When you pray for the illness or pain to go away and it persists,
when you pray for your situation to improve and it stays the same,
when you pray for miraculous healing for a loved one and instead go to their funeral,
what happens when you feel a prayer goes unanswered?
Do you blame God? Do you resent Him for ignoring you?
Do you blame yourself? Do you resent your own lack of faith?
When we feel a prayer has went unanswered, our understanding of prayer needs some help from the Bible.
I remember memorizing that verse in James 5:16, “The fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” So whenever I prayed for something and it did not come to pass, I’d blame my lack of faith. But as I read the Bible, though there are certainly numerous answered prayers, there are also a lot of unanswered prayers in there too.
King David, right after being forgiven by God, prayed for his sick baby for seven days, for a whole week he didn’t touch his food, he didn’t work, but he just laid on the floor and prayed, “Lord save my baby, Lord save my baby, Lord save my baby.” And after all his prayers, and all his fasting, the baby still passed on. [2 Samuel 12:14-23]
In First Corinthians [12:7-9] Paul mentions that he had a thorn in his flesh. Three times he pleaded, pleaded, with the Lord to take it way. The Lord did not.
There’s Timothy. He’s got some sort of stomach illness, it doesn’t go away with prayer, so what does Paul counsel? “Drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” (1 Timothy 5:23) No, that can’t be your confirmation verse.
And then there’s Jesus. It’s night he will be betrayed and arrested. He’s on a prayer retreat with his disciples. He knows what’s coming, and he knows he has to be ready, and he goes into the garden to pray all by himself. He prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” (Luke 22:42) Father, if you would, please pass this cup onto someone else. Father, if you could, please don’t let me die. He prays all night long, sweating blood, “Father, if you are willing, please don’t let me die.”
Jesus’ path to the cross was a lot more serious than we sometimes tritely pass it over as. He was born to die. Like he just walked up to the cross whistling Dixie, had the nails pounded it with a smile, and then posed for his portrait. Come on. This was a young man with his whole life ahead of him, entering the darkness of the gallows, all by himself.
Jesus was a good Jewish boy, so he would been able to recite word for word Genesis 22. In that chapter, Abraham, whose wife Sarah miraculously gave birth to their son Isaac, was commanded by God to sacrifice his son. Jesus knew the story where the father was told to sacrifice his son — a human sacrificed for God. I wonder, did he realize that he was the final culmination of that story — that his Father was not forced to sacrifice his son, but even after his own miraculous birth, he has chosen to sacrifice his Son, not a human sacrificed for God, but God sacrificed for humans. Is it reasonable to presume that he was praying for a similar ending to the story — with the miraculous appearance of a sacrificial ram to turn up. Kill the sheep, not the one calling people to faith, not the one giving health to the sick, not the one giving food to the hungry, not the one shining light over the darkness.
Oh he knew that God was giving him, but does that make it easier or harder?
There was that other night, when both hands of the clock hit twelve, and there was a soft wrap at the door. It was Nicodemus, a well-thought-of Jewish leader. Bishop Nick comes in yearning to learn more, and Jesus talks about being born again, and Nick is confused, so Jesus finally sums it all up with those words, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” “He gave his only begotten son.” He said the words, but did he already know all the details?
The next day the hour and minute hands are both at twelve again, but it’s noon instead of midnight. Jesus is talking to a woman instead of a man. She’s a Samaritan, not a Jew. She wants water, not advice. She has a horrible reputation, not a pious one. The conversation couldn’t be with more different people, but he’s leaning in the same direction.
Jesus asks her for a drink. She asks why. Jesus begins, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is speaking to you…” “If you knew the gift of God”? Jesus knew he was the gift of God. He knew that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. But what type of giving was it to be?
He has seen the authorities with their noses in the air, he has heard their scoffs and their subsequent whispers. He has seen Judas slip off from the group, his greed consuming him. He knows what’s coming, and he prays all night, “Please pass the cup. Please don’t let me die.”
But after hours have passed, as the night grew ever more dark, and the country dogs have quit their howling, and the crickets have ceased their singing, and his friends have long since given over to sleep, though nothing has changed in the garden, something has changed in Jesus. After spending the night in prayer, his last prayer is not one more desperate, “Please don’t let me die,” but his prayer changes. Finally, he prays, “Not my will, but thine.”
I really wish I could get up here and tell you that prayer is like walking up to Santa, sitting down in his cozy lap, reading off your list, and walking away with a candy cane.
Sometimes I’ve even heard people add a little something something to their prayers, “God if you do this, then I’ll do that.”
But God is not Santa Claus, and God does not give in to ransom demands.
How would you like it if your kids only came to you when they wanted something, and ignored you the rest of the time? How would you like it if your kids said they’d listen to you, but only if you did exactly what they wanted you to do?
Prayer is not submitting wish lists; it is wishing for your own submission.
Prayer is not you behaving good; then getting the goods.
Prayer is not about getting from God; it is getting with God.
Prayer is finally coming to that place where you realize how important eternity really is, and how good and powerful and merciful God is, and how trivial and fickle your little requests are, to the point where you mature enough to finally pray with Jesus, “Not my will, but thine.”