Last week, I talked a little bit about prayer. I also mentioned Pete Greig’s book, How to Pray. The combination of these two things got me thinking a lot about prayer over the course of the last week. Honestly, I have also been grappling with it in my own journey lately as well since a dear friend of mine seems to be close to losing the battle with cancer that she has been fighting for over 10 years. If something like that doesn’t make you wrestle with God about prayer, I don’t know what will.
Let me preface my message by saying that just because I am writing this, it doesn’t mean that I have this all figured out. What I am writing here represents the small sliver of understanding that God showed me as I have been processing it. Like always, I am basing my assertions on the Bible, combined with my own personal experience and observations. But of course, that doesn’t mean it’s all correct, so I’d love to hear back from you if you disagree with anything I say here.
With that out of the way, let me jump in. I think the first thing to put out there is that I think the reason we all–myself included–allow ourselves to believe the lie that God does not answer our prayers is simply because He does not answer them in the way we would like and/or in the timing we would like.
Here are a of couple silly examples to illustrate.
First, if you came to me and asked me for a beet, I might respond by saying, “I’m not going to do that because beets are disgusting, but here’s a carrot instead.” For the sake of this illustration, if we considered your request like a prayer, you would claim that I didn’t answer your prayer because I didn’t give you a beet. However, I could argue to the contrary: I answered your “prayer” by giving you something better than a beet.
Secondly, let’s say you called me in a bind and asked for $2000 to cover your home mortgage payment that month. Let’s suppose that I don’t send you the money you need now, but three months from now, I pay off the entire $200,000 remaining on your mortgage. For that entire 3-month period, you would probably be grumbling about me every chance you get because I didn’t answer your “prayer” in the timing that suited you best. But after I paid off your house, you’d probably feel a little silly for ever doubting me, and you’d probably tell all your friends what a swell and trustworthy guy I am.
So, now let’s take a quick look at the different ways God answers our prayers and why we are tempted to think He doesn’t answer them.
When God’s Answer is “Yes”
This, of course, is the only type of answer that we typically praise God for. “Hallelujah, I found a job! God is good!” This is also usually the only type of answer in which we recognize that God has answered our prayers.
There are many instances of this type of answer in the Bible. Jesus prays to raise his friend Lazarus from the dead and Lazarus comes stumbling out of the grave (see John 11:41-44). In case you’re thinking that doesn’t count since Jesus is himself part of the triune God, he doesn’t give us a pass on that. Instead, he challenged his disciples (and us along with them) that if they/we had faith even as large as a tiny mustard seed, we could tell a mountain to move and it would obey (see Matthew 17:14-21). Also, examples abound of “regular” people who received “yes” answers to their prayers: Elijah prayed for it not to rain and they had a 3.5-year drought (1 Kings 17), then he prayed for it to rain and it rained (interestingly, he had to pray seven times for it to rain before a cloud formed–see 1 Kings 18:41-16); blind Bartimaeus asked for his sight to be restored, and Jesus made it so immediately, explaining that Barticmaeus’s faith had made him well (Mark 10:46-52).
When God’s Answer is “No”
But wait–was it only because of Bartimaeus’s faith that he was healed? No, there are other people in the Bible who Jesus heals whose faith we hear nothing about. Or what about us–when we feel like there is no answer to our prayers, is it because we lack faith?
OK, so here it is: “no” is an answer, too. None of us like to be told “no” (some of us have more practice at it than others), but it is an appropriate response to a question.
But why would a God who loves us ever tell us “no”? Anyone who has ever been a parent should be able to explain simply that it’s not healthy for their child to give them everything they ask for, especially since some of their requests are ludicrous and immature.
Well, what about when we’re not praying for something as trivial as a piece of candy at the store? What about when we are praying for healing for a loved one? I prayed for healing for my mom and mother-in-law, but God took them anyway. I and everyone from our church small group have been praying earnestly and full of faith for healing for this sister of ours who will probably lose her battle with cancer soon. I’ve been praying for my two prodigal children to realize that Jesus is the answer, the peace and comfort they have been looking for in all sorts of dumb places, but they remain outside the faith.
Why would God say “no” to these prayers?
I don’t have any great answers. One thought is that God made the physical world, along with the natural laws that govern it. If He broke those rules every time someone prayed for supernatural outcomes, there would in effect be no natural laws–the world would be nothing but chaos. I know, not very satisfying.
In a blog post last year, I also speculated that, at least as it pertains to healing, such prayers may actually be answered by God calling the suffering person home, since that person is restored to perfect health, with no trace of cancer or heart disease or dementia. Also not very comforting.
Although it doesn’t answer the question why God would say no to such prayers, maybe it can offer a little comfort to reflect upon the fact that God the Father even said “no” to His own beloved Son in response to his most desperate prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane, not long before Jesus was to be arrested, beaten, and executed, he begged his Father to take the cup of suffering from him. He was so distressed that he was sweating drops of blood.
But God even told His own Son “no”.
To his credit, knowing that our salvation was at stake, Jesus ended his desperate prayer, “yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Once again, Jesus set the perfect, albeit challenging, example for us to follow.
When God’s Answer is “Not That” or “Not Now”
As I illustrated with my silly examples earlier, these answers are very difficult to discern from a plain “no”. For me, it is usually only through hindsight that I can see how God has in fact answered my prayers in better ways and in better timing than I had asked or imagined.
Here’s the thing: even though I don’t mean to, I suppose I am trying to take on God’s role when I prescribe to Him what I want the outcome of my prayer to be–for example, if I prayed for a beet (which I wouldn’t) instead of sustenance. Similarly, I guess you could say I am trying to steal His big giant hat and put it on myself when I judge that He has not answered my prayer. He has told me (and all of us) that His ways are higher than mine and His thoughts are higher than my thoughts (Isaiah 55:9)–how odd that we need to be reminded of this so often.
In closing, I’ll leave you with a few thoughts (and reminders for myself) of what to do if you feel like God is not answering your prayers.
First, KEEP ASKING! This seems almost counterintuitive and common sense at the same time. Anyone who has had a child ask for something over and over and over again knows how annoying it can be. And I really try my best not to annoy anyone. But Jesus himself told us to do this! See the Parable of the Persistent Widow in Luke 18:1-8.
Second, look for ways that God might have answered your prayers in ways you hadn’t expected. Did God give you a carrot instead of a beet? If so, thank Him immediately.
Next, be patient! Remember, Abram and Sarai had to wait 25 years before the promise of Isaac was fulfilled. God may be waiting for exactly the right moment in time to answer your prayer. I know Amazon.com and the plethora of streaming services, among others, have conditioned us to expect instant gratification, but–news flash!–God understands the value of patience and perfect timing.
Finally–and you may have to do this through gritted teeth, like me–practice ending your prayers like Jesus did in Gethsemane: “Yet not my will, but your will be done.”