“If God cares about us, why doesn’t he answer our prayers, especially those that are cries for help?”
We could feel the anger and pain vibrating within the questioner. Renowned preacher Lloyd J. Ogilvie wrote how “unanswered prayer is still one of the most profound problems we all face at one time or another in our lives.” Seemingly unanswered prayers can leave us distraught, disillusioned, and even in disbelief.
Philip Yancey acknowledged this problem in his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? He cites three examples of “unanswered prayers” that had devastating effects on three children’s faith.
He read a young woman’s manuscript about how as a child she was raped almost every night by her older brother and later wrote: “I cried out every night for God’s help to make it stop. God never answered.” He read in Somerset Maugham’s famous story Of Human Bondage about how the central character had such great hope after reading in Mark 11:24 this promise: “Therefore I (Jesus) tell you, all the things you pray and ask for – believe that you have received them, and you will have them.”
That night “he prayed with all the power of his soul” for God to heal his clubfoot and “no doubts assailed him,” but the next morning he still had his clubfoot. Yancey points out that this scene was a fictionalized account of Somerset Maugham’s own prayer for healing of his stuttering. He then observes how Maugham’s stuttering “stayed with him all his life, a constant reminder of prayer unanswered.” Yancey goes on to mention “Maugham’s friend and fellow novelist George Orwell (who) likewise tells of offering up anguished, tearful prayers in boarding school that he not wet the bed; but, he went on to suffer caning when those prayers “went unanswered.”
The end result, writes Yancey, was that “both writers lost any shred of religious faith.”
Unanswered prayers can be a major problem for people at any age, even shaking the faith of mature and seasoned Christians like C.S. Lewis who witnessed the love of his life die from bone cancer despite the pleas for healing! As Christians, we believe God answers our prayers! Recently, I said in a sermon how I believe God answers each and every prayer, though He often says “no” or “not now” to our requests, or “yes, but not in the way you want or expect.”
While we are all aware of how the “not-so-good or unwise prayer” will not be answered in the affirmative (prayers for a bailout of a mess we have created or prayers to be favored above those more deserving among us), but what about the prayers of that young girl and those two young boys? Did the unanswered prayers turn Somerset Maugham and George Orwell into atheists? I think not.
Although they both had troubled childhoods, they both went on to become famous writers. And as adults, they knew that the God as revealed in Christianity is not a genie in a lamp who will do exactly what we want if we have enough faith to rub the lamp via prayer.
Such a God would not be God, but our servant, our personal genie.
Let’s return to Mark 11:24. This was a promise made to the disciples, Jesus’ followers, who had also heard Jesus say that their focus must be on Him and that their prayer was to be sincere and in His Name, His Spirit (John 14:13-14), in accordance with His purpose and will.
No one has explained this condition/qualification/restriction (or what Philip Yancey calls “the fine print” in Christ’s promises) better than a scholar/pastor/professor I knew whose prayers lifted his students out of themselves and into God’s presence. I’ve never heard anyone pray quite like him. Therefore, what he wrote about prayer in several classic books has remained engraved on my mind, soul, and heart. He wrote:
In how many instances has faith been lastingly injured because preachers have assured people that every prayer is granted according to ardent and sincere desire! The answer is not forthcoming and faith fails. Jesus never made any such unqualified promise. His assurances … always carried a condition: ‘If ye ask anything in my name, I will do it’; ‘If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto ye’ (John 14:14, 15:9); this condition is usually explicitly stated, and where it is not stated it is implied (Mark 11:23-24).
Let us keep in mind that what we think we need must be balanced by God with what He knows we need. With this thought firmly in mind we will do well to review one of the most profound-yet-practical prayers I have ever encountered. Please prayerfully read this prayer by John Baillie:
Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin.
Let me use disappointment as material for patience.
Let me use success as material for thankfulness.
Let me use trouble as material for perseverance.
Let me use danger as material for courage.
Let me use praise as material for humility.
Let me use pleasure as material for temperance.
Let me use pain as material for endurance.
Let us conclude our “wee little” and limited answer to this “profound problem” by examining in our next article the Apostle Paul’s personal and powerful answer recorded in II Corinthians 12:7-11.