On Unanswered Prayer

About a year and a half ago, a dear member of our congregation sent me an email filled with questions about unanswered prayer. 

It had been a dark time for our community. We felt trapped, so to speak, in the valley of the shadow of death, and several people whom we had prayed for quite fervently did not make it out alive. All of us were grieved, and many of us had questions -- questions like, “What good is all this prayer if God is just going to let these people die? Why does he demand our prayer if he already knows what he’s going to do?” 

The email I recieved was filled with those sorts of questions, and so as best as I could, I tried to answer them. I have no doubt my response was inadequate and lacking in many ways, but the recipient found enough comfort and solace from it that she shared it publicly for others to read. The whole scenario put me in mind of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”

I know that most of us spend our whole lives wrestling with questions about unanswered prayers -- whether we give voice to those questions or not. To that end, I’ve decided to share an edited version of my “pastoral letter” below, in the hopes that God may still use it to comfort those who may be wrestling directly with unanswered prayers even now. 

Ask, and it Will Be Given

I’m going to do my best to answer your questions as thoroughly as possible, but I am, as the old hymn goes, prone to wander, so please follow up with me if there is anything else that you would like to discuss further.

Let me first say that the questions you’re asking are very natural and warranted given the circumstances of recent months. I think we, all of us, feel an earthquake in the deepest part of our gut when people we love are suddenly gone. Death is a collector we can’t refuse, and he leaves all of us doubting and weak and furious and robbed. Jesus himself knows these sorrows, so don’t let the pangs of guilt take hold of you for asking these questions. 

In regards to your astute question about John 15:7 (If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you), a brief explanation of the verse’s context will shed a helpful and illuminating light on Christ’s words. 

The whole of John chapters 13-17 are grounded in Jesus’s farewell discourse to his disciples before he was arrested, and the first 11 verses of John 15 in particular are dedicated to Jesus explaining how, as our Lord, he is the true vine, and we as his followers are the branches. He says that as we abide in him – that is, as we root ourselves through faith in his teaching, his love, his words, and so on – he abides in us, and through him we bear fruit just as any healthy branch would: we repent and turn away from anything that he calls sinful (Matthew 3:8), we grow more and more into a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23), and we become exemplars of good works as we increase in the knowledge of God (Col 1:10) -- just to list a few ways that we “bear fruit.” 

Because John 15:7 falls in the middle of these words, it seems that the most wholesome way to understand it would be something like this: when we let the words of Jesus truly abide in us, our prayers will be molded in such a way that they will overflow from a heart that seeks to bear fruit for God, and he will give us what we pray for in the cause of bearing fruit.

In other words, John 15:7 is not a catch-all that means God promises to give us everything we ask for; it must be understood within its context and it must be understood in light of other verses like 1 John 5:14, which reads, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” 

I doubt that there is any more startling picture of this truth than the one that C.S. Lewis painted for us, when he so breathtakingly said, “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not.” Even Jesus himself, the very Word made flesh, walked this silent and galling road. He knew this bitter drink that’s poured into our cup.  

Which, of course, leads naturally to your next question: why pray at all if God’s will is already set?

In the Name of Jesus

But before I attempt to address that question, I’d like to say something that I hope will bring you at least some measure of encouragement and assurance: you don’t have to worry about whether your prayers are “pure” enough to be answered, because it’s through Christ’s pureness – not ours – that our prayers are heard to begin with. If you have faith in Jesus, even if it’s the size of a sunflower seed, your prayers are heard. 

Now of course, we certainly want to let God’s word dwell more deeply in our hearts, in order that our prayers might be more and more shaped by him, but ultimately it is only through Jesus that we find the merit for our prayers to be brought before the Father – which is why we pray in the name of Jesus. Our prayers are pure enough to be heard because of Christ. They bear his seal. 

I say this because it breaks my heart to think of you carrying the unbearable burden of the thought that your prayers weren’t pure enough to be answered. That weight will crush anyone underneath it, so it is my sincere hope that, as you think on Jesus and these words of his, you’ll find some peace and allow yourself to drop that millstone at his feet, even in the midst of tears and frustrations and questions and all. Perhaps, in that silence of all places, you’ll find that Christ weeps too – perhaps you will come to know him more intimately as the Man of all sorrows.

Now, back to the question at hand: why spend time in prayer if God’s will is already determined? And if we do pray, then what kind of prayers should we be praying? Here are some things to consider.

God’s Act through Our Prayer

As frustrating, confusing, and mysterious as it is, it seems that there are certain times and circumstances in which God chooses to move and act only through the prayers of his people. 

Here is a story from Scripture that illustrates what I mean. In Genesis 20, Abraham decides to try and settle down for a little while in a place called Gerar. Apparently, while he and his wife Sarah were there, the king of Gerar, Abimelech, took notice of Sarah. This frightened Abraham and made him feel powerless, the way a 2nd grader might feel in the shadow of a high school bully. He thought that he might be killed so that the king could swoop in and take Sarah as his own wife. In the clutches of this potential catastrophe, Abraham began saying that Sarah was his sister, and to no one’s surprise, Abimelech did in fact take her. And then, this:

“But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.’ Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, ‘Lord, will you kill an innocent people?Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”? And she herself said, “He is my brother.” In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’ Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours’” (Genesis 20:3-7, ESV).

Abimelech does as he’s told, Abraham prays for him, and all is well. So, our question is this: why didn’t God just leave it at the dream? Why didn’t he simply say that he would heal Abimelech once he obeyed? Why did he specify that Abraham would pray for him, and then he would live? It seems to be that, in some scenarios, God intends to do the things he has already determined to do, but only through prayer. 

We also see this in the episode of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9. The disciples, unable to cast out the demon themselves, watch Jesus do it with nothing more than a verbal command. Obviously troubled by their powerlessness, the disciples asked Jesus why they had not been able to cast the demon out, to which he replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Again, we see that God may have determined something (the demon is going to come out of the boy), but that if we are going to see that determined action come to pass in our lives, it will only happen through prayer. 

Truth in Tension

You might call this “truth in tension”: two equal yet seemingly opposed truths, maintained somehow in a tension that makes our stomachs queasy and our heads throb:
God has a determined will – and he will act on that determined will through prayer. 

The Bible is God’s inerrant Word, inspired and authored by the Holy Spirit – and it was written by human beings who had individual personalities and writing styles that came through their works as they were carried along by the Spirit.

There is only one true God – and he exists in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

We are rational beings who want to make order out of chaos and sense out of madness. We do our best to sort things into easily grasped patterns, into simple if-this-then-thats. But the ways of God almost never fit into our patterns, our if-this-then-thats – and so when we reach these crossroad moments of death and loss and questions, we tend to do one of two things: box our faith up and let it collect dust in the attic of our hearts, or throw ourselves facefirst at God’s feet with our questions and longings and anger. And all the while, he is keeping count of our sleepless tossings and collecting every single one of our precious tears in his bottle; none of them go unseen, even when we are sitting alone in the car stifling earthquake sobs and think we won’t be noticed (Psalm 56:8).

What Shall We then Pray?

So, with all of this, what and how are we to pray? 

To put it simply, I suppose that if we are going to take God at his word, then we pray all kinds of prayers: we pray big, umbrella prayers -- and we pray very specific, detailed prayers. We ask God generally that his kingdom come and his will to be done -- and we ask specifically for our daily bread and for the resources to make it through the next day. We ask God to be with us for all of our lives -- and we ask for his peace as we walk into a dreaded work meeting. We pray that God will protect our families -- and we pray that he will be like a shield around our children while they are on a bus for a field trip. We ask God to forgive us of all our sins -- and we ask him to forgive us for that particularly unkind word that we spoke to our spouse earlier in the day.

And in the moments when we don’t know what to pray, in the moments when we don’t know where to begin, in the moments when our bellies ache with heartbreak and the only thing we can do is weep, the Holy Spirit is praying for us with groans too deep for words, bringing our disappointments and cries before the Father (Romans 8:26-27). 

I imagine that you, like Jacob in the book of Genesis, will have a long wrestling match with God over these questions – but I hope that these words help you at least catch a glimpse of the sunrise that rests on the blade of this seemingly never-ending night. There are no easy answers for the times when tragedy comes rampaging at us like this, rushing away with those we love so dearly; there are no words that completely eradicate the grief that invades our lives when death robs children of their parents, parents of their children. I’ve been wrestling with God, too. My prayers feel like I’m coming up from under tsunami waters just long enough to draw a breath, and the waves are steep and pounding. 

In these storm-tossings, this has been my most common prayer in recent months, and maybe it will be as much a help for you as it’s been for me: Jesus, have mercy on me – I believe; help my unbelief. 

Until that Day, when Christ himself will finally crush and smother death once and for all, and obliterate that ancient monster with his own scarred hands.