Unanswered Prayer and an Absent God
One of the most common complaints Christians can have about prayer is that they don’t feel anything or don’t feel that God is with them. Likewise, they complain that God doesn’t seem to answer prayer and therefore that prayer is more of a duty than a delight.
As to the second, we must allow for the complexity of the issue and not explain God away as if His answer is simply, “Not yet” or “No” or “God answers our prayers but just not in the way we want.” God’s promise to answer our prayers in verses like Mark 11:24, “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” complicate the matter.
We see through a glass dimly. The problem of unanswered prayer is an actual problem. When God does not answer a homeless person’s prayer for shelter or a mother’s prayer for her dying child, we cannot explain this away. Only in the age to come will we know as God knows (1 Cor. 13:12). P.T. Forsyth says, “We shall come one day to a heaven where we shall gratefully know that God’s great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayer.” In some cases, for God to answer our prayers would do more harm than good. God, in His mercy, knows what we need even before we ask. Part of the discipline of prayer, as we’ve said earlier, is that our requests start to fall more in line with God’s the longer we pray.
I used to ask for God to rescue me from situations I didn’t want to be in. Now, I ask for strength to go through them and to be refined in them. I believe this kind of prayer is more what God wants for me.
Instead of becoming discouraged by unanswered prayer, let it be a catalyst for you asking God, “What am I missing about you? What do you know about my needs that I don’t know? I will trust you to give me what I need. Please shape me during this time, regardless of how this situation turns out.”
As for the first complaint about a lack of God’s presence, listen to the psalmists, who regularly complained about this very thing.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from the words of my groaning?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the praise of Israel.
In you our ancestors put their trust;
they trusted and you delivered them.
They cried to you and were saved;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
Notice how both psalms combine questioning God’s presence with trust. Notice what these psalmists don’t do, though: They don’t blame themselves for where God might be. They don’t give themselves too much credit for being able to repel God—which I think is an act of spiritual pride. While we know that our sin separates us from God, we should be careful not to attribute God’s silence to our sin alone. We should also be careful not to stop praying because it seems God is not listening. If we stop, then how will we know when our prayers are being heard? The habit of not praying is far more difficult to break than the habit of praying through the dark nights of the soul.
The psalmists are speaking petitionary prayers; they are making their requests known to God. This is quite similar to the Simple Prayer that we started with, except that as we’ve progressed in prayer, we have come to examine our motives, approach prayer from God’s perspective of knowing us better than we know ourselves, and know that as God’s children, nothing is too small for God to care about.
Last week, we looked at some of our most common prayer requests. Then we held out a list of prayers from the Bible. This week, make a list of the prayers you’ve been praying lately. Then ask yourself, “Is there another way I should approach this request?” Let God prove Himself to be present where in the past it has seemed He has been absent.