The greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer. – F. B. Meyer
In 1493, professors and students at the University of Leuven were caught in the grip of a dilemma that still concerns some Christians today: What is the optimal number of prayers needed to secure an answer? The issue was the object of a debate that lasted no less than eight weeks, without reaching a satisfactory conclusion.
Prayer is not about fixed formulas, the knowledge of which bringing guaranteed results. It is more than routine, therapy, or a simple, beneficial habit. Understanding the purpose of prayer is an essential condition for the survival of our faith under any circumstances—especially when our heartfelt requests remain unanswered.
When the door remains closed
No one wants to be on the wrong side of the door, writes author John Ortberg, arguing that unanswered prayers are one of the factors that can deeply discourage Christians from praying.1
The Bible says that God is the One who opens doors that no one can close, and closes doors that no one can open. We do not know the criteria by which we receive a positive answer or a refusal to our petitions, but we are assured that “all things work together for the good of those who love God.” Sometimes, after months or years, we are grateful that some doors remained closed in spite of our insistent knocks. But other times we cannot understand, no matter how much time passes, why the door remained locked.
In some cases, it is clear that we are knocking on the wrong door, writes Ortberg, trying to outline some explanations for prayers that do not receive the expected answer. The disciples’ request that Jesus bring fire from heaven upon the city that had not received them well, or Elijah’s prayer when he wished to die in a moment of extreme discouragement, are examples of this. At other times, the doors may remain closed because there is a better route for us, Ortberg observes. He cites the example of Abraham Lincoln, who suffered a series of failures on his way to the presidency—at a time when the American nation needed a president like him. Seemingly unheard prayers may be related to the fact that we need to grow in certain areas, or that God has plans that we do not know.2
In fact, as one Christian writer points out that, in the crises we are going through, “we want clarity, God wants our trust.” True faith does not cling to answers, not even to the Bible’s encouraging promises, but to the person of Jesus.
Faith comes from communion
When asked about miraculous answers to prayer—as those received, for example, by George Mueller, who cared for 10,000 orphans without owning the necessary material resources—Pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones used to answer, “We wonder why God does not answer our prayers as He answered those people. Rather, we should ask ourselves why we do not live the life that those people lived.”
The truth is, however, that not even those we regard as spiritual titans have not always received an immediate answer to their requests. Moses had to wait 120 years to enter Canaan, the promised land, and ultimately was not even allowed to cross its border. The apostle Paul asked three times to be healed of the “thorn in the flesh,” but each time, he received a negative response.
Chapter 11 of Hebrews offers a list of many who received incredible answers to prayer. However, it does not omit those who, though praised for their faith, suffered in chains, detention, exile, dispossession of material goods, torture, and even death.
How can faith survive in these unfavourable circumstances? Sometimes those who pray fervently for an answer, and do not receive it, are suspected by others of not having enough faith, points out Pastor Morris Venden. He notes that people may misunderstand prayer and the nature of faith. While we may strive to believe more strongly, thus multiplying the chances of a positive response, in reality, we may need to reconsider the object of our faith.
Faith means trusting in God even if things do not go as we expect. It does not mean only relying on promises, but on the One who made them, writes Venden. While some of the Bible’s promises are about deliverance from trouble, others guarantee His power and presence with us, in the midst of trouble. Not even the heroes mentioned in Hebrews 11 knew in advance how God would answer their prayer. Standing in front of the hot furnace, the three Jews taken as slaves to Babylon asserted their strong faith in the One who could save them from death, but they were aware that He might not intervene. Their faith was rooted in God, not in His answer.
“We forget that prayer is more than a text that is said; it is a meeting that is lived. It is even more communion than communication “, writes professor Roberto Badenas. Sometimes we detect hints of pagan ritual in our prayers, when we try to persuade God to change His attitude, to gain His favour, or to make Him aware of our real needs, Badenas notes. But genuine prayer comes with the awareness that we meet God when we come to worship, that He gives us His attention, and that although we are only dust, we have the privilege abiding in His presence day after day, breath after breath.
From discouragement to faith
The Christian life is not a refuge in a garden protected from all the dangers of the world, but a walk in the presence of God, says writer Eugene Peterson. He emphasizes that in this journey of faith, Christians “breathe the same air, shop in the same shops, …they fear the same dangers, they are subjected to similar pressures as the others, they suffer the same sufferings, they are buried in the same earth”.
At the funeral of a father who had suffered from a serious illness during the last 7 years of his life, his family chose to print two Bible verses on the front and back of the leaflets distributed to the participants in the ceremony: “The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want” and “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” All you have to do is open the Bible to Psalms 22 and 23 and the passages appear together, in some versions, even on the same page opening.
Difficulties, troubles, and tragedies determine whether we will navigate either the path of discouragement and unbelief, or the path of trusting the One we know, in the middle of uncertainty.
Elie Wiesel’s faith died in Nazi camps, in front of a child’s body dangling helplessly after being hanged to death. Corrie ten Boom’s faith strengthened, in the same terrifying conditions. Corrie would describe the wonders she witnessed—the bottle of vitamins from which drops flowed no matter how many detainees crowded around it. The Bible that was not discovered during any search, not even during those in which the detainees were stripped to the skin. The peace and quiet that descended on the Ten Boom sisters’ hostel, where women worn by violence were tamed by the words of Scripture. But all this coexisted with hunger, fear, cold, violence, and death in the camp. Where Wiesel had seen an absent, indifferent, already dead God, the Boom sisters could make out, through every hard day, the traces of the One who was whipped, stripped, and mocked, the One who had stepped before them on this thorny road, smoothing it out. They saw a God who always answers, but in His time. And, according to Betsie, Corrie’s older sister, “His time is perfect. His will is our refuge. ”
“I will fear no evil,” said the psalmist, declaring that his peace did not spring from the certainty that he would be protected from any danger, but from the feeling of God’s uninterrupted presence, wherever he might find himself.
Writer Philip Yancey says he has a drawer full of letters from Christians whose requests have not received the desired response—broken marriages, an unhealed inoperable tumor, a child born with deformities. All the doors that are slammed noisily in our faces push us to a choice, the writer notes, quoting the words of George Everett Ross: either to an “if” or a “though” type of trust. While one looks, frantically, for reasons to endure, the other undertakes to endure in any condition, as Job did (“Even after my skin has been destroyed, yet I will see God in my flesh.”).
Waiting for the real end
It’s easy to lose your perspective when you raise your children alone, writes religion professor Jerry Sittser. He lost part of his family in a car accident. But you can find yourself in the same area of vulnerability if you suffer from depression, or if you are divorced, or a refugee of war. A broader perspective is needed in order to believe beyond the answers to prayer, or lack thereof, Sittser points out. This broader perspective must encompass, in addition to the overwhelming circumstances of the present, the history of God’s sacrifice in the past and His promise to restore right and good in the future. Even if we think we know too little about what is happening to us at a given point, we should always know enough to be confident that God remains in control, no matter how chaotic things may seem.
In 1915, shortly after their wedding, Alma and Norman Wiles went on a mission to Malekula Island, in the New Hebrides, “one of the darkest places on earth,” as Presbyterian missionary John Geddie noted in his 19th-century diary. Some tribes in the area still practiced cannibalism, and several missionaries had already been killed here.
Five years later, Norman fell ill with black water fever, and the 5 days and nights that Alma watched over him were an uninterrupted time of prayer. Yet most of the prayers were not answered. Norman did not have a miraculous healing. His friend Stewart, a missionary on a neighboring island, did not reach him in time, as Norman had longed for him to. Because none of Alma’s many messages reached the neighboring island, Stewart was not present at his friend’s funeral either, although Alma wished so much not to have to bury her husband alone. Eventually, forced to leave their home in Malekula for safety reasons, Alma traveled unaccompanied to the Stewart family home, forced to face the jungle and unfriendly tribes on her own. Not even her fervent desire—her heartfelt prayer—to continue working as a missionary in Malekula, was fulfilled.
Forty-three years later, Alma visited the island again, and was shocked by what she found. About a thousand people had embraced Christianity, many cruel, unenlightened customs were now only a memory, and the status of women had changed dramatically. A woman’s life had long been considered less valuable than that of an animal. Some of the local people who still remembered her came to thank her. Alma exclaimed through tears, “It was worth it! If Norman could see them now… Yes, it was worth it.”
At the end of time, each mortal will come to the conclusion that Alma formulated when she looked back on her struggling life on the island. Every knee will bow in worship, and every tongue will confess that in a world of sin, God’s ways have always been right. Even when the silence is deafening, God still has control, and He still loves us.
Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.