If I wanted to, I could ease into the subject of prayer with information, education, and various forms for praying before I get to my real dilemma of prayer.
But, I don’t want to.
I want to go straight to the heart of my conundrum. What I want to know is why God doesn’t answer my prayers when I most need Him to.
I can handle being told, “No.” I can handle being told, “This is above your pay grade. Trust me.” The problem occurs when He is unresponsive, not because I’m disappointed, but because He promised He would answer.
Getting an answer I don’t like is manageable. Being ignored is intolerable.
I know I’m not the only person who experiences silence when praying important prayers, and I know I’m not the only person who wonders about this. But asking the question implies that God is less than noble, less than truthful. Indeed, less than reliable.
If you need to catch up with this series--gather some background on why I'm writing on this subject--you can begin here with the first entry.
Prayer is all sorts of things, and as Manning says, “A child of God can no more say a bad prayer than a child can make a bad coloring.” I know this intellectually—even theologically—but I guess I’m too civil in my discourse, too reserved, maybe too respectful, to say, “God, you promised and are failing to follow through.”
God is inviting a rollicking debate over a subject that is not debatable.
For all the types of prayer, at its most basic level it is conversational. Not answering is a non-starter in a conversation.
I choose that word, conversation, intentionally. Initially, I wrote down, communication, but then thought better of it. I can communicate and do nothing more than inform, and of course, God doesn’t need to be informed. For whatever reason, He invites us to inform Him (Phil. 4:6b), but a conversation includes a reply.
Informing is about effectiveness and efficiency. Communication is what we do when we are together on task. Conversation is what we have over dinner. Deep conversation is the connection we have after dinner.
Oddly, conversation is what God desires. He invites anything and everything from us, but desires a dueling of sorts. Isaiah records God saying, “Come now, and let us reason together” (1:18). “Reason” in its use here can convey the idea of debate, even arguing. To be truthful, I’m uncomfortable with that type of conversation—with you, with anyone. Still, the verse is clear.
But it’s what God suggests reasoning about that provides insight. Isaiah continues, “Though your sins area as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.”
God is inviting a rollicking debate over a subject that is not debatable. There’s nothing to discuss, let alone debate. He wants us to contend with Him over how clean we are after receiving His divine forgiveness of sins. You say, “What’s to debate?” And I say, “That’s the point.” Apparently, He just wants to engage in a conversation that is meaningful to Him with someone capable—perhaps willing—to have repartee.
You and I may as well debate whether or not ice cream is good. Of course it’s good. Who doesn’t like ice cream? Why discuss it? You know it, I know it, what type would you like, next subject.
God doesn’t simply know ice cream is good. He knows everything about everything. The big word for this is that God is omniscient, i.e. He knows everything, and then some probably.
The bad news about God being omniscient is that you have nothing new to contribute. The good news about God being omniscient is that you can’t catch Him off guard. You will never hear God say, “I never thought of that.”
On the one hand, it is intimidating to think of praying, i.e. having conversation, with someone who knows everything. But when the stakes are high, and I’m praying for all I’m worth, and my soul is under water, and the One with whom I’m conversing has the ability to answer, has even promised to answer, and doesn’t…?
I asked God’s blessing last night over dinner: mesquite-smoked kielbasa and sweet potato. God answered! The meal was to die for. But in truth, the tooth fairy could bless kielbasa and sweet potato. It was an easy prayer, an easy request.
What I really need to know is why God didn’t help me fix my water-ruined house, mediate on my behalf with the insurance company’s call center, and protect my soul. For five years!
I could feel my soul ebbing away, bleeding energy faster than was sustainable. I looked ahead and couldn’t see Him. I looked backward and couldn’t understand. Left? Right? He wasn’t anywhere that I could see (cf. Job 23:8-9).
There are plenty of times when we knock and there is silence.
Like any complex discussion, when praying important prayers there are more questions than there are answers. If I’m sitting with my buddy Victor discussing important matters, I’m perfectly fine leaving that conversation with unanswered questions. But Victor isn’t omniscient.
In this discussion—not the one about my depleted soul, or the one with Victor, but the conversation called, prayer—the complexities of talking with all-knowing God, and the questions about how He converses, come out of the objective pledges He wrote down in Scripture about how He will reply.
I’m told by God to bring all my requests to Him and that He will grant my request. Here it is exactly as the Apostle John wrote it down (1 Jn. 5:14-15):
And this is the confidence which we have before Him [God], that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.
Then, there is this from the pen of the Apostle Mark (11:24):
Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they shall be granted you.
The Apostle Matthew was more poetic, but conveyed much the same guidance (7:7-8):
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.
It occurs to me, now that I’ve quoted three of the Apostles, that if I stopped quoting the Apostles and started quoting Kenneth Hagan I might be better off. Of course, I’m kidding, but here’s the deal: There are plenty of times when we knock and there is silence. Jack Lewis states in his book, A Grief Observed, "But go to Him [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away."
"But go to Him [God] when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away."
Did I pray about my predicament? Of course.
Did I pray hard enough about my predicament? I think so, but “hard” is a relative measure. (Do you hear me hedging?)
Did I pray correctly about my predicament? Did I pray believing, and with faith, and humility, and without unconfessed sin, and with a clean heart, and a contrite spirit, and upon my knees, with no grumbling, and with trust, asking for mercy, grace, and peace, and whatever else from every sermon I’ve ever heard on the subject? Maybe. Who’s to say. I asked for help. How I asked for help, I don’t recall.
I didn’t try standing on my head. In spite of all my trips to Home Depot, I realize now I did not get back to the house with sackcloth and ashes. Apart from those days—and there were several each week—where I missed lunch given the demands upon me, I didn’t fast and pray. As I think back, I did cry and pray, and groan and pray, and lie on my face and pray. Full disclosure though, the only way to crawl and pray when you are underneath my house is with groans while on your face.
God is God and can do whatever He wishes to me, with me, about me, or for me.
I don’t mean to be snarky about the methodology of prayer, but what I do mean is, at some point all of these prerequisites attached to prayer—as though to hedge against and problem-solve unanswered prayers—put undue burden on me, the one petitioning, the one in need, the one who is told to come just as I am, and they point a crooked finger at God for being distant, capricious, or at best, indifferent. In fact, this remediation of unanswered prayer strikes me as similar to reading my Homeowner’s Insurance Policy, which I am well versed about. Am I covered? Sure. “Like a good neighbor,” your insurance is there for you… provided your claim is for trampling by pink elephants, headed northwest, on Thursday, after eating pizza two days before.
Of course, God is God and can do whatever He wishes to me, with me, about me, or for me. Except that, God identifies Himself to me as, Father—and good Fathers don’t ignore or torment their children.
So, which is it? Was my circumstance too great for God? Did I do something wrong, or something not enough, or pray a bad prayer perhaps? Did God ignore me? Or, did God answer my prayer, just not like I needed it answered?
My conclusion, now that I’m on the other side of my ordeal, is within the theme of God answering my prayer, just not like I asked. Anything other than this, and my theology unwinds from the arbor of what I believe to be true about God.
As I’ve thought about the three quotes from Matthew, Mark, and John, I can work my way through the passages in Mark and John utilizing sound theological principal and the perspective gained by looking at them harder than before. But managing the Matthew passage—the one about knocking—is another matter.
When I knock on a door, especially God’s door, I expect the one who is everywhere, all the time, and who knows I’m at the door before I ever come to the door, to answer the door. That He doesn’t, can convey that He’s not at home, that He can’t come to the door, that He doesn’t want to come to the door, or that there’s no point in Him coming to the door.
If God isn’t at home, is too inept to get to the door, or doesn’t care to get up, then we are on our own. “Good night, and good luck.” The most basic pledges by God now betray our trust. And isn’t this what we fear? Isn’t this the trauma conveyed in the Lewis quote?
If this is true—to any degree—then sign me up to be an agnostic, a deist at best. Would I risk hell by adopting this attitude toward such a God? You bet I would. Who wants to spend eternity with a deity so duplicitous, so conflicted?
If God can’t come to the door, then He’s like a human, shackled by circumstance. There are things—perhaps a great many circumstance—that are bigger than God, or at a minimum, that impede God. Now, He is not God, he’s god. Burden him and he’s no better off than I am in my circumstances. If he doesn’t care, then why should I?
Who knows? Maybe he didn’t come to the door because he was on hold with customer service at his insurance company.
Left with this thinking, the only viable considerations are agnosticism or the possibility that He sees no point in coming to the door when I knock.
I think about it this way: When I knock (and seek and ask), God doesn’t answer the door because He and I are on the same side of the door.
The point of prayer is not to inform God.
Said differently, at first assessment—given my tears, and fears, and angst—and all I know about knocking on doors, the conclusion that is most apparent is that I’m on one side of the door and God’s on the other side.
But that isn’t possible.
Oh, it’s theoretically possible I suppose, but only if you are prepared to relinquish all of your theology and beliefs about being secure, filled, sealed, transformed, and eternal. If in truth, you are separated from God—by a door or anything else—then you are lost and your beliefs are vain wishing. If this is the case, then dispense with all that hoo hah about a new covenant, being in God’s family, and an eternity that is nice.
Every thing we believe as Protestants hinges on the belief that Jesus Christ removed 100% of all that separated us from God. In so doing, we are filled with God, taken into God, and are made one with God now in this life and in perpetuity. This is a really big idea—so big in fact, it’s easy to get confused when life is raucous.
The mathematics of this are much simpler: You and God are one and you can’t divide one (1 Cor. 6:17).
If you are one with God, then you can’t be separated from God. If you are not one with God, then neither you or God exist any longer. The only option other than one is zero.
Thus, all my knocking, seeking, and asking are not done from the other side of the door while standing outside—outside the door, outside grace, or love, or favor, or outside God’s attention, or outside His will—hoping that He will answer. Rather, all my knocking, seeking, and asking occur on the same side of the door where God is.
The point of prayer is not to inform God, or move God, or convince God. The point of prayer is to inform you, move you, and enlighten you. This doesn’t happen by directive through a closed or opened door, per se. This occurs on the inside, not the other side. Prayer, i.e. conversation with God, speaking and listening—this activity transpires from within, alongside the Holy Spirit, comforted by the Holy Spirit, guided by the Holy Spirit, filled with the Holy Spirit, in the Holy Spirit, and engulfed with the Holy Spirit.
To reference Lewis again, he notes that since the Holy Spirit prays on our behalf (Rm. 8:26), this means prayer is a soliloquy, i.e. the act of speaking your thoughts aloud when you are alone. If the Spirit, who is God indwelling, speaks with God who is reigning, in the name of God who is mediating, is this not simply God speaking with Himself?
At no time is this more evident than when we are engaging prayer regarding those important subjects that escape our ability to verbalize (cf. Rom. 8:26). Hearing from God is prayer. But knowing you are caught up in God’s thoughts as He speaks to Himself is also prayer. This is the prayer that occurs when we have no words to adequately capture the importance of what’s in our soul. Thus, God takes over to say to Himself what we can’t conceive or comprehend.
Even though we speak of answered prayers, prayer is not fundamentally about answers. It’s about gratification, closeness, awareness, enlightenment, appreciation, and connectedness.
If your request is a question, fine. But don’t conclude your concept of “request” until you request that God take you into His perspective, thoughts, and ways. He promises to hear your prayer, and He promises to answer your prayer, not like a formula, but like the resolution and perspective emanating from a great conversation. In this, prayer may be an answer, but it is always the satisfaction of being heard, included, and valued. More than anything else, prayer ensures that in the core of my soul I know that I matter—I matter to God, God matters to me, and in this value is declared.
Whatever you do with prayer, especially when in the midst of an ordeal, don’t lose sight of the fact that you cannot be separated from God. Knock, seek, and ask just as encouraged. Pray believing—believing you can’t be apart from God, can’t be on the other side of the door from God. Pray as well in the Spirit. When you don’t know what to pray, know that God speaks on your behalf. When praying, there is no such thing as a failure to communicate or understand because it’s not possible for God to misunderstand Himself.
I’m done for now with my thoughts about how to recover your soul and replenish it when depleted. However, since I’m still engaged in the process, I’ll see if anything else surfaces that might be beneficial.