I begin with a recent story.
This past Saturday Hannah and I made our trek back home from a week of wonderful vacation in the Northeast. We had a wonderful time exploring New York City, Boston, and Maine. But all good things must come to an end, and this good thing, well, let’s just say we thought it would never end. After getting up early and driving nine hours from Maine back to New York City to drop off our rental car and catch our flight, we found out over dinner that our flight was cancelled. I had prayed during dinner that we would get home smoothly, but quite the opposite happened. We joined hundreds of others in scrambling to find an alternative. I prayed to myself that we would find some way of getting home so I could go to work Sunday morning. Nope. The projected flight wouldn’t leave until Sunday afternoon.
“God, please let them be gracious enough to offer us a hotel or something.” Didn’t happen.
We called fifteen rental car companies, just trying to get home, even if it meant another day of driving. None available.
“God, give us somewhere decent to sleep in this airport tonight.” The tiled food court floor wasn’t what I envisioned.
I share my story, because I know you’ve experienced the same. And though my example was genuine, it is only a small picture of what many of us experience in the Christian life. Unanswered prayers vary in degree and frequency from person to person. Maybe, for you, it’s everlasting singleness. Maybe it’s being unable to conceive a child. Maybe it’s a loved one’s healing. These are all way more difficult to deal with than my minor airport inconvenience. So, what can we learn when these moments or seasons come, when our insurance policy gets rejected, when the morning traffic makes us late, when our roommate rejects Christianity and us? How do we deal with unanswered prayers?
Many of us have a healthy knowledge of God’s sovereignty, of His complete control and rule over life and the world. One of the most critical features of Calvinism, for example, is positing an all-sovereign God. Common opponents of Calvinism claim that this understanding of God naturally minimizes the importance of prayer. In other words, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” The answer we offer, best expressed by Michael Horton is, “Why pray if He isn’t?” If God lacks control over His creation, and has no ability to work in and through our lives, then what’s the point of giving Him our requests, asking Him for help?
I fear, however, that this is becoming more of a knee-jerk, trivial retort than a firmly-held truth. When “No” happens to our prayers, we dismiss it and say “everything happens for a reason.” At least in my own experience, I can acknowledge God’s sovereignty without seeing a need to make my requests known to God. But His sovereignty should be the fuel for my prayers, even when the answer that comes may not be what I had hoped or envisioned it would be. The sovereignty of God is not a blanket, unfeeling quip about our circumstances, but a lifeblood for a robust prayer life. I need God’s sovereignty when my prayers go unanswered, because if He isn’t in control, I am at a loss for hope.
I am convinced that one of the most significant setbacks to healthy prayer is a sense of entitlement. And oftentimes, we treat God like a genie. We’ve got him captured in our ornate lamp, and we summon Him when we need something (and expect Him to deliver since He’s all-powerful).
But we’re not sovereign. Remember? We’re not in control. Jesus is not our co-pilot; we are the ones drowning at sea that He is flying in to rescue. The very act of prayer itself is an admission that we are not able of our own power and ability. Our prayers absolutely matter, but our commitment to praying about something does not always equal or necessitate the answer we want. It’s not our story. God uses unanswered prayers to remind us of that.
Glimpses of Blessing
It is in the moments of darkness, uncertainty, frustration, and at a loss that we often see the goodness of God shine most brightly. Like a jewelry store pulling out the black velvet box to set the diamond ring in for showcasing, God often uses our unanswered prayers to give us small, but significant glimpses of His goodness and blessings.
Back to my airport example, because it is fresh on our minds. In the midst of everything that happened over the course of our flying debacle, we saw some of these glimpses firsthand. A fellow passenger, who struck up conversation with Hannah, offered us a food voucher she had received. As I laid on the unforgiving tile floor that night in the airport, I grew frustrated at my discomfort. I was using my backpack as a makeshift pillow, and I couldn’t believe I was this low. Until I remembered, I have a backpack. And it’s full of stuff many people don’t have. I’m coming from a trip many people couldn’t afford. And my one night spent in an air-conditioned, clean environment is incomparable to a nightly homeless man’s wondering of where he will lay his head, and if he will survive through the night.
I was completely ungrateful of my iPad, my jacket, and our household income until my back hit the floor that night. And in that moment, I got a powerful and compelling glimpse of how God has generously blessed me beyond what I deserve.
This is hard to wrap our heads around, and we have to be careful in how we think about this, lest we fall into a sort of prosperity-driven thinking. But one of the greatest things unanswered prayers can teach us is that God has something better in store for us. How we define “better,” of course, may be different than God’s definition, and that’s key to remember. Take applying for a certain job, for example. We might think “better” would be more pay, more flexible hours to be with family, less commute, etc. But God’s “better” in not giving you the job might be keeping you in a place where you have more impact for evangelism, or protecting you from a culturally unhealthy workplace. We simply have to trust, with His sovereignty and our humility in mind, that our wisdom is not as high as His, and that He truly is leading us to better.
J.I. Packer expresses this idea well in his classic book Knowing God:
Our Father is heaven [does not] always answer his children’s prayers in the form in which we offer them. Sometimes we ask for the wrong thing! It is God’s prerogative to give good things, things that we have need of, and if in our unwisdom we ask for things that do not come under these headings God, like any good parent, reserves the right to say, “No, not that; it wouldn’t be good for you – but have this instead.” Good parents never simply ignore what their children are saying, nor simply disregard their feelings of need, and neither does God; but often he gives us what we should have asked for, rather than what we actually requested. (212)
Packer illustrates that while God may not answer in the way we expected, He is certainly answering, and leading us to a gift that surpasses what we could have imagined. We concern ourselves with fixing a leaf, when God is trying to lead us to the oak tree. This doesn’t mean God is always going to eventually bring comfort, money, convenience, and what we want.
Unanswered prayers are hard, but they are good. They do not make our circumstances easier, but when our circumstances are in the hands of an all-sovereign God, we can rest. We can see our unanswered prayers themselves as a gift, because through them God reveals His blessings, big and small, and assures us that “this instead” is on the horizon.