It can seem as if God doesn’t answer our prayers, but there is a different way of looking at such times.
Series Theme: How we Christians stay positive in a negative world.
Title: Unanswered Prayer
Date delivered: February 7, 2016
Preacher: Rev. Joyce Donigian
Scriptures used: Psalm 22:1-8; 1 John 5:11-15; Luke 11:9b
Synopsis: It can seem as if God doesn’t answer our prayers, but there is a different way of looking at such times.
Summary: It is hard to stay positive in a negative world – one in which it can seem as if God doesn’t answer our prayers and those around us comment to us pointing out that being Christian, trusting in God, does not bring us the solutions we hope for.
I’d like to tell you a true story that happened several years ago while Pastor Doug and I still lived in Baltimore. We were members of a Bible study group that included couples from several different churches. One evening one of the couples, Ben and Terry, shared their exciting news – they were going to be parents for the first time. We were all quite happy for them. All went well for several months but Terry ended up needing to spend several weeks in the hospital. Michael Thomas was born six weeks early weighing in at 3 lbs. 3 ozs., and he was able to breathe on his own – for about 12 hours. He was then put on a ventilator. He was on a vent for nine months, never coming home from the hospital. And then he died.
That was the hardest funeral I have ever attended. There were thousands of prayers sent to heaven for Michael Thomas and yet he still died. It seemed as if all those prayers went unanswered. And that’s a hard thing to deal with! And it’s so hard to continue to stay positive in situations such as these. The question of “Why?” is often on our hearts and lips. We don’t understand, we can’t figure out why this bad thing – whether the particular situation we’ve prayed about is a death or loss of job or loss of mobility, accident, illness, or other disaster – Why did these things have to happen even though we, along with many others, have prayed for a different outcome.
To make things even more difficult in these difficult and often confusing situations are those around us – co-workers, family members, friends who challenge us and our faith by commenting on how being a Christian and praying to God did nothing to make a situation better. It’s hard to stay positive in such a negative atmosphere.
Have you heard such comments like:
You are such a good Christian, you don’t do any of the fun things – you pray a lot – and even with all that – you didn’t get what you wanted. What kind of God do you have anyway? Being a Christian didn’t seem to help much.
Those critics are right in that it is hard to understand why we are told in scripture that we can have what we ask of God. And yet it feels that often God doesn’t answer our prayers.
This is not a new problem – of believers wanting and needing reassurance that God hears us when we pray. The psalmist in our first scripture certainly could be writing today, expressing some of our deepest fears and concerns – We cry out during the day and it seems as if God does not answer. And our prayers at night seem to fall on deaf years – our God is silent, at least as far as we can determine.
This is what I’d like to explore in this sermon – how to stay positive and confident – in our God and God’s promises in a world where God doesn’t always answer our prayers as we expect. Sometimes it feels as though God doesn’t hear us at all.
First of all, I’d like to talk about what prayer is and what it is not. A short definition of prayer is communication with God. Through prayer we desire to more intimately know, love and worship God – to understand more about who God is and what God does. Secondly, we pray in order to better understand how to live our lives in God’s will. Prayer doesn’t just change things; prayer changes us. Finally, through prayer we can have access to God and all that is God’s – but more than that, through prayer we should desire those things that bring God’s message to others. Prayer, then, is the honest desire to know God, to understand God’s will for us, and to seek ways to be used by God here on earth – all this through prayer, communication with God.
It has been said that God always answers prayers – but that the answer can be either – yes. no, or maybe. I came across a 5 part breakdown of how God answers prayers which may be helpful.
First, God’s answer can be yes – right away. Travel mercies are a good example of such prayers. They are answered as soon as people safely reach their destination. These are times when our request is exactly in line with God’s will and timing.
Then, there are the yes responses that take a longer time for us to see. This is a yes, but in due time. People who have prayed to meet someone to marry or a couple who pray to have a child – often these prayers are answered but later – God’s timing takes longer than our time.
Then there is the qualified yes. Something that God gives us a positive reply to and only later do we see that this was not the best way to go – but we were able to learn a valuable lesson in the process. I think Pastor Doug’s journey through college, graduate school, and work in the field of research – a career lasting more than 30 years – prepared him for seminary and this current work for God. He and I both feel that this is the work God truly had in mind for him and for me all along.
A fourth answer is a no – because our heart is just not right. In this case, it’s not a timing issue; it is because we are praying for a specific outcome for the wrong reasons. For example, if we pray for a promotion so that we can brag about how much money we now make or how many people now report to us, that is usually not the kind of prayer that God will answer. Also, praying for a football team to win a game because we have placed a bet on that team is also not a prayer given for the right reason.
Finally, God’s answer can be an out and out no – but a no because God has something better in store for us. Sometimes what we ask for is too small, too limited. While we see only what is in front of us, God sees the whole picture.
I think there is something else that we need to consider as well. And that is that God has, in fact, answered our prayers, but has answered our prayers in a way that was unexpected. Tony Campolo, a nationally known Christian speaker, who’s from Philadelphia, connected to Eastern University and seminary tells this story:
Once when he was in a church in Oregon, he prayed for a man who had cancer. In the middle of the week, he received a telephone call from the man’s wife. She said, “You prayed for my husband. He had cancer.” Campolo said, “Had?” Whoa, he thought, it’s happened.
She said, “He died.” Campolo felt terrible. “Don’t feel bad,” the woman said. “When he came into church that Sunday, he was filled with anger. He knew he was going to be dead in a short period of time, and he hated God. He was fifty-eight years old, and he wanted to see his children and grandchildren grow up.
“He was angry that this all-powerful God didn’t take away his sickness and heal him. He would lie in bed and curse God. The more his anger grew toward God, the more miserable he was to everybody around him. It was an awful thing to be in his presence.
She continued, “After you prayed for him, a peace came over him and a joy came into him. The last three days have been the best days of our lives. We’ve sung. We’ve laughed. We’ve read Scripture. We’ve prayed. Oh, they’ve been wonderful days. And I called to thank you for laying your hands on him and praying for healing.”
Then she said something incredibly profound: “He wasn’t cured, but he was healed.”
Obviously, people can die whom you’ve prayed would be healed. The job you want can pass you by. Your desire to marry someone or have kids may never come to fruition. In those situations, God may be answering prayers in unexpected ways, ways that are not seen or understood until later.
So what to do in the meantime? Until an answer is final, keep asking in faith. But if the time comes when you are convinced that the answer is final and is not what you hoped, you may then feel that God has not heard your prayers, may in fact feel that God has abandoned you. It is in times like this that people may question whether God even exists. Or the feeling may be that God does exist, but that God doesn’t care enough about us to become involved in our personal problems and needs. God, after all, is the Creator of the universe, why in the world would God care about my medical test results?
There are other responses that people can have when it seems as if prayers go unanswered: They may feel that they are too sinful – that God cannot and will not forgive them for things they have done and therefore, their prayers will not be heard. Or they may feel that they just need to be a bit more patient. Or they may wonder if they are praying for the wrong things.
Five responses – and we know the first three are just wrong – God exists and hears all of our prayer requests, big and small, and God forgives our sins if we but confess.
However, it may be that waiting longer or considering whether our request is the best for us – those yes, but not yet answers – may be something we should ponder. However, through all of this waiting and wondering we need to trust that God’s Spirit will sustain us, and truly know that God is good all the time – all the time, God is good. In Romans 8:28, Paul reminds us that God is always working all things together for good for those that love God. You can ask and know with total confidence that God will provide exactly what is needed. That is faith in our all-powerful and all-knowing, caring God.
But don’t forget that many times the only reason why we don’t get something from God is because we never asked in the first place. This is a call to all of us to pray more, to know that God hears us when we pray, and that God will answer our prayers – not always in our timing or in ways that we expect, but God is faithful and trustworthy. Even when our requests receive a no – we should continue to pray – realizing that it is human nature to remember the negatives – the no answers – and overlook the yes responses. Too often we take the good things that happen through prayer as something we deserve rather than something for which we should give thanks.
God’s wisdom is beyond our comprehension. God’s ways are too complex for us to understand. And that’s a good thing. We human beings, no matter how much we study, no matter how much we pray, can never know the mind of God. We are God’s creations and it is not our role to tell God what God should do. God always hears us but answers us in the best possible way.
Now that I’ve given you and myself all of these reasons to pray and accept God’s responses to our prayers, I will confess that I still struggle with trying to understand why the baby, Michael Thomas, in the story I opened this sermon with, I still don’t understand why he died. Many of you may struggle with a similar situation. It is very hard sometimes to know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes we just can’t know the answers, the whys, and just rely on faith – faith that God is in control and that God’s ways are the best.
That has not stopped me from continuing to pray for things big and small, to accept that sometimes the answer to my prayers is a no or a not yet, but it has also given me the opportunity to see the yes answers. It’s a little like appreciating warm weather after a cold winter, or rain after a drought. Or being able to sleep through the night without coughing after we have been sick.
We appreciate things more when there is a contrast. If God always answered prayers, always in the way we expected, my guess is that we would soon look at God not as the majestic, all-powerful, all-knowing God that God is but rather like a genie that we could summon by praying. Our God is so much more, so beyond our understanding, that our response needs to be – thank You God for Your love and care for us. You are truly an awesome God. Let us pray.
Holy, gracious, all-powerful Creator, thank You for listening to our prayers and always answering them. Sometimes it is hard for us to see Your hand in our lives, but our faith remains strong that You are always by our side, loving, listening, forgiving. Thank You for being You. In Your Son’s name I pray. Amen.
First United Church of Christ, Quakertown, PA