Preaching the Unanswered Prayer
Scripture presents a framework for three responses to prayer
A religion editor of a prestigious U.S. newspaper addressed an ecumenical preaching conference some years ago. She told the assorted priests, deacons and pastors that one of the biggest reasons that people reported for their own loss of faith was unanswered prayer. Many had given faith a shot, but then a crisis, a need, crashed into their lives. They reported that, at first, they took Scripture at its word and stuck it out. They prayed and they prayed, but nothing came of it. They were left alone in their troubles; the worst happened. Finally, they just let go and abandoned faith altogether, giving up on the existence of God.
The new atheists, like Christopher Hitchens, look at these experiences of unanswered prayer as validation for what they see as their own hard-nosed, realistic take on the world. They point out horrible things in nature like organisms whose sole purpose is to cause suffering, and to natural disasters, which ravage people, even those who are ardent pray-ers. They ask, “What is up with that?” Their answer says that God does not answer prayer because there is no God at all. As the woman on the deck of the rescue ship Carpathia in the movie “Titanic” declares: “No God. God went down with the Titanic.”
The religion editor pleaded with the assembled preachers to preach about unanswered prayer. The people need to hear something more than stock responses, facile reasoning or broad labels like, “It’s a mystery.” Their faith is at stake. She laid the problem out on the table and ended her address without any solutions. We were the preachers, after all. What were we going to say, not just in the face of obstinate unbelief, but in the face of what seems like the empty promises of Scripture?
Start with Scripture
Deacons, as ministers of charity, see a large wedge of misery. They cannot avoid the question of unanswered prayer in their ministries to the sick and the suffering. Deacons, as ministers of the Word, are also preachers. When the Sunday readings declare, “Ask anything and it will be granted to you,” or, “Say to this mountain and it will be moved,” they owe the listeners an articulation of naturally arising questions, bewilderment and doubt with which they wrestle. As a minister of the Word, the deacon’s best bet is to start with Scripture.
What does Scripture tell us? On the one hand, it declares that God has mastery over nature. The power of God split the Red Sea in the Jewish Scriptures and calmed the storm in the Christian Scriptures. The disciples declare in awe that even the wind and sea obey him.
The Jewish Scriptures also tell us that God can send natural catastrophes. He caused a flood to wipe out the whole world except for one family and later rained fire to blot out Sodom and Gomorrah.
On the other hand, the Christian Scriptures show that even though he has the power to send disaster upon the wicked, the tower of Siloam falls on ordinary people anyway. In other words, although natural catastrophe can be a punishment, it is not necessarily so. Neither has God decreed that no disasters will occur. Scripture records natural disasters, famines, disease and war as ugly parts of human experience.
The man was born blind not, Scripture tells us, because of his sins or the sins of his parents. The critical thing in the Gospel is that God used it for his glory.
God cures disease in the Jewish Scriptures when Naaman the Syrian emerges from the Jordan cleansed of his leprosy after reluctantly listening to the prophet Elisha. Jesus cures nine lepers in the Jewish Scriptures, commending the one in particular who returned to give him thanks.
Luke tells us that all who came to him at Simon’s mother-in-law’s house in Capernaum were cured. Yet, while some leprosy and blindness were cured, not everyone in Judea was cured. Scripture explicitly tells us that Jesus worked no miracles in his hometown.
What to Make of It All
So, what is a deacon to make of all this? How does he prepare to tackle this in his preaching? The first thing is to note that Scripture itself declares that we cannot with any certainty pontificate on the meaning of any disaster or suffering in which someone prays. Several years ago, after the horrendous damage of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, I heard not a few people presumptuously declaring that Katrina means “pure” and thus this was God’s judgment — his cleansing out of the “cesspool” of New Orleans.
To that, the deacon’s response must surely be Our Lord’s declaration on the tower of Siloam. But granted that we cannot presume to give meaning to trouble, what does the deacon say about God’s response to our prayer when we encounter it?
He can observe that Scripture presents us with three answers to prayer. The first is instantaneous. The Hebrews bitten by poisonous snakes need only look at Moses’ bronze serpent and they are healed. The woman with the hemorrhage touches the fringe of Jesus’ garments and is immediately whole.
The second answer happens over time. God promises Sarah that she will bear a child, and despite her laughter over the idea, she does, in God’s time. Jesus tells the lepers to go to the Temple, and they are healed, not in front of him, but along the way. The blind man recovers his sight only after he goes away and washes his eyes in the pool.
The third is a refusal. Jesus prays that the Father take away the cup, but he doesn’t. Paul asks that God remove the thorn from his side, but he won’t. However, Scripture tells us something important about these denials. The answer is not simply “no.” The Evangelist tells us that the Father then sends ministering angels to Jesus. If Jesus was to suffer and die, there was resurrection on the other side of that pain. God tells Paul that although he will not remove the thorn, he will give him grace that is sufficient, extraordinary grace that made Paul the great apostle that he was.
Deacons obtain from Scripture a framework for their answer to the question of unanswered prayer. They do not have the whole story, but they do know that prayer always makes a difference. That is what they can preach with confidence. It might be that we receive what we pray for right away, and hence our prayer of supplication turns into a prayer of thanksgiving.
It might be that we receive what we pray for at a later time according to God’s own purposes. In that case, we are called to persistent prayer, prayer that does not give up, but grows in confidence, knowing that it, too, will become a prayer of thanksgiving, deeply felt because of the persistence of our supplication.
It might be that we do not receive what we pray for yet will receive extraordinary grace. Praying in every situation means that we have invited God in. The situation is immediately changed. We are not alone in our problem. Emmanuel, God is with us, even if we do not understand why God does not give exactly as we asked when we asked for it.
Even then, the deacon can preach, we do receive his presence, his grace. It may well be that we cannot quantify it at the time, but his grace is sufficient, it does make a difference, and something marvelous is happening. Prayer means that the worst is not left to be the worst.
God’s actions in our disordered lives, disordered relationships, and in a disordered world, transform. The deacon can draw upon his experience of service, of what he sees in his ministry, for concrete examples of all these answers to prayer. That experience informs his preaching to make actual promises of Scripture.
Scripture tells us to come before God empty-handed. The tax collector does not even dare to raise his eyes to heaven, but like those who came to Jesus for healing called out of their poverty, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
The deacon can call, encourage and exhort his listeners to do the same. Having come before him acknowledging our powerlessness, we are encouraged to persevere in prayer. He can remind the congregation that Jesus tells us not to give up on prayer, to be instead like the widow persistently knocking on the judge’s door. Instead of taking an unanswered prayer as a reason to stop praying, take it as a reason to pray all the more.
The psalms continually entreat the Lord to show up, if not immediately, then in his own good time. We pray in this way because above all we pray with hope, never giving up or giving in to the darkness — or to a voice that whispers that there is nothing there, that nothing will happen.
Rather, the deacon declares that God is there, and his grace is happening when we invite him into our lives. Prayer always makes a difference. And so the answer to unanswered prayer is a prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
DEACON PETER LOVRICK holds a doctorate of ministry focusing on homiletics from Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis. He is the professor of homiletics at St. Augustine’s Seminary in Toronto, Canada, as well as the director of diaconate formation.
O Lord, how long will you look on?
Restore my soul from their destruction,
my very life from lions!
Then I will thank you in the great assembly;
I will praise you before the mighty throng.
Do not let lying foes rejoice over me,
my undeserved enemies wink knowingly.
They speak no words of peace,
but against the quiet in the land
they fashion deceitful speech.
They open wide their mouths against me.
They say, “Aha! Good!
Our eyes have seen it!”
You see this, LORD;
do not be silent;
Lord, do not withdraw from me.
Awake, be vigilant in my defense,
in my cause, my God and my Lord.
Defend me because you are just, LORD;
my God, do not let them rejoice over me.
Do not let them say in their hearts,
“Aha! Our soul!”
Do not let them say,
“We have devoured that one!”
Put to shame and confound
all who relish my misfortune.
Clothe with shame and disgrace
those who lord it over me.
But let those who favor my just cause
shout for joy and be glad.
May they ever say, “Exalted be the LORD
who delights in the peace of his loyal servant.”
Then my tongue shall recount your justice,
declare your praise, all the day long.