There are certain things that happen in ministry that you never forget.
I’ll never forget my first youth group when I was an intern for a church in North Carolina. Taking them on a beach retreat to Caswell and doing a “lock out” where we went cosmic bowling and had “breakfast” at IHOP, then didn’t get home till 4 AM.
I’ll never forget taking another group of students to Belmont College for the FUGE camps and having to “discipline” a group for the first time because they trashed a dorm room and went out on the roof of the building.
I’ll never forget taking a group of students to a youth evangelism conference and my GPS giving me the wrong directions so that we ended up in the middle of a field at 11:30 PM rather than at our hotel. If Brittany Booth reads this, I’m sorry that I laid out at the water park the whole time at Kings Dominion. J
The one thing I truly think I will never forget though is the time I taught a lesson on prayer for a group I was teaching. I won’t give out the names or the exact details of the stories, because I don’t think that it is my right to share their experiences, but I can give the basic story. For anyone who has every done group Bible Study with me, you know that my three rules are: Respect yourself and others, everyone shares something, and everyone reads. The opening question that night was something to the extent of naming a time you prayed for something and it didn’t happen. Everyone named off the typical things like a sick loved one or a possession they wanted; however, one student shared about the time they prayed for their parents not to divorce. But they did. Their family was divided, in what the student described as a bitter divorce, and that was when this student said that he/she realized that prayer didn’t work.
In moments like that, I think all you can really do is pray for God to give you the words to say (or not to say as the case may be and just listen), and so that was what I did. The lesson for that night was essentially thrown out and on the fly, as if just having a conversation and not a structured lesson, we all began to talk about how and why God doesn’t answer our prayers.
Why doesn’t God answer prayer? Why does He seem absent at times when we need Him the most? If He loves us so much, why not reach out to us when we feel our most isolated or as though we cannot go on?
There are many reasons that God doesn’t answer prayer.
One reason is sin. In the book of Joshua, the Israelites lose a battle to the people of Ai. The author is quick to point out that this was not a powerful nation and was considered to be fairly weak; however, the Israelites lost. When Joshua asks God why this happened, God tells him that it was because Achan, one of the Israelites, disobeyed God. Because of his sin and disobedience they were unable to defeat a tiny nation and God did not bless them. Sin serves as a barrier in our relationship with God. When we have unrepentant sin, we adversely affect God’s desire to bless us. Sometimes when God refuses to answer our prayers, it is because we have sin that we haven’t brought before Him.
Another reason God may not answer prayer is that we don’t believe that He can. In Matthew 21, Jesus makes a fig tree wither simply by command. This astonishes the disciples and Jesus tells them, “if you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”
Do we believe in our prayers? It is easy to say yes, but do we really?
Prayer is a direct connection to God, through which we are able to tap directly into His divine authority. That through it we are able to be a part of what God is doing in human history. The power of prayer is ultimately the power of asking. As a child of the living God, you and I are able to approach His throne with the boldness of a child who approaches their parent. It is not an arrogant boldness based of our merit; rather, it is a confidence in the fact that a loving Father’s deepest desire is to bless His children and to see them prosper.
The third reason God may not answer prayer is because we come with a wrong motive. In the book of James, the author writes “You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your evil desires.” Anyone who has ever been in school has prayed the procrastinator’s prayer. It is in some variation this prayer:
Our Father, who art in Heaven
Grant me the wisdom to learn all the material
In the 15 minutes before the test
Help me remember all of the lectures and notes
And do not let there be too many true/false questions
Because they always trip me up
Lead me not into distractions or panic
But deliver me from failure.
For I am a procrastinator forever and ever
Rarely are those types of prayers ever answered in the affirmative. When we come before God with wrong motives or a wrong heart, we could more effectively spend our time praying to the wall. God does not listen to selfish prayer that is unconcerned with His glory. Does that mean we cannot pray for ourselves? Of course not! There are plenty of examples throughout Scripture where people prayed for themselves. What it does mean though is that we should be more focused on God’s glory and less focused on what makes you and I comfortable.
Despite all the reasons and logic you can muster, the conclusion is…
I don’t know
I don’t know why God does not answer prayer at times. I don’t know why tragedies often seem to befall the most undeserving of people. I don’t know why there is suffering in the world and why an all-loving and all-powerful God does not just stop it.
What I do know is that He grieves with those who grieve. That He does not sit stoically when we endure the hardships of life; rather, His heart breaks for us. Calling it empathy is not sufficient. God does not empathize with our hurts, as though he understands how we feel; rather, our suffering is His suffering. He does not empathize with suffering, He suffers alongside us.
I do not know why that student’s parents got divorced despite their desperate prayers. I don’t know why God heals some who suffer from cancer and yet he does not heal others. And I think that’s ok. I think it is ok that I do not know all of God’s actions and His reasons. What gives me hope, and an encouragement in the face of suffering, is that God does not ignore us or abandon us. God suffers with us and one day He will do away with all suffering and pain for all time.