We do not readily acknowledge the impact that seemingly unanswered prayer makes on us, yet this awareness is vital to a robust and honest life of intercession
We usually avoid the use of words like success and failure in the life of faith because other words are employed by scripture, like faithfulness or fruitfulness. There are good reasons for resisting notions of success and failure because the adoption of a secular view on this may be just a step away. Yet when prayer goes unanswered, it can feel very personal, as if it is a failure in some way. We say ‘unanswered prayer’ but this is also questionable. God does not turn a deaf ear to the prayers of the faithful; that is the mark of a false idol. Frequently in the Psalms we see false idols mocked for their inability to see or hear and God is always distinguished from them. So what is happening when we feel as if our prayers come to nothing?
Here are four possibilities:
Firstly, God answers some prayer in unexpected ways – we just don’t notice it. Our minds are only able to hold one or two ideas in place at any one time and when we pray we only imagine one or two ways God might deal with the question. Yet God is infinite; the I AM of eternity is capable of a flexibility and inventiveness in his response which defies our imagination. He is drawing all things towards the hope of a new heaven and a new earth. If we find it hard to imagine how he will ultimately achieve this, we shouldn’t be surprised if we struggle sometimes with the next step in our own lives and the lives of those we pray for. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter was imprisoned by Herod shortly after the execution of James. The church ‘prayed fervently to God for him’ and yet when Peter miraculously escaped and turned up to the prayer meeting in his honour, they ridiculed Rhoda for saying Peter is at the door.
If the early Church, at the zenith of its powers, couldn’t see that Peter escaping from prison might be one outcome of their prayers, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when we miss the answer God has given.
Many of us don’t see much of some of our younger relatives from one year to the next and we are always surprised by how much they have grown in the meantime. In our mind, they are still the same size they were a year ago. In the same way, we can be locked in prayer on a situation that spiritually God is changing out of all recognition, but we don’t appreciate it until much later.
The second risk we face is that God answers our prayers in ways we were hoping for, but we forget we asked for it in the first place. This might seem inconceivable, but think of those times in our lives when we forget to do something we have been asked to do or we forget something we have been told. We all do it; it’s human nature. And yet somehow we imagine we’ll never forget the things we say to God. Our attention span is short and it is getting much shorter in today’s fervid culture. To God, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day, as the first epistle of Peter tells us. By comparison, our powers of recall are like a goldfish swimming round a fish tank. A little self-awareness in this respect should tell us that a lot more prayer is probably being answered than we give credit for.
A greater challenge to us is when God delays answering our intercessions for a reason that will become clear or for a reason which doesn’t. Most professional people have faced a situation where they possess some information in their work but are not able to share it with other people immediately. When other people get to know, they can be cross and questioning of us for not having shared this information earlier, but there are usually good reasons why we have not; perhaps not everything is in place or someone might get harmed. If we face these dilemmas in our limited way, should we be surprised that God is not always able to give us the answer we want presently? Such is God’s almighty nature, there must be times when he delays giving us what we are looking for, for reasons he cannot describe to mere mortals
The final dilemma around the apparent failure of prayer is when we decisively do not obtain what we sought. A desire for healing which did not emerge is a good example. We may plead with God, standing side by side with the people we are interceding for, and yet their continuing suffering sits uneasily with all we know about God’s care for us and the promises which attend the prayers of the faithful. Why has God not given us what we asked for, because we felt to our bones that we were asking it in his name? There are reasons we will never know and it’s the not knowing that is always hardest to bear. We have to trust in God’s goodness and love. ‘Even though he slays me, yet will I trust in him’ said Job. Every believer has to make provision in their faith for this; to be ready to endure the worst and still make the sacrifice of praise. Daniel made this allowance as he prepared to be thrown into the blazing furnace. I will not bow down to the statue you have made, he told the king, because I will only worship God. Perhaps God will save me from the furnace, but even if he doesn’t, you should know I will continue to trust in him rather than the statue you have made.
It is a resounding testimony. I wonder if Daniel felt like most of us might have in the same situation: bearing witness to truth from the same mouth which was going horribly dry and out of a heart which was turning to jelly with the anticipation of what lay ahead. Sometimes the faith we cling to, which looks so courageous to others, is like holding on by numb fingertips from the drop below us.
Often we do not acknowledge the impact which seemingly unanswered prayer makes on the way we pray today. Yet this self-knowledge is vital to a robust and honest life of intercession. To intercede is sometimes to fail; to believe is to continue interceding regardless.
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