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050  The Grief of Unanswered Prayer

Last time I did one of my periodic rants about asking God boldly and expecting results. I do that because that's how I've learned to approach Him, and I've never been sorry. Far too little gets done because we're simply asking too small.

This time we get to look at the other side of the coin: what happens when we ask and don't receive?

We get this look courtesy of a missionary family from my church. Because they minister in a country with an oppressive government that's hostile to the Christ, I won't name them or the place they live. I'll just call them G and R. That's not their real initials, either.

G and R have been ministering effectively in a foreign country for several years. Just last year they moved with their kids to that nation in order to establish residency so that they could adopt a little baby girl that we'll call baby H (again, not her real initial). This girl had been cast off because of a birth defect, one that's actually relatively easy to correct by surgery. G and R moved there, applied for the adoption, and were given temporary custody of H. They paid for her operation and saw her through it. They bonded with her and raised her for a bit less than a year. She became part of the family.

And then, because they already had another child under a certain age, G and R had to apply for an exception to a bureaucratic rule in order finally to adopt baby H. Just a few weeks ago, the bureau responsible for the decision rejected their application for an exception, which moved some other family to the top of the adoption list. G and R had to bring their beloved baby girl that they had been loving for a year to a government office where they were forced to hand her over to another family whose name they were not permitted to know. Then they had to walk away.

There just aren't words to describe the heartbreak they're experiencing, nor can I think of any words to comfort them. How can we even talk to them about it? What could anybody say that wouldn't sound stupid and presumptuous, even vulgar?

And yet, I have to risk vulgarity here because of my last memo. Our entire church had been praying them through the process for a year. G and R and their kids had been praying faithfully as well. And now their hearts are broken and their lovely little girl is being raised by somebody else. Even if baby H's new family is made up of fine, godly people, an injustice has occurred and deep pain caused.

So if God really wants us to venture out in prayer and exercise our authority over the nations in His name, why isn't baby H at home with G and R?

Let me assure you that I don't regard this as some intellectual game. I'm hurting along with my friends, though obviously not as deeply 'cause I've only seen pictures of baby H. But if we're going to grow, we have to wrestle with it.

I have listed some of the explanations that come to mind, whether they're sensible or not. All the possible explanations fall into three general categories:

1) Prayer doesn't change outcomes.

This includes such comments as "Life is just hard, and prayer doesn't change it." It also includes atheists' observations that "God is not good" or "God does not exist and prayer is just talking to ourselves." It also includes such well-meaning partial truths as "Prayer is not intended to change God's mind, it's intended to change us," or "God sends us pain to train us." I'll talk more about those in moment.

2) There was some defect in our prayers.

This category includes "You were praying against God's will," "You didn't pray hard enough," "You didn't really believe," and various versions of "Somebody  sinned so God did not hear." 

3) The story isn't over yet.

This maintains that when we pray, we're fighting against the kingdom of darkness with the possibility that the evil one will have mustered enough resistance to foil our efforts and protect his kingdom, this time. It includes the recognition that God will correct this injustice and all injustices sometime in the future, and that all things will be set right in the end. That "future" could be later today, the end of time, or anywhere in between.

There are those in the Church who dismiss either reason 1 or reason 2 out of hand, sometimes emphatically and angrily. I think both dismissals are mistakes. Both 1 and 2 contain partial truths that we need to keep in mind. (I didn't say there was going to be a simple answer...)

In the category of "Prayer doesn't work," I can say with confidence that God does exist and that He does tell us that when we ask, we will receive. I'll just assert it here; I'll prove it some other time. Prayer can and does change outcomes.

Does prayer change God's mind? That question brings us to the interface between time-bound human beings and a timeless God, and that interface by definition is beyond our understanding, or at the very least beyond the space it would take to address it here. I will say only that the scriptures contain instances of prayers that appear from our point of view to have "changed God's mind," whatever one takes that to mean; see Numbers 14:11-25, Daniel 10:1-14, and James 5:17-18 for examples.

But there's one comment in the category that we can't rule out altogether: prayer really is designed to change us, and we need to keep it in mind.

This feature of prayer has been showing up lately because certain political groups have begun to sneer at ordinary prayer. Whenever there's a huge public tragedy like a mass shooting, the advocates for gun control sneer at our prayers for the victims' families: "Oh, yes, that will help..." Christian and Jewish apologists have responded by explaining that prayer is not to change God but rather to change us.

It's a partial truth, though an important one. Yes, prayer is designed to change us, and especially in circumstances like I'm addressing today. We grow closer to God while wrestling with our pain and disappointment.

But no, it is not the case that prayer changes no outcomes. It changes plenty of outcomes, and we're instructed to pray with that expectation. If prayer never changes outcomes, then He's tricked us into praying as though things would improve only deliberately to frustrate us when they don't. That would be dishonest, manipulative, and evil. God is not like that. 

Nor is it the case that God deliberately constructs situations for us to pray and fail. People say such things because they think that God actually controls all events, even the decisions of evil men and unclean spirits. He doesn't. He uses those evil things, weaving them into His purposes, but He doesn't cause those things. To say that He does, again, paints God as the author of evil, and He's not like that.

Reason 2, that there was some defect in our prayers, we can't dismiss out of hand because there are passages in the scripture that treat that possibility as real. We don't simply get to ignore them. Matthew 17:14-21 is an instance, as are the other places where Jesus says something similar: "If you had faith like a mustard seed..." Matthew 21:21, Mark 11:22-23, and Luke 17:6 all show an event where Jesus' prayer did something that the disciples' did not think prayers could do, and Jesus' answer to them indicated that it was something that they could grow into as their faith increased, or perhaps could have achieved with fasting. Moreover, Luke 18:9-14, James 1:5-8, and James 4:3 all speak of instances where sin blocked a response from God. "...the proud, He knows from far away" (Psalm 138:6b).

So one always needs to take one's own temperature when one prays. God is not mean, nor is He a perfectionist (He does have high expectations, which is a different thing), but He counsels us: "Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov 4:20). The promises about God responding to prayers presuppose our healthy connection to Him. If we abide in Him and His words abide in us, we can ask. It is His good pleasure that we bear much fruit (John 15:7-8). He's patient with us if our requests have elements of self-protection or self-will in them--whose prayers don't, for crying out loud?--but the promises are for those who have made a real commitment.

Mind you, God is always open to prayers from those who haven't been so faithful, too. He's eager to welcome such people into His family if they're ready to come. But the promises are for disciples.

So, did G and R suffer from our church's unfaithfulness? You'll just have to take my word for it that the church isn't that bad, and that G and R really are decent, faithful servants with good hearts. I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure this isn't one of those cases.

Finally we get to the real issue: the story isn't over.

There are three parables in Matthew 13 that talk of the gradual increase of the Kingdom of God: the parable of the tares (Matt 13:24-30), the parable of the mustard seed (Matt 13:31-32), and the parable of leaven (Matt 13:33). They all say the same things: the kingdom will first appear in an environment where other things are also at work (tares, dough, other shrubs) and will seem insignificant at first, but will gradually grow to dominate their environment. The Kingdom is coming gradually, and its influence is increasing.

Christians trying to explain unanswered prayers always seem to forget that we're wrestling against principalities (see Ephesians 6:12). We're an army invading territory held by hostile spirits who are not going to give up without a fight. They don't fight fair, and they take advantage of our weaknesses. The evil one helps these Christians to forget; his favorite game is to do some evil thing then point to God and say "See how mean He is?" Or, as in this case, he moves some bureaucrat to act unjustly and then sits on our shoulders taunting us, "Where. Was. God!?"

So, where was God? He was in us fighting for baby H against hostile forces. It's our world, and God is teaching us how to manage it. He only intervenes insofar as we ask Him to, because our whole history is about God training His regents to rule the earth in His stead.

But we won't be fighting forever. God really is sovereign. We have promises from God, especially in the Hebrew prophets, that at the end all things will be made right, every injustice will be resolved, every tear will be dried and death will be swallowed up. What we don't receive now, we will receive later. You can count on it. That does not reduce the pain of current losses, but my friends will be recompensed and reunited with baby H in the end, and I have no doubt that God will watch over baby H to bless her life in the meantime. Of course, it's still possible that baby H will come home; we'll just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, though, there are parts of the Kingdom that have come already, and other parts that have not come yet. And I have a conviction that what we're learning next is that our persistent prayers will determine which parts of the "not yet" kingdom become "already" in our experience. God is waiting for us to ask. It's our earth.

So let's ask.

I hope that was helpful. See you in a couple of weeks.

Phil Weingart


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