My last post was about answered prayer. But what about the times when God doesn’t answer my prayers? There are lots of those, and I’m often jealous when I hear other’s miracle stories. “The cancer just disappeared!” or “I am so blessed; God gave me just what I hoped for!”
The Gospels often mention God’s desire to answer our prayers. Jesus says, “Ask and you shall receive, and your joy will be complete” (John 16:24). In Matthew 7:7, he says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and the door will be opened to you.” In Luke, we read about the widow who nagged the judge so much he finally found in her favor so she would leave him alone. Jesus tells us God will not be slow to answer those who cry out to him.
So what am I missing here? Why are some people miraculously cured and others not? Is it because they are somehow more worthy or because God loves them more than others? Did I not pray hard enough for Neil to be cured? Was I not persistent in my prayer? Those questions lead me to feel guilty, believing that if I said one more prayer or did one more good deed Neil would have survived. I know that’s not true, but a mourning heart can convince itself all sorts of things that aren’t true.
So does prayer even work? I am not talking here about prayers of praise or thanksgiving. Yes, those work. Prayers of praise open my heart to the glory of God’s beautiful creation around me. Prayers of thanksgiving remind me to be grateful for my many blessings. Prayers for someone else can make me aware of their needs, so when a family is in trouble or someone is sick, my prayers prompt me to help in concrete ways, like sharing a meal or offering a ride.
Yes, those kinds of prayers work. It seems the question “Does prayer really work?” is not exactly the same as, “Does God answer prayers?” Here I mean the desperate prayer we beg God to answer: the plea to cure a dying husband or to protect a traveling daughter. Why doesn’t God always answer these prayers?
Part of the answer lies in God’s love for us. Like a father who won’t “hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish” (Matthew 7:9), God promises to give good things to us when we ask him. Ah, there’s the glitch. God answers my prayers if I ask for something that is good for me. How many times did I refuse to buy the candy my daughters pleaded for in the checkout aisle because I knew it would cause a meltdown later. OK, so God will give us what we ask for if it’s good for us. Curing Neil seems like it would have been a good thing, doesn’t it? Yet, if my recent blog post on heaven gives any indication, God had something better in mind for Neil. God is the only one who knows the big picture, so he is the only one who really knows what’s best, not just what seems best to my desperate heart. I am called to trust, to give up control, to give up the idea that I know how things should turn out. Those aren’t exactly my strengths. So when I complain that “God doesn’t answer my prayers,” don’t I really mean, “God doesn’t answer my prayers the way I want”?
And if I only pray for what God already wants, why even bother to do it? That question forces me to consider prayer’s true purpose. Is it a time to list my requests like a child reading her letter to Santa? And what do prayers of praise and adoration and thanksgiving have in common with my desperate begging?
The answer is simple: prayer is a conversation. I talk to God, unburdening my weary soul, asking for his help or thanking him for his gifts. Even if I’m begging for a miracle that doesn’t happen, I am opening my heart. Sharing profound pain or elated joy with another person deepens our relationship, and the same happens with God. As he listens, I pour out my heart and grow closer to him. And the closer I am to God, the easier it is to trust him guiding my life.
Maybe the real answer when I prayed for Neil’s health was my newfound confidence that God is always with me, not only in the healings and blessings but in the pains and the sorrows, too. Or maybe the answer was Neil’s courage as he died – his excitement to meet God and see his parents and older brother. And in both cases, maybe the miracle that did happen was even better than the one I prayed for. The next time I’m tempted to say that God doesn’t answer my prayers I will remember that he does. Maybe not the way I hoped, but always in the way that’s best.