Dealing with Unanswered Prayers

This week, we watched together as a real-life rescue drama unfolded before our eyes thanks to the wonder of cable television. One by one, 33 men trapped about half a mile below ground for more than two months emerged from the copper and gold mine they once feared would become their tomb. It wasn’t just the family and friends of the rescued miners who shed tears of joy when their loved ones emerged from the rescue capsules. Viewers, too, rejoiced over this modern miracle.

The rescue of trapped miners in Chile answered many prayers and re-united families.

The successful recovery surely answered a host of fervent prayers. One of the miners, an evangelical, buoyed the spirits of the other men by leading a Bible study. He corresponded with a Baptist pastor above ground who encouraged the men with a note. The pastor, Marcelo Leiva, told Baptist Press what he said to José Henríquez:

I encouraged him for remaining days of confinement. That he would remember the promises of the Lord, to have hope and confidence, and that he would also convey to the other 32 miners the message that the same God who has guarded them is the One who is going to guide them in the rescue. And so the anxiety can be dissipated with prayer and confidence in God.

According to Henríquez, the trapped miner, two men professed new faith in Jesus Christ during their confinement. When one of the miners’ wives learned her husband had become a Christian, she, too, found faith in Jesus. Indeed, God answered prayers not only for physical but also for spiritual deliverance. His gracious provision demonstrated that he hears the cries of his people in distress.

But what about when he doesn’t appear to provide? Do you remember four years ago when news broke that rescuers had discovered 12 men trapped in a West Virginia mine? Turns out it was false hope. Only one man survived.

“We have got some of us . . . saying . . . that we don’t even know if there is a Lord anymore,” the cousin of one dead miner said. “We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us.”

I’m worried the same dynamic of dashed hopes will play out in a church I know and love. While I was celebrating the rescue of miners in Chile, I learned that a family friend died of cancer. This summer he traveled some distance to hear me preach and encouraged me afterward. At the time he didn’t know anything was wrong. But now he’s dead of a fast-moving cancer. Members of his church prayed with confidence that he would be healed. They were sure God would answer by removing the cancer. He didn’t. How will this disappointment affect their faith?

The Bible includes several prayers that God does not appear to answer. The prayers fall into several different categories. In the case of the reluctant prophet Jonah, he pleaded with God out of his selfish, angry sin.

O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live (Jonah 4:2-3).

But God would not indulge Jonah’s sin by granting his request for death. God graciously declined to give Jonah what he wanted, the death his sin deserved.

Jesus, as he agonized while lying prostrate in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed that he would escape an agonizing death. “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will,” Jesus prayed in Matthew 26:39. “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Matt. 26:42). The Father did not spare his beloved Son death on the Cross. Rather, he provided Jesus the strength he needed in order to fulfill the the Father’s will. This way God answered Jesus’ prayers.

We might also consider the apostle Paul’s prayer in 2 Corinthians 12. Three times Paul pleaded with the Lord that he would remove the thorn in his flesh, the messenger of Satan who harassed him. But the Lord did not respond in the way Paul requested. God said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). In this way the Lord provided far greater than Paul could originally have expected. The power of Christ rested upon him as he boasted in his weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. “For when I am weak, then I am strong,” Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2:10.

As we can see from these and many other examples, God always answers our prayers. But he does not always answer them in the way or timing that we desire. Indeed, we may never learn the how and why of God’s will. Our faith is tested as we struggle to find contentment in God’s will, whatever may come. Reflecting on the challenge of “unanswered” prayer, J. I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom write in Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight:

In all of this our difficulties arise from the unawareness of the limits of our own spiritual wisdom, as well as our failure to realize that God does not limit himself by those limits of ours when he answers our prayers for help in time of need.

God intends for prayer to bolster our faith. But our faith won’t grow unless we confess that our perspective is limited and trust God to do his will. God is good. All the time. And he is using the circumstances of our life to conform us into the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29), “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). If Jesus could endure such horror on our behalf, what can we not endure when sustained by the Holy Spirit through prayer? “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Rom. 8:32)

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  • Steve Cornell

    Thank you for the gracious and thoughtful words about prayer. Unanswered prayer is a big issue especially in a culture that has become use to answers. Advancements in medicine in particular have been a great blessing but they have indirectly fostered unrealistic expectations for resolutions to our problems. Presenting a wider theology of humans as fallen— with the sin-suffering-death reality (as a curse from God) is important. As you well know, this is the backdrop to the gospel (Christ redeemed us…by being made a curse for us) and secured for us a place of “no mores”– “no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

    I have an expanded concern about three interrelated areas:

    1. How we talk to God (prayer)
    2. How we believe God speaks to us (revelation)
    3. How we talk about God (testimonies, God-sightings)

    Why don’t we guide new believers in the three main areas? Do we leave them to trial and error? Shouldn’t those who have been on the journey much longer show the new ones the way? Shouldn’t we teach them: How to pray? How to hear God’s voice? How to testify to His work?

    In his recent book on prayer (Does It Make Any Difference?), Philip Yancey confessed that “most of his struggles with the Christian life come down to two themes: Why God doesn’t act the way I want Him to, and Why I don’t act the way God wants me to.”

    On the matter of unanswered prayer (why God doesn’t act the way I want Him to), we have all been perplexed. “I readily confess” Yancey wrote, “that I tend to view prayer through a skeptic’s lens, obsessing more about unanswered prayers than rejoicing over answered ones.”

    The late Martyn Lloyd-Jones acknowledged that, “Of all the activities in which the Christian engages, and which are part of the Christian life, there is surely none which causes so much perplexity, and raises so many problems, as the activity which we call prayer.”

    Yancey concluded that, “Prayer has become for me much more than a shopping list of requests to present to God. It has become a realignment of everything. I pray to restore the truth of the universe, to gain a glimpse of the world, and of me, through the eyes of God.”

    “In prayer, I shift my point of view away from my own selfishness. I climb above timberline and look down at the speck that is myself. I gaze at the stars and recall what role I, or any of us, play in a universe beyond comprehension. Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.”

    (See also: When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer:…by Gerald Lawson Sittser).

    And, “Deep thoughts about prayer”

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  • J

    We know that it’s really painful for the loved ones, and for those who watched the tragedy, of those miners who died and were not rescued alive. And as we all know, as cruel as it is, this is just another way of dying. We all going to die but in different ways. Some will die of sickness, some from accident, some from injustice and some will die of old age. Life on earth is temporal. And because of this, we have to love and make use of every moment we have with our loved ones to count. If we insure our car that will only last at least 5 years, our house, and our life for at least 60-80+ years then we also need an insurance for a life after death that for all generations have been talked about and passed on. And though some would not believe in life after death, the fact is those who don’t believe don’t know and have zero proof if there is no life after death. It makes sense to ensure eternal life through the historically proven Saviour, Jesus Christ. There are more history, geographical facts and evidences/writings by claimed witnesses that Jesus Christ existed than He did not. And these witnesses and those who were prophesied have the same story when they were separated by several decades to thousands of years, by geographical, language, and culture. So how they could conspire together? If you are in the court and all witnesses are called, you will separate each one of them so they can’t conspire to fraud the story… Think about this before entertaining all hearsays against Jesus and God. Let them first provide their logic and proofs.