I read a sermon recently on unanswered prayer by a Free Church minister of the nineteenth century whose name is forgotten today. He was James Cameron and he was the pastor of Glenbervie from 1864 to 1875. For reasons not stated, after he died several of his friends published a short memoir containing a brief biography and several sermons. No doubt, those friends wanted to have a permanent record of his ministry. Their names are mentioned in the preface, but as far as I could see they are now forgotten as well. Such will be the fate of most of Christ's servants and of virtually everyone else. Yet when I picked up this short book I discovered that James was still speaking through what he had preached long ago.
One of his sermons is about unanswered prayer, a common problem for Christians in all ages. The sermon was based on James 4:3, where the brother of Jesus tells us that the cause of unanswered prayer is that we ask amiss, which is another way of saying that it is our own fault if our prayers are not answered. As the preacher pointed out, this is a divinely-inspired explanation of why that happens.
Cameron explains what it is to ask amiss. He begins by saying that it is possible to ask for wrong things. He then tells us that it is possible to ask in the wrong manner and he obviously regarded this as very important because most of his sermon dealt with this failure. How can we ask in the wrong manner? He said we do so when we fail to address God as Father and experience the warmth that such a relationship should bring; he said we do so when we fail to realise that we approach the Father through Jesus the mediator; he said we do so when our prayers are not earnest and sincere; and he said we do so when we cherish a secret sin in our hearts.
It is obvious that the preacher said nothing new in his sermon. But it is also the case that he said nothing untrue in his sermon. The reasons he gave for unanswered prayer in his congregation in nineteenth-century Scotland are probably the reasons for unanswered prayer in congregations in twenty-first century Scotland and elsewhere. Is there a bigger tragedy in a congregation than unanswered prayer?
One question for me is why did God in his providence bring this sermon on unanswered prayer to my attention in 2014. James, I am sure, would not have imagined that a simple sermon of his would minister to another preacher almost 150 years later. But God had it in mind and when he enabled James to prepare his sermon I was the focus of divine attention, as well as those who heard it and later those who read it. We can say that about any item from the past that comes our way. I would suggest that the God of grace brought it my way so that I would pay attention to how I pray and for what I pray. That is an evidence of his kindness. And since you are reading this summary of the sermon, he has brought it to your attention as well.
In my mind, I can imagine meeting James somewhere in the heavenly country and telling him that his sermon was used by God to help me. Perhaps you too will be able to join the conversation and say that you also were guided to pray appropriately even by this brief mention of the explanation he gave of why we experience unanswered prayer.