Chapter 1 . . . . . Are You Listening, God? 15
Chapter 2 . . . . . The True Heart of Prayer 31
Chapter 3 . . . . . Can God Take Our Complaints? 49
Chapter 4 . . . . . The Gift of Unanswered Prayer 65
Chapter 5 . . . . . Prayer Excavates the Heart 85
Chapter 6 . . . . . The Courage to Keep Asking 103
Chapter 7 . . . . . Praying According to God’s Will 121
Chapter 8 . . . . . Prayer Is Not About Us! 139
Chapter 9 . . . . . Prayer Changes Us 159
Chapter 10 . . . . The Epic Story 177
If many remedies are prescribed
for an illness, you can be certain
that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV, FROM THE CHERRY ORCHARD
ELEVEN YEARS AGO I LOST MY FOUR-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER, DIANA Jane, in a car accident that also took the lives of my wife, Lynda, and my mother, Grace. Their deaths, so sudden and brutal, set me on a spiritual journey that has continued to this day. The journey has been both grueling and wonderful, and the landscape I have crossed in the intervening years has been both bleak and beautiful. I have traveled through deserts that seemed as stark and dead as the moon; I have traveled through meadows lush with wildflowers. I have pondered more questions than I could name and number. But one question has remained, even after all these years: It is the question of unanswered prayer.
I prayed for my daughter’s protection on the morning of the accident, as I had every morning since her birth. But something went desperately wrong that day. My prayer for Diana Jane was not answered, or so it seemed at the time.
When our kids were young, Lynda and I followed a bedtime ritual as predictable as the seasons. We never dared deviate from it. If we tried, our kids would resist us like sailors leading a mutiny. We put them in the bath first, usually alone, though sometimes in pairs. Then we dried them off, dressed them in their jammies, and sent them off to bed, where we cuddled, read stories, and sang songs. Finally, just before turning the lights out, we prayed. More often than not they fell asleep right away, with the exception of Diana Jane, who became a master at finding excuses to prolong the ritual as long as she could.
We taught them how to pray, too. We started simple, using a centuries-old prayer known the world over.
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
This prayer reflects a concern that we in the Western world have largely outgrown. Before the advent of vaccines, penicillin, and surgery, many children died from disease, like weak animals culled from the herd before they could reach adulthood. Most deaths occurred during the night. Parents feared a visitation from the grim reaper, who would come under the shadow of darkness to snuff out the life of a precious child.
Lynda and I not only prayed with the kids, but we also prayed for them. I always prayed for them early in the morning, as I still do. I would stumble into the kitchen and make a pot of coffee. While the coffee brewed, I would peek at the paper. Then, after pouring myself a cup of coffee, I would sit down in a special chair and pray.
Some of my prayers were token and halfhearted, uttered more out of habit than in genuine faith. But not when I prayed for my kids. Lynda and I weren’t supposed to have our own kids in the first place. That we had four children in six years was so miraculous to us that it engendered a deep sense of gratitude and responsibility in me. I never felt comfortable and adequate in the role of father. I was afraid I would mess up the kids. So I tried to follow Lynda’s example, sought advice from experienced fathers, and prayed.
Oh, how I prayed for my kids! Praying for them was like breathing. I prayed because I loved them deeply and wanted to raise them well. I prayed that my kids would grow in faith, mature in character, discover their life’s calling, build good friendships, and serve human needs. I prayed God’s blessing on them. Finally, I prayed for their protection. I did not qualify my prayers. There were no “if God wills.” I wanted them kept safe and secure, healthy and strong. I wanted to see them grow up to honor Jesus. I wanted them to outlive me.
If Diana Jane were alive today, she would be fifteen, a sophomore in high school. She hardly seems real to me now, though I still catch glimpses of her in my imagination. Unlike Lynda, who has remained in my memory pretty much as she was before she died, Diana Jane has changed because she would be so different now were she still alive.
I try to picture her as a teenager. She was always winning and wild, like a pet that could never quite be tamed. She was quick to flash a mischievous smile, walk on her tiptoes, and tease her siblings. She either giggled or cried, with nothing in between. She would press us to the limit, but with such a sweet disposition that we usually ended up laughing. I wonder what she would be like now—her height and appearance, her talents and interests, her personality and tastes. What flavor of ice cream would she like? How would she wear her hair? Who would be her best friend? What would be her favorite books and movies?
We were all together when the accident occurred. Three died, four survived—my daughter, Catherine, my two sons, David and John, and me. The scene of the accident was chaotic and apocalyptic, like something out of a disaster movie. We had to wait almost an hour before an emergency vehicle transported us to the nearest hospital, which was another hour away. The four of us drove in virtual silence, as if we were sitting inside a great cathedral, struck dumb by its grandeur. It gave me time—it actually felt more like an eternity—to think.
I realized in that moment that there was nothing I could do to reverse the catastrophe that had just devastated our family. Still, like a doctor in an emergency room taking extraordinary measures to stop the bleeding, I wanted to control the damage. I looked at my three traumatized children and decided then and there to do whatever would be required to help them through the crisis. My commitment to them from that point on became as fierce as a wounded animal trying to protect its young. I prayed for them, too, right there in the sad and holy silence of that emergency vehicle.
But a few days later a question arose in the back of my mind. That question nagged at me like a mild headache that refuses to go away, no matter how much pain killer you take. Why are you praying, Jerry? You prayed for Diana Jane’s protection the morning of the accident, and look what happened! Why didn’t God answer that prayer? Can you take prayer seriously, ever again?
In the years that followed, I realized that it’s not just my question. It’s most everyone’s. Why doesn’t God answer our prayers? Not the silly and trivial prayers we say sometimes when we’re in a pinch but the sincere prayers we say when we’re in desperate need.
It is no longer an abstract question to me, the kind of question that some philosophy class might explore. It’s a real question, as gritty and gutsy as the painful experience that forced me to ask it. I simply couldn’t keep praying without finding an answer to it.
It wouldn’t be such a serious question if we didn’t take prayer so seriously. That we pray almost goes without saying, no matter what the circumstances. A grandparent says a prayer of thanksgiving at a holiday celebration. A military chaplain prays for the safety of a special military unit before it launches a secret mission. A parent cries out to God in anguish at the bedside of a sick child.
Prayer is partly a habit. As a habit, prayer is something we learn to do and have to work at, especially when we don’t feel like it. Some of us succeed, becoming proficient and consistent, which are the fruits of effort and discipline; others of us fail, lacking the motivation to pray day in and day out. But prayer is also a reflex, like the jerk of a leg when the doctor’s mallet strikes it or the blink of the eyes when a loud noise goes off. As a reflex prayer seems to run deep in human nature, as if we have no choice in the matter. Facing danger or difficulty, opportunity or challenge, we feel compelled to pray, even if we’re not sure there is a God out there to whom we are praying.
Prayer seems to work, too, which only makes the problem of unanswered prayer more bewildering. At least some of our prayers are clearly answered, often in astonishing ways. I have witnessed many answers to prayer over the course of the last twenty-five years. I have seen a young man healed of cancer (though his prognosis was like a death sentence hanging over his head); I have watched churches come alive, marriages restored, and mental health problems overcome. We may pray out of habit or as a reflex; but we also pray because we get results—at least some of the time. Some people even use a prayer journal, recording their requests and God’s answers. When a recipe produces superb food time and again, we are likely to continue using it.
But what about unanswered prayer? What should we do and how should we respond when our prayers—prayers that seem right and true and good—go unanswered, even when we say them with reverence, believing that they reflect what God really wants for us? Unanswered prayer is like a raw nerve in the Christian community. We pray because we believe in God. We tell God our needs—healing, restoration, protection, guidance, wisdom—but God doesn’t give us what we need. Sometimes God seems as cold and distant as some far-off galaxy.
I know the conventional answer. It goes like this: God answers every prayer. He says “yes” to some prayers and “no” to others. There is something tidy and cogent about this answer. It provides an easy and rational answer to a troubling question. But sometimes personal experience makes this answer hard to accept. The formula doesn’t pass the test. I can understand why God says “no” to some prayers, but not to all. What about a distraught couple who has just lost a son to cancer, though they prayed for healing? Or missionaries who have labored for years in a mission that was shut down because of lack of results, though they asked God for conversions? Or a group of high school kids who lost a good friend to suicide, though they asked God to deliver him from his emotional affliction?
Did God simply decide to say “no”? It seems hard to believe.
Bob Mitchell, former president of Young Life and former vice president of World Vision, preached a sermon in our church recently in which he quoted from a letter he received almost fifty years ago, in May of 1955. The letter was written by Jim Elliot, who had recently moved to Ecuador, with his young wife and baby daughter, to pioneer a new missionary outreach to the Auca Indians. The Aucas lived in a remote area and were considered hostile to outsiders.
Elliot expressed gladness that “the gospel is creeping a little farther out into this big no-man’s land of Amazonia.” He also mentioned a mutual friend and partner in the missionary endeavor, Ed, who had already left to make contact with the tribe. Expressing both excitement and foreboding, Elliot charged Bob Mitchell to pray for them, especially for Ed. “There are rumors that the same tribe is scouting around there now, so don’t forget to pray for Ed—that the Lord will keep him alive as well as make him effective in declaring the truth about Christ.”
Of course Bob did not forget to pray for these courageous friends. He prayed for their protection and for the success of their work. He was only one of hundreds who prayed for this new mission. But several months later those friends—Ed, Jim, and three others— were murdered by members of the very tribe they were trying to reach. Bob’s prayer was not answered.
Nor are many others. The same story keeps repeating itself. It just involves different people, occurs under different circumstances, and leads to a different disappointment.
Take Pete and Shirley. In their sixties, they were nearing retirement after forty years of faithful service to the church. He was a pastor, she his supporter and an energetic volunteer. Their last church was their best. Though a large congregation (over 1,400 in attendance on a typical Sunday), it had become like a family to them. God had prospered their ministry at the church, too. The church was healthy and vibrant. It was a lighthouse in the community, a place that was attracting broken people.
Then the criticism started. A few in leadership began to question the pastor’s vision and the church’s lack of explosive growth. One leader said, “This church was once the flagship of the denomination. I want it to return to that position of glory once again.” He even threatened them. “You have six months to turn things around, or you’re out!”
Pete and Shirley were shocked. They thought that the board understood their philosophy—grow the church in faith, love, and service, and it will eventually grow in numbers, too. They tried to explain their vision and its biblical foundation; they emphasized the importance of availability, brokenness, and confession.
But the criticism continued. Most members of the church were supportive. Many cared for them, prayed for them, and encouraged them, especially during the conflict. Some remained distant and silent. But a small group of people launched a campaign against them. People betrayed them and made false accusations against them. The church became divided, a hostile place, a cancerous community.
They cried out to God. They prayed constantly and asked others to do the same. They fasted and claimed the promises of God. They begged for protection, vindication, and deliverance. “We remembered the deliverance of Joseph from prison, David before Goliath, Elijah on Mount Carmel, Daniel in the lion’s den, Peter in prison. Our God was the same God. He would fight for us.”
But it became clear after a long battle that there would be no reconciliation and peace. So they resigned. Their farewell was like a funeral. Their losses overwhelmed them—community, friendships, financial security, reputation.
What surprised and bewildered them most of all, however, was God’s silence. “God did not answer our prayers. Heaven was strangely silent, cold, distant, as if made of brass. It felt as if we knocked and pounded on the door of heaven until our knuckles were raw and bleeding, and still there was only silence. Why pray when all you get is silence?”
Or take Eddie. Our family met Eddie when we visited Kenya in the summer of 2000 to do volunteer work. Eddie was a refugee. He had not seen or heard from his family in ten years and had no idea if they were still alive. His suffering, however, had ennobled and deepened him. He had become a devout Christian, and he wanted to serve as a pastor in Africa. So he attended a university in Nairobi and was just about to graduate when we met him.
He had big dreams for his future. He thought that the best preparation he could receive for ministry was in the United States. He researched schools, applied for admission, and lined up financial support. He was finally accepted into his school of choice. All seemed ready, except for securing a visa. He brought letters of support, a financial statement, and an endorsement from a thriving evangelical church in Nairobi when he met with embassy officials. He received coaching from someone who works within the government. He did everything short of offering a bribe.
He prayed, too, every step along the way, because he was certain that it was the will of God for him to study in the United States, where he believed that the best education was available. It seemed so clear to him. But the government would not issue him a visa. He tried again, thinking that God was testing his faith. Still no visa. He tried a third time. Again, he came away empty-handed. His prayer was not answered.
How many stories end the same way? We pray for deliverance from an addiction but continue to struggle with the same torment. We pray for guidance but remain directionless. We pray for healing but a loved one dies, though in the prime of her life. We pray for restoration but the marriage ends in a bitter divorce. We pray for justice but fail to see racism and poverty recede. We pray for food but watch helplessly as people die of starvation.
When C. S. Lewis was only nine, his beloved mother became ill with cancer. The doctor performed surgery right in Lewis’s home. A half century after the experience Lewis could still describe the sights, sounds, and smells with a terrible vividness. Lewis prayed desperately for her recovery, as only a terrified boy of nine could pray. But it was all in vain. The impact of her death—the loss itself, the change in his father’s character, the disruption in his home—left an indelible imprint on Lewis and contributed to his rejection of Christianity, all precipitated by unanswered prayer.1
A friend wrote to me recently, after praying with scores of others for the restoration of her marriage (which later ended in divorce), “I know it shook the faith of legions of Christians with carefully held beliefs on who God is and how God operates. I still don’t get it. I really want to get it. Would it be so difficult to lift the veil and let me in on just a smidgen of that answer?”
It is a wonder that we pray at all, considering how often we have been disappointed by unanswered prayer. As writer and seminary professor Barbara Brown Taylor asks, “Why do any of us keep wishing for things we know won’t happen? Why do we keep tossing
the coins of our hearts’ desires into pools of still water that swallow them up without a sound?”2
After the accident few people tried to mitigate our trauma by explaining why it happened. Still, two stand out. One person said, “It is a terrible loss. But I believe that you have been set aside for some significant mission.” To which I wanted to say, “You mean that we didn’t have a significant mission before the accident?” Another person said, “I guess they were so special to God that he wanted them in heaven with him.” To which I wanted to say, “Does that mean that the rest of us are not special to God?” These explanations were well-meaning, but not helpful.
There are other convenient answers, too. “Well,” we may say to someone who has just lost a loved one, “at least she is in a better place now.” That, of course, is probably true, though it doesn’t really provide much comfort. If this statement were literally true, then we should probably pray that every one of our Christian friends and family members dies as soon as possible so that they can all go to a better place and be with God in heaven.
“God’s ways are higher than our ways,” someone says, trivializing a powerful text from the prophet Isaiah, as if the mystery of God’s ways makes prayer irrelevant and obsolete. “I guess your prayers were not in accordance with God’s will,” another says, which implies that God’s will is unknowable to us, having nothing to do with his promises as recorded in the Bible.
“Even God can’t reverse the natural course of events,” still another says. But God has reversed the natural course of events, as we read in the New Testament. If God did it then, why not now?
In fact, the Bible only exacerbates the problem. It actually sets us up for disappointment by making grandiose promises that God doesn’t always keep—or so it would seem. Consider the outrageous promises that Jesus himself makes!
So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; those who seek find; and to those who knock, the door will be opened.3
Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.4
A simple reading of these texts leads to a simple conclusion: If we pray, God will answer. What then is to be done when God doesn’t answer our prayers?
Andrew Murray, writer of the classic With Christ in the School of Prayer, argued—rightly so—that the promises of God are the foundation for effective praying. We pray not only because God commands us to pray but also because God promises to answer our prayers. We have the assurance of answered prayer from none other than Jesus himself. What God promises, we can and must claim.
But Murray was so sure of Jesus’ teaching on this point that he believed unanswered prayer was always due to bad praying and thus always our fault.
This is the fixed eternal law of the kingdom: if you ask and receive not, it must be because there is something amiss or wanting in the prayer. Hold on; let the Word and Spirit teach you to pray aright, but do not let go the confidence He seeks to waken: Everyone who asketh, receiveth.5
As Murray noted, Jesus awakens an expectation that our prayers will be answered. But what happens if our prayers are not answered? Does it always mean that we don’t have enough faith, that we have somehow prayed wrongly, or that we are simply unworthy of answers to prayer?
Why doesn’t God answer our prayers? What, if anything, can we do about it?
I have pondered possible answers for a long time. I think such answers come down to the following ones. First, perhaps there is something wrong with our motives. We could be praying as hypocrites—harboring a grudge, committing a willful sin, making frivolous requests, or praying selfishly. In other words, we could be like an employee who politely asks his boss for a raise, though the boss knows that this employee has been slandering him for months.
Unanswered prayer can be our own fault, as we all know. We could be praying in an unworthy manner. Unanswered prayer invites us to take a hard and close look at ourselves, which often exposes the unseemly side of our spiritual life that most people never see, like worms and grubs that hide underneath decorative rocks in a garden.
Second, something could be wrong with our faith. It could be that we have just enough faith to pray, daring to ask God for something that is important to us, but not quite enough to receive answers to prayer. We could be praying with too much doubt in our hearts.
For example, we ask God for money that we desperately need—say, to buy food for our kids or to pay overdue medical bills—but we lack confidence that God will answer that prayer. A seed of doubt takes root in the soul like a weed that keeps coming back, no matter how hard we try to stomp it out. We know we’re not praying with absolute sincerity, either because we don’t believe that God will answer our prayers or because we don’t think we’re worthy of it.
Third, something could be wrong with the way we say our prayers. We aren’t using the right words, following the right formula, making the right requests, speaking with enough forcefulness.
American culture is obsessed with techniques. We think that once we master the right technique, the world is ours for the taking. We spend billions of dollars a year on books, tapes, and seminars that teach us those techniques. Sometimes we approach prayer in the same way. If we know what to say and how to say it, then we will receive.
During the Ming Dynasty the emperor of China built the Temple of Heaven to pray for the prosperity of his kingdom. When he stood on a particular stone and prayed toward heaven, his voice would echo back to him as if he had been shouting, though anyone standing next to him would hear only a whisper. Tradition says that heaven could hear the emperor best in that particular place. Is that how prayer works?
These explanations have merit; a grain of truth lies in all of them. Purity of motive is important and necessary. So is faith. So are the right words. I won’t dispute any of this. Yet these explanations leave me cold, too, because I think they force needless introspection and lead to self-punishment. Does God only answer the prayers of perfect people, perfectly pronounced, uttered in perfect faith?
Imagine a teenager growing up in a conflicted home. Her parents fight all the time. She tries her best to avoid her dad; she clashes with her mom. She is angry at both of them. She is sick of her dad’s passivity and her mother’s mercurial temper. Every night she prays that her mom and dad will get along, but nothing seems to change. She knows that her motives aren’t pure, her faith isn’t perfect, her prayers aren’t polished, precise, and articulate. Is that why her prayers aren’t being answered?
It would be convenient, I suppose, to explain away every incident of unanswered prayer as the fault of the people who did the praying. At least there would be a rational explanation of the problem: We are to blame, every time. But doesn’t this answer contradict the reason why we pray? We pray as fragile, broken people. It would strike me as impossibly demanding if we had to prove ourselves worthy of answered prayer by stellar performance, precise articulation, and unwavering faith. Prayer seems truer to me when it spits and mutters and cries.
Prayer turns away from self, however worthy or unworthy, and seeks God, asking him for mercy. When we approach God, we have nothing to use as capital, no commodities that we can trade, no sum of righteousness that we can use to buy answers to prayer. The thief on the cross did not have to complete a rehabilitation program before Jesus would say, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
But there’s still one more possible answer to the question, one that I find far more unsettling. The problem could be God’s. What does unanswered prayer say about the character of God? Jesus taught that God is like a father who cares for us and wants to meet our needs. If God is, as Jesus said, a loving Father, why doesn’t he answer our prayers? Aren’t fathers supposed to meet the genuine needs of their children and respond with generosity when their children ask for good things? Unanswered prayer makes God seem distant, remote, and uncaring, more like an abusive boss than like a loving father. Unanswered prayer seems to raise questions about whether God truly loves us.
Like many authors who have written books about prayer, Harry Emerson Fosdick, the famous pastor of the historic Riverside Church in New York City in the early twentieth century, suggested that prayer is meaningful only to the degree that it is rooted in the character of God. “For prayer at least, a God who does not care, does not count.”6 But how do we know God cares? Surely we see God’s character manifested in the biblical story of Jesus. But we also experience his character when we pray. What does unanswered prayer say about the character of God?
As I have explored the question of why God doesn’t answer my own prayers, I have wondered whether it is possible to find an answer at all. Perhaps God simply chooses, for reasons known only to him, not to answer our prayers, however worthy we think our prayers are. He may do so for reasons that are and will remain a mystery to us.
But what kind of answer is that? If we will never know why God doesn’t answer our prayers, we’ll never learn how to pray with greater confidence and conviction, or even dare to pray at all. We will be left shaking our heads, mystified by God’s elusiveness. The motivation to pray will drain out of us as if our souls had a leak. We’ll finally give up trying, stop praying, and surrender to fate.
It seems that any way you cut it, the problem remains.
My mind wanders back to the morning of September 27, 1991. I have turned that morning over in my mind a thousand times. I try to remember what exactly I prayed that day and how I prayed it. I wonder if I used the wrong words or prayed in an unworthy manner. Was I too frivolous, too confident, or too casual? Did I lack faith and sincerity? I think about God, too. What happened to him that day? Where was he? Was God as surprised by the accident as I was? Or did God have the accident planned, as if following a script he had written before the world began?
What happened that day? Why didn’t God answer my prayer?