Scripture: 1 John 5:11-16
While I do not know the specific women or all of their specific details, I feel fairly confident in saying that at least two different women had experiences similar to what I am going to describe during the course of this past week. One woman had a busy schedule to keep and she was running late. She had a massive to-do list and several appointments to keep. A lot of traffic was not helping and her stress was starting to mount. It go really bad for her when after finally getting to one of her many destinations, the parking lot was full. The anxiety was rising. She managed to calm herself, take a breath, and pray that God would help her. No sooner had she whispered her prayer that a premium parking spot, right next to the door, opened up right in front of her. Later that week the woman gushed at her small group or Sunday school class or women’s group about the incredible faithfulness of God at answering all prayers. There is another woman somewhere in this country, whose eyes hurt right now because she is still weeping even though she has no more tears to cry. She was a mother, and her child who had just barely begun to live has died. Perhaps it was the results of a pregnancy complication or a birth defect. The little child hung on to life and fought as long as it could. The woman prayed like she had never prayed before. Her family prayed without ceasing, and several churches lifted up this little child in prayer, but in the end the child still died. Now this woman is left feeling numb and empty and the only prayer she has left to offer is “why God, why?”
Again, I do not know who these women are. However, an average of sixty-four infants die in the United States each day so there is no doubt that a woman right now is experiencing what was just described. People also ask God for small favors like parking spots all of the time, so I have no doubt that there is at least one person in church today somewhere testifying to God’s goodness for that reason. In these stories, both women prayed. Why then would God grant a trivial and quite frankly silly request like a close parking space, but refuse to intervene and let a baby live? As we consider this month the questions that you all asked, these two vignettes put a face on the question we will think on today: “Why does God not always answer prayers?”
The best questions in the world are the best questions because they do not have easy answers. When it comes to our faith, it might be the single biggest question that does not have an answer. This is a question that, for many, haunts their faith. It is a question that does not have an answer, and many of the answers we give are quite frankly terrible. When it appears God is not answering prayers, people tend to say very unhelpful things like “you just need to have more faith” or “Maybe you just are not praying hard enough.” When the cancer comes back for the third time, it is not our really our place to question someone’s faith, and when someone’s knees are getting calloused because of how much time they spend in prayer, how dare we suggest they pray harder. We are not God and we cannot truly answer this question, but perhaps by considering this question we can come to a fuller understanding of prayer.
When prayer is not answered we struggle with it for a couple of reasons. First, it is a struggle because when we read the bible, it seems like God should answer our prayers. For instance, in Mark 11:24 Jesus states, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” Then in John 16:23 Jesus states, “Very truly, I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask for in my name.” We read statements like this in the Bible, but then our experience does not quite line up. The second struggle this causes for us is what happens to our faith when prayers are not answered. When we are in a situation in our life where we feel like we need God to come through and it seems that God does not, then we are left with doubt. We might find ourselves even wondering does prayer truly work at all and what is the point of prayer?
Prayer absolutely works. Many of you have stories, incredible stories, of how God has answered your prayers. You can tell stories of how God came through when you were most hopeless. You can tell stories of how circumstances came together at just the right moment that you say “it had to be a God thing.” The church, that is the collective body of Christ, is overflowing with stories of how God answers prayers. Of all the stories of answered prayers that I know of, I think one of the best testimonies is that of a man from a church I used to server at. At this church, he was a patriarch of the church. He was figuratively a patriarch as he was a long time head usher and church groundskeeper. He was literally a patriarch because nearly his entire and extensive family attended church with him weekly. Several years ago now, he was diagnosed with cancer, and the diagnosis was not good. He qualified for treatment options, but the doctors were realistic in the odds they gave it working. On the eve of beginning radiation, the church held a prayer service to pray for healing. All were invited, but it was known that this service was called on this man’s behalf. He was lifted up in prayer that night, and over the following weeks many prayed for him. After the treatment was done and follow up test were ran, he got good news. The cancer was gone. Not just in remission, it was no longer there. The doctors could not explain it and they called it a miracle. Until he died this man was a walking testimony. He considered every single day after that a true gift from God, because he believed he was only alive by the grace of God. He would tell anyone who would listen to him about the miracle of his healing. Nearly every church has a story of healing like that. However it has to be acknowledged that many of us have either personally encountered a time or know of a time when prayer did not work, where the prayer was not answered. Despite that, it is not fair to discount prayer because of those few stories when compared to the mountain of examples of when prayer certainly worked.
In considering this question we need to consider the nature of prayer. Specifically we need to think about what prayer is and what we pray for. I have a personal annoyance. Whenever I see it or hear it I refrain from making comment, but it bothers me and rubs me the wrong way. I often see it on social media when someone has something going on in their life they will write something like your “prayers slash good vibes appreciated.” First, I do not know what exactly a good vibe is. However, it bothers me because it equates prayer with positive thinking. It reduces prayer to some sort of vague positive force that can sway the cosmic fates, and it essentially says prayer has as much power as thinking really hard. It bothers me because prayer is so, so much more than that. When we pray, specifically when we make a request of God, we are asking God to directly intervene in the workings of the world. When we do something like pray for someone to be healed, we are asking the all-powerful Creator of everything to change the rules of how creation works on our behalf. We are petitioning the ultimate being of power in the Universe to give us special treatment. When we think about it that way, it is a wonder that God answers our prayers at all. Yet, because God is a God of love God does answer our prayer. Prayer is a privilege, not an entitlement. God does not owe it to us to give us anything we pray for. We can fall into the mistake of thinking that if God does not answer our prayers, that God has somehow acted unfairly. However, whenever God reaches into our world and transforms it on our behalf to answer our prayers God is being more than fair. As we have already stated and we already know, God does answer prayers and God answers prayers abundantly. God does this as an unfathomable gift to us and out of a great love for creation, which is why we gather weekly to worship and proclaim “thanks be to God.”
Yet we are still left like the scripture from John that states “whatever you ask in my name my Father will give it to you.” We need to think about what we ask and what we pray for. There are some prayers that God honestly cannot answer. For instance, I do believe that through the power of prayer God does heal people. However, God cannot always heal the same person time and time again. Everyone dies eventually no matter what. There are some prayers that God will not answer because they are not godly. As Jesus told Peter once “you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of man.” If we are being honest more often than not, we have in mind smallish, human-based thoughts when we pray. That is why this morning’s scripture can be so helpful in understanding prayer. At first glance 1 John 5:14-15 sounds like the scriptures from the gospels of Mark and John: “This is the confidence we have in approaching GodIf we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us-whatever we ask-we know that we have what we asked of him.” The key difference here the addition “according to his will.” Through prayer we should make sure that the requests we make of God are aligned with God’s will, and not just our own. We also need to be very cautious about mixing the two. Just because we really want something to be true does not mean it is God’s will for our life. Jesus gave us a model to pray that we repeat every single week, and we should take that prayer to heart. When we pray, the heart of our prayers are meant to be “your will be done on earth as it is heaven”, not “my will be done.”
Consider the things we typically pray for. We tend to pray for physical stuff. The thing we pray for the most is health. We pray for safe travels. We pray for things like good grades, promotions, or that the house will sell. There is absolutely nothing wrong with lifting those things up in prayer, but when we look at the Bible the things being lifted up in prayer tend to be a bit different. From this morning’s scripture John wrote in verse 16: “If you see any brother or sisters commit a sin that does lead to death, you should pray and God will give them life.” Praying for deliverance from sin and entry into eternal life, is always within the will of God. In the same way in Ephesians Paul prayed that the church there would “have power, together with all of the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ.” Those are mighty prayers that can transform the very foundations of a person’s heart and soul. They are prayers that we can pray with supreme confidence, because we have a faithful God, a God of love, and a God who listens to every one of our prayers.
Why does it seem that God answers some prayers and not others? I truly have no idea. My thoughts are not God’s thoughts and my ways are not God’s ways. I do not fully understand the heart and will of God in this world, so I do not know why God always does what God does. While we may not know, we can have resolute confidence in God. On a multitude of occasions God has graciously answered our prayers and we can have full faith that God is a God who listens to everything we pray and God is a God who is actively at work in the world. When we pray we ask the Lord of all to change reality on behalf. May we treat that task with the full gravity and seriousness that it deserves. May we learn to pray better, may what we pray be in God’s will and may we pray boldly with confidence. As John wrote in this morning’s scripture, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” The God of all hears us. Thanks be to God.