Writings by Cole Huffman

Talking to Myself About Unanswered Prayer

What should you do with the disappointment of unanswered prayer? Most every Christian knows what it is to make requests of God that go unmet. I’m not referring to last resort or emergency flare prayers, although God answers those at times, but the experience of regularly drawing near with a need it seems the Lord stonewalls.

Why is the one who can heal anything opposed to healing me of my thing? Why is the one who sends prodigal sons home leaving mine in the far country? Why is the one who boasted of how faithful a husband He is to Israel allowing me to be unloved by mine? Why is the one who gives children as a heritage denying me the gift? These questions set off an avalanche of emotion.

But what should we do? We could stop praying altogether, as if God isn’t listening anyway. We could somehow try to turbocharge our requests, as if God wants us to prove sincerity. We could toggle traditions, moving in a more Anglican direction for a bit, as if more formality is what our heavenward presentations need or, moving charismatically, more fervency. None of the above seems a good option, really.

What should we do with the disappointment of unanswered prayer? I’m finding a way forward in reading the Psalms. And not just reading Psalms but reading them until the Psalms are reading me. What I mean by that is how the Psalms draw me out when I’m disappointed with God. They don’t just provide a vocabulary for venting my spleen. They probe my heart. The Psalms create a shift: I go from talking to God about myself to talking to myself about God, as in Psalm 42: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me, therefore I remember you” (vv. 5-6).

As many as 70% of Psalms contain lament, which is disappointment finding its voice. The questioning of lament is not so much doubts in review as a hard searching. You never catch a psalmist saying: That’s ok, Lord, that I don’t have what I’ve been crying out to you for days/weeks/months/years to give. The psalmists want to know why not and how long. None of them were going to stop trusting the Lord, but why is the provision withheld? How long until the situation changes?

I’m reading a book co-written by a British pastor and his wife. They are the parents of two young children with regressive autism. Their son frequently wakes up before 4 o’clock in the morning and there is no putting him back to bed. Little kids are fatiguing enough as it is. His parents pray many times at his bedside for God to make him sleep longer. Others are praying about this too. But it never happens. “The strange thing is,” Andrew and Rachel Wilson write, “over the last few years we have seen dozens of answers to prayer. Yet this one thing, for which we pray more than any other, and which (as it seems to us) has no downside—I mean, seriously, what harm could it do anybody if [our son] were to sleep another two hours per night?—so often goes unanswered. Why? What is the Father doing?” (from The Life You Never Expected: Thriving While Parenting Special Needs Children)

They muse on a few things God could be doing but admit they don’t know and might never know, and they don’t like not knowing. They’re tired everyday, in more ways than one, and feel overly dependent on others in support. They love their children and thank God for them, but the intensity of life with them is undeniably cumbersome.

When Hebrews 5:7 tells us Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears,” that’s lament. The verse goes on: “he was heard because of his reverence.” In that context “his reverence” refers to Jesus’ trust in His Father’s goodness and His obedience to His Father’s will. That was never in doubt, and yet Jesus engaged in some hard searching too: Let this cup pass from me. It didn’t.

I know the Psalms are reading me when I won’t listen to the inner murmur that tells me I should stop praying because God hasn’t done anything about X and maybe never will. I know the Psalms are reading me when I keep praying through my disappointments. There is not a non-answer that can make me forget Him.

In the gap between what I’m asking God to do and His not doing it I don’t know why not and how long. Perhaps my maturity is being developed in the interim. Perhaps I’m learning things I would otherwise not know. Perhaps I’m just being told no and will never know why. But the action of praying is leaning in to God even when I don’t think I can bear more disappointment. In that action I am borne up.

“The sharpest trials are the finest furbishing,
The most tempestuous weather is the best seed-time.
A Christian is an oak flourishing in winter.” (Thomas Traherne)

“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.
My soul is cast down within me, therefore I remember you.”

Posted by Cole Huffman at 5:02 PM
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