Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

TITLE: The Problem of Unanswered Prayer
Date:  3 Mar 2010
Written by: Conrade Yap

SCRIPTURE: "Yet when they were ill, I put on sackcloth and humbled myself with fasting. When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother. I bowed my head in grief as though weeping for my mother." (Ps 35:13-14)

This is the 15th day of the Period of Lent. It is a tradition observed by many pious Christians all over the world. For those of us who observe Lent, this will be a more conscientious effort toward prayer, abstention, fasting and of course, denying oneself just like Christ. Last year, I fasted from chocolates. For the entire period, I was conscious of anything that is chocolate-ty. From cocoa to candies, from ice-cream to mochas, I will abstain from chocolate even though I love to eat them. Cheekily, my kids become extraordinary helpful and remind me about my chocolate fast. Occasionally, they would tempt me by eating a large blob of double chocolate ice-cream before me. I survived Lent 2009 without chocolates.

This year, I decide to fast from using Facebook. I do not have to. I freely choose to. Each time I was tempted to go to FaceBook, I resist. I think Christ. I pray. I just want to remind myself to learn to deny self in some small way, so that I can embrace Christ’s journey to the cross a little more profoundly. Self-denial comes before taking up the cross. Taking up the cross is a pre-requisite for following Christ. It is a tiny step to move from plenty toward the direction of poverty, just like Christ, though I dare not boast of matching Christ's sacrifice.

In both instances, my fast from chocolates and from Facebook is primarily to remind myself to remain prayerful. Each time I deny myself, I pray. Each time I think of it, I shoot up a sporadic word to God. A simple ‘Thank you Lord,’ almost always suffices. As I reflect on prayer this week, I want to touch on a topic close to my heart: The issue of unanswered prayer.

A) A History of Unanswered Prayers
CS Lewis struggled with this. When he was 9 years old, his mother fell ill with cancer. As doctors perform emergency surgery on his mum, he prayed earnestly for healing. Unfortunately, his mother died, leaving Lewis a confused boy. He never really got over it, and he rejected Christianity for a long time. Did God answer his prayer? In a results focused world, the answer then is clearly no.

Another example is Jerry Sittser, a pastor, a chaplain and a professor. Like many good natured Christians, he surrendered his life to Christ and served God wholeheartedly. Like many of us, he too prayed for his family’s safety and for God’s protection on them all. Unfortunately, on a fateful night, he lost his mother, his daughter and his wife, in one automobile accident.

These are but two examples of a world where many prayers seem to go unanswered. Where is God? What in the world is He doing? From martyrs to missionaries; From dedicated servants in Church to many other pious ministers in various faith ministries, it is common to see Christians happen to receive the wrong end of the bargain. If God does not answer prayer, even according to his purpose, then why pray?

B) My Story
Just a couple of months ago, I learned of a missions opportunity in India. Excitedly, I prayed. I sought out God. I discussed with my wife. I was thrilled with the opportunities to teach in a Bible College, to preach and to teach the Bible and many outreach occasions. I was very specific in my prayers, to pray about it quietly and not making it known to anyone. I asked for God to provide my family the necessary finances, not only for the trip, but also my family needs, so that my family can be cared for when I am away. It didn’t happen. It happened for James Hudson Taylor in his ministry in China. It happened for George Mueller in his ministry to orphans in England. Not me. Unfortunately, I am no Taylor or Mueller. My prayer came back to me like an unanswered letter, making me suspect whether it has been opened in the first place.

Maybe I was foolish to put God to the test. Maybe I have been naïve to think that God has to pay for all my needs before I can go. Maybe, it is a case of unanswered prayer. Maybe it is a lack of faith. I do not know. Maybe, I was not desperate enough to go.

C) To Answer or Not to Answer: That is God’s Question, Not Mine
The issue of unanswered prayers remain a mystery. I am still on a journey of discovery and learning. I am still struggling with the issue of prayers that go unanswered. Allow me to share with you three brief insights on prayer. Hopefully, this can help shed some light on your personal journey with God pertaining to this strange issue.

Firstly, prayer is not simply words uttered with our lips or vocal chords. It is not muttering the ‘right’ words, or to conjure up the proper emotions prior to sending God our list. Words are important. They can be formed and spoken with the mouth. However, prayers are more than words. It is an expression of the heart. It is an expression that requires our truest selves to rise up to meet God. In short, prayer is the divine language of the heart to God.

Secondly, prayer is a relationship. It is a relationship that is not changed by good or bad news. After all, a father loves a child, regardless of how naughty he is. Prayer is a relationship that connects humanity with divinity. It is a connection that bridges the biggest gap in the world. No causeways, no bridges, no Internet connection can ever link up to our Divine God. It takes a simple act of remembrance, to know that God is listening. It takes a simple act of stopping our fast-paced hands and feet, to still ourselves to know that God is bigger than all our problems combined. It takes a simple act of the will, to keep our minds stayed on the Giver of Life, the Creator of the world. Without understanding prayer as a relationship, we will not be able to do any of the above.

Thirdly, and most importantly, in prayer, we give God the right to answer or NOT to answer our prayers. This is the single biggest reason for us to trust God for the answers to all our prayers. Our faith in God can be increased when our prayers are answered. Our faith in God need not decrease even if our prayers remain unanswered. Let me give one illustration.

In the 2003 movie, Bruce Almighty, Jim Carrey stars as Bruce Nolan, who is dissatisfied with life. God decides to give him divine powers, especially one that answers prayers. Initially, Bruce handles the pressure well, until he realizes that his careless answers to all kinds of prayers from people the world over start to take their toll. It is a humourous story, but it communicates the truth that we are not God. Only God is God. Only God can do God’s job, not us. If we think God has to answer all of our prayers according to all our whims and fancies, God is not God. We are.

One more thing. A popular teaching about prayer in many Christian circles is that Prayer Changes God. Let me suggest it differently. The biggest benefit is not us changing God, but God changing us. Oswald Chambers puts it very well:

“To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘prayer changes me and then I change things.' Prayer is not a matter of changing things externally, but one of working miracles in a person’s inner nature.” (Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest)


The issue of unanswered prayer remains a challenge for me, and I believe for many of you too. Do not despair. God is always listening. Whether the answers to prayer are going to happen now or not yet, let us remain faithful. Let us remain hopeful. Let us remain grateful for God is in control. As for my India missions, or other lands, or my deepest desires with regards to Christian ministry, I wait patiently for the Lord. I pray to delight more in Him each day, till my will be changed to adapt to His will. Indeed, to answer prayer or not, is not mine to decide. It is God's. Always God's.

Delight yourself in the LORD, and He will give you the desires of your heart.” (Ps 37:4)


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