Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: An Encouraging Word on Unanswered Prayer

There is no spiritual exercise more common to religious people than prayer. There is nothing in the observance of religious faith than causes more bewilderment than unanswered prayer. Does God not hear us? Does God not care? If you have ever been troubled by unaswered prayer, you are not alone. The Bible is filled laments about unanswered prayer. Here are some examples.

O Jehovah, how long shall I cry for help and thou wilt not hear?" (Habakkuh 1:2) "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1). You may remember that Jesus repeated these words as he was dying on the cross (Matthew 27:46). And "Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through" (Lamentations 3:44). There are many more Biblical references to the pain and frustration of unanswered prayer. At times the Bible may seem to be a discouraging book, for like life itself, it is laced with lessons in unanwered prayer.

Our daily lives are filled with "request denied" for reasons we do not understand. A loved one we thought had "miles to go and promises to keep" becomes ill and dies while we pray for her to live. The child whose life has long been the object of our prayers continues to get deeper and deeper into trouble. The "thorn in our flesh" remains to retard life's progress. It is likely that everyone of you could write a script on unanswered prayer in your own blood! But you continue to pray. Why?

Surely no one has all the answers, but each of us needs some fresh insight on prayer to keep faith purposeful and to give us courage on the way. First, let me point our that there is more to prayer than petition. Prayer is not to be used as a tool to force our uninformed ways on God. Prayer is the means of aligning our lives with the will and purposes of God. It is a communication in which we try to see where we fit in the scheme of God's great universe. One of the Psalmisst said it beautifully. "How precious are thy thought unto me, O God. How great is the sum of them. If I should count them they are more in number than the sand....Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my thoughts, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Psalm 139:17-18;23-24). Prayer is the process by which we try to open our little lives to the greatness of God. As we study the example Jesus lived, we see that prayer is not simply requesting specific outcomes; prayer is the time to ask for strength, wisdom and patience to deal with those things life throws at us.

In the second place, it would be well for us to understand how incompetent we are in knowing what is right and best in all things. Even the most insightful and spiritually developed among us are yet learners. There is a passage in Isaiah in which this comes through loud and clear: "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9).

When we see ourselves in proper perspective in relation to God, it becomes clear that we are far from being graced with enough understanding to substitute our wish for a specific ourcome for God's will and wisdom. The result would be disastrous if all our prayers for specific outcomes were answered. Longfellow in his table talk once said: "What discord should we bring to the universe if our prayers were all answered! Then we should govern the world and God. And you think that we should govern it better?! It gives me only pain when I hear the long and worrisome petitions of men asking for they know not what!" Certainly we would not banish petition as Longfellow seems to do in his exaggerated reproof, but he does put matters into perspective.

My children asked many things of me when they were young, some of which I did not grant. My failure to accede to their requests was not because I did not hear them, or did not love them, or did not care. Sometimes I said "no" because their request were not in their best interest, or because their requests were not in keeping with the greater good of the family. Sometimes I said "no" because they were not ready for a "yes", or because their requests were arrogant or selfish. Sometimes I said "no" because they asked that I alter the laws of nature or change the outcome of events set in motion by the free will and independent decisions of others. Any good father or mother will not give a child something simply because they ask. God knows far better how to respond to his children than we to ours. In this matter, one of my insightful friends reminded me that there are events which occur which are NOT the will of God, events that pain God. My friend cautioned that I should avoid the view that God will answer a clearly unselfish prayer that is in keeping with the greater good, because it doesn't seem to work that way in a world of war, pain and suffering, unbridled greed and power mongers. That is a conundrum worth considering when you are tempted to think you have the ways of God all properly worked out and catergorized

In the Epistle of James the writer says, "you ask and you received not because you ask amiss, that you may spend it selfishly" (James 4:3). There are times in which our children become angry indignant or upset because they do not get what they want. There are, likewise, times in which God's children become angry, indignant or upset because God will not do as they ask. But we continue to love our children even when they are angry. While we may be hurt by their anger, and regret that they choose to respond in tis manner, we hope for the day when in their maturity they will see the wisdom of it all and no longer be angry or resentful.

As we are with our children, so God is with us. A man said that he prayed God for a million dollars and God answered his prayer. God said "no". In that respect we might say that all our prayer are answered, in that God says "no" sometimes. However, we should be careful not to use semantic gymnastics to gloss over the bewilderment and hurt that people feel when they experience unanswered prayer. When we slip around the issue in this manner we leave behind persons still bewildered, and because of our glib lack of empathy, they may also feel that they have not been understood, or worse still, that they have been tricked.

More on this subject next week. Stay tuned.