When a desperate prayer is not answered the way we want, it can destroy our faith in God. All of a sudden, we question our faith, our God, how He views us, how we view ourselves, etc. We feel like our faith was weak, like God didn’t care, and like He let us down. And many people end up retreating from God in confusion and bitterness.
Trust me, I have had disappointing answers to prayer, too. And these were times I was praying earnestly and with great faith that God could do it. And yet, He did not. The adoption never happened. My young aunt and my mother-in-law still died, even though I was sure that healing them would help unbelieving family members believe in God. Families still broke apart. Most people I pray about salvation for still refuse to acknowledge God. I prayed for years and years about financial strain, only to have years and years of continuing financial strain. (It has only just recently relaxed a little. Thank You, God.) I know how it feels to have many important prayers go “unanswered.”
(And of course, when I say “unanswered,” I mean “not answered the way we want.” God always answers, just not always the way we want Him to.)
But the problem is not prayer or our God. The problem is our understanding of prayer and of God. We will all have disappointing and confusing times. None of us are immune, no matter how strong our faith is. So this is not an issue just for the weak or new Christian, but for all of us. But if we can get a clearer, biblical picture of prayer and of God, it will help our faith survive the disappointing and confusing times.
First off, prayer is not a magic formula to get what we want. Even Jesus and Paul did not get an important prayer answered. Jesus asked for the cup of death to be taken from Him, if it was possible. And Paul asked for the thorn in his side to be removed. And neither of them got it. And yet, I don’t think we would doubt the strength or purity of their faith. They didn’t get the answer they wanted because it wasn’t God’s Will, because God knew that “no” was the best answer. In Jesus’ case, it was best for everyone. And in Paul’s case, it was best for humbling him and for the development of his faith, for helping him learn to truly know and trust the sufficiency of God’s grace.
Those are two incredibly important lessons to remember when prayers aren’t answered the way we want. Jesus poured His heart out in prayer and requested what He wanted, yet He added, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” Above all, Jesus knew that God’s Will is more important than any request of ours. God’s Will takes precedence. Jesus models for us the proper way to end all prayers. When we pray, we are not placing an order with Him that He is required to fill. We are sharing with Him our heart and our deepest desires, yet we still need to seek His Will above ours. We need to be willing for Him to say “no” if He has a better plan, even if we don’t understand it and it hurts.
Not my will, But Yours be done! He is God and we are not!
And Paul shows us that when God says “no” to our desperate prayers, it is the perfect time to truly learn how sufficient God and His grace is. By not always getting what we want, we learn humility and that God is enough for us. For most of us, we live from one “happy thing” to another, asking for more and more things to make our lives better and to keep us fulfilled. Our satisfaction and fulfillment is found in things.
And I think we will all face discouraging and confusing answers to prayer to move us from finding satisfaction and fulfillment in things to finding it in God alone. It is generally only in the pain and the “no” answers and the long waits that we stop playing with our toys and start wrestling deeply with the things of God. It takes our eyes off of temporary things and puts them on eternal, spiritual things. It shifts our focus from the condition of our “nice, little lives” to the condition of our souls. It humbles us because we learn that “it’s not all about us and what we want.” It tests what is really in our hearts and forces us to choose: walk toward God or away from Him. Make Him Lord of our lives or be our own god. And if we cling to God through the pain, even if we don’t understand, we find out that He is indeed enough for us. We learn to desire Him above what He can give us. And this is far more important and valuable than any particular answer to prayer. (But it does really hurt to get to this point! Pruning and spiritual growth always hurts! But it’s eternally worth it!)
Over the next several posts, I want to (as briefly as possible) sum my understanding of prayer. (This comes from the Understanding God’s Will series at myimpressionisticlife.blogspot.com, in the UGW Q9 posts of 2013.)