When prayers seem unanswered ...
When prayers seem to go unanswered, it can be discouraging. It can make people want to give up on God. But the Rev. Adam Hamilton suggests that this doesn't have to happen, if we are willing to adjust our expectations and our focus.
"Disappointment in prayer comes from unrealized or unmet expectations," said Hamilton, senior pastor at United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan., and author of Why: Making Sense of God's Will (Abingdon Press). "Sometimes we need to question our assumptions about prayer.
"Prayer is primarily about communion with God. It's about listening for God to speak to me."
Most often, Hamilton said, God answers prayers through human relationships rather than with direct intervention. If we emphasize in prayer that we want God to show us our role and the role of other people, then we are less likely to be angry with God if we don't experience a miracle.
"God's primary way of working in the world is through human beings," he continued. "God is never offended that we ask for a grand-slam, out-of-the-park, home-run miracle. But part of what we have to understand is that, if God usually worked like that, we wouldn't need doctors, life insurance or medical researchers."
As an example, Hamilton mentioned praying for the sick. "I'm going to ask for a miracle," he said, "but we call those ‘miracles' because that's not the norm."
When considering how to pray, the Rev. David deSilva, professor at Ashland Theological Seminary in Ashland, Ohio, said he thinks people often miss the main point.
Discovering God's desires
"We are encouraged to ‘pray without ceasing,' but we wrongly assume that this means continually presenting God with a ‘to-do' list and trying to persuade (God) to cooperate with us," deSilva said. "Prayer is primarily about discovering God's desires and being empowered to accomplish what (God) wants to see happen. Hearing from God in prayer is more important than getting God to listen to us."
The Rev. Belton Joyner, author of United Methodist Questions, United Methodist Answers (Westminster Press), agreed, saying he thinks problems in prayer typically arise when people treat prayer like an online shopping order, in which one is making a list of items for God to fulfill.
"What a chaotic world we would live in if all prayers were answered on demand," Joyner said.
For the Rev. Beth Richardson, director of creative content and managing editor for Alive Now and Weavings at The Upper Room, the relational connection that's built in prayer is what's important.
"I really feel like there's this connection that we have with God and with other people and with the earth," she said, "and those channels are opened up in a special way when we pray."
Joyner, a visiting lecturer at Duke Divinity School, said he thinks of prayer as a relational connection in which nothing in particular has to be happening for it to be "strong and good and enriching."
According to deSilva — who has authored several books, including Praying with John Wesley (The Upper Room) — prayer is most effective when it influences our minds and hearts as we go about life and our interactions with other people. "It is a way in which I can connect more deeply with the people around me. And it calls me to greater investment of myself in being part of the answer that God might bring."
'Your will, not mine'
In her own prayer times, Richardson, who has authored two Advent books, says she no longer asks for her wants or needs. "The prayer that I want to pray is, ‘Let me do your will. ... I am yours.'"
As people learn to lay their lives in God's hands, they also bring their concerns for other people. And in the midst of those prayers for others, their beliefs about human free will and God's sovereignty can create confusion. In considering free will, deSilva said people need to understand that there are some prayers which God does not answer through divine action.
"We may need to recognize that what eventuates will be neither what we want nor what God wants, and here the question of ‘free will' certainly enters the picture," deSilva said. "I think, for example, of the plight of Christian sisters and brothers who are marginalized, imprisoned or killed for their confession around the globe. Often this does not mean that both we, and God, are powerless to affect the situation – just that it won't be affected by God's sovereign action in response to prayer.
"This can become an opportunity, then," he explained, "for the principal form of prayer – asking God for direction ... and seeking God's equipping to do so effectively and courageously."
In situations where prayer and sovereignty and free will come into question, Joyner urged thinking about the role that those who pray can play, as God's people.
"If God is sovereign, what role do we have in the relationship? God has given us the gift of being made in the image of God," Joyner said. "We share in God's relationship with others, we share in God's reaching out, we share in God's inclusiveness."
Regardless of how God chooses to answer their prayers, deSilva said people should continue to approach with an attitude of surrender.
"In the end, our closing prayer must always be: ‘Nevertheless, not what I want, but what you want,'" deSilva said. "Such subordination of our will to God's is only appropriate given the limitations on our knowledge and foresight."
Richardson acknowledged that accepting God's will isn't always easy, especially in painful life situations, when seemingly unanswered prayers can be extraordinarily difficult to comprehend.
"I believe the act of prayer is about the relationship, not the outcome. That may not be a comforting thing for someone to hear," Richardson admitted. "The truth is, bad things happen. What I believe is that, no matter what happens, God is there with me, with my loved one.
"In the tragedy, God is weeping when I weep," she said. "Even if my prayers aren't answered the way I hoped they would be answered, I am not alone, and God walks through it with me. God never leaves our side."
DeSilva shared similar thoughts, adding that prayers for others are a way to embody Christ in the world.
"Intercessory prayer is valuable as an expression of love for our neighbor," he said, "as an opportunity we are creating to rejoice with him or her when God intervenes and to express support and care in the interim."
Emily Snell, freelance writer, Nashville, Tenn.