My Many Unanswered Prayers
When I was a new follower of Christ around age 17, an older Christian encouraged me to keep a prayer diary. He said I’d be amazed to see so many of my prayers answered.
Forty years later I’ve been amazed at how few of my prayers are answered. My list keeps getting longer and longer and few things drop off. The prayers that are most frequently answered are things like job searches or healing for temporary illnesses. The prayers that are answered the least are for people to become followers of Christ. There have been some remarkable answers to my prayers, too, but they have been few and far between.
My friends who know my track record jokingly ask me not to pray for them!
James says that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective,” so maybe I’m not righteous. I know my righteousness comes from God, not me, but as followers of Jesus go, I think I’m doing reasonably well. Or perhaps I’m praying for the wrong things. But when I look at my list, it’s not like I’m praying to win the lottery (especially since I’ve never bought a ticket) or to become a rock star drummer (which is my true calling in life!). I pray for people’s legitimate needs. And I pray for myself, too.
So what gives? Why the terrible success rate?
Some people will say, “well, God is answering your prayers, just not in the affirmative.” Yeah, yeah, but these are good prayers. Healing sick children, bringing people to repentance, repairing broken marriages – God loves these things. Yet He usually doesn’t intervene – at least not in the way I’m expecting.
Others will say the reason I don’t get my prayers answered is that I don’t pray believing that my requests will be granted. And that I can’t do, because I can’t trick myself into believing something will happen if I don’t know it will happen. Some people “pray in faith,” believing it will come to pass, yet they seem surprisingly unperturbed when it doesn’t happen. Maybe they stifle their doubts or don’t give voice to them. Or perhaps they’re forgetful, or I don’t know what, but I just don’t have the intellectual capacity to believe my prayers will come true. I know they can come true – of this I have no doubt -- but that they will come true? Nuh-uh. No can do.
Whenever I pray for sick people, I ask both that they will be healed AND they will have the grace to suffer well. It’s the latter prayer that seems the more important one. Sure, God loves to heal, but He rarely heals the things that don’t tend to clear up of their accord. I have never seen a quadriplegic regain mobility, an amputee has a limb restored, Alzheimer’s be reversed, or someone with AIDS test negative for the virus.
What gives? Is God asleep? Is He not all-powerful? Or is He not good? No, no, and no.
I suspect God is way more interested in shaping us through unanswered prayer than in granting our wishes. The Fall’s reversal will come in heaven, but on earth, it mostly continues its merciless assault on health, wealth, and wholeness. God’s driving interest is to use suffering to re-orient our souls towards Him. That’s why James would write, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Oh. Not exactly what I had in mind when I began my prayer journal four decades ago. I was looking for a list of ways I would see God heal, restore, make straight, and save. Instead, He seems to want to make me fully His -- mind, body, soul, and strength. And the very things I wish He’d take away seem to be the very instruments He uses to re-make us into His likeness.
If, as The Onion has reported, the mortality rate stands at 100 percent (and which it blames on the world’s health care workers….), then God seems to be mostly in the business of transforming our souls, not healing our bodies. His primary interest is cultivating a people whose first desire is to do God’s bidding in all things, come what may. That’s actually much harder than healing. And more healing might actually undermine His purposes.
I don’t have any plans to stop my many prayers for healing, salvation, marriages, jobs, etc. For me, it’s not a calculus about success – it’s trust that God is good, that He hears my prayers, and that He wants me to pray. I’ll pray with an open mind that God can and may answer my prayers, but I’ll also keep praying that God uses the degradations and the heartaches and the indignities to advance His Kingdom in the hearts of people.
I can’t say I’d do things like God does, but my choice is to trust Him and follow Him despite my many unanswered prayers. In heaven, I expect this will all make sense.