We all have to wrestle with unanswered prayer. I remember at the age of 13 learning about my grandfather having bowel cancer. I went to my bedroom, got down on my knees and prayed vehemently that he be healed. Of course, he died from secondaries about eight months later.
The truth is that most prayers for healing go unanswered and that in this world one out of one die.
In Niango in Nigeria, there is a missionary graveyard. Of the 56 graves, 33 are those of small children. It is hard to imagine people with more faith than those who gave up everything for God and ventured out into the heart of Africa to witness to pagan tribes. Can you imagine that they did not pray for their children? Yet God saw fit to take them rather than answer their prayers. Don’t let anybody tell you that your prayers are not answered because you have too little faith.
Of course, some prayers cannot be answered. In the American Civil War both sides prayed for victory. The Confederate General, Robert E Lee, was a much more devout man that his counterpart in the North, Ulysses S Grant. Yet the North triumphed. Not only was it impossible for God to answer all the prayers affirmatively, but it would hardly have been in God’s character to a side fighting to preserve slavery.
The athlete prays for fine weather while the farmer prays for rain. They can’t both be answered, yes.
John Betjeman captured the irony of prayer for victory with:
Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
Spare their women for thy sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’re shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.
The Law of Unintended Consequences confounds most government action and inaction. It is humane to give aid to the needy, but when does it become a perverse incentive leading the recipients to depend on aid rather than on the work of their hands? Many an aid programme has ended up polluting the water or destroying trees or putting power in the hands of tyrants. Are governments right to bail out banks in the credit crunch? Some economists think that it would have been preferable to let these institutions sink or swim according to market forces. Who am I to say who is right?
The film ‘Bruce Almighty’ took a light-hearted look at what would happen if a mere mortal had God’s powers. Jim Carrey lassoed the moon to bring it closer for a romantic evening with his girlfriend and caused a tsunami in Japan. He answers ‘yes’ to every plea about the lottery so that the prize is worth less than the stake. Every answer he gives to prayer has unintended consequences.
Yet we presume to advise God on how to run His universe.
We hear about answered prayer: how a couple each working in a different tower of the World Trade Center managed to ‘miraculously’ escape the carnage. What does that say to the relatives of the 3000 who were killed? Did they not pray hard enough for their husband or son? When we read about the ‘Heroes of Faith in Hebrews chapter 11 there were those who died for the sake of preaching the Word. Sawn in half, put to the sword, flogged, stoned, destitute, ill-treated, imprisoned – all were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
Throughout Scripture we read of unanswered prayer. Despite leading the Israelites in the wilderness for 40 years, Moses’ request to enter the Promised Land was turned down. David prayed for a week for the child of his and Bathsheba’s adultery, but the child died.
Moses, Job, Jonah and Elijah all prayed to be allowed to die, but God ignored their requests. Often Israel prayed for victory only to be defeated – each event led to soul searching.
Habbakuk prayed for deliverance form the Babylonians; Jeremiah prayed that Jerusalem not be destroyed; Paul’s prayers for the churches seem to have fallen on deaf ears, for when we look at what happened to them we are dismayed – there is hardly a Christian Church left in Turkey, Paul’s old stomping ground. And Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was not removed. When he wrote to Timothy about his weak stomach, he advised that he took a little wine rather than expecting a miraculous cure. Shadows and handkerchiefs seemed to have lost their effect.
If God had said to us, “I am giving you the gift of prayer. You have to realise, of course, that you don’t have perfect wisdom, so there are limits as to how exactly your prayers will be answered, but I promise to listen and consider your suggestions, and where you ask appropriately, I will do my best to answer your requests,” then I could live with that.
But what Jesus actually said was:
I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, 'Go, throw yourself into the sea,' and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer."
Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.
These extravagant promises seem too much. Jesus seems to be over claiming. Our difficulty comes from the fact that we do not see mountains throwing themselves into the sea and happily everything we ask for is not granted. How can we explain it? Were the promises just for the disciples? Or are we missing the qualifiers? “Whatever you ask in my name.” “If you remain in me and my words remain in you.”
It seems to me contrary to the thrust of the whole of Scripture that we should use prayer as a form of magic spell. Indeed Simon Magus saw it as that and tried to buy the secret from Peter and John. “You have no part in this ministry because your heart is not right before God,” they replied.
And that is the crux of it. Is your heart right before God? Part of prayer is about getting our hearts right before God. When it is we will ask for what is according to God’s will. Prayer is part of the means of grace. We pray, we listen to his word, we wait upon the Lord. Just as for the heroes of Hebrews 11 the answer is often “Not yet”.