Does it ever feel like God answers your small prayers almost immediately but then stays silent on your big prayers? You are running a couple of minutes late for a train and if you don’t catch the train, you’ll be late for work. You mutter almost absent-mindedly, “Lord, please make the train late, just this once” and you get to the platform to find that the train is a couple of minutes late. You are so relieved and you may even forget to acknowledge that as an answered prayer, let alone thank God for it. Then there are other occasions when you need something big like a job, healing, etc. You fast and pray fervently for it but you the job doesn’t materialise, the healing doesn’t come and you are left disappointed.
In those situations, I find myself questioning God. I absolutely believe that my big and small requests are all small requests before God. He made and continues to sustain the universe [Hebrews 1:2-3], He loves me and has the power to do what I have asked for. I bet my life on these truths but I am left perplexed when some of my prayers go unanswered. I search my heart for the things I am asking for and I sincerely believe my intentions are good, and in line with Scripture. In some cases, they even benefit others too. So why are those prayers not answered?
There are times I think the Church isn’t honest enough about unanswered prayers. Most Christians have experienced it, so why don’t we talk about it more? Sadly, some are told their prayers weren’t answered because they didn’t have enough faith, fast enough or pray the right way. Such explanations make already difficult situations more challenging. I find it comforting to know that some of Jesus’ prayers have remained unanswered till this day (for example John 17:22) and that Paul also experienced unanswered prayers [2 Corinthians 12:7-10]. The Bible is very honest about the reality of unanswered prayers and despite what many have been told, there are no formulas to get your prayers.
Jesus’ experience in the garden of Gethsemane is a lesson to all of us. The Bible records that Jesus suffered Hematohidrosis [Luke 22:40-46], a rare medical condition believed to be caused by extreme stress and anguish. That was the state Jesus was in as He cried out to His Father to take away the cross. This is even more poignant when you realise that the cross was the reason Jesus came into the world [John 12:27]. Though, if you have read historical accounts of crucifixion or watched Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, it is easy to understand Jesus’ anxiety and pain because He knew what lay ahead of Him.
I certainly don’t fully appreciate what happened in Gethsemane, I doubt anyone does. However, there are things we can identify with. Firstly, Jesus was in distress [Matthew 26:38] and He pleaded with His Father to take away His looming suffering. This was a vulnerable Jesus and many of us can identify with His predicament as we face our own challenges. Jesus pleaded for a different outcome and His Father said “No”. Jesus would later cry out on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Can you imagine how both Father and Son felt through that experience?
I have experienced the heartbreak of unanswered prayers and found myself asking: “Does God care about my plight?” or “how can my situation glorify God?” These are some of the questions I wrestle with. I suspect you have some of your own questions. We are told that Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus and those who witnessed it asked: “couldn’t He [Jesus] have stopped this” [John 11:33-37]. I have asked the same question on many occasions. However, I believe God that mourns in the face of my pain and suffering, just as Jesus’ mourned Lazarus because that is what a God who loves me would do. Besides, Lazarus’ story affirms that God’s apparent inaction isn’t indifference. In fact, God keeps a record of all our prayers [Revelation 5:8] because He intends to answer all of them one day. This is what I hold onto in my pain.
Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane also highlights an unavoidable aspect of faith which I struggle to embrace because of its implications. Despite Jesus’ anguish and the dread of His cross, He yielded to His Father’s will. “Father, let Your will be done”. That is a hard thing to say. It’s probably harder to mean it, especially amid pain and suffering. But we must learn to yield, just as Jesus did. In our most challenging moments, I believe God says to us: “Do you trust Me? Are you willing to submit to My will regardless of what it may mean for you?”
Ultimately, we must all ask ourselves: “if God remains silent in my hour of need, will I still put my trust in Him?” “If His answer to my plea is “No”, will I still believe He is a Good Father who loves me and wants the best for me?” I don’t know anyone who seeks to experience unanswered prayers, and I also don’t know anyone who has all their prayers answered. So, chances are good all Christians will have to deal with the disappointment of unanswered prayers. Like Jesus, my first prayer in the face of pain and suffering is: “Father please take this cup away” [Matthew 26:39]. However, if I do have to drink the cup, I pray that like Job I can faithfully say “though He slays me, yet will I hope in Him [Job 13:15].