I have seen answers to prayer. They help me to realise that God does hear and answer prayer (1 Jn. 5:14). They help my trust in God to grow. Sometimes those answers seem to be a long time in coming, but that teaches patience and further strengthens my faith.
Is God silent? Does he stop listening? Does he forget us?
But there are other prayers that I haven’t seen answers to. What about those? It’s tempting to doubt the effectiveness of prayer — to doubt that God is listening, that he truly cares, or even that he’s there!
There’s nothing new in those feelings. The Old Testament prophet Habakkuk cried to God from a despair about an evil society:
“How long, LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen?” (Hab. 1:2).
And Job, in the middle of all his troubles, lamented,
“I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer; … Have I not wept for those in trouble? Has not my soul grieved for the poor? Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me.” (Job 30:20, 25-27)
Poor Job! We can understand his bewilderment: he has selflessly concerned himself with others, he has worshipped God, but God seems so very far away now that Job himself is beleaguered on all sides by family tragedy and his own ill-health.
I don’t know how long Habakkuk waited for God to respond, but when he did, I imagine it wasn’t what Habakkuk expected – or hoped for.
Perhaps you have prayed for someone who is ill and they haven’t got better; or to have a child and you remain infertile; for someone to return to the Lord and they seem as far away as ever; for difficult circumstances to be resolved, but they remain; or for a life-partner and you remain single. Is God silent? Does he stop listening? Does he forget us?
The Director of Song composed a psalm containing the words:
“If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; but God has surely listened and has heard my prayer. Praise be to God, who has not rejected my prayer or withheld his love from me!” (Ps. 66:18-20)
The older Bible versions use the word ‘regard’ instead of ‘cherished’, but there’s definitely the idea of knowing about a particular sin in our lives, and holding on to it. If we decide not to deal with the sins we know about in our lives, God does not listen to our prayers. However, because the psalmist’s conscience is clear, he is confident that God is hearing and caring. And we can be, too – even if our feelings tell us something different.
But sometimes when God does answer it’s not the solution we would have come up with. I don’t know how long Habakkuk waited for God to respond, but when he did, I imagine it wasn’t what Habakkuk expected – or hoped for. God said he was going to intervene:
“Look at the nations and watch – and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told. I am raising up the Babylonians, that ruthless and impetuous people, who sweep across the whole earth … They are a feared and dreaded people; they are a law to themselves and promote their own honour.” (Hab. 1:5-7)
Really? More trouble was on the way?! Habakkuk seems to accept the answer, even though he struggles to understand it or to like it (Hab. 1:12-13). But ultimately he comes to the point where he can praise God, even when everything around him seems to be going wrong:
“yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Saviour. The Sovereign LORD is my strength…” (Hab. 3:17-19a)
The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians
“…to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Cor. 12:7-9)
I don’t imagine that the ‘thorn’ – whatever it was – got any more bearable, but Paul’s attitude to it had changed, and his prayer about it had changed. He understood that he had a potential for personal conceit; so he was able to view his own weakness as an opportunity for Christ’s power to work through him, and he was able to experience another dimension of the grace of God.
As mere humans with finite minds and limited understanding, we have to accept God’s words:
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isa. 55:8-9)
And perhaps that requires an even more mature faith. Habakkuk’s message was:
“the righteous person will live by his faithfulness” (Hab. 2:4).
Paul wrote to the Church at Ephesus that God
“is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…” (Eph. 3:20).
God is much greater than our personal longings and requests. And so I wonder, then: does disappointment in prayer actually give me the potential for an even greater knowledge and experience of God, as I live by faith in his inherent — and sometimes incomprehensible — greatness and goodness?
Rosemary Johnston, The Church of God in Leigh