Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: An Encouraging Word on Unanswered Prayer, Part 2

Children often have interesting answers to difficult questions. Here are some of the answers children gave when asked why God does not always answer prayers for specific things.

"You're not the only one praying, you know." "Clocks work differently in heaven. It feels like a long time to you, but if you were in heaven it would be a teeny tiny time." "It's not like God is away on vacation or something. God has lots to do and no time off, and he is entitled to a life of his own. God is not your slave, you know." Sometimes God will wait for a spell because he knows you're going to change your mind as soon as he does what you ask him to do."

Our prayers for specific outcomes may not be answered because of the limitations we have placed on them by our attitudes. No one could read the four Gospels without seeing how strongly Jesus believed in prayer, or the connection he makes between our prayers and our attitudes. For example, Jesus makes it very clear that if a person is not forgiving of his enemies, then that person's own prayers for forgiveness will be denied. "If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you, but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will not forgive you" (Matthew 6:14-15). Similarily, he cautioned "Judge not that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged, and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matthew 7:1-2)

Some people try to sneak in the back door by asking someone else to ask for them. When I was a child I sometimes asked someone else to ask my father if I could do something if I thought he might deny my request. Frequently people ask me to prayer for them. It is a proper request to make of a pastor, and I always pray for them, but I hope they do not mean by that request that they expect God to do something for them which God would not do if they asked for themselves. We may ask someone to pray for us if they are asking that they pray with us, but we may not properly ask someone else to do our praying while we sit on the sidelines.

When we pray, we not only need faith, but also patience and perception. We need patience because we may need to wait. We may not be ready for what we ask. I have been in meetings in which people have prayed God to fill everyone with the Holy Spirit, in fact, I have probably prayed that myself. Do you realize what would happen if we were all filled with the Holy Spirit? It would revolutionize our individual and community lives. Pretension and lies would have to go. Truth would prevail. It would break up our quiet and restrained meetings. You would have to give up hating the people you love to hate, and love people you do not like. It would really change things. Are you ready for the radical change that would follow everyone being filled with the Holy Spirit?

We do not always stop to think what we are asking, and often do not have enough insight to realize the result of an affirmative answer to our prayers. Do you remember when Mrs. Zebedee came with her two sons, James and John, and asked Jesus to let her two boys have prominent places in the government of His Kingdom? "Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left in your kingdom. And Jesus answered, 'You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup I am to drink?'" (Matthew 20:21-22) If her request had been granted, James and John would have been hanging on his left and on his right when Jesus was crucified. Our ambitions for ourselves, or our children, may cause us to ask for things for which we are not ready or could not bear.

There are times in which God may deny the form of our petition in order to grant in substance what we ask. God may answer our prayer but not in the manner we specifically requested. In his "Confessions" Saint Augustine pictures his mother, Monica, praying all night in a seaside chapel that her son will not set sail for Italy. She wanted Augustine to be a Christian, and she could not bear the thought of losing him from the sphere of her influence. She reasoned that if so far she had not led him to Christ, how much farther he would be from her and the Lord in Italy. But even as she prayed, Augustine departed for Italy. There he met a man by the name of Ambrose who persuaded him to be a Christian. Augustine became a Christian in the very place from which his mother's prayers would have kept him. Thus, God denied the specific form of her request in order to grant the substance of her desire. It is not unusual that God answers our prayers in strange ways that are not clear to us at the moment.

There are things that may evade our understanding altogether in this world. Some of our questions must remain unanswered until we round the bend in the river of life that we call "death" and stand in the presence of God. The Apostle Paul said it well in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood." (1 Corinthians 13:12) Until that time we must trust God and let faith be our guide.

Unanswered prayer is one of the puzzling realities of life that can only be mediated by faith in God's superior wisdom, a wisdom often beyond the scope of our current understanding. We will never understand everything, not in this world.