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Intersection of Life and Faith

When Prayer Doesn't 'Work'

  • Philip A. Gunther
  • 2004 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
When Prayer Doesn't 'Work'

Psalms 88:13

"Why, God, do you turn a deaf ear?" Psalms 88:13; Message Bible

The Question We All Have Asked

Years ago my optometrist diagnosed a troubling ailment in my eyes. My tear glands were only producing a fraction of the moisture needed to keep my eyes healthy and free from irritation and infection. Since that diagnosis I have literally suffered non-stop symptoms of dry eyes including severe eye aches, infections and loss of clear vision. Today I carry an ocular lubricant with me at all times; this is the 'grease' for my eyes.

I share these things with you not to get your sympathy but to tell you that for ten years I have been praying to our good Lord to heal me of this ailment. For ten years I have been on my knees asking God to restore health to my eyes. I have fasted, wept and begged God to remove this 'thorn' in my flesh. I have wrestled with the question: "Does prayer really 'work'?"

Whether it's a struggle with health, relationships, finances or sin, all of us, I would wager, have experienced what we conclude to be 'unanswered prayer'. Sometimes our struggle has reached a point where we wonder whether Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, didn't have it right when he wrote: "A leap over the hedge is better than good men's prayers. "

The Saddest Prayer

There is nestled in the center of the Old Testament book of Psalms what I would call the saddest prayer I have ever read. Amongst uplifting and encouraging psalms, we have this desperate appeal to God for help. From what we can gather, the writer of this psalm is experiencing an illness that has rendered him near death. Some Bible scholars believe the psalmist is battling leprosy - an infectious disease that attacks the skin, nerves and muscles. It mercilessly wastes away a person's body. We know that leprosy in the Ancient Near East was incurable and resulted in a person becoming an outcast: destitute and treated as wholly unclean. The psalmist writes how his affliction has been with him since youth, has left him near death and set apart, repulsive to others. He cries out to God, "Why, O Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?"

The writer of Psalms 88 wrestled with the question of whether or not prayer 'worked.' He wonders whether he is like the dead, who are not remembered. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the psalm is its ending. Virtually all the psalms close with the writer praising God and rejoicing in His goodness and faithfulness. Psalm 88, however, ends with the refrain: "darkness is my closest friend". And yet, the psalmist turns to God as his only hope; he says, "In the morning my prayer comes before you." Why? The Bible tells stories of righteous individuals whose prayers didn't seem to 'work'. David fasted and pleaded with God for the life of his sick son, but the little child died (2 Samuel 12). Job cried out to God in the midst of his suffering; he said, "1 cry out to you, O God, but you do not answer..." (Job 30:20). The Apostle Paul asked the Lord three times to remove the thorn in his flesh and yet it remained with him (2 Corinthians 12). Jesus Himself asked for the sacrifice of the cross to be taken from Him and it was not (Luke 22:42). These were not rebels or idolaters or ungodly people - these were the righteous. In Jesus' case, the very Son of God. How then do we respond to the counsel of James who writes, "The prayer of a righteous [person] is powerful and effective (James 5:16)?" What do we do with Jesus' promise: "Therefore 1 tell you, whatever you may ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours (Mark 11:42)?"

If this is Jesus' promise, then why is it that sometimes we are convinced that prayer just doesn't 'work'? We may not say it publicly, but we harbor it in our hearts, don't we?

No God — Absent God — Weak God

Atheists say prayer doesn't 'work' because there is no God to pray to. You may as well pray to a tree or a rock. Deists claim that God created the world and then left it to spin on its own - God is absent and so why pray to Him? Agnostics believe in the possibility of God but not enough to pray to Him or her or it. It is true that without God prayer has no meaning and without a God who is there to listen, prayer will have no effect. Then there are fellas like Rabbi Kushner, author of the best-selling book When Bad Things Happen To Good People; he claims that God exists and that God is good, but the problem is that God is not great. Kushner believes in a weak God: a deity who wants to help, but can't. The flawed theme running through all of these worldviews is that God is the problem and once we 'fix' God, prayer will 'work'. Are they right?

Some Handles On Prayer

Allow me to share some truths that give me handles when I struggle with this question of prayer that doesn't seem to 'work'. I have discovered that God is not a divine Santa Claus. He is not a genie in a lamp. God is not a holy bellhop who jumps at our beck and call. God operates by His perfect will and our prayers are always subject to it. God's will is not liable to being trumped by our 'wish list'.

All things prayed for are honored or denied depending upon God's will. In his book, When God Says No, Leith Anderson writes, "If God didn't require prayers to be "according to his will" for him to answer yes, he would no longer be functioning as God. He would merely be the pawn of human prayers pushing the prayer button. The consequences would be far-reaching and disastrous ... Prayer would couple the worst of human sinfulness with the unlimited power of God."

God wants us to bring our requests to Him; no matter what they are, but we must leave them at His throne with a little 'note' that reads, "Your will be done, not mine." Isn't that how Jesus taught the disciples to pray? "Our Father who art in heaven ...Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:9).

Sometimes God says "not yet" or "no" to our petitions because it is not now a part of His will or not at all a part of His will. The first handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that God responds to prayer according to His will, not ours.

I have also discovered that even when made with the best of motives, sometimes we pray for things that will not bring about the best result in the end. God knows the ultimate outcome of our prayer requests, we don't.

The summer of 2001 was one of pain for me as I suffered with a very difficult abdominal ailment. I spent much time in prayer asking God to return my health. At times I murmured, "God don't you know that there is a church that needs my pastoral attention?" I wanted God to heal me right then and there, for what possible good could come from being sick for months on end?

I realize today, if God had answered my prayer immediately I would have missed out on some significant spiritual growth in my life. I would have missed out on knowing what it meant for people to suffer longer-term ailments. I would have missed out on understanding some of the psychological feelings people carry when dealing with severe pain and uncertainty. I would have missed out on being able to depend on God and not myself. I would have forfeited the opportunity to deal with accountability issues in my ministry. My petition, said with the best of intentions, was not the best for me. God knew that, I didn't.

Again Anderson writes, "There are times when no is the best answer God can give. That doesn't mean our prayers flow from shortsighted or evil motives. It's just that God knows so much better. What God doesn't grant is rooted in his overflowing wisdom. Prayer is an acknowledgement of our inferior and God's superior position. If we always knew best there would be no need for God or prayer."

I remember praying about a girl I had a crush on in high school. "Lord," I said, "if only she would be my girlfriend, life would then be great." A common prayer still today, I would think. God didn't grant my prayer. Looking back, I cannot thank God enough for saying "no". She was a nice girl, but we were not couple material. Plus, God had my future wife in mind. I didn't know that then; He did.

God desires the best for us; don't ever think otherwise. God's "no" is not unanswered prayer- it will in all likelihood be the biggest blessing ever! It was for me and I'm sure my wife would agree.

God sees with an eternal eye; we see with blinders on. Sometimes our most innocent prayer requests are not the best for us in the long run. Sometimes God says "no" because He understands what is in our best interest even when we don't. The second handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that God is not finite-sighted; we are.

I also discovered that sometimes we pray for things that will harm ourselves or others. Sometimes our prayers are simply destined to reap tears. We can and do make mistakes when we offer up our petitions. Again, God knows what is in our best interest even when we don't. Perhaps God's "no" is the kindest thing He does for us in a given situation. The third handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that God doesn't make mistakes; we do.

A story is told of a young woman who traveled to India for her annual vacation. The more she saw the plight of the country the heavier her burden for the poor and sick she came into contact with on the streets of cities like Bombay. One evening she was so overwhelmed with despair that she cried out to God, "Lord, why won't you send someone to help these people; they need someone to care for them. " The tears ran down her compassionate face. The Lord hearing her appeal, whispered back, "My child, I did send someone. I sent you." The fourth handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that sometimes we don't realize that God wants us to the answers to our own prayers.

In the New Testament book of Acts we read that King Herod was persecuting the church. He had had James killed and had now arrested Peter, bound him in chains and thrown him in prison with a guard of sixteen soldiers. The Bible records that the believers were, "earnestly praying To God for him." The night before Herod was going to put Peter on trial, an angel miraculously rescued him out of prison. Now follow the story in your Bibles: "...he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter's voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, "Peter is at the door!" "You're out of your mind, " they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, "It must be his angel. " But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished" (Acts 12:12-16).

Perhaps these believers in the story were praying: "Lord, keep Peter's faith strong while in prison, protect him from his enemies while in prison," and so on. God turns around and miraculously rescues him from the dungeon all-together. Their response to Rhoda's wonderful news of Peter's freedom: "You're out of your mind". It almost seems that these godly people asked the Lord to just help Peter cope with his incarceration and couldn't believe that God would actually break him out of jail. When we ask God for something, do we expect 'God-size' answers? In my brief life, I have learned never to think that God will necessarily unfold His "yes" to our prayers in a nice and neat gift-wrapped box with a note saying, "Just the way you asked for it." In fact, my experience has been that God's "yes' is most often better and bigger than my request.

British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson once said, "More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of." I would tweak it a bit to say, "More things are wrought by prayer than this world sees." The fifth handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that when our prayers are answered, sometimes we lack the eyes to see it.

The drain in our bathroom tub always gets clogged. Anything from a clump of hair to pieces of Lego can be the culprit. When this happens, the water backs-up, my wife gets frustrated and I end up running to the hardware store to get the Liquid Drano. In a similar manner, our prayer 'pipeline' can become clogged. This unpleasant event results in our communication with God becoming impeded. Often, when such a blockage in our conversation with God occurs, we sense that our prayers just don't reach God. One person described it to me in this way: "My prayers just bounce off the ceiling. I feel like the heavens are made of steel."

Such a feeling is not uncommon and can have a host of explanations. One possibility is that something in your life is actually inhibiting your ability to talk with God. The Bible identifies at least ten things that encumber our prayers: disregarding God's law (Proverbs 28:9), a lack of compassion for those in need (Proverbs 21:13), pride (Luke 18:9-14), a sinful lifestyle (Isaiah 59:1-2), unconfessed sin (Psalms 66:16-20), disobedience (Deuteronomy 1:45); wrong motives (James 4:1-3), broken relationships (1 Peter 3:7), unforgiveness (Mark 11:25) and doubt (James 1:5-7).

The Bible reveals how God turns a deaf ear to the prayers of those who entertain one or more of these encumbrances in their life. God is not an impersonal vendor of favors; He looks intently at the heart of each individual lifting up a petition to Him. James Philip, the author of The Growing Christian noted this when he wrote, "It is what we are when we pray our prayer that counts with God."

When faced with a sense that your prayer life is hindered, ask the Lord to search your life and be willing to deal with what is revealed. Whatever obstruction is disclosed to you, there is a remedy. The good news with any prayer blockage, is that there is a spiritual 'liquid drano - confession and repentance (Proverbs 28:13).

The sixth handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that our prayers can be hindered.

Lastly, I've discovered that there are times when God's response to our prayers remains a riddle. Sometimes we just don't know why God deals with us as He does. Psalm 88 is an example of such a mystery. The Bible does not come with an exhaustive explanation of how God works. On this side of heaven we are often given only a reminder of God's faithfulness and an invitation to trust Him. Remember Paul's words: "At present we are [people] looking at a puzzling reflection in a mirror. The time will come when we shall see reality whole and face to face! At present all I know is a little fraction of the truth, but the time will come when I shall know it as fully as God has known me!" (1 Corinthians 13:12; J.B. Phillips).

Until that time, we must live by faith in God and His promise: "For l know the plans/ have for you, " declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future" (Jeremiah 29:11). The last handle I found helpful when facing the perception that prayer doesn't 'work' is that sometimes God's response to prayer is a mystery.

Rethinking Answered Prayers

The traditional cliche given to people struggling with prayer that doesn't seem to 'work' is, "God always answers prayer - sometimes He says 'yes,' sometimes He says 'no' and sometimes He says 'wait.' Recently, I came across a fresh breath of counsel about apparent unanswered prayer that for me has proved valuable. I discovered this help in the book The Meaning Of Prayer written by Harry Emerson Fosdick. He asked the question: "Are 'answered prayers' only those we believe God has said 'yes' to?" Or put in another way, Are prayers that 'work' only those we believe God has said 'yes' to?

God has not healed me. As I continue to suffer from dry eyes and all the complications that brings, I have come to realize how God has used my ailment to fashion me into a more compassionate Pastor. Maybe, my suffering is a gift and not a curse? I believe Fosdick was right about having to rethink answered prayer. Perhaps our prayers have their greatest 'work' in our lives when they receive the "request denied" reply from the Lord.

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1. Title borrowed from J.I. Packer.