A woman in my congregation, after years of fertility treatments, finally conceived. She and her husband were filled with joy. But early in the pregnancy she became extremely ill. By her fifth month, doctors informed her that if she continued to try to carry the child to term, she would not survive. While she was willing to take that risk, her family was not. The child was unable to survive outside the womb. The baby died, and the mother lived.
She wrote to tell me of the experience. “I had never wrestled with the will of God. Now my life and faith depended upon it. I had always thought God could and would do anything if enough people prayed—but people had and God didn’t. Who was God? What good is God?”
The experience led this young woman to turn away from her faith and to stop believing in God. Many people struggle with their faith because of God’s silence and apparent impotence when they cry out to Him in their time of greatest need. What makes these unanswered prayers even more disturbing is the fact that some Christians claim God regularly answers their prayers for things that seem of no consequence. I think of the pastor who prayed to find a parking space as he entered the mall parking lot and,“Thanks be to God!” a space opened up on the front row. Or the professional athlete who points to the heavens after catching a touchdown pass. Does God answer prayers for parking spaces and touchdown passes, but not for those who have cancer or whose unborn children will die without a miracle?
Jesus on Prayer
Disappointment is usually the result of unmet expectations. In the case of prayer, our expectations are shaped in part by Jesus’ words in a handful of passages like Matthew 21:21-22: “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt … even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.”
At first glance Jesus seems to be promising here to do whatever we ask, provided we have faith. We read this and other promises like this on the lips of Jesus, and we cannot help but be confused when our prayers go unanswered. When we pray for a friend who is dying or for the safety of our children or for a job to open up for us, we are left confused when our friend dies, we go for months without employment or something happens to our children.
Some Christians explain the “failure” of these prayers by placing the blame on you.
One website lists several “common reasons why” your prayers may go unanswered. Among the reasons:
– You are not seeking to please the Lord
– You have unconfessed sin in your life
– You pray with improper motives
– You lack faith
I find this list obscene. To say that God would have answered your prayers for your sick child or dying friend if only you had more fully sought to please God, or if you had confessed your sins, is misguided and cruel. Did blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus healed outside of Jericho, seek to please the Lord in everything? Did he stop to confess his sins before asking for his eyesight? Yet Jesus healed him (see Mark 10:46-51). Jesus heals because He is holy, not because those He heals are holy. I am not suggesting that living for God and seeking to please God are not important. But to explain that God does not answer our prayers because we are not holy enough seems odd for a faith built upon grace, whose Savior gave His life for us “while we were yet sinners” (Romans 5:8), and which teaches that we are saved by God’s grace and not by our works.
But what about faith? Of course faith is important in prayer. Faith is the act of trusting that God hears, that God cares and that God is able to act as we have prayed. Jesus asks that we pray with faith, that we trust as we pray.
So, if unfulfilled prayer is not the result of our failure to live for Christ or unconfessed sin in our lives or inadequate faith, then what are we to make of the fact that our prayers are sometimes unanswered? Perhaps the answer is not found in what we do wrong when we pray, but in our failure to understand what Jesus meant when He said that we could move mountains and have whatever we ask for if we pray with faith.
When Jesus spoke, He almost always did so using a figure of speech called "hyperbole." Hyperbole is an overstatement or exaggeration to make a point. This was the language of prophets and first-century teachers. Our problem in reading Jesus is that we try to read His words “hyper-literally” when we need to read them hyperbolically. To read them hyperbolically means we take Jesus seriously, but not always literally.
Return to Jesus’ words, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22). Were these words a promise to be taken literally and mechanistically, or are they a hyperbolic statement inviting Jesus’ followers to pray boldly and with faith? This is the same passage in which Jesus tells His followers that by faith they can move mountains; that might help us to see that it is the latter way in which we are meant to read this passage.
Jesus’ hearers understood that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically when He said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” I think they understood that Jesus was saying, “Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.”
How God Answers Prayers
All of this leaves us with a couple of final questions: How does God answer prayer? What is the purpose of prayer? What should we pray for? How does God answer prayer?
When God wants something done, God typically sends people. God’s customary way of working in our lives is through what appear to be ordinary ways. Rather than suspending the laws of nature that God created and bypassing the human beings that God created to do God’s work, God typically works through natural laws and through people. In the Bible, this is how God most often worked, and it is how God typically works today. I believe that miracles can happen. On rare occasions, God miraculously and directly intervenes in the world, but most often God works through us, calling and nudging us into action, working in our hearts to be the instruments God uses to answer the prayers of others. I have come to appreciate the idea that God intends us to be the answer to one another’s prayers. Part of my task is to pay attention and listen for the promptings of the Spirit, and then act to bless, care for and stand up for others.
None of this implies that God never works miracles. God can do the miraculous. But miracles are miracles because they are rare. God’s primary way of working in our world is to influence us and others—giving us peace and strength, wisdom and patience—while using the natural means God created to accomplish God’s purposes. God can work miracles, but God works primarily through the hands of doctors, the words of counselors, the presence of friends: in other words, through us.
This article is excerpted from Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will (Abingdon Press, 2011). Used by permission. All rights reserved. Photo credit: Meg Wills.