On Unanswered Prayers

DCM_0914I haven’t read many books dealing with spiritual topics in the past few years, haven’t spent much time perusing tomes about God or Jesus or living this Christian life. I’ve tended toward fiction, toward history and science and writing manuals, toward collections of short stories, collections of essays. There was a spat of inspirational reading there, in the fall of 2013, and then it fell off, drifted away. Or rather, I drifted away. From those reading choices, from those books, from those ideas.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, a deliberate turning away, but rather a subtle response to Christianese, to God-speak, to the language of faith, the familiar phrases I’ve heard so many times. Even here, even now, certain sayings cause a gut reaction in me, a visceral and unpleasant feeling of angst, of anger. Even here, even now, even when I know there is truth behind the ideas being expressed, some of the words used in church circles taste sour, bitter, false. Even here, even now, after so much time and growth and joy, some oft-quoted verses bring pain instead of healing, hurt instead of comfort.

Still, I broke the trend against spiritual topics recently, picked up Philip Yancey’s Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Being a follower of Jesus, a believer in a good and loving and omnipotent God, the answer to that question should be easy. It should be clear. It should be yes, unequivocal, definite, yes, yes, yes. And yet, I wonder, and I doubt, and I question. Does it make a difference? Does it really? Does it? He seemed to think he had an answer to such a question, enough to fill 336 pages, and so I decided to see what he had to say.

It’s funny, sometimes, the way things work out, the way things happen. (Funny. Strange. Coincidental. Or do I mean providential? Still, still, I struggle with the God-speak, though I yearn to be past this.) I noticed this book at my in-laws’ home several months ago, asked about it, expressed interest in reading it. It was promised to a friend, lent to her first, read and returned, then given to me. There it sat, on my shelf, waiting for attention, waiting to be read, until I finally opened it a few weeks ago. I’ve read it each day, during the first part of Katie’s morning nap, sometimes a few pages, sometimes a few chapters, with no set agenda, no set timeline, no realization of the date until today. Until today.

It’s an anniversary of sorts, today is, a day that marks a time in my life where I prayed specifically, fervently, repeatedly, where dozens of others joined me in those prayers, where I believed with all my heart that God would answer, God would come through. And yet, He didn’t. He didn’t, and everything I thought I knew about faith, about God, about prayer, crumbled like so much dust.

It’s an anniversary of sorts, today is, and this morning I read the chapter entitled, “Unanswered Prayer: Living With the Mystery.”

It’s funny, sometimes, the way things work out.

Yancey opens this chapter with words that resonate, and I found myself nodding as I read them:

Some, but not all, unanswered prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prays. Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mystifying respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all, trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence and the potential for tragic accident. 

Yes. Yes. Yes. This matches my experience, my observations of the world and of humanity. But then, then, it falls apart. He quotes Jesus:

I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt . . . you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.

Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done by my Father in heaven.

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.

They brought tears to my eyes, these words of Jesus, and I found myself back where I was when we first received the court’s decision, back in that place of disbelief, of anger, of confusion. Such bold promises, plainly stated. Such straightforward words from the One who is God, the One who cannot lie. And yet. And yet. Still, two years later, I do not know what to make of such promises, how to reconcile such words with my reality and the realities of so many others who love God, so many others who have sought help, relief, intervention from God but failed to receive it. I do not know how to make these things fit with the fact of unanswered prayers.

And here is where I falter, where words fail, because it is here, in the face of unanswered prayers, that the only thing left to us is God-speak, the language of faith, of trusting without understanding. This is the wall I hit, the impassable barricade, the infinite gap between human comprehension and divine mystery. I had hoped Yancey might have some silver bullet, some magic wand to wave to help me make sense of it all, to help me find resolution, to help me bring it together in my heart and my mind. Some explanation that would make the questions stop, the hurt go away. A foolish hope, a naïve one, for he is only a man, with limited ability to grasp divine workings, and he has nothing to say that I have not already heard a hundred times. He closes this chapter by talking about mystery, by reminding us that we are human, fallible, that we do not have clear vision, clear understanding:

[T]he only final solution to unanswered prayer is Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians: “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.” No human being, no matter how wise or how spiritual, can interpret the ways of God, explain why one miracle and not another, why an apparent intervention here and not there. Along with the apostle Paul, we can only wait, and trust.

Everything in me rails against the waiting, against the trusting, against accepting these common exhortations, true though they may be. I want a different answer, one that does not invoke mystery, one that does not leave lingering questions and doubts. In my humanity, in my brokenness, the waiting does not satisfy. In my humanity, in my brokenness, the waiting feels like defeat, feels like surrender.

Like surrender. This is the crux of it, the heart of it, the pain behind it all, for surrender is exactly what it is. Surrender of my hurt, of my sense of justice, of my questions. Not to eliminate such things, never that, but to give them to Him, to trust Him with them. To find that balance, that place of back-and-forth conversation, that wrestling match that draws me closer. To surrender my need to know all, to understand all. To find a way to hold the doubt and the faith, side by side, in open palms, an offering, a prayer.

It seems impossible, this surrendering, this trusting. How do I find a way to pray, knowing as I do that sometimes prayers go unanswered?

Though the mystery is beyond me, though there is grief and hurt and confusion here, though it so often seems as though He does not hear, I read this chapter on unanswered prayer today, of all days. Today, when the old questions rise to the surface, fresh again, new.

He tells us to pray in faith, believing, and I am trying. I am trying.

I believe, Lord. Help my unbelief.

Loving God

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6 Responses to On Unanswered Prayers

  1. jywatkins says:

    Great post. I have been struggling with prayer for a long time, and it definitely complicates my relationship with God. I am especially sensitive when people ask for prayers for things like fun trips or getting the right wedding dress. I know God cares about our every happiness and pain and stress, but I can’t imagine he answers these prayers and leaves prayers for illness, injustice, and hunger unanswered. I have a blog post in the works myself on this kind of topic because it’s been gnawing at me for a while.

    • Jenn says:

      Thanks for commenting, Jamie! I struggle, too, with requests that seem more trivial, and how they fit into a worldview that includes a God who cares about every detail and who wants us to pray at all times, but at the same time puts such emphasis on loving our neighbors and caring for the needy. I guess I keep coming back to the idea that prayer is intended to draw us closer to God and, as such, should express the passions and desires and hopes of our hearts. As we grow in Him, hopefully our passions and desires grow to match His, so that the trivial falls away. I have a long, long way to go in that, however.

      I’m looking forward to your post on the topic! 🙂

  2. Great post, Jenn. It’s been open in my browser for a while waiting for me to find the time to read it. I have struggled with many of these same questions about prayer, and always amplified by times of difficulty or uncertainty, of course. (Naturally, my Mom’s health crisis is the big example for me.) A friend’s mother died this past week, and these questions about prayer are swirling around in my head again. I hate to feel like a cynic, but so often when people ask me to pray for one situation or another, I find that I do feel a little… I’m not sure cynical is the right word, really, but… obviously, prayer isn’t a magic genie lamp, and no matter how righteous the request is or how worthy the persons in need of prayer or how many people are praying, the outcome may not be what is prayed for. So, as you said above, I find that my prayers draw me nearer to God, cause me to turn to him, and put me in the frame of mind of thinking of others instead of myself. Sometimes, when I don’t have any answers and don’t understand life’s outcomes, that has to be enough for me.

  3. topffamily says:

    It was refreshing to read this today. A real person’s struggle with faith, prayer. My father passed away last year. He had a short battle with cancer. He was believing and praying for healing every second and yet, he died. His passing shattered my world and has made me question everything I believe. I, too, struggle with prayer. It’s always seemed a little foolish to me. It feels like I’m talking to the air. And why do I have to pray? If God is omnipotent, etc and knows everything, than why do I have to go to him like a petulant child and ask for healing? Ask for comfort? Ask for whatever? He already knows what’s in my heart so what’s the point? What if the line, “It’s not for you to understand why or how things happened” isn’t a good enough answer for me? God is supposed to be closest to the brokenhearted but it sure doesn’t feel like He is.

    • Jenn says:

      I’m so sorry for your loss. I don’t know what more to say beyond that, really. The world can be inexplicable and cruel, and faith and prayer can be so hard at those times. I hear you about not feeling as though God is near you in your grief; I wrestled with that, too.

      I hope for peace for you, and that the struggles and the questions and the difficulties somehow lead you deeper. I am still in the midst of walking that path myself – there are days when it seems like I am clawing my way back to faith, and have been for so long, but am not really any closer to understanding or trusting as I want to do.

      You are not alone.