What is God doing when He seems to be ignoring our prayers?
"I've prayed for several months that your husband would be healed, and you're telling me he's no better. What's going on?" The caller's voice sounded exasperated.
During the next four years I often wondered, myself, what was going on. Despite much earnest prayer from a great many people, my husband's depression deepened. Treatment after treatment failed. Everything that could go wrong, did. He was transferred from our local psychiatric hospital to the university hospital and then to the locked ward in our state mental hospital. The psychiatrist gave me very little hope for his recovery. "It could be another twenty years," he said.
During this difficult time, a lot of heart-searching led me to ask some serious questions about prayer and its purpose in our lives. Here are some of the answers I've received.
1) Is God listening?
When David, the poet-king, found himself in great difficulties that would not go away, he would ask, "Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" (Ps. 10:1). It seemed to him that God wasn't doing anything on his behalf. "Why do you hold back your hand, your right hand? Take it from the folds of your garment and destroy them!" (his enemies) (Ps. 74:11).
At other times, David saw life in a different way: "Does he who implanted the ear not hear?" (Ps. 94:9). How absurd! The One who created ears also understands our need to be heard. Then with faith renewed, he cried to the Lord afresh: "In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation" (Ps. 5:3). No matter how turbulent his emotions or circumstances, David knew one thing for certain: "The LORD will hear when I call to him" (Ps. 4:3).
How could David be so sure? He knew that it is the nature of a loving God to give full attention to the one He loves—at all times (Ps. 89:33).
2) Does God care?
Did David always feel positive about God's love for him? No. Crushed in spirit and in great anguish of soul, he blurted out, "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?" (Ps. 77:7-9). During these unnerving times, David found a way of silencing his doubts: "I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago" (Ps. 77:11).
Likewise, when I've found it difficult to get a handle on God's love for me, my emotional equilibrium has often been restored by the act of remembering. I recount in prayer how God has worked in our family in times past. Sometimes, reading an old journal helps me remember. Then I read some of His affirmations of love in the Bible and personalize them. For instance, Zeph. 3:17 has become: "The LORD my God is with me, he is mighty to save. He takes great delight in me, he quiets me with his love, he rejoices over me with singing." As I remember God's love in the past and, by faith, affirm it for the present, my spirits are lifted.
3) Am I praying in God's will?
Often I have wondered how I should pray for my husband. Some people were so sure that healing was God's will for Bill, but I didn't have that assurance. In Hebrews 11 I read that "[some] women received back their dead, raised to life again. Others were tortured... stoned... sawed in two... put to death." But no matter what the outcome of their prayers, all "were commended for their faith" (Heb. 11:35-40).
So I looked to Scripture for guidance. I learned that God has called us to peace (Col. 3:15), freedom (Gal. 5:1, Gal. 5:13), holiness (1 Thess. 5:23), and to joy and thanksgiving (1 Thess. 5:16-18). Therefore, I could pray with confidence that God would drive out the fear, despair, and anger I saw in my husband and make his heart "a house of prayer" again.
4) How is timing involved in the answer?
Imagine with what urgency Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, sent these words to Jesus: "Lord, the one whom you love is sick." Again and again Martha left Lazarus's sickbed for a glimpse of the little dust cloud that would signal Jesus was on the way. Of course He would hurry. She was that confident of His love for them.
But when Jesus "heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days" (Jn. 11:6). He purposely delayed. Was He callous toward their pain? Hardly. About a week later, Jesus stood at Lazarus's closed tomb. "When Jesus saw Mary weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled" (v. 33).
Jesus wept because He deeply identified with their grief.
Why then did He delay His coming? Because He wanted God's glory and the highest possible good for His friends. He had a far greater purpose in mind than to heal Lazarus of an illness: He wanted to raise him from the dead!
5) Is God answering this prayer in a different form than I would expect?
Four men brought their paralytic friend to Jesus to be healed (Mk. 2:1-12). Because of the crowds, they had to lower him through an opening in the roof. As Jesus turns to the paralytic lying on the mat, four eager faces peer down to see how Jesus will bring about this miracle. But to their surprise Jesus seems to ignore the obvious. "Son, your sins are forgiven," He says to the paralytic man (v. 5). I can almost hear one of the friends whisper, "We didn't carry him all these miles for that. Why doesn't Jesus just heal him?" But Jesus desired to heal the total man, who needed spiritual forgiveness as well as physical healing.
Many faithful people have carried my husband in prayer to Jesus every day. Could it be that God has been working on deeper needs than the obvious one for emotional healing?
In my memory I could still hear my husband, then robust and full of enthusiasm for life, praying, "Lord, make me a man of God." I, too, had prayed similar prayers. But developing godly character takes time. Since God allows freedom of choice, we often run into detours of self-will. Faulty thought patterns have to be torn down before we are ready to make decisions that lead to health and holiness. Was our suffering, then, this waiting upon God, a necessary ingredient in God's answer to our prayer for holiness? It was comforting to remember that even Jesus' experience on earth was made perfect (mature) through suffering (Heb. 2:10).
6) What does God want to accomplish in me?
For many years I thought prayer was a transaction between me and God: I'd go to Him with a specific need—financial help, or healing—and He'd give me what I asked for. Of course, each time God answered a specific prayer request, my faith in Him was strengthened.
But then I began to see another dimension to prayer: Prayer is not merely a transaction between God and man; prayer is an interaction between God and man.
How well David understood this! To him God was not just a Banker who cashes promissory notes, but a Father who wants to share the life of His child. "I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble" (Ps. 142:2). Anger, revenge, disappointment, fear, confusion, wonder—whatever feelings surfaced—David felt free to express them to His Father in prayer. And as he did, a deep healing process began in Him: "When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,' your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul" (Ps. 94:18-19).
This has also been my experience. As I've repeatedly poured out my heart to God I've felt understood and loved. In a curious way, even though my prayers for my husband's deliverance and healing were not answered, my faith in God's character was strengthened.
7) Is there anything hindering this prayer?
Besides God's answer not coming within a definite time frame, there may be other reasons for delay. "Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear," Isaiah grieves for Israel. "But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear" (Isa. 59:1-2). Paul exhorts husbands to respect their wives and treat them well, "so that nothing will hinder your prayers." (1 Pet. 3:7)
Sin hinders God's answers to prayer. We do well to examine our hearts and confess any wrongdoing or wrong way of thinking, repent of it, and make it right.
Satan himself can delay an answer to prayer. How grateful I am for each of our friends who have enlisted in spiritual warfare on our behalf. Repeatedly some friend has told me that our names have been mentioned in their prayer group. One of my friends has fasted every Monday noon for us, and at different times other women have joined her.
8) How is God working right now?
When we are engaged in earnest, specific prayer our focus tends to be narrow. We know what we want God to do—and the sooner the better. Of course, my husband's healing was uppermost in all of our minds. But when we saw no change, could we rightly conclude that God wasn't doing anything for us? Of course not.
Often I have had to recount audibly or in writing what I saw God doing in our family. He has raised up faithful pray-ers on our behalf—often people I least expected, people who didn't even know us. He makes Himself known in practical ways—help when the car breaks down, when the plumbing leaks, or when the roof needs to be fixed.
When I prayed for a special friend for Bill in the hospital, God sent along a chaplain-in-training who was about his age and had children the same ages as ours.
God sees to it that my own needs are met. Just the fact that I'm sleeping soundly each night is a special gift of His goodness.
He's raised up good listeners who make themselves available to me. When I've needed a reprieve, He's nudged people to welcome me into their homes. But even when I'm not able to go away, He's let me feel His comforting presence. My Bible is full of dated verses, signifying the exact time when God used those words to comfort me.
It seems that acute suffering has made me more sensitive to joy. A special flower unfolding in my garden, seeing the wind caress the grass on our lawn stirs within me a deep joy that momentarily eclipses the pain.
And I see God working in our five children—deeply, specifically. For a parent, there is no greater joy.
9) Is God asking me to do something to answer this prayer?
When the Israelites, camped by the Red Sea, saw the Egyptian army in hot pursuit, they blamed Moses bitterly. Moses, in turn, cried to the Lord. "Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground'" (Ex. 14:15-16).
Mental illness brings with it much conflicting advice from those who want to help, and sinister innuendoes from those who don't understand. It was easy for me to identify with Moses standing at the brink of the Red Sea with an army after him. As I'd cry out, "Save me, Lord. Save our family!" He'd answer me with these words: "Commit [yourself] to [your] faithful Creator and continue to do good" (1 Pet. 4:19). In other words, "Raise up the staff of your faith and move on with your life. Make life as normal as possible for your family: Keep your part-time job; don't sell the house; include your husband in family affairs; encourage the children to pursue their goals."
Later, when my husband was able to return home, it was immensely comforting to him to find our home in good order and the family functioning normally.
10) Can I trust God with the outcome?
That depends on what kind of a God He is. Does He have my best interests at heart?
About a year into my husband's depression I was deeply troubled. So many things were going wrong. It seemed that Satan was determined to destroy our family.
"What's happening to us?" I asked a Christian counselor.
He didn't know, but then he asked, "Helen, do you ever wonder if God loves you?"
Surprised, I hesitated for a moment. Then I smiled, "No. God has convinced me that He loves me—even now."
"Then you're okay," he said. "You'll cope."
But what if my husband never gets well? What if he's moved to the long-term care unit of the state mental hospital? What if the doctor is right and it takes another twenty years before there's a significant change?
As these questions surfaced, I felt a quiet assurance. Either way, we would be cared for. It's impossible for God to be negligent or unkind: "The LORD is upright; he is my Rock, and there is no wickedness in Him" (Ps. 92:15). "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life" (Ps. 23:6).
Four years ago, when our friend called and wanted some concrete evidence that God was answering his prayers for us, I couldn't give him any real assurance. There were no definite signs of healing then. But now God's appointed time to show favor has come (Ps. 102:13). Despite the doctor's gloomy prognosis, my husband was discharged from the state mental hospital on July 10, 1990. By God's grace, each one of my family has been able to make the necessary adjustments, and today my husband functions well in our family and in a full-time job.
What's going on when prayers are unanswered? So much more than we could ever imagine.
— Discipleship Journal.
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