image by Fabienne Filippone from Unsplash
What do you do when God doesn't answer your prayers?
This has been the hardest question for me to answer as a Sunday School teacher to my students, as a Christian to myself. So many times I've looked up from folded hands feeling despair settle on me, after praying earnestly, urgently, desperately for that one thing yet again. Fear tightening your muscles as you hesitantly consider what would happen if God doesn't grant you your prayer. I can't imagine what I would do. I don't know how things could possibly work out. If He doesn't--how can I be happy, how can I be useful or successful? And ultimately--how can God be good?
The fear is crippling. In panic, you thrust the thought away, too terrified to imagine what an alternative would be, to face a future that didn't work out the way we wanted it to. You feel like you can't live, you don't know how to live, without it. Anguish. Terror. Despair. Desperation. How can God not give it to you? Isn't He good? Doesn't He love me?
I've been gripped by this fear several times in my life, over things which seemed like the end of the world, which I prayed fervently for, which I clung to desperately. Please, save my loved one who has rejected You. Heal the cancer. Rescue the broken relationship. Let me go to my dream university; give me like-minded friends to encourage and nurture and inspire me. Let me get the grades I worked so hard for. Make this project or event a success. Like Rachel's "Give me children or I die," we feel like we can't live without it.
And most recently--though not on such an extreme level--help me recover quickly!
I remember sitting on the sofa trying not to burst into tears, feeling anxiety sitting physically on my chest like a bag of rice, quashing the breath and courage out of me. The past few months had been exceptionally stressful, feeling like I was barely managing to stay abreast of everything, and this was one of those moments when it came to a head. Taking one look at my schedule only made it worse, and I mentally wailed, Lord, You HAVE to let me recover by tomorrow, if not today! I've got a wedding this weekend to play at, I'm travelling overseas, church camp is coming up next week and I've got to see to the things I'm in charge of. I've already had to cancel so many of last week's lessons, do I have to cancel this week's as well? How am I going to make it?
Unlike my sis, for example, to whom getting sick can mean a well-earned break, seeing the doctor and getting an MC isn't the magic solution for freelancers. At a period when I'd been praying ceaselessly for better time management, to be more efficient, to have more peace of heart, to improve so I could handle everything without feeling so stretched, the last thing I needed was to get sick, to fall even shorter of my goal. I simply couldn't imagine how I would make it if God didn't answer my prayer, exactly as I had in mind. I couldn't imagine, I didn't want to imagine.
Looking back, I recognize the same desperate, even imperious urgency that I struggled with at past significant points in my life. I felt like my life was over if I didn't get into a university I liked. I felt like I wouldn't be able to cope losing both my sisters at the same time when they went to study overseas. And so on. I stood in front of that one closed door, crying, too terrified to look at any others, convinced that nothing good could possibly be behind them, that the only happy ending lay behind the one in front of me.
And in every of those cases, what happened was that God allowed exactly what I had not dared, could not bring myself to imagine. The alternative that I shrank from in terror came to pass. And in each case, though it was terribly difficult at first, painful even, especially when it came to losing dreams, loved ones--I was forced to realize that the alternative was not quite the end of the world it had seemed.
To accept that the alternative was not the end. To see that His goodness was more creative than I could imagine, even understand. To learn that this is faith, trusting His definition of what is good, even when it doesn't appear anything like your own definition.
I was sharing about this with a sister in church, and being someone who suffers from chronic back pain--the debilitating sort which makes you unable to get up from bed--she knew all about it. In the beginning you're resentful and frustrated and impatient; you can only think about recovering; you chafe restlessly and wonder if you'll recover tomorrow. And the only thing you can pray about is recovery--ASAP! When you think about God, that's the One Big Thing that emerges. Heal me!
But as the pain remains, you slowly learn to focus on the now, to trust and rely on God for helping you through the situation you're currently in, the pain you're currently enduring, to face each challenge as it comes, rather than clamouring desperately for it to end.
Your focus changes. And your trust is shifted, so that it isn't based on whether or not God lets your life turn out the way you think it ought to, but rather based on your knowledge of His person. His wisdom and His love, even if they don't manifest themselves the way you would expect them to.
And His glory. Even in suffering. Even in your pain.
Consider Jesus's prayer that last night in Gethsemane. He was facing the same anguish of soul, the same desperate desire to avoid pain and suffering, the same "answer me or I die!" sort of situation. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death."
Yet in His prayers what emerges just as clearly is His supreme obedience to God's will, His submission and His one-minded devotion to glorifying and serving His Father. His willingness to accept His Father's will, even if His flesh cringed from it.
"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me...Yet not as I will, but as You will."
'And He gave them their request, but sent leaness into their souls.'
The Israelites lusted for better food to the point that they became unable to see anything beyond their desires. We know that food became their idol because we see how they became blind to God's promises and to the past proof of His power and providence; though the very manna that kept them alive and which they were complaining about ought to have reminded them of it. They were led into greed as well as unbelief. Even when God promised to give them their request--not just for one day, but for a whole month--they stockpiled far more than they needed, unable to understand that a God who was able to provide all this was also able to keep His word.
God gave them what they wanted. And it was the opposite of what they though it would be. Instead of fulfilment, 'leaness.' Instead of life, death. Aren't all idols the same? They are not what we need. They leave us, ultimately, unfulfilled and only hungrier for that vague something we yearn for, which we glimpse in glorious sunsets, in a strain of music, in the feelings evoked so intensely and confusedly by fleeting images. The danger of desires morphing into idols is that too easily we start to see them as the solution to all our problems; the lie that 'if only I had ___ I would be happy.' I write this wistfully because like you, I grapple with discontent, with unfulfilled dreams and desires that sometimes grip me till it aches. I wonder with some trepidation whether my dreams have become idols, if my ambitions are blinders. I write this without judging the Israelites because it frightens me how easily I too could have behaved in the same way, in my own version of their situation, however foolish theirs may seem now to me.
'Your gentleness has made me great.' I am still finding new ways to understand this fascinating phrase from Psalm 18:35. Perhaps sometimes this gentleness manifests itself when God denies us what we want, forcing us--so to speak--to seek a harder, more abstract, more complex, but more real satisfaction and fulfilment in Himself. The same lesson, learnt less poignantly through discontent perhaps, but with less emotional havoc than if it had been learnt through disappointment and disillusion. Perhaps one way He is gentle with us is when He keeps us from the destructiveness of our desires.
What are you praying hardest to God for now?
We've all had searing, heart-cry desires weigh on our souls. Tear up our insides. Hollow us out in an anguish of wanting. Drive us desperate as nothing seems to be changing, to be happening, as we ask God yet again to grant us our desire, feverish with impatience.
I've had desires, all right. I didn't want them to come between me and God, to become something which embittered me and alienated me, which dulled my awareness of His goodness. But on the other hand, they weren't wrong--right?
Hebrews 13:5-6 was maybe the last place I expected to find guidance. It didn't mention patience, or God's wisdom, or even trust. But it dealt with the heart of the matter nevertheless.
I realize, reading it for Search the Scriptures, that it was a very simple guideline.
Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say: 'The Lord is my helper; I will never leave you nor forsake you.'
Christians, of all people, should be at once the most content and the most hopeful. Their reason for being content is an ultimate and complete one, because we believe that our God is the source and essence of all goodness and power--and we know that He is with us. Hebrews 13 reminds us that Christ Himself has promised to be with us, to never leave us nor forsake us, and that with this most important need met, we have all we need to be content.
On the other hand, this reason for our contentment is also the reason for our hope. We believe that God can do great things in this fallen world, and since He is all-powerful and all-good, we have the best reason to hope for the best. What Hebrews 13 warned was the line between hope and covetousness.
Covetousness is basically understood as a 'strong desire, especially for material possessions.' It usually has the implication of greed, that you already have, but desire more. It suggests a restless discontent and a one-minded drive to fulfill a desire--not a need.
Our hope should be balanced by our contentment, so that we desire things not because of self-gratification. Our desires are based on a foundation of contentment with what we have in Christ, and what God has given us. Our desires are shaped by our desire for God's glory and our trust in God's goodness. Our desires should not arise from discontent with our current situation but desire for increase in God's glory, increase in what pleases God.
Hopeful, but contented.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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