Tough Texts Part 4: Unanswered Prayer

Sermon Text: Matthew 7:7-11

Like many of you, I’m a big fan of the show House. Gregory House is a brilliant doctor but a hardcore atheist. The show is hardly Touched by an Angel, but it does a nice job occasionally of tweaking House’s certainty that there is no God. Sometimes, the moment House tries to thumb his nose at a believer’s faith, something improbable, surprising, and good will happen for which House has no explanations. The believer will credit God’s providence: “See, that’s God.” And that frustrates House. But just as often, House gets to say something smug like, “Your ‘imaginary friend’ didn’t answer your prayers. See, there is no God!”

That’s Hollywood, of course. Not reality. But let’s acknowledge the very real challenge often posed by unanswered prayer. Most of us know the pain of unanswered prayer, don’t we? And sometimes we the Church provide very unhelpful responses to people who are struggling with unanswered prayer. Take, for example, this piece of so-called wisdom, which many of you have heard before: “God always answers prayer. Sometimes God says, ‘yes.’ Sometimes God says, ‘no.’ Sometimes God says—and this is my favorite—‘wait.’” Have you heard this before? It might surprise many of us who grew up hearing this often said that this is, in fact, not found in the Bible. (It’s like Ben Franklin’s proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.” Not in the Bible.)

First, where does it say that all prayers are answered? I don’t see it in scripture. God does not speak to us in an audible voice. So God is not going to come out and say yes, no, or wait. We have to discern it through intuition, through other people, or through circumstances. With that in mind, how can we tell a practical difference between “no” and “wait”? Suppose we don’t get what we pray for after some period of time… Does that mean God has told us no? Or is that really God just telling us to be patient and wait? We have no way of knowing. So this assurance that God answers all prayer sounds good, except when you look at it closely.

I personally don’t believe God answers every prayer. And yet, whatever you or I say about prayer has to be measured against Jesus’ own words here in Matthew 7:7-11. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened…” Jesus speaks confidently about the power of prayer; that prayer is effective; that God gives to us in response to our asking. How are we supposed to understand this when we prayed for the healing of a loved suffering from cancer, and that loved one died? When, after years of praying for a child, we got pregnant, only to miscarry? When we prayed that God would take away this crippling depression that we struggle with—and we see a glimmer of hope with a new medicine or new therapy—but it just keeps coming back? “Didn’t I ask? I wasn’t given. Didn’t I search? I didn’t find. Didn’t I knock? My door remained closed.” Is Jesus being hopelessly naïve here? Is Dr. House right after all? Is prayer just wishful thinking?

No! While I desperately want to avoid being glib, giving easy answers, I still say, No!

First, let’s remember that prayer is not about getting what we want. In a sense, Jesus didn’t get what he wanted in the Garden of Gethsemene when he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; but not my will but yours be done.” As we read in 2 Corinthians chapter 12, the Apostle Paul didn’t get what he wanted when he prayed three times that God would remove his mysterious “thorn in the flesh”—perhaps some painful physical ailment that impeded his ministry. After not giving him what he wanted, Christ told him instead, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” You know that Rolling Stones song: “You can’t always get what you want/ But if you try sometimes, you might just find/ You get what you need”? Were Mick and Keith theologians in disguise? It’s almost as if God were telling Paul the same thing: “I’m not going to give you what want, but I will give you the grace you need to make it through.”

Second, let’s be humble enough to admit that what we want may not be what we need. God is about giving us what we need—what’s good for us. Paul says as much in Romans 8:26: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” There’s so much grace here! It’s as if we come to God and say, “God, I’m telling you that I want this, but the truth is, in my sinfulness, my finiteness, my fallibility, I don’t know if this is really what I need. But you know what I need. I’m going to trust that you’ll see through what I’m asking for to meet that deep need below the surface of my words.” Jesus says in today’s scripture, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake?” I don’t interpret this to mean that God will give us whatever we ask for—because notice Jesus’ emphasis on the Father giving us “good things.” I think that we children of God often ask the Father to give us snakes and stones, without even being aware of it. Fortunately, our Father responds by giving us fish and bread!

Does that mean that, if only we pray properly, our lives will be free of snakes and stones? By no means! One of you told me a story about a young man at a previous church who was diagnosed with cancer. The man was in his 40s, with a wife and children. The whole church came together and prayed for him, for one difficult and painful treatment after another. This went on for several years. The man’s faith was inspiring to many people. There was great optimism and hope on the part of the church for a cure or remission. Despite the church’s prayers, however, the man died, leaving behind a wife and family. In the wake of his death, people in the church were pointing out all the blessings that God had poured out on the church in and through this man’s illness. The parishioner who told me this said, “So what? God made this man sick and killed him so that all this good stuff would happen?” To which I say, “No!” We do not say that everything that happens to us, no matter how bad it appears, is really good if only we had the spiritual insight to see it that way. That’s actually a Hindu way of looking at things. No, we say there is evil in the world, of which disease and death are two prime examples.

We also say that Jesus Christ defeated death on the cross, once and for all, and on the other side of resurrection it will no longer hold sway. And death, as painful as it is right now, cannot separate us from the love of God. It is an act of grace that God brings good even out of something as tragic as premature death. But there really is evil, and it causes great pain. Ultimately, we all die—and when we do, chances are someone will be praying for a healing or a miracle that won’t come. C.S. Lewis spoke true words when he said, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted”—a prayer unanswered.

Unanswered prayer can be painful. But let me humbly submit that simply getting our prayers answered is one of the least important reasons to pray. Writer Anne LaMott said that her prayer life is very simple. It consists of only two kinds of prayers: “Help me, help me, help me.” And “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I can relate to that. My prayers are mostly “help me, help me, help me,” and the Spirit is teaching me to say, “Thank you,” more often. But there is a way in which Jesus helps me that is so much more than giving me what I ask for—and in fact, I believe it is at the heart of what Jesus is saying in today’s text. Listen again Jesus’ words in verse 11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

What are these “good things”? Well, every good thing we enjoy in life comes from God. [See this link.] In fact, God answers a ton of prayers that I don’t bother praying. But there is another good gift that Jesus has in mind here, and we know this because of what Christ says in Luke’s version of this teaching: Jesus says, in Luke 11:13, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give”—not simply good gifts but Jesus says, “the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Listen: this means that our gracious God will unfailingly give everyone who asks the greatest gift all: the gift of God’s own self, which God makes available through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. The gift of God’s Spirit is the ongoing presence of Christ in our lives!

When I pray, “Help me, help me, help me,” at the heart of what I’m asking for is, “Be with me, God. Be with me, Lord. Be with me, Jesus. Please don’t leave me alone.” That’s what I need in prayer more than anything. And I believe that Jesus will “answer” that prayer every time!

One thought on “Tough Texts Part 4: Unanswered Prayer”

  1. Wow! How powerful!! So easy to forget in these hard times, but SO TRUE!! Thank you for reminding us that just because we don’t get exactly what we pray for it doesn’t mean God has abandoned us. God’s Love and wisdom is infinite and all encompassing!!

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