The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

2 Corinthians 12:7-9

May 20, 2012 | Ray Pritchard

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“You won’t believe the things that have happened to me.”

The man stood over my desk as he spoke those words. Then he proceeded to tell a tale of woe the likes of which I had not heard in many years. As I listened, it seemed to boil down to three basic parts. First, he had lost his promising career through a complicated series of cunning plots against him. Then his wife left him for greener pastures and more securi­ty. And now he was facing a mountain of legal bills. He seemed to be backed into a corner. His question was sim­ple: Why would God let something like this happen to me?

The phone rang about nine o’clock one night. The voice at the other end said, “Pastor Pritchard, could I talk to you for a few minutes?” As I listened, I heard a story about a mar­riage gone bad. She had married him a few years earlier, and things had not gone well. He abused her, and later on he abused the kids. Eventually she filed for divorce, and now he wants nothing to do with her or the children. In her heart of hearts, her greatest desire is for God to give her someone to be a loving husband and godly father. She has prayed and prayed about it, but there seems to be no answer. “Pastor Pritchard, why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Is he pun­ishing me because I got a divorce?”

Many good, devout people secretly doubt that God answers prayer.

Another phone call came.

A wom4ean in our congregation had had a stroke. When I saw finally got to the hospital, she couldn’t talk but she could squeeze my hand. “This is Pastor Ray. Do you recognize me?” She did. I prayed for her, and then I said, “Don’t worry. You’re going to be all right. We’re going to pray you through this.” The whole church prayed for her, but things weren’t all right. That night she had another stroke, this time a massive hemorrhage that left her comatose. Five days later she died. In the end, our prayers seemed to make no difference.

Where Is God When We Need Him?

Of all the things that weigh us down, perhaps no burden is greater than the silence of God.

  • A godly mother prays for her wayward son. He was raised in the church, he went to Sunday school, he knows the Bible-but when he left home, he left it all behind. For many years his mother has prayed for him, but to this day he remains a prodigal son.
  • A wife prays for her husband, who left her after twenty-three years of marriage for a younger woman. He seems utterly unreachable, and the marriage heads
    swiftly for divorce.
  • A husband prays for his wife, who has terminal cancer. She has six, maybe seven months to live. None of the treatments stop the rampaging tumors. The elders anoint her with oil and pray over her in the name of the Lord. She dies five months later.
  • A young man prays fervently for deliverance from an overpowering temptation, but the struggle never seems to end. The more he prays, the worse the temptation becomes.

And so we cry out with the psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trou­ble?” (Psalm 10:1).

The Problem No One Talks About

As we think about this question we will be helped if we simply acknowledge reality. A great many believers struggle with the issue of unanswered prayer. If there is a God, if he really does answer prayer, why doesn’t he answer my prayers?

For those who are in pain, a theoretical answer will not suffice.

For those who are in pain, a theoretical answer will not suffice. Nor will it be enough to simply say, “God always answers prayer. Sometimes he says yes, sometimes he says no, and sometimes he says wait awhile.” We say this a lot. I’ve said it myself. But it sounds facile and superficial when someone cries out to God from the pit of despair, and the heavens are as brass, and the answer never comes.

There are people who bear hidden scars from the pain of prayers that were not answered. They remember times when they prayed, really prayed, said all the right words with all the right motives, even asked their friends to join them in prayer, deeply believing that only God could help them out; and after they prayed, they waited and waited and waited, but God never seemed to answer.

We don’t talk about this problem very much. I suppose that’s because we’re afraid that if we admit our prayers aren’t always answered, it will cause some people to lose their faith in God. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what has happened. Many good, devout people secretly doubt that God answers prayer. They doubt it, for when it really counted, God did not come through for them. So in their hearts, deep in the inner recesses of the soul, hidden behind a smiling face, rests a profound disenchantment with the Almighty.

Calvin and Hobbes

You wouldn’t think that such a serious subject would make it to the comics, but I happened to find it in a comic strip called “Calvin and Hobbes.” It’s late November, and a little boy is waiting with his sled for the first big snowfall. He waits and waits-but all he finds is brown grass… and no snow.

So he says, “If I was in charge, we’d never see grass between October and May.” Then, looking to the heavens, he says, “On ’three,’ ready? One . . . Two . . . Three. SNOW!” Nothing happens, and the little boy is downcast. Then he shouts to the heavens, “I said snow! C’mon! Snow!” Then, shaking his fists, he cries, “SNOW!” Now thoroughly disgusted with God’s failure, he says, “OK then, don’t snow! See what I care! I like this weather! Let’s have it forever!” But his defiance does not last. In the next frame we see the little boy on his knees offering this prayer: “Please snow! Please?? Just a foot! OK, eight inches! That’s all! C’mon! Six inches, even! How about just six??” Then he looks to heaven and shouts, “I’m WAAIITING…”

In the next frame we see him running in a circle, head down, fists clenched, making a little-boy sound which the artist spells out as “RRRRGGHHH.” That’s not an English word, but every parent has heard it many times. Finally, the little boy is exhausted, his energy spent, his prayer un­answered, with snow nowhere in sight. In the final frame, he looks up at God and cries out in utter desperation, “Do you want me to become an atheist?”

“Do you want me to become an atheist?”

Many Christian people feel just like that little boy, only they have prayed for things much more important than a few inches of snow, but the end result has been the same. And in their frustration and despair, they have cried out to God, “Do you want me to become an atheist?” Some of them have. Most haven’t, but they keep the pain inside, still believing as best they can in a God who sometimes answers prayer and sometimes doesn’t.

When Dad Died

At this point I would like to add my own testimony to the list. Many years ago my father suddenly and inexplicably became very ill. I was just married and was starting seminary when I got the late-night call from my mom. My father was so sick that they had taken to a hospital in Birm­ingham. Marlene and I made the trip from Dallas, and the whole thing was like a dream to me. My dad was a doctor. Doctors don’t get sick; they heal the sick. How could my dad be in the hospital? But he was, and the outlook was not good. Something about a strange bacterial infection that the doc­tors could not stop.

And so began a two-week ordeal I will never forget. We went to Birmingham and then back to Dallas. A few days later the call came and we went back again. This time Dad was worse. I prayed, but it was hard and I was scared.

The turning point came on the second trip when I went in to see my father in intensive care. By this time, he was in and out of a coma, and I don’t think he knew who I was. When I went back out in the hallway, I saw a friend from my childhood days. He had come down to see how I was doing. Something about seeing an old friend triggered my emotions, and I collapsed against the wall and began to weep. It was in that terrible moment that I realized my father was dying, and I could do nothing about it.

A few days later, my father died despite our prayers and the doctors’ best efforts. Thirty-eight years have passed, and I know many things now that I didn’t know then. I understand life a little better. But after all these years, I still don’t know why God didn’t answer our prayers. The mystery is as great to me today as it was in the hospital corridor in Birmingham, Alabama. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now.

My Grace Is Sufficient

But I have been helped by one great discovery: I’m not the first person to have my prayers go unanswered. In fact, the Bible is filled with stories of men and women who prayed to God in the moment of crisis, and God-for reasons some­times explained and more often not explained-did not answer their prayers. We don’t hear much about that because our focus is naturally on the great answers that came just in the nick of time. Most of us would rather hear about the part­ing of the Red Sea than about Trophimus being left sick at Miletus. Miracles that did happen are more encouraging than stories of miracles that almost happened.

Miracles that did happen are more encouraging than stories of miracles that almost happened.

As I flip through the pages of the Bible, I find no story of unanswered prayer that encourages me more than the account of Paul’s unanswered prayer in 2 Corinthians 12. In that passage Paul reveals that fourteen years earlier he had been caught up into heav­en and had seen things that no mortal man had ever seen before. It was the greatest experience of his life, and he never forgot what it was like. But when that great experience was over, something else happened to Paul that would change his whole perspective on life. Let him tell the story in his own words:

“To keep me from becoming conceited because of these sur­passingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7).

Bible students are divided about what this verse really means. Some suggest that the “thorn in the flesh” was the fierce opposition Paul received from his Jewish opponents. Others suggest it was some kind of demonic oppression. Still others think that the thorn was a physical ailment that crip­pled Paul in some way and limited his effectiveness.

In one sense it really doesn’t matter. The crucial point is that Paul prayed for God to remove the “thorn in his flesh” so that he could get on with his ministry. In fact he prayed not once but three times. And each time God said no.

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (v. 8).

Can you imagine that? The apostle Paul, probably the greatest Christian who ever lived, the man who introduced Christianity to Europe, the man who wrote so much of the New Testament-that man, when he prayed about this need in his life, found that God did not, would not, answer his prayers.

Three times God told Paul “No.”

It’s hard to believe because we know that Paul was a man of prayer. He writes about prayer in all his letters. Sup­pose Paul were to come to your church next Sunday and after the service said, “Now, I’ll be glad to pray for any of you.” What would you do? I know what I’d do. I’d get in line and ask the apostle Paul to pray for me.

But here’s a clear-cut case, given in his own words, of a time in his life when he desperately begged God over and over again to answer a very specific prayer, and God said no.

As I ponder this story, I gather great encouragement from it. It teaches me several important principles.

1. Unanswered prayer sometimes happens to the very best of Christians.
When it happens, it is humanly unexplainable.
When it happens, God has a higher purpose in mind.

In Paul’s case he kept on praying until God finally gave him an explanation. “But he said to me, ‘My grace is suffi­cient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (v. 9).

Sometimes our prayers are not answered because God can do more through us by not answering our prayers than He can by answering them.

Sometimes God’s no is better than his yes.

Sometimes God’s no is better than his yes.

Think of it this way. What would happen if God answered all your prayers all the time in the exact manner in which you prayed? Forget for a moment that some of your prayers are foolish and shortsighted. Just suppose that God answered them all. Would that produce spiritual maturity in your life? I think not. If God always answered your prayers, eventually your trust would be in the answers and not in the Lord alone.

But when God says no, we are forced to decide whether we will still trust in God alone-without the benefit of an answered prayer to lean upon.

Don’t get me wrong. Answered prayer is wonderful, and if none of our prayers were answered we would probably stop praying altogether. But if all of our prayers were answered we would end up taking God for granted. Unanswered prayer forces us to trust in God alone. And when we do, he alone gets the glory, for it is at that point that his strength is made per­fect in our weakness.

We Grow Best in the Darkness

If I could add a personal addendum to what I wrote earlier about my father’s death, it would be that his passing was the single greatest loss of my life so far. I use “so far” advisedly because I am 59 going on 60 going on what?  Maybe 65 or 70 or 75 or 80. As I look at my life compared to others around me, I see many people whose path has been much harder than my own. But I know that “man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). If I live long enough, I will certainly see much more personal sorrow. There is no way around it.

Unanswered prayer forces us to trust in God alone.

So I ponder my life and realize that after my father died, the world no longer seemed like a safe place to me. That basic thought has never changed since his death in 1974. But with that safety net taken away, I have learned much about my own weakness and about God’s strength. My father’s death turned my world upside down. But out of it, slowly, very slowly, I began to grow and change. There have been other hard times since then. I now look back and think that the most concentrated times of spiritual growth have come as a result of my trials.

When he was an old man looking back on his life, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge summarized it this way in an interview with William F. Buckley:

“As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strike you most forcibly–that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about–the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies–is suffering, affliction.”

This is exactly what Paul is saying, and it is the testimony of Christians across the centuries. We grow best in the darkness of pain, sadness and despair. We learn many things in the sunlight, but we grow best in the darkness.

A Soldier’s Prayer

Sometimes it is better for us if our prayers are not answered immediately. Sometimes it is better if they are not answered at all. The great question is not, “How can I get my prayers answered?” The great question is, “What will it take to draw me closer to God?”

Consider these words attributed to a Civil War soldier who died in battle.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among men, most richly blessed.

It is a great advance in spiritual understanding to be able to say, “I got nothing I asked for, but everything I had hoped for.”

Though He Slay Me

That brings me to the conclusion. Sometimes our prayers will go unanswered. Unless you admit that fact and deal with it as a Christian, you will probably give up prayer altogether. To make matters worse, sometimes our prayers offered from righteous motives and pure hearts will seem to accomplish nothing. It is as if the heavens have turned to brass.

God hears every prayer, even the ones he chooses not to answer.

But that is not true. God does hear every prayer, even the ones he chooses not to answer. And no prayer is entirely wasted, for even unanswered prayer may be used by God to draw us closer to him. In that case we may say that it was better for our prayers to go unanswered that we might draw near to God.

The final solution, I think, lies somewhere along these lines: When we pray, we tend to focus exclusively on the answers; God wants us to focus on him. Whatever will help us do that is what we really need. Sometimes that means our prayers will be answered in amazing and miraculous ways; other times our prayers will not be answered at all.

We focus on the answers; God wants us to focus on him.

Do you remember the experience of Job? He lost his home, his fortune, his children, his health, and his reputation. All that he counted dear was taken away from him. When he finally hit the bottom, filled with anger and wishing that he were dead, he uttered these words of faith: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15 KJV). It’s as if he is saying to God, “You can take my life, but you can’t make me stop trust­ing in you.” Yes, there is a note of belligerent defiance in those words, and yes, Job wasn’t too happy about what God had done to him. And yes, he wanted his day in court. But underneath the anger and searing pain was a bedrock faith in God. “I don’t understand this at all, but I’m hanging on to you, Lord, and I’m not going to let go.”

That’s the place to which God wants to bring us. Some­times unanswered prayer is the only way to get us there.

What to Do When Your Prayers Are Not Answered

Having said all of that, we still need to know how to respond when we pray and God does not answer us. What do we do? I have three suggestions to make.

1. Keep on praying as long as you can.

Sometimes God’s answers are delayed for reasons beyond our knowledge. Who can really say why a prayer which has been uttered 9,999 times should finally be answered the lO,OOOth time? But sometimes it happens.

From time to time we hear stories of how people have prayed for a loved one for twenty, and even thirty years, before the answer finally came. And we all know of stories of how some people have made miraculous recoveries after the doctors had given up all hope. Should not we gain hope from such seeming miracles?

Pray, pray, and keep on praying.

A woman stood up in a Sunday school class I was teaching and told about a friend (well-known to several others in our class) who had prayed for her husband’s salvation for fifty-nine years. After all those years, he finally trusted Christ and died a few months later. Don’t you think his wife must have gotten discouraged somewhere along the way? What if she had stopped praying after thirty-seven years?

So pray, pray, and keep on praying. And as you pray, don’t be ashamed to beg God for a miracle. Who knows? You may be surprised to find that in the end, after you have given up all hope, God has moved from heaven to answer your prayers in ways you never dreamed possible.

2. Give God the right to say no.

In the ultimate sense, God already has that right, whether you acknowledge it or not. But if you never acknowledge that God has the right to say no to you, you will be filled with anger, frustration, and despair. To fight against God’s right to say no to you is really the same thing as fighting against God. That’s a battle you’ll never win.

How much wiser it is to say, “Lord, I am praying this prayer from the bottom of my heart, but even as I pray I con­fess that you have the right to say no if that’s what You think is best.” You’ll sleep well at night when you learn to pray like that.

Let God be God in your life.

And in this we have the example of the Lord Jesus who, when he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane with the sweat pouring off him like great drops of blood, said, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matthew 26:39 kjv). If Jesus needed to pray that way, how much more do we?

Let God be God in your life. Give him the right to say no.

3. Keep on doing what you know to be right.

In the darkness of unanswered prayer, you may be tempted to give up on God. You may feel like throwing in the towel and checking out of the Christian life. But what good will that do? If you turn away from God, where will you go?

Keep on praying, keep on believing, keep on reading the Bible, keep on obeying, keep on following the Lord. If you stay on course in the darkness, eventually the light will shine again and you will be glad that you did not turn away in the moment of disappointment.

He Maketh No Mistake

Many years ago I heard Dr. Lee Roberson quote a poem called “He Maketh No Mistake.” A man named A. M. Overton wrote the poem when his wife died. Dr. Roberson became acquainted with it when he met the pastor who had officiated at the funeral for Mrs. Overton. It seems that while he was speaking, the pastor noticed Mr. Overton sitting in the pew writing something. Thinking that was a strange thing to do, he asked him about it after the service. He said he had been writing down a poem during the funeral service. “He Maketh No Mistake” has become very popular and has spread around the world.

Born out of deepest personal sorrow, it touches us with a profound statement of trust in God amid the trials of life.

My Father’s way may twist and turn,
My heart may throb and ache
But in my soul I’m glad I know,
He maketh no mistake.

My cherished plans may go astray,
My hopes may fade away,
But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead
For He doth know the way.

Tho’ night be dark and it may seem
That day will never break,
I’ll pin my faith, my all in him,
He maketh no mistake.

There’s so much now I cannot see,
My eyesight’s far too dim;
But come what may, I’ll simply trust
And leave it all to him.

For by and by the mist will lift
And plain it all he’ll make,
Through all the way, tho’ dark to me,
He made not one mistake.

In the end that will be the testimony of every child of God.  When we finally get to heaven, we’ll look back over the pathway of life and see that through all the twists and turns and seeming detours that “He made not one mistake.”

We see dimly now as we march on through the shadows of life. But the day will come when the sunlight of God’s love surrounds us as we stand in the presence of Jesus who loved us and gave himself for us. Until then, we move on through the twilight knowing that some of our prayers will not be answered no matter how hard we pray. But this fact sustains us on our long journey home:  He did not say, “My answers are sufficient,” but rather “My grace is sufficient for you.”

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?