“Why prayer if God already knows what He’s going to do?”
“How do you deal with unanswered prayer?”
“How do you keep hope and faith when you’ve been praying for something that hasn’t happened yet?”
The pain of unanswered prayer, especially prayer for something or someone important to us, and the questions that invariably arise, can feel debilitating.
I grew up in church and prayer has always been almost a default response for me. Anything big or small that happens, I speak with God about it.
There was a time however where I gave up praying for one particular thing. I had been praying for years for reconciliation in my parents’ relationship so that our home could be a peaceful place (they were still together). Instead, it seemed that their relationship only became more distant, more tense, more toxic. And eventually it felt too painful to continue praying and I struggled to even believe the prayers could be answered.
Then a friend shared with me a similar dilemma in praying for his family so we swapped. I began to pray for his and he prayed for mine. To our joy, breakthroughs began to happen in his family.
But in my family, I instead found myself praying a very different kind of prayer years later as I sat at my dying mother’s bedside and prayed for God to take her home and thereby end her suffering in this life. That prayer was answered.
I have had many questions since around why her life had to be what it was and end like it did. As the years have passed and the sharpness of grief faded, I have seen some things more clearly. I know that God desired a very different life for her, indeed for our family, but there were some areas within her that she fiercely guarded and never surrendered to His healing, resulting in tension in her relationships with everyone, including our family. God did not force her to deal with those areas of pain – maybe He knew she couldn’t. Regardless, force is not His way. He invites, gently presses and we must respond. He would not go against His nature to answer my prayers. This I now understand.
This is one of my experiences with unanswered prayer. Some of my unanswered prayers I am incredibly grateful that God in His love and wisdom has not answered because I can now see they were not things that were good for me. Other prayers I am still asking Him why He has not answered.
But this I have come to understand about prayer in general. Prayer is about relationship with God. The same way in which we get to know one another intimately by sharing the deep things of our hearts with one another, so it is with prayer. It is all about knowing and feeling known by God. The request bit, asking Him for things, is only one small aspect of prayer.
I also take comfort that I am not alone in this pain and wrestling with unanswered prayer. I love the Psalms for this reason. They are filled with questions, passionate complaints, and pain-filled cries to God around unanswered prayer.
Three other books have also made this journey with me and been incredibly helpful:
God On Mute by Pete Greig, Luminous Dark by Alain Emerson and A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis. It is from this last author that I want to end with a quote from, because it points to the One who has been my most constant Companion through it all and understands the pain of unanswered prayer in a way that no one else ever can.
A once staunch atheist turned prolific Christian writer, C.S. Lewis wrestled with unanswered prayer when he lost his wife Joy to cancer. This is one of his many thoughts on the subject:
“There are, no doubt, passages in the New Testament which may seem at ﬁrst sight to promise an invariable granting of our prayers. But that cannot be what they really mean. For in the very heart of the story we meet a glaring instance to the contrary. In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”