The hardest part about prayer is probably when prayer goes unanswered. Sometimes when God doesn’t answer my prayer, I can brush it off, like when I fail to get a good parking spot at the mall. But most often, it involves something deep and painful. For our family, it was the loss of Stephanie’s mother in 2010. She was a faithful Christian. She was active and otherwise healthy. We were shocked when she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. It did not seem real at first. Honestly, it doesn’t seem real even a decade later.
She belonged to a strong church with lots of people committed to prayer. They came out in force. They prayed for her healing. We prayed for her healing. There was laying on of hands and special communion services weekly in her home. In the end, she died just nine months after her diagnosis. Her funeral service was the hardest one I have ever been to. She had been so welcoming of me in her family, and she and Stephanie were so close. We still miss her. Why didn’t God answer our prayers? I honestly don’t know, and I am still a little frustrated at God for this one. I also confess I take no comfort in Garth Brooks’ line that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers. This was no gift. This was a great sadness.
So, what do we do with unanswered prayers? I want to offer a few thoughts that have helped me over the years.
1) We don’t know why God doesn’t always answer our prayer
To say that I don’t know why God didn’t answer my prayer is not a cop-out or surrender; it is an important and honest admission. The fact is, there is so much about the universe that we don’t even begin to comprehend. There are mysteries about God and life and death that are beyond our understanding.
What I mean by all of this is that we have no idea why or why not my mother-in-law wasn’t healed of cancer. There is a bigger picture and much more going on that I am completely unaware of. I am reluctant to try to find the ‘reason’ or ‘meaning’ to it. I don’t think there is the kind of ‘reason’ that will make it all better, even if I understood it. It is not about God needing another angel, or that it was her time, or that it was God’s greatest gift. We say it is a mystery for a reason. I think we need to leave it there.
2) Hold onto God’s love
The great difficulty with pain and grief is that it is easy to believe that it means that God is not loving. After the death of his wife, C. S. Lewis wrote that he wasn’t in danger of ceasing to believe in God, but he was in danger of losing his belief in the goodness of God.
This is why we need to turn to the cross of Christ. There, we see more than anywhere else the love of God meeting the pain and suffering of the world. God himself knew that pain. The cross is the unlikely fount of the healing of our world. In Jesus, we see that even if we don’t understand these mysteries of why and why not, we can trust that through it all God is nothing but love and mercy. In Jesus we see that God is not in the business of hurting people and standing back to see what happens. God is genuinely working for healing and wholeness, even when all the evidence in our lives seems to be pointing in the other direction.
We don’t know all the reasons why, but the cross shows us that the path of healing the world passes through suffering. Part of our faith is knowing that in the end, in eternity, God is going to make this right. He is going to overthrow sin and death. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” God will make this right for Pat. By faith, we have to hold so tightly to the truth of God’s love. We cannot let this go. God is love.
3) Be honest
The biblical word for being really honest with God is Lament. We lament when we tell God how angry we are, how sad we are, and how frustrated we are. When God doesn’t seem to answer our prayer, we need to get it out; it can’t stay in our hearts. If you are surprised that we should come to God in this way, consider that almost two thirds of the Psalms are laments. Lament holds a central place in the story of the Bible. Like many of our ancestors in faith, we can be honest with God.
4) Give it to God
The theological name for this is the Prayer of Relinquishment. It is the prayer that Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. He asked God to take away the suffering, then prayed, ‘but not my will, but yours be done.’ We don’t know what God’s will means here exactly, but the prayer gives it over to him. It says, I don’t know everything, but I know I trust you and that you are love. Please get me through this.
My mother-in-law taught me this more than anyone else. Before she died, she wrote a beautiful reflection, which was read at her church on Good Friday that year. I have included an excerpt below.
“Lord, not my will but thine be done.” Yes, I’m dying, but I’m not afraid any more. If anything in this time of weakness gives glory to God, then I’ve served the biggest purpose for which I was created. I’m looking forward to the end of pain and sorrow and to seeing the face of the One who gave me life. The beautiful images of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation become brighter and more vivid as time goes on:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 17:13-17)– P. Crane
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