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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."
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"...and forgive me for what I did wrong...and help me with today...erm...and also I pray for ____, for _____ to get well, and for the missionaries I know serving in other countries...also help with me with today....wait, I prayed that already. Also that you will help me to get my devotions done every day. In Jesus' name, amen."
Let's be honest. There are days when praying feels like talking to yourself. When you go through your list dutifully, try hard to really feel gratitude overflow our hearts when it comes to thanksgiving, repeating the same prayer request for what seems like the hundredth time, and end feeling pretty much the same as you did when you started.
Those are the days we forget why we pray.
When the main reason why we drag ourselves through the motion is because this nagging sense of duty propels us to.
It's like exercise, that is for most of us who don't actually enjoy the process of exercising but rather do it for the sake of the feeling after--that sense of satisfaction because you did something that was good for you, you can feel good about yourself.
We do it because we know it's good for us....because we ought to...we know we could enjoy it more, but well, right now we're just focusing on getting it done in the first place. Me on jogging, pretty much.
In his book Desiring God John Piper argues that prayer is both the pursuit of God's glory and our joy--citing John 14:16 and 16:24: "Whatever You ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son;" and "Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full."
For us as human beings, communication is the means by which we develop relationships. And to communicate with God, we pray. Our joy therefore comes from developing our relationship with God, through prayer; understanding Him, trusting Him, and loving Him better. Seeing how He works in our lives and responds to our prayers. When we experience the union with God that we were meant for, we get a foretaste of the state we were meant to be living in, a glimpse of pre-fall Eden, a foreshadowing of heaven.
And this in itself is what glorifies God. Consider that this is the Creator Who made us for this purpose--to have fellowship with Him; Who made us so that we can "glorify Him and enjoy Him" (from our old friend the Westminster Shorter Catechism.) To glorify Him BY enjoying Him. Our joy in Him is His glory.
So the next time you sit down to pray, remember that you're not ticking a box, doing a duty. You are pursuing joy in God, and actively glorifying Him through it. And if like me, you think daily prayer time consists running briefly through a list of names and prayer requests, you're missing out on the main purpose of prayer, and its main benefit for us.
When we pray, we glorify God by experiencing joy in His presence. How much of that do you already have in your prayer time? It's a challenging and sobering question to ask, as it shows us just how much we've missed the mark, just how much we've misunderstood what prayer was meant for, how the "sweet hour of prayer" isn't the unattainable far-off illusion we can't relate to.
But it also shows us how much more it could be for us. How much we were meant to have.
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"Therefore we also pray always for you that...the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ..."
2 Thessalonians 1:11-12
While doing Search the Scriptures for 2 Thessalonians, I took some extra time to reflect on Paul's prayers for himself and for the Thessalonians, especially when they were under difficult circumstances. Trials. Persecution, as in this case.
Of course, there were the things we'd usually expect--justice (v.6,) peace (v.7,)...
But interestingly, also for God's glory.
Paul's long prayer closes with his exhortation to them of their primary goal, regardlesss of what they were going through--to glorify the name of Christ, and to seek their own glory only in Him.
Compared to what I usually pray for myself or others when going through a tough time, this was a new thought:
"Take it away!"
"If I have to go through this, give me more strength/wisdom etc to accept it"
"Where are you, God?"
"Please do something about this, please help!"
Which are not necessarily the wrong responses; but when I compare these with Paul's, I see how much greater his perspective was, in seeing God's overarching purpose and plan for allowing such things to happen. In not losing sight of the ultimate priorities working through our present concerns.
Paul's absolute conviction of the worthiness and greatness of God's glorification allowed him to see beyond, to see everything towards that end. To be so heaven-minded. To have such a love and faith in God that we truly desire our lives to glorify Him; even when it doesn't come easily, even at times when we are most tempted to be self-centred, even through the painful experience of injustice and suffering.
Perhaps this sounds even sadistic (if that's not too strong a word) at first. But I have seen people who lived this out, who showed me, in the raw, gory valley of real pain and real suffering, what it means to let the name of Jesus Christ be glorified in our suffering, and us in Him. I have seen their strength and peace and unfailing love and trust, when everything seems to be falling apart. I have watched, and wondered. And I caught a glimpse of Christ's love in a staggering and poignant form, in them. When I I silently marveled, at them.
"...the name of our Lord Jesus Christ may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ..."
In contrast, so much of self still taints the way I see things that happen to me. I assess experiences and events by how they make me feel, how they benefit or disadvantage me--forgetting that even my standards and basis for these judgments are constantly changing, on their own. I focus on what I can do to solve the problem, to get rid of what I don't like, so that I can continue pursuing an earth-bound definition of happiness.
Learning to see the end of the story, even as we are in the middle of discovering how it gets there...
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For the longest time, my prayer journal has had pride on the page under "spiritual life/growth."
The danger is that though we may recognize that we need to deal with these major sins, we neglect to to do more than simply identify the overall threat they represent--without getting specific to how exactly they are manifested in our lives. Which means not actually dealing with them at all. We admit our failure, but besides praying about it and feeling bad about it, "trying a little harder," we don't actually make any truly concrete changes.
So for the longest time I have been praying about pride, and yet only hazily had any idea about how I could deal with this problem.
I didn't realize that--for also the longest time--I have had a (parallel) problem with impatience. Stemming from my task-oriented and achiever personality. When something needs to be done, I value efficiency and speed, not because it comes naturally, but because it makes me feel good about myself, it gives me a sense of achievement and reassurance if I get many things done, quickly. That probably tells you all you need to know. I tend to dismiss or get impatient with people whose methods of getting things done are different from mine, who want to explore the details, or double check everything. And when my workflow gets disrupted--or criticized--it becomes something personal, something which reflects directly upon my sense of self-worth. I get impatient, tense, and resent any interruptions or criticisms as personal attacks. And I show it, unfortunately.
When I prioritize the task at hand before the person I'm working with--
When I get impatient and dismiss other opinions and working methods because they are different from mine--
When I respond badly to criticism, even when it's constructive and gently conveyed, because I see it as a personal attack on myself and the perfectionist identity I want to maintain--
When I defend my behaviour by claiming that my way is better, anyway--
--the very pride I was praying about flourished.
After an incident where my behaviour was particularly disappointing, I was challenged to see these situations as specific demonstrations of my pride, and deal with them as such. Humility, in my case, could be simply not prioritizing my agenda or way of doing things, to the extent that I behave unlovingly towards others. Humility could be having a heart of peace--amid criticism, or agitation, or tension; when it seems like the job is taking forever, or someone won't stop talking, or my mistakes are being pointed out ("I-told-you-so" situations are probably some of the most mortifying experiences possible for the human soul.) Humility could be the freedom to accept criticism without being crushed or offended.
Humility could be a restful spirit that isn't fixated on getting things done, but prioritizes people and God's timing/plan. Perhaps the main purpose of this incident is teaching me to control my temper, to deal graciously with differences or difficult people, to be loving--not the actual task at hand.
How different from our task-oriented human ideas of 'living for God', 'serving' Him.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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