A heartbroken young man prays for the life of his innocent little child. In danger of being caught for the last time, a lifetime criminal prays for his escape from investigators. A single mother barely staying afloat in her deluge of poverty prays for help and relief from her financial circumstances. A man, at the end of his days, prays for a miracle to lengthen his life. Is God required to answer all of these prayers? Is He required to answer any?
There were times in my life when I would think like this: ‘I feel so miserable. I’m making almost no money, trying to take care of a family and I’ve gotten stuck at a job that has thoroughly broken me.’ Only months before, I had my longest battle with depression. After a lengthy examination and study, I found God! During an unforgettable experience, I was utterly convinced that God broke through my inner sanctuary. He opened the door to my being that I didn’t even know existed. I gave my life to Christ and was continually transformed in all ways – my heart, my mind and my soul. And then, nothing but silence. What was I to make of it? It was puzzling. I thought God always answered the prayers of good people who believed in Him. And my prayers, as far as I could see, were being completely ignored.
That, of course, would not last. When I started to see things through how God may see them, and not merely what was immediately comfortable for me in the present, I realized that I had completely misunderstood man’s relationship to God and our expectations from this life that He had given us.
The ensuing years of study, prayer, and introspection led to some interesting facts I had not considered before and completely changed how I view God what He offers humanity. Though God does promise goodness, grace, and mercy to His people, what we think and how we identify those blessings is sometimes skewed. To understand how God works and what He actually intends, we have to first see life in its fullness and take things into account that we may not otherwise.
To understand prayer clearly, we have to try to understand God, at least a bit about His nature and the state of humanity through His eyes. What kind of being is God? What is His nature? Though other belief systems may differ, the God known to us through Christ is an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-good) and omnipresent (all-present) and all-loving. Since He is all-good and all-present, he can commiserate with our circumstances, especially since He incarnated as a man in Christ and suffered himself. We don’t go through difficulties isolated and alone; God is always with us.
Since God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-good, He would want what’s best for us, would know how that would best be accomplished and would order things in such a way as to allow for that best of all possible ends to come to fruition. We don’t always know what’s best for us. But to understand what is ultimately best for a thing we must know the ultimate end of the thing. We can’t see that far ahead, but God can.
During my journey through a very dark season of my life, I was not interested in what is ultimately best. I just wanted the misery to stop, but it kept getting darker. Was I to abandon the only real foundation in this world? No, that’s the one thing we should not do since that would be to dismiss the only hand that offers hope. What if our trials and difficulties, as gratuitous as they may appear to us, have a real deep ultimate purpose?
When we examine the heroes of the Bible, we see countless examples of pain, suffering, scandal, sorrow. God has shown us the pattern for accepting joy, but also the pattern for accepting pain and sorrow. The apostle, Paul, who was perhaps the greatest evangelist and apologist, is known to have made countless journeys of multitudes of miles with an ailment from which he prayed relief. God’s answer to him was that His grace was sufficient for him. Notice that Paul was doing God’s work and still God would not heal him. According to Eusebius, early church historian, Paul was eventually beheaded at the order of the Roman Emperor Nero or one of his subordinates. Was he an isolated case? No! Tradition and historical analysis tell us that Peter was crucified upside down; Andrew was scourged, and then tied rather to a cross to endure a long and painful death. James, the son of Zebedee, was killed with a sword; Philip was crucified. Even now, we see believers enduring tremendous hardship and being killed, merely for their faith.
So how can we reconcile the facts? God is all-good and all-powerful, but people, even His biggest believers, and proponents suffer greatly and die horrible deaths, most of the time without provoking anything. Let’s consider some important keys:
When a believer dies, the purpose of his life has been fulfilled (see #8) and they are taken home, where they belong (see #11), and their joy is complete (see #13). If we see death as more than just a finality, but more of a doorway into an eternal home where we were intended for and where our eternal joy is (#13), death does not seem as unjust as we might see it otherwise.
Those whom the believer leaves behind will have hardship (see #2). Consider further the grim reality lived out by Job and in the midst of his torment, him uttering the word,
“Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him.”
Surely a righteous man praying merely for the removal of what he perceives to be his unjust torment would be answered immediately. Not necessarily.
Why doesn’t God answer our prayer for healing? Healing is a good thing after all. Does prayer have power? Yes, it does, but our expectations can mislead us to believe that we are in a better position to know what would lead to the best of all possible outcomes when the ultimate end goal is for as many people as possible to enter His Kingdom. Remember that God is weaving reality through multiple interdependent strands. We still pray with whatever knowledge we have for what looks to be best, but since we do not have the cosmic plan in front of us, we cannot rationally justify our desires, even if it appears to be of truly worthy cause as happens to be the case in many situations. God is not obligated to answer our prayers. God is not a vending machine. He has a mind, will, and intention, all of which far outweigh any of our limited notions of what might be best.
What we may perceive to be best right now are comfort and joy, but life is much more than that. Some may surmise that the general purpose of their lives is what they themselves determine it to be, but does not the Author of life have a say in the purpose of his book (creation)? Not only does He have a say, but He has full authority. The one who creates the thing has an intent behind that which he creates, even if that which he creates is a human being with his own free will. Life is not about living comfortably and getting things. Life is not about expecting God to solve our problems.
Prayer is important, and we must still pray. It is the manner in which we weave a strong relationship with the lover of our souls. But prayer is not meant only for asking things from God. Prayer expresses the desire of our hearts. God still can and does test the desires of our hearts and their nobility. Prayer is a form of communication and worship. We may still ask for healing, a helping hand, and more righteous and meaningful things. But it is God – the being who knows far better which roads lead the best of all destination – who determines which prayers to grant. And His decision should be trusted given His attributes and His unique position as the Author in this great cosmic drama. We are the characters that are not only trapped on the pages on which we appear but can never fully fathom the greatness of this Author. We interact with other characters on the pages of this cosmic drama which sometimes feel like a torrential downpour on the longest and coldest night.We’re the characters who are not only trapped on the pages on which we appear but can never fully fathom the greatness of this Author. Click To Tweet
My difficulties prompted me to seek for deeper answers instead of depending on trite cliches for how to ‘get over it.’ It is my hope and deepest desire that they can bring you a deeper understanding of what it means to live and suffer and persevere and pray. We are on our way home, and every stumble and every fall may have a reason. We are simply not in any position to know.
Instead of merely trying to escape our difficulties, we’d do well to try to see our struggles in a new light. Perhaps instead of asking for the purpose of our trials, we should see what our trials are asking of us.
What’s been your journey? How have you seen prayer? How have you reconciled with unanswered prayers? Do you think God is required to answer all of our prayers?
Arthur is an author, a former agnostic, and current ambassador of Jesus of Nazareth who loves to share the best of reasons for God's ultimate reality. His love and passion are helping skeptics and Christians grow in their faith and knowledge of God through accessible materials.
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