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Prayer and Meditation IV - On Unanswered Prayer
In this series of posts about prayer, meditation, and mindfulness, I wanted to pause with a note of encouragement for those who are or have been discouraged in prayer. Do you ever feel like God is not answering your prayers? You ask, seek, knock, and even pound on the door of heaven day after day, night after night, and there’s no answer. The marriage is still broken; your mind and emotions are still causing intense suffering; you relapsed yet again; God didn’t heal your loved one and they died. You plea to God with the words of Psalm 44:24, “Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?”
There are many reasons God might not be answering our prayers. One common reason is that he is answering them according to his wisdom rather than our own. In Luke 11:11-12 Jesus teaches us that our heavenly Father, like our earthly father, does not give us a serpent when we ask for a fish, nor does he give us a scorpion when we ask for an egg. Notice, we are not told that God will give us a fish or an egg, however needful they seem in the moment of hunger; rather, when he answers our prayers, he never gives us anything harmful.
John Newton wrote a marvelous hymn titled I Asked The Lord. He published it with William Cowper in The Olney Hymns (1779), and the text was no doubt born out of Newton’s friendship with Cowper who battled with depression, lack of assurance, and suicidality all his life. The hymn has 7 stanzas but is worth repeating in full. Here is a prayer, a lament even, that gives profound expression to the depths of “unanswered” prayer for transformation.
I asked the Lord that I might grow in faith and love and ev'ry grace; might more of his salvation know, and seek more earnestly his face. ’Twas he who taught me thus to pray, and he, I trust, has answered pray'r, but it has been in such a way as almost drove me to despair. I hoped that in some favored hour at once he’d answer my request, and by his love’s constraining pow’r subdue my sins and give me rest. Instead of this he made me feel the hidden evils of my heart, and let the angry pow’rs of hell assault my soul in ev'ry part. Yea more, with his own hand he seemed intent to aggravate my woe, crossed all the fair designs I schemed, humbled my heart, and laid me low. "Lord, why is this?" I, trembling, cried; "Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?" "Tis in this way," the Lord replied, "I answer prayer for grace and faith. "These inward trials I employ from self and pride to set thee free, and break thy schemes of earthly joy that thou may’st find thy all in me."
Allow me to share from a few other writers who have helped me wrestle in this area. Ole Hallesby, a 20th century Swedish Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned during World War II for resisting the Nazis, wrote a classic book on prayer. In it he penned these astounding words:
“Be not anxious because of your helplessness. Above all, do not let it prevent you from praying. Helplessness is the real secret and impelling power of prayer. You should therefore rather try to thank God for the feeling of helplessness which He has given you. It is one of the greatest gifts which God can impart to us. For it is only when we are helpless that we open our hearts to Jesus and let Him help us in our distress, according to His grace and mercy.”
Going back a bit further than John Newton, toward the end of the 17th century a Puritan pastor by the name of Thomas Watson preached a lengthy series of sermons on The Westminster Shorter Catechism. In it he posed his own question, “How may we comfort such as complain they do not grow in grace?” His answer is brief but profound:
“They make mistake; for they may grow, when they think they do not, ‘There is that maketh himself poor, yet hath great riches’ (Prov 13:7). The sight Christians have of their defects in grace, and their thirst after greater measures of grace, make them think they do not grow when they do. He who covets a great estate, because he has not so much as he desires, thinks himself to be poor. Indeed Christians should seek after the grace they want, but they must not therefore overlook the grace they have. Let Christians be thankful for the least growth. If you do not grow so much in assurance, bless God if you grow in sincerity; if you do not grow so much in knowledge, bless God if you grow in humility. If a tree grows in the root, it is a true growth; so if you grow in the root-grace of humility, it is as needful for you as any other growth.”
Be encouraged. God might wait. The struggle may continue. But when we ask for something good, he never gives us something evil, that is, nothing that can ultimately harm us, for quite often God works good out of evil (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28). Those may sound like trite words. As mere words, they are trite. But Jesus gave this promise: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13). It is the Spirit himself who makes God’s promises more than mere words. He breathes life into them, makes them the words of eternal life (John 6:63, 68).
So while you wait, ask for the gift of helplessness, as Hallesby counsels. And join that with Watson’s advice: In your helplessness ask God for the grace of seeing grace in your life that you have overlooked in your desperation for different grace.
Hallesby, Ole (1931/1994). Prayer. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress. Newton, John,
Cowper, William (1779). Olney Hymns in Three Books.
Watson, Thomas (1692/1992). A Body of Divinity. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust.