them that He stayed on. I find that in my own life, rarely does God answer my prayers right away. And yet, it is such a joy to know that He is working out His perfect will because He loves me! Recently I had an experience of answered prayer that really struck me to the heart just because of God showing His love in such amazing ways! I was typing a sermon transcript and the speaker was in the gospels sharing about parents bringing their children to Jesus. I was just in awe at who Jesus was as He walked on this earth. And I found myself so wishing that I could see Him, that it could be as it was in the days that He walked the earth, that I could reach out and touch Him. A longing filled my heart. I began to pray about it for a minute. And then returned to my work. And then a verse from Matthew popped into my mind, it was if God Himself was answering my desires, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” I was in awe! What a comfort to truly know that He IS with us and always will be! God is so good and so faithful! No, He doesn’t always answer our prayers right when we think we want God’s answer nor how we want Him to answer, but if we will only trust Him and in His wondrous love! He is so worthy of all our trust! Thanks so much for sharing! This post was encouraging to me! God bless you!
    P.S. Are you feeling any better??? You’ve been in my prayers!

    • Steve Fuller says:

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, Breanna. What a kindness of God to touch your heart in that way!

      And thank you for your prayers for my health — I AM feeling a little better this morning.

  3. Beauty says:

    This has blessed me so much. Great teaching.

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