Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 13, 2015

The Problem Of Unanswered Prayer

One of the problems that we inevitably face on the journey of faith is that our prayers often go unanswered.  We often pray fervently and faithfully for things that seem clearly in line with God’s will only to receive no resolution.  In some cases the exact opposite of what we pray for ends up happening.

This is an important issue for us to be honest about.  If we fail to name the doubt or anger caused by unanswered prayer we will become increasingly distant from God.

Our relationship with God is not completely unlike other relationships.  If we feel like our spouse is no longer trustworthy, or if they do not seem to be listening to us, we probably will not have a very healthy relationship.  We will grow distant and communication will break down.  The same thing can be applied to our relationship with God.  Our communication with God is going to suffer if we have unresolved frustration or distrust. I think one of the reasons many of us struggle to pray is because we wonder whether God really listens.

Last week I read an excellent book by Christopher Hall titled, Worshipping With The Church Fathers.  In one of the chapters he deals directly with this question of unanswered prayer.  He provides some wisdom from both the early church fathers and some contemporary theologians to help us navigate this troubling issue.

Hall begins by reminding us that we ought not to sidestep or trivialize this issue.  We need to be honest about our frustration and our questions.  He quotes Richard Foster saying:

We must not rush too quickly here to solve this problem with glib talk about God answering with ‘yes, no, or wait’ and the like. If we are honest, and not just trying to cover up our insecurity, we must all admit to deep perplexity over these things.

Indeed, the problem of unanswered prayer does cause us deep perplexity and we need to have space to be honest about it.  Easy answers can simply be a way of “covering up our insecurity.”  Under the surface, however, we can remain confused and distrustful of God.  That is why lament is such and important part of prayer.  David models for us a radical honesty in prayer.  Psalm 88, for example, is full of anger, confusion and frustration.  It is a prayer that has no resolution.  It concludes with David saying, “you have taken my companions and loved ones from me, the darkness is my closest friend.”

Hall also cautions that there are not always satisfactory answers to the question of unanswered prayer. Some things remain a mystery.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  Attempts to fully resolve this issue will fall short.  There will be times when we will struggle to find a satisfactory answer to God’s silence.

Nevertheless, Hall suggests that there is some guidance to be found concerning this perplexing issue.  Though these insights do not fully resolve the problem of unanswered prayer, they may broaden our perspective in certain situations.

First, Hall suggests that one of the reasons why God is seemingly silent in the face of our prayers is that we often have a narrow understanding of love.  Hall quotes C.S. Lewis, saying:

What would really satisfy us would be a God who said of anything we happened to like doing, “What does it matter so long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven.

Sometimes the things we ask of God may not be in our best interest.  God is not like the grandparent who stereotypically will bend the rules and give the grandchild whatever they want, but a parent who establishes healthy boundaries that sometimes involve the word “no.”

In retrospect we may discover that the things we fervently prayed for may not have been the best thing for us anyway.  Sometimes our prayers may be shortsighted.  We may look back and be grateful that a certain relationship, job, or school program didn’t end up working out because it would have not been the best fit.

Some of the things we pray for may also stand in direct contradiction to the needs or concerns of others.  The prayer for a successful business merger, for example, might be detrimental to numerous lower level employees who would lose their employment if the deal closed.

Sometimes our prayers might be self-contradictory. Hall provides the following examples:  “Oh, Lord, grant me patience quickly.” “Oh, Lord, soften my heart toward the suffering of the world, but please protect me from suffering.” “Oh, Lord, allow me to enter the world of the sick as a healer, but protect me from ever getting sick myself.” These examples all have to do with the desire for character formation.  We may desire patience, empathy, and compassion; yet, the formation of these characteristics often involve a certain amount of suffering.

In other situations the timing might not be right.  Perhaps we are not ready for what we are asking for. Hall gives the following example: “I may be praying for an expanded ministry. God may answer the deeper intent of my prayer by introducing difficult circumstances into my life to refine my character, so that when my ministry is expanded I serve safely and wisely.”

Probably the most helpful response to the problem of unanswered prayer is that there is often a deeper reality at work beyond the appearance of things. The biblical story continually reminds us that there is often a deeper spiritual work that can be discerned below the surface of suffering.  The most prominent example, of course, is that of Jesus himself.  Reflecting on Jesus’ crucifixion, Hall writes:

Jesus’ tormentors— the Jewish religious authorities and the Roman executioners— said they would believe only if Jesus were delivered from his sufferings. These people, Chrysostom comments, lacked a believing, discerning disposition— a key aspect of the life of prayer— and misinterpreted Christ’s greatest act on their behalf. . . . What appeared to be the greatest tragedy in the history of the world was actually the most blessed event. If so, Christians can view the circumstances of their lives— and the inexplicable answers God sometimes gives to their prayers— in a new light. For John Chrysostom, reality rather than appearance is the heart of the matter.

The story of the cross is a reminder that the presence of suffering does not necessitate the absence of God.  The biblical narrative continually points us to the counterintuitive movements of the spirit.  The reign of God often breaks into this world through experiences of suffering and hardship.  We gain life by losing it.  While God is not the author of evil he is able to bring redemption out of it. The call to prayer is a call to look below the immediate appearances of thing.  Prayer invites us to view reality through a cruciform lens.

As I write this, however, I want to be careful not to trivialize our perplexity.  The initial caveats about not fully knowing why God does not answer prayer comes in to play here.  Sometimes it is hard to see any redemption in the midst of suffering.  Sometimes it is years before we make any sense of this.  Perhaps the most important factor to keep in mind when trying to make sense of unanswered prayer is that we continue to live in a broken world.  The dynamics of death and decay are still at work in our midst and we are still longing for a future restoration that has not fully arrived.

Christopher Hall, however, reminds us to not give up on the process of prayer too quickly.  Prayer is an invitation to keep looking beyond the appearance of things.  Perhaps this is why God invites us to persist in prayer. Maybe prayer is less about getting God to listen to us and more about us learning to listen to God?  Richard Foster writes:

In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills. Progressively, we are taught to see things from his point of view.

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