WHY DON'T I GET WHAT I PRAY FOR?
††††††††††† If a fisherman, who believes God answers prayer, goes fishing early one morning and prays real hard all day to catch a fish, but he does not even get a nibble -- what does that mean?
††††††††††† Once, while interviewing some children for a newspaper article on kids' views of God, I posed this question to the group. The question did not faze the 7-year-old theologians.
††††††††††† "It's because the fish prayed harder," answered one little girl blithely.
††††††††††† Even children know some prayer "works" immediately; some doesn't.
††††††††††† One Saturday morning recently, my son Donald, who is 17, prayed for a new computer. Within two hours, a man we hardly knew came to our door with several big boxes filled with computer, monitor, printer, mouse and loads of software -- a free gift for Donald!
††††††††††† That same morning, I once again had prayed for something I've been praying for every day over the past 13 years -- Zilch.
††††††††††† I have prayed for scads of things without hearing so much as a whisper from heaven. I am the World's Foremost Authority on unanswered prayer.
††††††††††† Oddly enough, other Christians contend for my title; it seems that many -- are you among them? -- pray for things they often don't get.
††††††††††† Why, when a prayer is answered, it's so unusual that we stand up in church and testify!
Jets and Sailing Ships
††††††††††† Sometimes I wish I could think about prayer in terms of moving from point A to points B, C, D and E in logical order to arrive at a neat conclusion. In that case, I could write a book called Five Easy Steps For Getting Prayers Answered.
††††††††††† But prayer does not work that way for me.
††††††††††† When I think that one of my prayers is not answered, I hurt. The lack of an answer confuses me. I feel lost and bewildered. I get scared. I want spiritual things to go from point A to point E, easy as one, two, three -- but they don't. Sometimes prayer seems to be a journey through strange and frightening terrain rather than an arrival. But, taken as a whole,† the journey resembles a vacation excursion with fun, laughter, interesting companions, beautiful vistas and shady rest stops more than it resembles trudging through a desert. Here's what I mean:
††††††††††† On TV during the Iraq war, I saw jet pilots fly 500 miles to a particular place and practically knock on the front door of a specific building...
††††††††††† About the time the war was going on, I was† reading the diary of Christopher Columbus. In those pages, I saw that the admiral pointed his ship toward where he thought land might be and then blundered all over the ocean till he arrived at a destination.
††††††††††† I noticed that both the jet pilot and the sailing ship captain did eventually get to where they needed to be.
††††††††††† In thinking, I'm much closer to the old time sailor than to the jet pilot, so please bear with me if my book seems at times to drift off course when it comes to prayer.† I nose into backwaters and investigate tiny inlets and sometimes I do get stuck on sandbars that more logical, hi-tech Christians may sail right on past -- but I often see footprints on those sandbars. I'm not the first Christian to run aground here. And still others who follow may get stuck in these odd places too, so I hope this book will act as a shoal marker if nothing else.
Our questions about unanswered prayer arise from pain
††††††††††† Thinking about the question "Why doesn't God answer my prayer?" is not an idle intellectual exercise. The people I've heard ask this question have been people in pain, people who were confused, people who even felt betrayed by God, people who find that they can't live by bumper-sticker slogans promising easy answers... people who have felt the same as me.
††††††††††† As I write this book, I'm aware of the pain raised by the questions I examine. And I'm aware that I have no easy answers to present. I'm no jet pilot; I don't think my book will get you to a specific door in a particular building with a spiritual bang... but I hope that by thinking through the question of unanswered prayers together, you and I will at least get within sight of land... and from there we'll see a lighthouse and even find a safe harbor.
††††††††††† Many Christians question why prayer only sometimes works as we expect it to. Is something wrong with my faith, my sins, my breath?
††††††††††† This book will consider such questions. We will look at† unanswered prayer from three interwoven perspectives: biblical, historical and personal.
††††††††††† Among the things the book will discuss are: Is anybody out there to hear our prayers? Where is God when I want him? Is God too weak to perform what I ask? Does God care enough to answer? What sin have I committed that makes him too mad to answer?
††††††††††† Of course the big question is "Has Cowart bit off more than he can chew in addressing such a deep subject"?
††††††††††† Maybe so; after all, I have been praying about this book for a long time.
We are not alone when we question.
††††††††††† Ancient tradition says that the apostle John prayed so much that calluses grew on his knees. My name is John and I'm a Christian too, but no calluses grow on my knees. My calluses are elsewhere; as a professional writer, I sit and type a lot, so naturally my calluses are on my ...fingers.
††††††††††† But I do pray.
††††††††††† Sometimes, I pray silently or out loud right off the top of my head. Sometimes, I read my prayers from a book. Sometimes, I pray continuously for hours on end. Usually, I lead my family in prayer after supper each night -- unless there's something good on tv. Occasionally,† I enjoy a private devotional quiet time every single day -- till the mood leaves me. Every once in a while, I get peeved at God and refuse to pray at all for weeks at a time.
††††††††††† Am I the only Christian in town who follows such an erratic pattern of prayer? Or am I typical?
††††††††††† Occasionally, I do get exactly what I pray for. Most of the time, I don't.
††††††††††† Why not?
††††††††††† That question bothers me.
††††††††††† It has bothered many other Christians I've known too.
††††††††††† Madge prayed to keep her breast. She lost it to cancer.
††††††††††† Joan prayed for her son to live. He died.
††††††††††† Bill and Petula prayed to become a foreign missionaries; every mission board they applied to turned down their application.
††††††††††† St. Paul prayed for God to remove his thorn in the flesh; it stayed.
††††††††††† Tina prayed for Dick to marry her. At the same time, Dick was praying about marrying Jean, and Jean was praying for Martin to marry her. No body in that little Christian prayer circle got what they prayed for!
††††††††††† Everyone of these Christians were decent, up-right people. Every one of their prayers was for something good, wholesome and honorable. None of their prayers seems at odds with Holy Scripture.
††††††††††† In some of these cases, two or three of us did agree to make the request in Jesus' name and we did ask for God's will to be done.
††††††††††† Yet we did not get the specific thing we asked God for.
††††††††††† It seems as though we should have.
The Bible does promise that God pays attention to our prayers.
††††††††††† The promises of Jesus are sweeping in their scope when it comes to prayer. Here's one from each Gospel:
††††††††††† "When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."-- Matthew 6:6 NIV
††††††††††† "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." -- Mark 11:24 NIV
††††††††††† "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; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." -- Luke 11:9 NIV
††††††††††† "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."-- John 14:13-14 NIV
††††††††††† Yes, I do know that reading the entire passage for loopholes reveals certain conditions for answered prayer. We'll examine these and other sections of Scripture in future chapters. But at first reading, it looks to me as though Jesus makes some comprehensive promises concerning prayer. It looks to me as though he says over and over again in Scripture that he will give us the things we ask for in prayer.
††††††††††† Yet again and again, I have asked without receiving what I asked for.
Are my prayers only good for mystical stuff?
††††††††††† I have been told that prayer is a sweet mystical union with God, that in the presence of his awesome majesty, human lips are silenced, that the soul can be so overcome with worship that we ask nothing other than God himself. I've been told that the purpose of mature prayer is to baste in God's presence asking nothing, and that to pray for "things" is to pray on a childish, primitive level.
††††††††††† Maybe so.
††††††††††† But I agree with poet John Tyler Pettee who wrote:
††††††††††††††††††††††† Pray of peace and grace
and spiritual food,
††††††††††††††††††††††† For wisdom and guidance,
††††††††††††††††††††††† For all these are good,
††††††††††††††††††††††† But don't forget the potatoes.
††††††††††† It seems to me that people who expound an ethereal view of prayer are either:
††††††††††† (1.) Deeply spiritual saints who are caught up in the love of God.
††††††††††† For instance such people as Archbishop Francois de Fenelon, who served Christ in the notoriously corrupt French court of King Louis XIV. He prayed:
††††††††††† † "Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of Thee. Thou only knowest what we need; Thou lovest me better than I know how to love myself. O Father, give to Thy child that which he himself knows not how to ask. I dare not ask either for crosses or consolations; I simply present myself before Thee, I open my heart to Thee. Behold my needs which I know not myself; see and do according to Thy tender mercy. Smite, or heal; depress me, or raise me up; I adore all Thy purposes without knowing them; I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice; I yield myself to Thee; I would have no other desire than to accomplish Thy will. Teach me to pray; pray thyself in me -- Amen."
††††††††††† (2.) Affluent Christian materialists who have already made their pile and risen beyond the mundane concerns that I have, such as flat tires and no spare, late bills or frustrating jobs.
††††††††††† (3.) Religious worldlings who don't believe that God answers prayer anyhow so they don't bother to ask because asking God for stuff is a waste of breath 'cause they know they are not gonna get it, but they do like to go through the motions of prayer.
††††††††††† (4.) Everyday Christians who have† experienced unanswered prayers and† have just about given up on prayer but who feel uncomfortably guilty and wish their prayers were real and effective. But they aren't; so they settle for a "spiritual" interpretation of prayer.
What about materialistic prayers?
††††††††††† Now, I am also aware that some unscrupulous people make merchandise of the idea of material answers to prayer. They preach a gospel of materialistic prosperity in which God is supposed to load down petitioners with homes, cars, boats, jewels† and gold watches. If you mail them your seed money, they'll let you in on the secret to their seedy prayers.
††††††††††† What an abomination!
††††††††††† The God of the Bible is likely to give us just as many gold watches as Jesus wore. Jesus is our master; we are his servants. Can servants expect to live better than their master?
††††††††††† What nonsense.
††††††††††† I reject the idea that God gives goodies for the sake of goodies, and also the idea that he gives only warm fuzzy feelings when we pray.
††††††††††† The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is just that: God and Father. In our conversations with him he treats us within the framework of those two relationships. And after all, God is the one who initiates prayer in the first place. "The Spirit also joins in to help our weakness. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself pleads our case for us† with groanings that cannot be spoken".-- Romans 8: 26 KJV
††††††††††† So, I suppose, it may be logical for this book to think about possible causes for unanswered prayers first as they may relate to God's nature, then as they may relate to our own nature. Anyhow, that's my general plan for approaching the subject of unanswered prayers in this book... OK?
You have been reading the introduction to the book Why Donít I Get What I Pray For? by John W. Cowart †(IVP, 1993)
Click here for Chapter One