Features, Highlights

The gift of unanswered prayer

Sometimes God’s ‘no’ is exactly what we need

IT IS every mother’s worst nightmare. Her three-year-old son, Kostya, is dying of an incurable disease.

The mother believes that God can heal her little boy. She alternates agonisingly between hope and despair, fighting and giving up. Still, she prays, “imbuing her prayer with all the power of her soul, although somewhere deep within her she feared that God would not move the mountain – that He would act not according to her desires, but according to His own will”.

Her little boy dies. Why? she thinks to herself. Why would the God to whom I prayed so much allow him to die?

The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy tells this woman’s story in a short story entitled “Prayer,” which he wrote after reading about a shipwreck in the United States in which many children died. Tolstoy wrote the story to explore the problem of unanswered prayer.

I read the story only recently, when I was pondering the problem myself. I once thought that unanswered prayer was either the result of God’s sovereign will, which functions like a trump card, making our prayers largely irrelevant, or the result of human failure, which makes our prayers unacceptable to God, however needy we are. In either case, the outcome is the same – unanswered prayer.

A startling idea

Tolstoy put me into a new idea, both troubling and helpful. What would happen, I wondered, if all our prayers were answered?

I searched my memory, trying to recall some of the prayers I prayed many years ago. I thought about the early and heady years of serving as a youth pastor in southern California when I was ready to conquer the world, with or without Christ. Within two years the high school group I led grew from 20 members to 125. It was the group in the area to attend. I was riding a wave of success. I witnessed many answers to prayer and enjoyed the fruits of my labour. Everything I touched turned into gold.

Eventually the ministry levelled off and lost momentum. And thank God it did, for I had become insufferably proud, a self-appointed expert in youth ministry.

I wonder what would have happened to me had all my prayers been answered during those early years of ministry, if our group had continued to grow, if our programme had continued to receive recognition. Perhaps unanswered prayer was good for me.

When we pray, we pray not only as saints but also as sinners, very much inclined to use prayer to advance our own selfish interests, even when we pray out of desperation. Prayer for that reason is highly complex. On the one hand, the very act of praying reminds us that we are children of God. On the other hand, that same act of praying exposes us for the fallen creatures we are.

Thus, there are prayers God won’t or can’t answer, for our own good.

Winners and losers

We often say selfish prayers without thinking much about them. We pray for parking spaces when we are running late, never considering that 10 other people, as late as we are, might be praying, too, for the two remaining spaces available in the parking garage. We pray for victories in elections, forgetting that victory for one party means defeat for another party that might be just as prayerful as we are. We pray for success in business, though increased sales in our business might undermine competitors down the street who are praying for the same thing and need success more than we do.

Not that these prayers are necessarily wrong, but we should remember that answers to our prayers might be at someone else’s expense.

When my oldest son, David, was in elementary school, he played on a soccer team that dominated the city league. However, during the final city tournament, they had to square off against a team that had beaten them badly only a few weeks before. Both teams played well. At the end of regulation play, the score was tied 2 to 2. So they had to go into a shootout, where five players from each team shoot against the opposing goalkeeper from 12 yards out. Whichever team scores the most goals in the shootout wins the match.

The parents on our side turned the match into something akin to a medieval crusade, complete with all the spiritual overtones. I heard several parents mutter, “Please, Lord, let our boys win.” One woman said, “God, if they win, I will believe in you again.” Not to be outdone, I – a seasoned Christian, an ordained minister, an author of books on theology, a professor with a Ph.D. – joined this chorus and even conjured up several reasons why God should answer our prayers.

Our team won when our goalkeeper blocked the last shot. The kids went wild, leaping into the air and piling on top of each other. It looked like a scene from a Disney movie. One parent said, “I believe there’s a God again.” Being more modest and pious, I simply uttered a prayer of thanksgiving under my breath.

We had no way of knowing, of course, what was happening on the other side of the field. I learned more about the other team only recently, some five years later, when I met a Christian parent from the opposing side.

In the course of our conversation she described a tournament championship in which her son had played years earlier. Their team “needed” that victory, she said, to add the finishing touches to the only winning season they had ever had. But they lost – “in a shootout and on the last shot”. Only then did I realise that she was talking about our championship match.

Did God answer our prayers and deny theirs? I don’t think so. For all I know, God answered their prayers in a more significant way. Perhaps they had been praying that their sons would grow up well, learning to honour God, to become people of character, and to develop perspective in life. Adversity, after all, probably does more to help people grow up than easy victories. In the end losing might have been better for them than winning was for us.

This is an innocent example. But not every case is so innocent. Sometimes people pray for victory when the stakes are high and prayer seems like the only alternative to despair and defeat. Christians on opposing sides have prayed for victory in conflicts that were – and are – far more serious and deadly.

Some Christians in the United States are praying for Israel’s victory over the Palestinians, while Christians in Palestine are praying not for victory but for peace. Again, some Christians in Northern Ireland are praying for the defeat of “the enemy”, whether Protestant or Catholic, while other Christians are praying not for vindication but for reconciliation. And some Christians in the United States are praying for economic recovery in our nation, while Christians in other parts of the world are praying for enough food to survive another day.

That is the danger of praying for victory. Our cause may be right, in a narrow sense. But we may still be wrong – manifesting pride, gloating in victory, punishing wrongdoers with excessive severity, and excusing sin. The great hazard for people on a crusade is that, however legitimate the crusade, they become blind to their own faults. They oppose abortion but don’t care about the needs of women. They fight for civil rights but treat secretaries and janitors like second-class citizens. They uphold the standards of biblical sexuality but show little grace toward their spouse.

So when we pray for victory, as sometimes we must, we should always pray with humility.

Otherwise the “victories” we gain will be won at too great a cost. What does it profit, asks Jesus, if we gain the whole world – winning every conflict in which we are engaged – but lose our own soul?

Protection from ourselves

Strange as it may sound, we need unanswered prayer. It is God’s gift to us because it protects us from ourselves. If all our prayers were answered, we would only abuse the power. We would use prayer to change the world to our liking, and it would become hell on earth. Like spoiled children with too many toys and too much money, we would only grab for more. We would pray for victory at the expense of others; we would be intoxicated by power. We would hurt other people and exalt ourselves.

Unanswered prayer protects us. It breaks us, deepens us, and transforms us. Ironically, the unanswered prayers of the past, which so often leave us feeling hurt and disillusioned, serve as a refiner’s fire that prepares us for the answered prayers of the future.

Adapted from the book When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer (Zondervan, 2004). © 2003 Gerald L. Sittser. Used with permission.



When we pray for victory, as sometimes we must, we should always pray with humility. Otherwise the “victories” we gain will be won at too great a cost.


Pilgrimage of trust

THE Taize community is organising a Pilgrimage of Trust in Kolkata (Calcutta) from Oct 5 to 9, 2006. It will be an international ecumenical meeting for young people. The aim is to support young people in their search for God and their desire to commit themselves in the Church and society. It is for participants aged 20 to 35 years. Trust and peace will be the central themes.

The programme will consist of morning prayer in the local parishes and religious institutions followed by a programme. Then all participants will travel to Don Bosco School for mid-day prayer followed by group reflection and workshops and then evening prayer.

Those interested in attending the pilgrimage can contact Angela at 6469-3282 or email ca4chang@singnet.com.sg

You can also go to the Taize website for more information: www.taize.fr