When Prayer Doesn’t Work

Have you ever prayed a prayer that didn’t work? I know this is a scary question but go with me — I know we don’t like to think that sometimes things don’t turn out right. And I know you’ve watched others celebrate that their prayers ‘worked’.

I watch when others say that their prayers ‘worked.’ These sorts of moments always give me pause. Almost every single time, I stare at these words for longer than I should. Every single time, it throws me back into theological crisis. And every single time, I ask myself, “Why didn’t my prayers work?”

If you’ve walked through the valley of the shadow, you know what I mean. You know what it is to wonder why your situation didn’t turn out right when others, who had less at risk, got what they wanted.

“God cares about the little things!” say the Facebook statuses that celebrate finding a parking spot or getting a discount on their dog grooming. I usually have to close the app and walk away from it. “Cool, God, I’m glad they found a great parking space,” I think to myself. “That seems really life-altering, kind of like deciding whether or not to answer someone’s prayers begging you to let their mom live,” I think to myself.

I’ve never been great at prayer. I’ve never been able to understand whether I’m supposed to chat with God like he’s my bestie or whether I am supposed to approach with reverence. I’ve been taught to pray all the time but I’ve also been taught the sacred space of the holy place. I don’t know how to pray most times. I’ve grown up Pentecostal but over the last few years I’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that I hear from God better during the altar time if I’m sitting in the back row, looking around, taking it all in.

I’ve prayed yelling and I’ve prayed whispering. I’ve prayed prayers of desperation. I’ve begged God to intervene in many different situations. Very often — most often — there is no miracle. There is almost never a miracle.

I would be lying if I said I hadn’t considered whether I prayed well enough that morning. Maybe I said the wrong words. Maybe I should have prayed in tongues. Maybe I didn’t have enough faith in my prayers. Maybe me not knowing what to say other than saying the name of Jesus over and over — maybe that wasn’t enough. Perhaps we should have gotten some anointing oil or drawn a circle around the bed. Maybe there’s a book with some good tricks on prayer that I missed.

“But actually your prayers did work,” some have said. “God did heal her, just not in the way you expected.” I fully embrace that these people mean well — but I do not think God misunderstood my prayers that day. I do not think he mistook my begging to keep my mom in my life as me meaning, “Please take her to heaven.” God is not a cosmic Amelia Bedelia who accidentally takes our prayers too literally. We must learn to sit with suffering and not plant daisies on top of it. I know it’s awkward — but sometimes there are no answers. Sometimes there is nothing more than a shrug and a shake of the head.

The truth is, we are supremely uncomfortable with the idea that terrible things can happen despite our prayers. We are much more comfortable touting a theology that says if I am faithful, if I do everything right, if I tithe and love my neighbor, everything will work out okay for me. If I behave really well and if I pray every day, then when I am in crisis, it will turn out the way I want it to.

I have wrestled with whether I am faithless now. I don’t think I am faithless. I believe in an omnipotent God, I believe He heals, I believe He intervenes. But I also believe that He doesn’t do those things sometimes. I love the rhythm of so many of the Psalms — my heart is torn, everything is dark, everyone is against me — yet will I trust. Nothing is going right — yet will I praise. I prayed and you didn’t hear me — yet will I follow.

We tell the stories of happy endings. And to be certain, we should celebrate the good things God does in our lives. We should celebrate the miracles. We should be deeply grateful for every good gift God gives us. But along with this we must be honest about the bumps in the road. We must tell the stories of when our prayers didn’t work, and that we are doing our best to stay in with this thing when we don’t understand.

So what do we do when the miracle check for the rent doesn’t come? Or the pregnancy that is at risk miscarries? Or the person we love chooses someone else? Or our addiction doesn’t magically disappear in a moment? Or the body we beg to be healed gets sicker? What then?

I can’t pretend that it’s easy to understand. I wish I could sit here and tell you that there is always a greater purpose, that there is a noble reason these things happen. I can’t tell you that. Because the truth is, (judge me as you will) regardless of any greater purpose, I would rather have my mom here. And you — if you are in the valley of the shadow — you would rather things have turned out the way you hoped and prayed and begged God for.

But at the end of the day, at the end of it all, I think we can follow the beautiful pattern of honesty David shows us in many of the Psalms. We can be honest with God about our anger, about our fear, about our confusion. We can keep begging him for light in our darkness — and then in the darkness, after we have screamed until our throats are raw, it comes quietly, on unsteady feet — a ‘yet will I trust’. For me, the ‘yet will I trust’ looks like saying, “You are always good. You are always faithful.” These are not trite words. They are not me trying to manipulate Him. They are my hymn. They are my creed. They are my core.

And as the three Hebrew children said as they prepared to be executed:
 My God can. He is powerful enough to. But even if he doesn’t — yet will we trust.

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