I have a hard time with prayers that go unanswered.
I have an especially hard time with prayers that remain unanswered, even when I’ve done everything right.
20 years of hearing sermons and lectures, watching speakers and videos, and reading books and devotionals has left me with a supposedly infallible recipe for an effective prayer life. I’ve been told to “pray like Paul.” I’ve been told to “name it and claim it.” I’ve been told to “talk to God like you would talk to a friend.”
And what all these sermons and Bible studies and articles have in common are three key elements that make up what I call the Prayer Checklist: 1. Pray continually. 2. Pray specifically. 3. Pray confidently.
Continually, specifically, confidently.
Continually, specifically, confidently.
Well, I’ve done that. I’ve remembered all those lessons and messages and I’ve put all their material into practice. I’ve tested this “Name it and Claim it” theory time and time again. I’ve believed in God’s power to answer prayer. I’ve had the faith. I’ve had the confidence. I’ve prayed for “big things,” and I’ve defied my fears and doubts by making those “big things" specific. I’ve prayed constantly. No, I’ve prayed agonizingly repetitively.
And still, the answer has been “No.”
And getting “No” for an answer leaves my hopes deferred and my heart crushed. God’s promises flood my mind and, in the light of my rejected request, my trust wavers. The doubts return and, in place of my pleading, accusatory questions arise. “Ask and it shall be given to you.” Really? “Believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Is that so? “If you abide in me, ask whatever you wish and it will be done for you.” Not from where I’m standing.
I can’t deny the inconsistency between His promises and my experience. I can’t pretend that I saw His promises come true when I haven’t. I asked, and I didn’t receive. I prayed in His Name, and it wasn’t given. So the only possible explanation is that either His promises are hogwash, or there’s something I’m missing.
About 2000 years ago, our Lord asked his listeners this question:
"Which of you fathers, if your son asked you for a fish, would give him a snake?
Or if he asked for an egg, would give him a scorpion?" (Luke 11:11-12)
It’s not hard to imagine the utter silence that must’ve followed. In a crowd of people representing all walks of life, not one could raise their hand. Although there stood before Jesus some who were wise and some who were foolish, some who were “good” and some who were “bad,” and people of all different degrees of innocence, the unspoken answer was unanimous: “Not I.”
Jesus used this preposterous question to highlight the goodness of God by contrasting it with the imperfection of humanity. If even wicked humans can tell the difference between what is beneficial and harmful for their child, how much more will our Heavenly Father, the purest embodiment of love and wisdom, give us what is good?
Jesus’s question has been tumbling around in my mind for quite some time. For weeks now, I've been pondering these words of Christ because as wonderful as they sound, they sometimes (read: often) don't seem very true. How many times have I asked, without receiving? How long have I sought something, without finding? How long have I knocked at a door, only to find it locked and boarded shut? He calls Himself the Good Father. He calls Himself my Good Father. But it so often seems like my list of unanswered requests stretches miles longer than the list of responses.
These days, I've also been spending a fair bit of time with my 8-month-old niece. She can't talk, she doesn't have teeth, and she’s only just learned to crawl. Her wide-eyed fascination with the world has been so fun to observe. She's curious, fun-loving, and already a full-fledged mess-maker.
She's also the grabbiest of grabbers. She wants the can of Pepsi on the coffee table. She wants the pen that's rolled under the couch. She wants my earrings. She's not as interested in the safe and soft; she's all about the sharp and pointy.
So, thank goodness her parents have managed to stay a step ahead of her chubby little arms! Most often, the things she wants have to be snatched away and the things she finds to suck on have to be pried out of her drool-covered fingers. And although her eyes well up with tears and her sweet smile so quickly turns to a quivering frown, it has to be done. The can of Pepsi and the kitchen scissors will have to be kept well out of arm’s reach until she’s old enough to have them.
But this sweet little girl knows of no greater injustice.
In her mind, her parents are taking away the things she wants just because they’re mean. They won’t let her play with sharp objects because they don’t want her to have fun. And when she cries and points to let Mum know that she wants a turn drinking from the hot mug of coffee, Mum’s firm “No” comes as the most infuriating insult and results in the most incensed wailing you’ve ever heard.
Watching my little niece howl at her cruel and conspiring parents has caused me to think back on Jesus's question: "Which of you parents, if your son asked for a fish, would give him a snake? Or if he asked for an egg, would give him a scorpion?" Of course, the question is absurd, for even the most average parent can figure out what’s good for their child.
…But children don't know what’s good.
Young children don’t have any understanding of cause and effect or choices and consequences. We put up baby gates and install baby monitors and contain the crawlers in Play-Pens because we know they can’t perceive danger or make decisions for themselves. And so I wonder if Jesus’s question might not just as well be asked: "Which of you parents, if your son asked for a snake, would give him a snake? Or if he asked for a scorpion, would give him a scorpion?"
It's actually not a far-fetched scenario. Just picture a father and his 4-year-old son out for a hike in the desert-like badlands of Alberta. As they trek through the sage and sand, they hear a chilling rattle. Running up ahead and spying the scaly creature lying coiled and poised to strike, the little boy screams, "Daddy! Daddy! Can I touch it?"
I don't know a single parent who wouldn't sprint towards the boy, snatch him up, and take him far away from the rattlesnake. The boy may scream, the boy may cry, the boy may kick and shout at his terrible, awful father for not letting him play with the fascinating reptile, but the father’s “No” is final and the father’s “No” is good.
The father knows that a “Yes”
would prove fatal.
I wonder how often I ask God for snakes. How many times have I looked into my future and conceived of the perfect sort of situation for myself... and how often has it really been a scorpion in disguise? How many times has God pulled sharp knives and poisonous berries out of my hands that looked so beautiful and perfect when I had them? How often has He had to run in and sweep me away from the tempting electrical socket?
And how often have I resented Him for it?
Spiritually we may be infants, but physically we're capable of doing a lot for ourselves. Even if we lack spiritual maturity, we can accomplish a lot on our own. We can make our own decisions. We can buy whatever we want. We can choose our dream careers. A lot of the time, we have the power to say “Yes” to ourselves, even when God has said “No.”
We can buy our own snakes.
We can make a lot of our requests come true and often, from what I see among the community of believers, we do. We pray for something to happen and when it doesn't, we make it happen. We pray for something to be provided and when it isn't, we just hustle and provide it for ourselves. Because God gave us minds to think and bodies to work, we can easily excuse our efforts to write our own scripts.
We can catch our own snakes and say, “I’ll use this for God’s glory.” We can pick our own poisonous berries and say, “God wants us to enjoy life.” We can go for a hike up the mountain with no map, gear, or guide and say, “God desires that we use our talents for Him.” In this day and age, we can make almost anything happen for ourselves and justify it by saying God did it. The world makes their own dreams come true, and I think the Church is following its lead.
But I don’t want to live that way.
I don’t want to live by an accommodating, user-friendly faith. I don’t want to pray only the things I can’t change and then go ahead and change everything else for myself. I don’t want to break in through the window when God has shut the door. I don’t want to give Him credit for what I’ve done, I want to give Him credit for what He’s done! I’ve committed to walk in the way of the Lord. That means trusting His plan. It means waiting for His timing. It means submitting to Him in everything.
1 John 5:14-15 - This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
I placed my trust in Christ for a reason. I placed my trust in Him because I believe His promises are true. I believe that He loves me. I believe that He has a plan, that He is intimately acquainted with all my ways, that He is with me, and that He will lead me through the best life possible if I simply submit.
I placed my trust in Christ for a reason, but sometimes I forget what that reason was. I forget the goal when I see something new and shiny on the horizon and I want it for myself. When I hear of tantalizing opportunities and exciting offers, when I dream up thrilling ideas and imagine my “ultimate life,” I lose focus. That’s when my prayers become all about me... and ergo, that’s usually when my prayers stop being answered.
But the panic only sets in when I forget that I surrendered control of this ship. The doubts only buffet when I forget that I signed over the ownership of this life. And the tears that fall when I don’t get my way… well, those are excellent indicators that His sovereignty has slipped my mind.
I get stressed when I start thinking I’m in charge. I get worried when I think it’s up to me to achieve my life’s purpose.
But peace comes in knowing that I’m just the sheep,
and that my only role is to follow the Shepherd.
I’ve prayed for many different things in my life, and if I’m to be embarrassingly honest, I think God’s said “No” many more times than He’s said “Yes.” But what that tells me is not that He’s ignoring me or isn’t interested in blessing me. No, His refusals tell me that I’ve been asking for snakes a lot more than I’ve been asking for bread. He wants to give me what is good, what is lasting, and what is true, but all I ever seem to ask for is everything immediate and deceiving. He wants to lead me in His trustworthy and perfect Will, and all I want to do is blaze my own trail.
But after all these frustrating denials, I have noticed a development: My prayers are changing. While at one time my prayers used to be consumed with the material, focused on the temporal, and absorbed by the transitory, they now request growth and sanctification. They are interested in maturity and patience. They petition for the fruits of the Spirit and a purified heart. They are filled with earnest self-reflection, honest assessments of my desires, and painful recognitions of my failures.
I’ve begun to long for change that is inward rather than circumstantial; instead of seeking an easy answer, I find myself praying for wisdom and discernment in tough situations. I notice that the pages of my journal are covered in appeals for more faith, more patience, more confidence, more humility, and more understanding.
While I used to ask very politely for snakes every day, I now beg for bread without restraint.
And while I still have miles to go on this journey of faith, I’m starting to get the sneaking suspicion that these requests—for the refining of the soul and the transforming of the mind—are the types of requests that God delights in granting.
Romans 12:2 - Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.