2 Corinthians 12:7-10
How many of us have ever called out the way David does at the beginning of the 22nd Psalm. We hear so often the comfort and warmth felt from the 23rd Psalm. However, when we read the 22nd Psalm we get a vastly different viewpoint of David’s life. The 23rd as many of us have heard is about the goodness of God. It is celebrating God’s presence. Although, when we look at the 22nd Psalm all we see is anger and hurt and frustration towards God’s parent absence.
We know that David was a man who suffered from depression in his life, and in a moment of depression he penned an argument of sorts he had with God.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest.” (Psalm 22:1-2)
This does not sound like the cry of a man who feels like God is helping him and answering his prayers. This is a struggle that David had many times in his life. From the passion in those words we can see that David prayed to God and his prayers were not met.
I am sure we have all had this feeling. We have all had those moments in our life when we turned to God and our prayers were met with what we perceived as nothing.
Bottom line is that sometimes we feel let down by God in the prayer answering department.
This is another one of those great and difficult questions we persons of faith ask. It is another one of those questions that lead us to turn away from God. Even harder than reconciling the question of suffering in the world is reconciling the question of unanswered prayers.
C.S. Lewis writes a short book called “A Grief Observed.” In it he wrestles with the death of his wife. Lewis, as some of you might know, was once, in his life, a very open atheist. Once he became Christian in his early thirties he became one of the most profound Christian Apologist writers of our modern time. However, it is in this time of watching his wife die that we are opened to some of the toughest wrestling he goes through in his Christian life. He admits feeling abandoned and forsaken by God. I can only imagine Lewis related to this 22nd Psalm to express his anger and frustration. I am sure he would have said these words in the most vigorous and upset fashion.
Unanswered prayers or our perception of answered prayers can be the cornerstone of a broken faith. We think how it must feel to have a God who supposedly loves us, yet our deepest concerns and needs go unattended. In these moments we make that cry of David, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1a)
Let it be known as we begin our discussion here that God does hear our prayers. God does work in our lives. However, we often want to jump the moment we feel that God is not helping us. We feel offended that God would leave us out to dry in such a situation when we come in prayer. When our prayers are not answered as we want them to be. These words from the 22nd Psalm become the center of our prayers, because we feel forsaken. How do we reconcile that?
Last week we began this series by looking at suffering. We examined the nature and role that we, as humans, play in suffering, and the role that God then plays in helping us through our suffering. We know that people have ceased being Christians because they cannot reconcile a God who causes or even allows these terrible things to happen. However, this is not the only deep question that plagues our faith, because where there is faith in an unseen deity there is an opportunity for doubt. There is an opportunity for us to feel we are let down.
Not only does the question of suffering plague us, but we also ask the question of unanswered prayers. Those times when we turn to God and bear the deepest and darkest depths of our soul and plead to God for help and we are met, sometimes, with nothing. We even see David’s feelings on how it makes him feel. We see that he wrestles with his ancestors being helped and then demeaning himself as something less than them as we read verses 6-11 because his prayers are not answered as theirs was.
So then why do our prayers go unanswered?
When people often ask this question they are met with answers such as, “Maybe you have some unresolved sin in your life” or “Maybe you didn’t pray with enough faith.” Like the common answers we heard last week I have trouble seeing how these statements are helpful to those who in this time are not just wrestling with the question of unanswered prayers, but the existence of a loving God as well. These answers say we have done or are doing something wrong and are seen less in God’s eyes for it. They often say that God is setting limitations on whose prayers will be answered by whether we have enough faith or our sin is to great. We are saying that the unanswered prayer shows our unworthiness, either because of our faith or our sin. God doesn’t answer our prayers based on our worthiness.
Well here is the truth: None of us are unworthy of God’s love or God’s presence in our lives. We know this and we understand that the nature of God’s grace and love is that it is unmerited and undeserved. Jesus sets forth that precedence in the Gospels by showing God’s love to the least, the last, and the lost. Jesus helps all manners of people. The worthy and the unworthy alike. God does the same in our time. God’s love is for everyone and God doesn’t answer prayers determined on our worthiness. Therefore, we should not focus on our perceived unworthiness as the cause for our unanswered prayers.
So then why do our prayers go unanswered?
For an answer to this let’s look at Paul’s struggle with unanswered prayer.
“…a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’” (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a)
We know, from here and from other writings of Paul, that he had some sort of disease or deformity that was part of him through some of his ministry and took a toll on him. We read here that he prayed to God on three separate occasions for healing from this “thorn,” and each time his prayer for healing was unanswered. It is not that God ignored Paul or that it was because Paul was unworthy, but God answered, not in the way Paul wanted to hear, but in the way that God works. Paul’s prayers were answered in a manner of God showing him that despite his illness God was still using him. God’s answer was Paul’s continued blessing in his ministry. God lets Paul know that despite his weakness God was making him strong. This may not have been the answer Paul wanted. Paul wanted this deformity to go away, instead God uses Paul’s weakness as a strength.
In Adam Hamilton’s book he gives three aspects of unanswered prayers that can help us understand God’s nature in the midst of what may seem to be for us, unanswered prayers. And we can see how each of these work with each other in their manners and how the nature of what we are praying for may be impacted.
First is that God works within natural laws and through people. (Hamilton. Kindle Locations 538-539) Therefore, God is not going to suspend the laws of nature and we know God calls people to do work. We often pray to God for miracles to occur, and it is not a bad thing to pray for those miracles. The idea of miracles are what give us hope. However, as I mentioned last week miracles would not be miracles if they were a common occurrence. Also, that if God worked in this manner that would supersede the natural order that God created. For example God puts doctors on the earth to help us when we are in pain. If we were given miracles to be automatically cured of whatever ails us when we ask what would be the point of doctors? Therefore, we observe that God does not disrupt natural laws or occurrences.
So while we pray for miracles we must understand that their nonexistence in an instant is not God forsaking us, but part of the natural order of the world. God still works within the hands of good people doing God’s work.
“The second thing I have come to understand,” Hamilton continues, “is that God will not suspend another’s free will to answer my prayers.” (Hamilton. Kindle Locations 547-548)How many of us have prayed that prayer that someone else would come to do something through our prayers? That someone would buy our house, or someone to do something for them. That my team would win over yours. These prayers where we are asking that the nature of a person be changed by God in order to answer our own prayers.
As we know God does not interfere with our free will. Not because God doesn’t want to, but because God knows the importance of our having free will. God does not want to interfere with free will, because God wants genuineness and authenticity out of creation. To affect that would affect the order of humanity. Rather, instead of asking God to work in those ways we should seek God’s guidance in your own life to effectively minister or reach said person with your own actions.
Lastly Hamilton reflects saying, “I have also learned over the years that, in the face of suffering or adversity, God’s answer to my prayers is often not to deliver me or others from the suffering, but to walk with me or them through it, and then to transform it and use it to change my life, their lives, or the world.”(Hamilton. Kindle Locations 551-553)
God works in unexpected ways. This is that understanding that God does not always work in ways in which we can see or understand at the time. This is the reflection we see from Paul’s enduring of his deformity. It is not that God did not want to help Paul or to heal him, but that God was working in Paul in spite of Paul’s suffering. It is the same manner in which we talked of suffering last week. It is not the manner in which God does not answer our prayers, but how we allow God to walk through us in those times when we feel our prayers are unanswered.
Often when we pray we seek a very specific answer. For Paul it was the removal of this “thorn.” For C.S. Lewis is was the restored health and life of his wife. For David it was God’s presence. When these specific prayers went unanswered they cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1a) However, we are reminded that in the midst of the 22nd Psalm that David moves from feeling abandoned by God to knowing that his presence remains. That despite his apparent absence God is still present.
None of this should prevent our prayers. None of this should prevent us from having that relationship with God that transcends all of our feelings and questions and doubts. Remember that prayer is about our relationship and communication with God. Much like going through times of suffering we cannot abandon or turn from God. In all of this we must remember the mysterious ways that God works. We must be willing to listen to the way God is working, because often when we feel our prayers are unanswered God is still there. God does not abandon us. Prayer should be more about relying on God to be there and not making God into a quick fix.
I close today with the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi as a reminder of what prayer is.
Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.
O, Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; For it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; it is in dying that we are born again to eternal life. (Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi)
1.) Hamilton, Adam (2010-10-01). Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
2.) NRSV Bible
3.) Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi (http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=134)