What Do We Do When Our Prayers Go Unanswered?
I have a wide diversity of musical tastes. I’ve been in a bit of a Viking music phase lately. I don’t know why. I stumbled on it, and it was good background music while I was working one afternoon. I’ve shared before about my experience at a Gary Clark Jr. concert. My Spotify account has a recent history of Yacht Rock radio, the Avett Brothers, Pink Floyd, Billy Joel, worship music, and an Enneagram 5 playlist.
I say this so that you won’t be too surprised when I tell you that one of the most thought-provoking songs I have heard comes from the hard rock/heavy metal group Disturbed. The pacing, the heavy guitar and the passion with which the lead singer takes the listener on a journey are just what I need to hear from time to time. It gets the adrenaline going. It’s my pre-church softball league amp music — nobody expects the pastor to be blasting metal on the way to the softball field.
For years, one song in particular has stood out to me, but not in the way that you might expect. The song is entitled Prayer. As the story goes, when Prayer first debuted at Ozzfest, the lead singer introduced it by saying that it was a conversation between God and himself. I have seen others say that it was in response to his grandfather’s death. The lyrics resonate with me not because I agree with the message of the song, but because it breaks my heart to hear this as the experience that some have when it comes to prayer.
Another dream that will never come true
Just to compliment your sorrow
Another life that I’ve taken from you
A gift to add to your pain and suffering
Another truth you can never believe
Has crippled you completely
All the cries you’re beginning to hear
Trapped in your mind, and the sound is deafening
Let me enlighten you
This is the way I pray
Living just isn’t hard enough
Burn me alive, inside
Living my life’s not hard enough
Take everything away
— Prayer, Disturbed
When I hear those words, I hear hurt. I hear pain. I hear sorrow and anger. All mixed into a rage that is felt by the singer, who believed that his prayers should have been answered in a particular way… and they weren’t.
So, what do we do when our prayers go unanswered?
Ask, Seek, Knock
In Matthew 7:7, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
People have read these words for centuries and have come to an understanding that if they really want something, all they have to do is pray about it, and it will come. But is this really what Jesus is trying to say?
How many people have been let down? Have many people have been told that they didn’t have enough faith, simply because their prayers didn’t pan out they way they wanted? Have many people have used this passage to justify an image of God that more closely resembles a jolly, fat man who gives presents to children in December? Too many.
I believe it comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of prayer.
The Nature of Prayer
C.S. Lewis is quoted as saying, “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
This is a significantly different approach to prayer from the “name it and claim it” path that so many are touting these days. There are those who teach that all we have to do is visualize it, believe it, and send in a monthly donation of $1,000, and God will give us all the desires of our hearts. What these charlatans fail to mention is that God cannot be manipulated so easily.
As part of my undergraduate work, I took a class in ancient Greek. One morning, we were translating a “love spell” that was found in an ancient garbage pile. After we worked on it for a while, one of my classmates said, “Do you think it worked?” To which I chimed in, “Well, it was found in a garbage pile. So, probably not.”
In the ancient times, appeasing the gods was how one got what one wanted. In essence, if one were to make the gods happy, then one would get something in return. Now, I realize that is a very crass and basic understanding of ancient spirituality, but is it really all that different from the “name it and claim it” path that others cling to?
Prayer is not a way of manipulating God into doing what we want God to do, and the sooner we let go of that notion, the better off the world will be for it.
Prayer as Communication
Prayer is about communicating with God. We talk way more than we listen when it comes to prayer. Perhaps we would do well to learn how to simply rest in God’s presence, and keep our mouths shut for a while.
The best way to build our relationships is to work on communication. This is true for any relationship that we could have. Want a deeper relationship with somebody? Talk to him/her. Do you want to have a good relationship with your kids? Turn the screens off, get on the floor and play. Talk to them about their hopes and dreams. Truly connect.
We are, at the same time, the most connected and the most disconnected than humans have ever been in the history of the world. How is that possible? Because we talk through screens instead of through the space between us. (Now, I realize the irony of communicating this message through a screen, but keep your eyes on the prize, kids!)
But here is the good news: God is with us, no matter where we find ourselves. We don’t have to go to a special place for God to hear our prayers. We don’t have to keep an appointment in order to get some time with God. We simply need to do it. Now, that doesn’t mean a designated prayer space or regular appointment on the calendar is a bad thing. In fact, if that’s what it takes to help you make prayer a regular part of your day, then go for it! But don’t let the lack prevent you from spending time in God’s presence.
Advice on Prayer
So, as I hear the words of Prayer, my heart is broken. Because somewhere along the line, the writer was taught that if he just believed, then God will do whatever he wanted. He built a really nice house of cards, but when the wind came, not one was left standing.
Sometimes, the stuff that we are facing isn’t going to respond, no matter how much faith we think we have, no matter how hard we want to pray. I’m not saying that God doesn’t perform miracles from time to time. Tragic accidents happen. Terminal illnesses happen. And when they do, that doesn’t mean God is absent, or that God didn’t hear our prayers.
I have to admit something to you. I lied a little bit ago. I asked, “What do we do if our prayers go unanswered?” The truth is, I don’t believe in unanswered prayer.
I believe that there are prayers that don’t get answered the way that we would like, but that doesn’t mean they went unanswered. And, usually, that’s what we mean. God didn’t answer the prayer in the way we wanted, and therefore, the prayer was unanswered. But it wasn’t.
Ultimately, prayer is about building a relationship with God. It’s about spending intentional time in God’s presence.
The sooner we leave behind the mindset that God is our cosmic Santa Claus who gets us what we want if we only have enough faith, the better off we are going to be.