A New Way of Thinking about Unanswered Prayer by John Miller
Pray and say “in Jesus’ Name.” Have faith and wait. That’s the formula, right? But when nothing happens, what do we do? What are we supposed to do with unanswered prayer?
Christians often use bible verses like magic spells. We pray Jeremiah 29:11 as if the words will cause a holy light to envelope us, our bank accounts to multiply like loaves and fishes, our relationship problems to evaporate the Gideon’s fleece dew, and life’s troubles to part like Red Sea waters.
And yet it doesn’t work.
Or we pray Romans 8:28 like God forgot that he meant to do good things for us but accidentally let bad things happen. Remember this verse, big guy? You’re supposed to work things for MY good. And yet things are still awkward at home, or we get looked over for another promotion, or our kid is still in and out of the hospital. Unanswered prayer is both bitter and surprising.
It doesn’t take much to become disappointed with God.
Even Jesus’ followers were disappointed with his first century uprising. They expected swords and battle while this carpenter’s-son-turned-Rabbi brought “a revolution of the heart.”(1) The nation of Israel expected war and bloodshed. They expected physical dominance over their enemies just like Moses rescued their ancestors from Egypt. The Israelites, then, were seeking a Joshua to conquer the enemies of Yahweh (2). The Israelites thought that’s what the Old Testament prophecies meant and were waiting with anticipation for the coming of their Savior. What they got in Jesus was, in their eyes, a gigantic letdown.
Jesus came for his own purposes, and yet he had planned something better than anything Israel could have imagined.
I’ve quoted Romans 8:28 and Jeremiah 29:11 until my face was blue. You work all things for my good, God. You have plans to prosper me. And yet, my pockets are full of one unanswered prayer on another. This wasn’t what I expected at all.
Did God not hear me?
In Sunday school I was taught that God always answers prayers:
Sometimes he says “yes”
Sometimes he says “no”
and sometimes he says “wait”
Fair enough. That covers all the bases. But I have my own variation of that:
Sometimes God says “yes”
and sometimes God says, “watch this!”
Unanswered Prayer? Watch this
And instead of defeating Caesar and bringing the Israelites back into political power, Jesus defeated sin and death and ushered in a new reign. How unexpected! By his death and resurrection Jesus was inaugurated into Kingship over all heaven and earth! And King Jesus’ reign isn’t exclusive to genetic descendants of Abraham, but everyone who believes in his Lordship can be adopted into the family.
God heard Israel’s prayers and answered, “Watch this.”
And so my hope rests in a “Watch this” kind of King who isn’t summoned by “magic spell” prayers. My King rules in a way in which He will tend to the longings of my heart not like a genie ruled by my expectations. He is his loving, creative, and paramount in his ways.
God doesn’t just want what’s good for us.
He wants what’s best for us.
Often that leaves us waiting to hear, “Watch this!”
(1.) Michael J. Wilkins’ commentary on Matthew in Zondervan’s Illustrated Bible background commentary.
(2.) I mean, c’mon, Jesus’ name WAS “yeshua” a.k.a. Joshua.