Unanswered Prayer 2 – Coping with unanswered prayers.’ Psalm 88? Isaiah 55:1-9, Luke 13:1-9
Abba Father everything is possible for you, take this cup from me.’’ Mark 14:36.
As we face unanswered prayer, we struggle and we may wonder, if God is Abba Father – who is loving, caring – and if everything is possible, then why does he not remove our cup of suffering – and answer our prayers. These words also show Jesus’ honesty and our honesty before God.
Andrew Murray – a Christian writer said: ‘’the power of prayer depends entirely upon our apprehension of who it is with whom we speak.’’ When we are struggling, it is important we anchor ourselves in the truth that we are deeply loved by the Creator God.
A Netflix series that I like is Fauda, based in Israel about a special forces team. I was struck, in that series, how at different points we hear children and adults call out Abba – meaning Father, or Daddy / Dad.
Mark deliberately uses the original Aramaic. In Jesus day, Abba was a family word – a word, which children, including tiny children, would use to address their fathers. It was a word of courtesy and respect and an expression of warm intimacy and trust. These ideas are reflected in the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
The intimacy, the respect, the closeness, the majesty.
In all of Jesus recorded prayers in the gospels, he used the title ‘father’. The only place where he does not begin his prayer with Father, was on the cross : ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’
What is our image of God, as we wrestle with unanswered prayer?
It is possible with a devastating experience, that we can feel parts of our faith have been demolished.
In our process of healing, it may be possible we learn that we have placed expectations upon God, that were a projection of our own wants and desires.
Alain Emerson is a N. Irish Church Leader. Sadly, in 2007, Alain’s wife Lyndsay died of a brain tumour, after less than two years of marriage. She was only 23. Alain has written about his reflections and his journey of grief. In one section, he shared about a conversation with his old theology professor.
Alain said: ‘’I thought God would bless me if I honoured him? Why would it be any better for anyone, even God, for Lindsay to be dead? What do I do with the Biblical principle of sowing and reaping?
Because in my experience is that this just doesn’t hold true.
I sowed good ‘kingdom’ seeds and look what I reaped – sheer devastation.’’ Emerson, p.121.
His professor then said something, that Alain never forgot :
‘’Alain, we often come to learn in life that sometimes our journey towards God is a stripping away of illusions about God.’’ (Emerson, p.121)
In the pain of unanswered prayer and its effects, and in suffering in general, it is possible that we feel we are stumbling towards God, and in that journey, we may realize that our assumptions about God, we may find them exposed and challenged.
Alain said: ‘I was becoming aware of an uncomfortable truth – I had subconsciously held God hostage with my prayers. I had predetermined how God should honour me in my life and assumed a posture of ‘entitlement’ – the reason it felt that God had not come through, was because, quite simply, he hadn’t met my agenda. It felt like a part of my ego, a part that I didn’t even realize was there, had been exposed.’’ (Emerson, p.121-22).
He goes on to say – he realized that he needed ‘’to surrender my preconceived ideas of how I expected God to act towards me. I needed to trust and believe in him outside of the agenda I wanted him to fulfill.’’ (Emerson, p.122).
Alain’s thinking had been, if he followed, served, gave, sacrificed things for the Lord, then all or at least all the key things should go well…
For some of our unanswered prayers, and I say this gently, we may need to ask ourselves, have we perhaps assumed things of God. Isaiah 55 suggests, can our thoughts about God and how he should act, be different from thoughts about how he should or will act.
In this most stress filled time, Jesus anchors himself in who he knows God to be.
When we approach God again and again with a deep need, whenever we come with our pain and longings, we come to Abba Father. Peter wrote: ‘’Cast all your anxiety upon him – that part we know well – but do not forget the second – because he cares for you.’’
CS Lewis first book in the Narnia series is Magicians’ Nephew. Digory is a young boy, and sadly his mother is dying. He approaches the Lion Aslan and asks: ‘May I – please – will you give me some magic fruit of this country to make Mother well?’
It is a request, yet Aslan seems to ignore it.
Lewis writes: ‘’Digory had been desperately hoping that the Lion would say Yes; he had been horribly afraid it might say NO. But he was taken aback when it did neither.’
We recognize this. Of course we want the yes. But it would help so much if we heard God say ‘no’ – as Jesus in that Garden, knew it was no. Or at least to know we need to persevere or wait.
But silence – as we experience so often. We may then feel – God does not care.
Digory decides to ask again. He goes to Aslan. Looking down at his feet and Aslans, he asks again if he could have something to cure his mother.
Digory looked up. Lewis wrote. ‘What he saw, surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big bright tears, compared to Digory’s own, that for a moment he felt as if the Lion was really sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. (CS Lewis quoted in Pete Greig, God on Mute. ).
Digory’s prayer was unanswered – but things had changed for him. He knew Aslan truly cared.
In John 11, Mary falls at Jesus feet and says ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ He sees her weeping, he sees the emotions of others, he asks where is Lazarus and those nearby say ‘Come and see Lord’ and we read ‘Jesus wept’.
Did Mary, lying near his feet, see those tears of the Lord? That he cared…
We may not have an experience of Digory.
But in the midst of unanswered prayer, it is important we try to remind ourselves of who our Lord is. The Lord of the tears. In such days, to perhaps worship, to remind ourselves of key passages and stories about who God is.
To be reminded of God’s love, that he cares for you, that he always say ‘come to me’, may not solve any of our intellectual questions, about why a particular prayer was not answered. But as Pete Greig says – to ‘see the tears’ can actually make the silence or lack of action even harder.
‘’But it does touch an emotional need within us, that is perhaps even deeper than the intellectual one: the need to know that what we are going through and the way we are feeling matters; that our requests have at least been heard and that God – in whom we have placed all our hope – truly cares.’’ God on Mute.
Abba Father, everything is possible for you.
Intimate love and infinite power both live, without contradiction, in the heart of God. As we struggle with unanswered prayer we may ask ‘God do you care?’ But our struggle can also be – can’t you help?
It is a natural question. IF God is loving – then he surely wants to end suffering (or most of it); if he is all powerful, then he is able to end our or others suffering – ie to answer our prayers.
Jesus encouraged us to pray and made promises. He said in John 16: I tell you the truth the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. And in Luke 11: For everyone who asks receives, he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks the door will be opened.’’
In my name – that does make us ask if some prayers we pray, are not answered because they are clearly against God’s character or his revealed purposes in the Bible. We will over the next two Sundays look more closely at some possible reasons why our prayers are not answered.
But other prayers do seem to fit completely with what we know of God’s character and his revealed will. Yet they appear unanswered or clearly are not answered.
Yet Jesus encourages us to pray. In the garden he did not pray ‘abba father, a few things are possible for you, I wish you were able to take this cup away from me, but I know you can’t?’
No he didn’t. Jesus was clear – the Father has absolute power over everything.
It is possible that we may downgrade our expectations of God, after we experienced disappointments or simply because in the many things we pray for, we see no answers, we hear no voice.
So prayer, in our minds, become something primarily about our inner formation, while we trust in God for salvation and practical needs. In our praying our attitude moves from prayer being about changing things, to only being about changing how we look at things.
After disappointments in prayer, the temptation will be, whether we reduce our expectations on God, to protect ourselves from the risk of further disappointment; or whether again we hold onto those verses where Jesus and the NT writers, encouraged us to pray, to bring petitions, encouraging us to ask God to do something, to change something…
Take this cup from me.
Jesus knew his mission: as he said ‘ the Son of Man did not come to be served but to give his life as a ransom for many.’’ Matthew 20:28.
But he asked God to take the cup away. It is a prayer contrary to God’s revealed purposes. It is a prayer we know, God said no to. Jesus is totally honest to his Father.
The psalms are a resource to help us to be honest.
John Calvin said about the psalms: ‘I have been accustomed to call this book, I think, not inappropriately ‘’An anatomy of all the parts of the soul,’’ for there is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather the Holy Spirit has here,
brought to life, all the griefs, sorrow, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men and women are prone to be agitated about.’’
Theologian Walter Bruggemann suggested the Psalms could be summarized in three categories.
Psalms of Orientation – the seasons of our soul, when we are thankful for God’s faithfulness, they may speak of the Torah, the favour of God, his creation etc. All is right in the world. Eg Psalm 8, Psalm 19.
Psalms of Disorientation – a response to the seasons when we experience heartache, alienation, anguish, death. These are known as Psalms of Lament and Complaint. Our faith, how we expect God to act, does not line up with our experience. Psalm 3 and 88 are two examples.
Psalms of New / Re-Orientation – a joy has broken through the despair; the situation may not have changed but our attitude has. A gift from God that has brought us to a new place. Eg Psalm 18, 30.
‘’‘Simple Prayer is the most courageous of all. Simple prayer is praying as you can and not as you can’t, or as CS Lewis says “to lay before Him [God] what is in US and not what ought to be in us.’’ Emerson p.55.
The psalms often give us the words we can pray. I think in the first week of the invasion, I was reading Psalm 3 and some of the verses just seemed to hit the nail on the head for me. I then continued to pray for Ukraine, using, re-using the words in that psalm…
In our pain, the psalms may give you the words to express the physical anguish going on inside; they may allow you to voice injustice, disappointment.
As we suffer with unanswered prayers, ongoing, or past ones, that have left pain, engage with the Father. Wrestle with him, as Jacob did, he would not let go.
Wrestle, cry and bring your tears before his face, not to cry them away from him.
Even write your own lament psalm and pray it, while facing him.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust Survivor, said: ‘I still have questions for God, and I still have problems with God. But it is within faith, not outside of faith and surely not opposed to faith.’’ Quoted in Emerson, p.64.
‘’ It is because I believed in God that I was angry at God, and still am. But my faith is tested, wounded, but it’s here. So whatever I say, it’s always from inside faith, even when I speak the way occasionally I do about the problems I had, questions I had. Within my traditions, you know, it is permitted to question God, even to take Him to task. … I mean, I take God’s words and say, since You said these words, how is it possible that other things or certain things have happened?’’ https://onbeing.org/programs/elie-wiesel-the-tragedy-of-the-believer/
Be honest, as Elie Wiesel shares. Nothing we can say can intimidate God.
Emerson :‘’Yes we do meditate on God’s goodness, and we remember his past acts of provision and also his acts of salvation in Christ. We continue these in our disappointments.
But do not let them be a cover for what needs to be said, for if our worship is to be in spirit and truth, everything needs to be poured out. Every part of us. God may be silent but you don’t need to be.’’ 64-65.
Jesus was overwhelmed. He wrestled with God. He cried out to God and asked for another way, and he allowed his friends to see how he felt and the Holy Spirit guided the gospel writers to include it for us to know. We praise. But we also lament. It is a way to help us cope with unanswered prayer or its effects. As Grieg says: ‘Honest lament can express a vibrant faith; one that has learned to embrace life’s hardships as well as its joy, and to lift everything – everything – to the Father in prayer.
Abba Father, everything is possible for you, take this cup from me. But not what I will but what you will.
A final prayer.
O Christ Jesus,
when all is darkness
and we feel our weakness and helplessness,
give us the sense of Your presence,
your love, and Your strength.
Help us to have perfect trust
in Your protecting love
and strengthening power,
so that nothing may frighten or worry us,
for, living close to You,
we shall see Your hand,
Your purpose, Your will through all things. Amen.