A Holy and Patient Violence: Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the Blessing of Unaswered Prayer

As I wrote in a recent post “I Will Not Let You Go Until You Bless Me“, the great preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones has helped to radically change my view of prayer, a discipline with which I have struggled to maintain consistency for most of my life. Revelatory to me was Lloyd-Jones’s interpretation of what it means to ask in prayer: not asking casually, infrequently, sporadically, or even just once or twice, but seeking and knocking, wrestling in prayer like Jacob with God who exclaimed, “I will not let you go until you bless me!” I jacobrealized that my lack of patience and perseverance in prayer was that I had misunderstood what it means to “ask” of God. This simple yet profound insight has since revolutionized my prayer life.

Later in the same collection of sermons, Joy Unspeakable, I happened upon another revelatory moment, a single phrase that struck me with the same thunderous force as before. Whereas previously Lloyd-Jones taught me that true “asking” in prayer involves importunate “seeking” and “knocking” until the door is opened, here he explains the reason for this and reveals the hidden blessing that comes when God does not (or seems not) to answer prayer.  Once again, the great Doctor penetrates into the biblical text and unearths a treasure that promises to enrich an impoverished life of prayer. In order to feel the impact of what Lloyd-Jones says, however, it is necessary to understand the wider context of the sermon. First we will consider Christ’s words in Luke 11:5-13, and then we will listen to Lloyd-Jones’s exposition:

And [Jesus] said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

Now here is Lloyd-Jones:

Without an element of importunity and persistence, or urgency and almost a holy violence with God, we have little right to expect that God will hear our prayer and answer it. Indeed, as we have seen, in holding back the answer God is preparing us. He wants us to come to this place in which we realize we are indeed helpless and hopeless, and so become desperate and cry out to him…. I must of necessity add immediately that you must at the same time be patient. Now that sounds as if it is a contradiction; and yet it is not, because if we become impatient, then our spirit has gone wrong again. The fact that a man is urgent and importunate does not mean that he is impatient….

The combination of these two things works like this: your urgency is born of your consciousness of need and of the greatness of the blessing. But you are not impatient, because you have now come to see that you are entirely unworthy of this blessing, you are unfit for it. The moment you become impatient what you are really saying to God is that you deserve this, and that he should give it to you, and that he should not be keeping you waiting in this way. That is impatience and it is always wrong. That proves again, that you are not fit, and that you need to be prepared much further.

This is important because it is impatience that always leads people to give up. ‘It is no use,’ they say, ‘I have striven for many years.’ They really have a sense of grudge against God. They say to him, ‘I have done everything you have said but I have not had the blessing.’ The end, that is unspoken, is, ‘Why is God treating me like this?’ The answer is, because you are like that, because of your very impatience, because of your restlessness of spirit. So we must neither be impatient nor discouraged. The prayer at this point is,

Thy way, not mine, O Lord, [h]owever hard it be.

Or as another hymn puts it:

Nearer, my God, to Thee, [n]earer to Thee! E’en though it be a cross [t]hat raiseth me.

That is the prayer—one of utter submission, a desire to know God and his love, to be filled with his love, to be his servant, to live to his glory. You must say, ‘It is your way, not mine. I don’t know, I have lost confidence in myself and my understanding. I am leaving myself in your hands.’ Urgent, importunate, but not impatient and not discouraged….

It is he who gives this gift. He knows when to give it, when we are fit to receive it. All we can do is to long for it, yearn for it, cry out for it, keep on doing so and to be importunate. But above all we must leave ourselves unreservedly, and the great issue itself, entirely in his blessed and loving hands…. If you are in this position of seeking, do not despair, or be discouraged, it is he who has created the desire within you, and he is a loving God who does not mock you. If you have the desire, let him lead you on. Be patient. Be urgent and patient at the same time. Once he leads you along this line he will lead you to the blessing itself and all the glory that is attached to it….

The possibilities are there for any genuine child of God who longs to know the love of God in its fullness! Go on pleading. Go on asking.

O love divine, how sweet thou art! When shall I find my willing heart [a]ll taken up by Thee?

Go on offering that prayer, and in his own gracious good day he will grant you your heart’s desire, and you will begin to know that ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory’.[1]

There is so many profound insights here that it would certainly take more than a blog post to unpack them all! But I really only want to highlight the single phrase that left me thunderstruck: God is treating me like this because I am like that! Reading this, my gut reaction is to retort, in good British fashion, “Dr. Martyn, that’s a fairly cheeky statement!” How dare Lloyd-Jones tell me that God is treating me like…, oh wait, he’s right, I am like that!

The more I think about it, the more I am forced to admit that I am the one who is being cheeky with God. “Lord, I have prayed and prayed and prayed, and you haven’t answered. Why are you treating me like this?” And then in the ensuing silence, I hear a still small voice that lovingly yet reprovingly responds: “I am treating you like this because you are like that. By the very fact that you ask this question, you show me that you are not ready for the blessing for which you are asking. You need to learn to be content with having ME, apart from whatever answers you may or may not receive. Were I to give you what you want right now, then I would only be reinforcing the self-centered, impatient attitude with you have come to me in prayer. And if I did that, then you certainly would not become the kind of person that you need to be in order to faithfully steward the gift for which you ask.”

Lloyd-Jones has, by way of Scripture, exposed an ugly corner of my prideful heart. It smarts, it hurts, but it is the truth. It is my very impatience with God in prayer that indicates I am not ready for the answer that I am seeking. It is my willingness to give up, to let go of God before he blesses me, that reveals how untrustworthy I am to handle the very thing for which I am praying. Before God can give me the blessing that I seek (assuming here that the blessing that I seek is according to his will), I must be the kind of person who can be entrusted with that blessing, who will not turn around and use it for selfish or self-aggrandizing purposes.

The crucible of unanswered prayer develops in us, as Lloyd-Jones observes, a holy violence that is paradoxically marked by patience, a desperation with which we lay hold of God and refuse to let go, no matter how long it will take or how much it will cost. It is on the anvil of unanswered prayer that God forges us under the pounding hammer of his holy love into people who are fit for the blessing that he desires to bestow upon us. It is through the fire of unanswered prayer that our sinful dross is purged and our faith, endurance, and character are refined into pure gold. But until we have passed through that fiery trial (weeks, months, years?) and come out on the other side recreated in the image of God, we should not necessarily expect God to answer our prayers as we would expect. He is God, we are not, and ours jesus-praysis to submit to his will, obeying his command to importunately persevere in prayer, regardless of what happens, knowing that within his “no” to us there is hidden a resounding “yes”.

When we think we have asked God for a fish or an egg, it is more likely that we have asked him for a serpent or a scorpion, and as our loving heavenly Father, he refuses to give it to us. What we need is for him to change us so that we are able to recognize this! Perhaps, then, if unanswered prayer is the way that God makes us ever more desperate and dependent on him, transforming us ever more from glory to glory, drawing us ever deeper into fellowship and communion with him, might it not be the greatest blessing of all?

So let us pray with a holy and patient violence, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, even if it means that we sweat drops of blood. It is in arriving at the place where we can wholeheartedly confess, “Not my will, but yours be done”, that God begins to shower down upon us his most abundant blessings.

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[1] Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Joy Unspeakable: Power & Renewal in the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984), pp.224-226, 231.

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