Monday, April 02, 2007

The Unwanted Gift of Unanswered Prayer: A Thought for Holy Week

Everyone of us, have at one time or another experienced unanswered prayer. Some of us struggle today, trying to understand why God has not answered a long-standing prayer of ours.

To me, one of the most encouraging verses in Scripture is Hebrews 4: 15. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Jesus knows what it is like to contend with the challenges we must strive with. He knows what it means to try to come to terms with our unanswered prayers.

Think of Jesus kneeling in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Note His transparency. He does not pretend that He is quietly willing to accept the suffering that threatens Him. He is honest and says to His Father, “If it is possible, don’t let this happen to me! Father, you can do anything. Don’t make me suffer by having to drink from this cup.” (Mark 14: 35-36 Contemporary English Version)

These words of Jesus sound like a prayer I offered at the beginning of February 2003. That Sunday night we were traveling on the high speed train from Valence, in the south of France, back to our home in Paris. My body was in France, but my mind and heart were in North America. I knew that our son, John who was studying in Boston at the time, had driven to Montreal that weekend, to attend a conference and visit with his sister, Elizabeth. I was worried because I knew road conditions could be treacherous during the winter season.

As the train sped across the country, I prayed repeatedly. “Lord,” I said, “You can do anything. Please keep John safe as he travels this weekend.”

In spite of my unceasing prayers in this vein, I felt restless and doubted they were even being heard. I wanted to know that everything would be alright, but that assurance would not come. All I could do was leave my prayers hanging there in space, afraid to take the next step that Jesus took and submit to the sovereign will of God. Maybe, that was what He was waiting for before; before He could assure me all would be well.

The next morning, as I was meeting with the Lord for my normal time of early morning prayer, my heart tightened when I heard the phone ring. It was Elizabeth in Montreal, informing us that John had been in a car accident and was paralyzed. His vehicle hit black ice, and as it rolled, it broke his neck. My prayer had not been answered.

Over the months that followed I sensed a kaleidoscope of emotions, along with my questions, as I tried to understand why God did not answer my prayer. Would my surrender to His sovereignty have made any difference? It did not seem to do so for Jesus.

Jesus concluded His prayer in the garden by saying, “But do what you want, not what I want.” Perhaps, Jesus could say that because He had the absolute certainty that what the Father wanted was for the best, for Him and for all concerned. He was so certain that the choice of the Father was the right one, that when Peter drew a sword to defend Him, a little while later, He told Peter to put it away. He affirmed to Peter, “I must drink from the cup that the Father has given me.” He did not say it as a complaint or even as a reluctant acquiescence to the inevitable, but rather He affirmed his clear sighted acknowledgment that this is the way it must be.

What can we learn about dealing with our unanswered prayers by looking at this example of Jesus? One discovery is that our unanswered prayers build faith. Donna, a friend that I have occasion to work with, from another denomination, said to me one day, “Have you ever noticed that when a person comes to Christ, it seems like their prayers are answered so frequently, yet as they continue on their faith journey, the answers become less frequent?”

As we talked further about this, we concluded this is one of the ways that the Lord enables Christians to grow in their faith. If all of our prayers were always answered, just the way we desire, we would eventually take God for granted and fail to value all that He does for us.

When we discover that He does not act as we expect Him to in response to our requests that we are forced to go deeper. We then must ask ourselves hard questions. Have we lost our connection with Him? Does He have other plans for us? What is going on? Through our questions and reflection, we learn to have confidence that He is in control of our lives, even if we do not understand what is happening. He always gives us a choice. We can hold on to our demands or we can surrender them to Him and allow Him to work out all things for our good, not immediately for our happiness perhaps, but always for our good.

A quote that I heard in the sermon given to our congregation last Sunday was, “You never know how much faith you have until it is tested.” One of the ways that God tests our faith for us is by not answering our prayers in the way that we demand.

While it is evident that Jesus fully embraced the will of the Father for Him, this was clearly not an easy thing for Him to do. The Scriptures tell us how He struggled so intensely in Gethsemane that “His sweat was like great drops of blood falling to the ground,” according to Dr. Luke. (Luke 22: 44) Not only would there be the agony of His torture and crucifixion, there would also be the fear of abandonment by His Father, as He took upon Himself all of our sins. What He was saying “yes” to is beyond our imagining.

Our “yes” to His will that leads us to suffering pales in comparison. Yet, like Jesus, we would prefer another option. God never imposes His will on us, nor did He on Jesus. He may not change the circumstances that He has permitted us to experience, but He will not force us to accept that this is part of His will and that He knows the end from the beginning. Our strength is found in our relinquishment.

Is unanswered prayer really a gift? It is if it enables us to develop faith, to test that faith and find it will hold and to discover that His strength is ours through our willing relinquishment to His sovereignty.

Jan Karon has written several delightful books about an Episcopalian priest, Father Tim Cavanaugh. (In the USA, Anglicans are called Episcopalians.) When Father Tim gets in a tight spot, he prays what he refers to “the prayer that never fails.” We are not told what that prayer is until much later in the book. The prayer he uses is the prayer with which Jesus concludes in the Garden of Gethsemane, “not what I will, but what you will.” This prayer will never be unanswered, and can lead us to a new level of intimacy and trust in our relationship with God our Heavenly Father.


Anna Dynowski said...

Thank you, Eleanor, for your insights. Sometimes we need a little reminder of what it cost Jesus to save us and I especially want to keep that reminder close to my heart and we get closer to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.
God Bless!

Eric E. Wright said...

Thanks Eleanor. Such a difficult but necessary story to write to help others in their struggles with unanswered prayer. I've also noticed that as the years go by the dramatic answers to prayer I knew as a young Christian become less--as if God expects us to learn how to walk more in the darkness of our world. Suffering. Tragedy, so tough. I've just been reading this morning more from CS Lewis about his grieve in the loss of his wife. God bless you. Eric Wright

Marci said...

Thanks for the post, Eleanor. When I was a fairly new Christian it seemed the gates of heaven were opened wide. Then one day they seemed closed and I didn't understand until I heard God say He was standing right beside me all the time, even when I didn't "feel" that He was.
It's sometimes so hard to trust. As I drove to Red Deer yesterday in a bad snow storm, slip sliding all over the road, I prayed all the way for my daughter who was driving back from Grand Prairie. She arrived home safely. I can't imagine the pain you felt over your son. But I know God is good all the time.
Blessings, Marcia

Anonymous said...

we are always told that we should look upon Jesus as our template of how to live this life, how to treat others and how to trust God. Another aspect of being like Jesus is the fact that we are expected to suffer just like how Jesus did on Earth. In the midst of an enormous suffering, if we can still hold on tight to our faith and still surrender to God for His plan for us, then like Jesus, we will be rewarded one day.

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