You are reading a theological journal. You are, no doubt, then familiar with the story of George Mueller; a story that is equal parts wonder at the amazing faith of a man with a heart for orphans and an amazing God who provided in response to his faith. It also can bring a response that, once you are past marveling at his faith and God’s provision, you are left wondering what is wrong with your prayer life. The story of George Mueller is not as much a comfort to the wife who just lost her husband to cancer, or the 55 year old who just lost his job because he did not agree to work Sundays, or the 17 year old pastor’s kid who is now homeless and jobless just because his dad held firm to the Bible’s teaching. Did these folks have less faith than George Mueller? Were they worse pray-ers than him? It has been a sticky wicket in the teaching on prayer: what do we do with prayer that can be prayed with George Mueller’s faith, but produces Joseph’s results? It is not just answering the question of unanswered prayer that is the focus of this article, but rather seeing God’s hand in the yes and no that is given in reply to our prayers. One can pray with equal faith, but get different results because the providence of God is at work for the best of God’s people. To examine this further, we will examine a few episodes in Joseph’s life and draw out a few key thoughts related to prayer.
Joseph in the Pit and Prayer
From the beginning, Joseph enjoyed a privileged position as his father’s favorite. He was the first son of Jacob’s beloved Rachel. Things were good for Joseph. Things were so good for Joseph that God saw fit to give him special messages through his dreams, that he would enjoy a level of prominence that would cause the others around him to show their due respect. God was going to do great things with Joseph. Perhaps in some way, this emboldened Joseph enough to think that dad’s favor of him was appropriate and would be understood by his brothers. Why else would he have shared this information with them? Yet, his brothers, evidently missing the message God had for them in the dream, took matters into their own hands and rose up against Joseph. With his life barely spared, Joseph was sold off into slavery. Rather than having others bow before him, he would spend many years in service to a palace official, and ultimately end up in the dungeon pit, convicted of a crime he did not commit. We might ask the question, “How can a good God allow this to happen?” It is a question that perhaps some might ask when they read news of a young missionary family, one step away from the field, tragically killed in a car accident on the way to their last agency meeting. Why did that happen? We want answers now, but there are none. At least not right now. Don’t rush ahead to Genesis 50, but linger with Joseph in Genesis 37. The answers are not coming for 10, 15, maybe even 25 years. Many people ask the question, “Can you still trust a God that works on that time table?” Asking this question and our answer to it reveals where we are in our walk of faith. Perhaps you don’t ask that question, but you likely know who is. What do you say to them? They may have George Mueller faith, but they have received Joseph results.
Genesis 39 gives us the narrative account of one of the worst mistrials ever. Joseph has done nothing but bring honor and success to Potiphar’s house and certainly did nothing wrong, often fleeing the invitations to enjoy a little fun on the side, no matter how wrong it could have been. In other words, Joseph was a faithful worker and honored God through what he did. This, of course, landed him in jail, the victim of false accusation and a lawyer-less justice. While in the dungeon, he experiences favor with God again, things go well and he is put in charge again. He also makes the acquaintance of a couple of Pharaoh’s servants who have become cellmates. As he interprets the dreams of these two servants in Genesis 40, we get a little clue into what has been going on in Joseph’s mind. His remark to the cupbearer ends up being a pointless petition, because he forgets Joseph (vs. 23). What it reveals, though, is a Joseph that is struggling to understand why God has not answered and how he might help the process along. But his plan fails in one sense, as he is forgotten, but when the time is right, God will bring this to the mind of the cupbearer.
Two years after the seemingly pointless petition, the time is right and Joseph is delivered from prison. Through God’s grace, Joseph is able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and go from last to first faster than any sports team ever. It is the end of a long process in Joseph’s life and brings to fruition the dreams that God gave Joseph many years earlier. What is important to remember is that it did take many years for Joseph to get to this point. For us, it is a turn of the page, for Joseph, it was an arduous process filled with some doubt, some answers, some setbacks, and much patience needed.
Principles on Prayer
So what are some principles we can take from this as we seek to pray with George Mueller faith but often with Joseph results? Here are a few: Pray with a long-term view, not only a short-term view. There is nothing wrong with asking God to act now. Certainly the Psalm writers were not shy in asking God “How long, O Lord?” With that, though, there is the need to remember that God’s timing is always best and prayer can be a time that helps to re-focus on the long-term view of God’s plan.
Pray with a firm faith in the sovereignty and providence of God. The story of Joseph is an amazing picture of God’s providence, using the choices and actions of people to accomplish His grand plan. But for Joseph, who was living it, the story did not look so amazing until the end. It was only at the end that he could look back and see God’s work clearly. Until then, it was only by faith, with the doubts that naturally come, that Joseph could see God’s providence at work.
Keep praying even when it seems like God has forgotten you. Joseph honored God with his life. He was a person of integrity and hard work. He was a person of honor in all his dealings. Yet, it ended him up in slavery and then in prison. These are the kinds of things that cause followers of Jesus to wonder where God is. It is at those times that faith in God is put to the test. Many people will say, “I prayed and God did not …” and then they stop praying. We must keep praying especially during those times. Paul writes in 2nd Corinthians about a number of things that were happening against him and the ministry team, but that these things happened so that they would not rely on themselves but on God. Our faith in God will be strengthened by praying through those times when it seems God is not there. The truth is God is there and He has not forgotten us.
Pray with George Mueller’s faith even if you are seeing only Joseph results. God will bring about His work in you through the pain, through the prayer, and through the results, both good and bad.