The bitter pain of “Unanswered Prayer”
In this article, I want to discuss the pain that we feel when we think that God has refused us a dream. I want to discuss unanswered prayer, understanding that God’s silence is actually an answer.
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And Pharaoh said to Jacob, “How many are the days of the years of your life?” And Jacob said to Pharaoh, “The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years. Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” And Jacob blessed Pharaoh and went out from the presence of Pharaoh.Gen 47:8-10
I think anyone who has read much of what I have written on this website would suspect that the last few years have been pretty tumultuous. I can’t claim Jacob’s tumultuous 130 years of wandering in this vale of tears and let’s face it no one wants to.
Others have it tougher
Everyone can look at someone else and know that their life has been in some ways immeasurably more difficult. We do that I suspect in a kind of self-deprecating, self-minimising way to try and make our own lives somewhat less tragic than they probably are.
The human condition is pretty brutal. We all suffer with some form of infirmity, some difficulty, some loss, some sorrow. Some of us are better at hiding what hurts us and some of us may appear more resilient than others.
Rest assured that even though some people appear to weather the storms of life more positively than others, never think that those people suffer less. I would suggest that their suffering is as painful as anyone’s, they just don’t wish to show it.
In October 2017, having been a Christian of some conviction but very traditional in my views, I had been losing my conviction steadily and I was at the point of walking away from God altogether. I had plenty of experience of what still seems to me direct intervention in my life from God. I was sure that God existed, but I could no longer see me as part of His purpose. It wasn’t that I felt that I had unanswered prayer, but rather that, I was more just lost.
An amazing retreat for men
Then an old friend contacted me early in the year and convinced me to sign up to a retreat in Victoria later that year. I signed up, but fought every step of the way to find reasons not to attend. The organisers of the retreat sent me John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart as required reading.
I am not an outdoors lumberjack type. I am by nature a reader not a doer. The opening words of John’s book talk about climbing mountains and hunting elk. I didn’t read more than the first couple of words and I put it down. Long story short, the angels had their work cut out, but they got me to read the book, get on the plane and travel to the retreat.
The retreat changed my life. John’s book and Cam’s presenting of the themes were amazing. John introduces us to a whole new world that far transcends our fears of unanswered prayer and being lost.
I now organise the same retreats in Brisbane, Queensland and they have similar effects on other men.
For the last couple of years, I have wrestled with what it is that God wants me to do with my life.
I have greatly wrestled with what I perceive as a lack of resilience personally and have asked God to help me with this and my faith in Him.
One area of this world that really touches me is that some people find themselves homeless.
In 1998, I attempted suicide. It was my second attempt and is the closest I have come to being “successful” in ending my life. The attempt haunts me to this day. I dream of ropes when I am sick and I ideate about hanging myself from time to time, sometimes daily, sometimes not as often. Sometimes, I ideate about ending my life by driving into a wall.
I first visited a psychologist when I was about 19, but in truth, that experience was fairly poor and I didn’t get the help I needed.
I got married about 4 years later and by the time I was 27 I was in serious trouble. At that time, I was working in a job that was extremely high pressure and I wasn’t coping. It all came to a head one day when I was attempting to perform my duties and just stopped. I couldn’t do anything further. I quit that day and because I had a family to feed, I attempted to access unemployment benefits. The unemployment office considered that I was eligible instead for workers compensation and refused my application.
The next two years were a blur for me. I don’t remember a lot about that time as they tried different medications and therapies to resolve my condition. 22 years down the track, medical professionals have finally been able to label my complex set of conditions.
C-PTSD, BPD and Aspergers
It is probable that I also have Asperger’s and there are other possible conditions layered still deeper. (Formal diagnosis is not definitive on the Asperger’s)
Suffice to say, despite daily difficulty with hypervigilance, depression and general anxiety, I generally function reasonably well and I am still breathing.
In the early months after my attempted suicide, I finally received a cheque for some backpay from worker’s compensation. I remember that I was walking near a train station at the time and I remember thinking to myself, “I could get on that train, travel to some remote area and disappear”.
The feeling was almost overwhelming to just disappear. The likely outcome would have been that I would have ended up homeless, sleeping rough whilst my mental condition deteriorated altogether.
That’s how it happens.
I was recently reading the stories of some people who are homeless in my city and I could see the path that lead to homelessness in many of the men I read about.
This is a cause that I feel strongly about.
Recently, I was contacted by a headhunter to encourage me to apply for a role as CEO of a homeless service. I thought it plain that God was finally showing me what my next step should be. Praying, I wrote a great application. I got an interview and was one of four people submitted to the board for consideration.
Thank you, God, for answering my prayer and showing me what to do.
I didn’t progress toward the role and instead they appointed someone else. The rejection cut pretty deep. So was this instead an unanswered prayer that I had misread?
I have travelled for work in Asia. I love the place, I love the people. For some years, I have desired to work there. I do wonder if it is me just wanting to escape from a past in Australia that haunts me but I do good work and I would love to challenge myself in a new country.
I also think I could bring something to the mission work in Asia and how better to do so than by working in Asia and spending my spare time in promoting the Gospel?
In my industry, I am fairly well known and respected (I think) and I was pleasantly surprised when I was contacted by a well-known major player to discuss the possibility of coming to work for them in Asia. It was exciting and I spent time in prayer seeking God’s guidance and help through the process. Then it all went quiet.
Then a couple of months later, I had to rush to deal with a family emergency in Asia and everything became incredibly hectic. The emergency was a severe test of faith and reliance on God. It tested my resilience and faith to levels that I had never experienced before.
I arrived home and for the next month, spent most evenings visiting the hospital after work dealing with the immense emotional trauma of watching a family member traverse a very serious illness.
As this period was coming to an end, I was contacted again. Was I interested in a move to Singapore? I took a few minutes out and prayed to God for guidance. It was clear to me that the answer was to go for it. I spoke to someone who knew about my family member and my own struggle who also worked for the company who was in touch with me. They gave me wise and encouraging words and so I applied.
Over the next three months, I prayed regularly and seemed to receive encouraging signs from my prayers. I would ask God to give me some sign that the opportunity would still happen even though it was dragging out, and then I would receive some confirmation by phone or email that things were still on track.
Then one day, I received a fairly nice but brief email to say that they had gone in a different direction. Had I missed the signs and was this unanswered prayer?
That night, I went for a long walk and had to swallow my disappointment. Why would God give me positive signs about this and then tear the carpet out from under my feet like that? Unanswered prayer or had God changed His mind?
Had I misread the signs? Possibly, but now even with a year’s perspective, I don’t think I did. I actually think that I was going to get the role, but that something changed and God changed His mind. COVID-19 happened only a few months later and a few other things have now come into view that make a move to Asia untenable for the present.
The Eleventh Hour
Some things are just beyond our understanding. It’s frustrating and I can’t understand why I seemed to be led along one path only to be stopped at the eleventh hour. God knows the beginning from the end and yet men have free will.
If you don’t understand this, well, sorry I don’t have an answer either. But I can read Daniel 10:13 and see this in action:
And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.”Dan 10:11-14
Short Term Gratification
It’s rough, but the fact is that the world isn’t there to be arranged for our short-term gratification. Things happen that need real effort, even from the angels. Remember, the spirit of man naturally opposes God. Pharaoh hardened his heart around 3,500 years ago. Balaam was determined to curse Israel. Judas betrayed his friend. Pilate washed his hands.
Sometime in 2019, some event occurred and God in His wisdom, had to allow it to happen and on the sidelines, I needed to be disappointed for the greater good, whatever that might have been. It was not unanswered prayer. It was God’s decision for my greater good.
I am not trying to self-aggrandize. I am trying to illustrate how things change and we are confronted with changed circumstances.
I don’t have even close to an answer as to why God is silent sometimes, why sometimes we find that we have unanswered prayer. What I have, I’ll give you. We need to approach all of these questions with a particular framework in mind.
God is not capricious or whimsical. His every move is deliberate and intentional. God is unfailingly loving and kind to His people. There are no “gotcha” moments with God.
God also works in a paradigm where He allows freewill. People oppose God and He allows them to make that choice. Sometimes those choices impact on us due to circumstances beyond our control. Sometimes, there are no options and we have unanswered prayer.
Freewill and COVID-19
This pandemic for example, started sometime in 2019 and was plainly the result of a range of choices. If those choices had been made differently, perhaps the pandemic wouldn’t have hit and maybe, God would have seen fit to allow me my dream of living and working in Asia.
Perhaps, also, if I had ended up in Asia, I might have made some poor choices myself and ended up estranged from God.
I don’t know.
A Dynamic Plan
The first and most important thing to know is that God has a plan for me but that plan is quite fluid and dynamic as it weaves its way around my free will. His ultimate plan is for me to live a life of faith that culminates in me being a fit vessel to serve Him in the Kingdom of God. Unanswered prayer may be what saves me.
That’s the whole point of Jeremiah’s message to the captives in Babylon in Jeremiah 29. I have plans to prosper you. They wouldn’t see those plans come to fruition for 70 years! Many of them would be dead, with unanswered prayers for rescue.
The fact is that often, when we seem to get no response to our prayers, it’s because God has already answered them. Sometimes He hasn’t because He needs to delay. Sometimes, the response is reliant on other people’s behaviours.
In fact our understanding is very limited. There is so much we don’t understand about free will, time and God’s nature around time and foreknowledge.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of faith. We need to have faith that He is a master creator and He is working out a plan where we will ultimately be blessed beyond all counting with the Kingdom of God. Perhaps, just perhaps, He is perfecting our faith.
The impact of “No” or “Not Yet”
Feel that sting? Do you feel hurt when a plan that you have prayed about doesn’t come to fruition? When you have seemingly unanswered prayer?
In truth, we don’t actually have unanswered prayer, it just feels like it, sometimes.
That’s what I wrestled with the night I got the email telling me that the job in Singapore wasn’t going to happen. Man, it hurt. I was living by faith. I felt that I had prayed, and God had answered in the affirmative. Had I misread His responses? I didn’t think so.
The question has to be one of faith. Do I really have faith that He is working to make me fit for His kingdom, that Jesus is perfecting me? Truly, that’s the biggest issue here.
Here I am, Send Me!
If I was praying, “Here I am, send me.”, then in faith, I need to be willing to go where He sends me. At the present, that means I need to keep going to my job in Australia and speaking truth wherever and whenever the opportunity presents.
I manage a company of just under 100 staff. Big enough for Australia that it is a leader in its field. Small enough that we need to be really agile.
That means that sometimes, my boss, the CEO, tells me that we are going to do something and then a day or two later, circumstances change, and we need to go a different direction. That’s just how it is. A few times, I have been pretty excited by a decision we have made only to have to stifle that excitement because the opportunity has passed. That’s just how it is.
As servants of God, we are a small agile strike force operating on enemy soil. Sometimes, the order comes from the top that our plans need to change because the war effort needs us somewhere else. It’s really a question of obedience. It’s natural to feel a little sting as we throttle down our excitement and gear up for the new assignment.
The thing is that God sees the whole picture, and we don’t. There are things that are above our paygrade and as obedient soldiers, we just need to obey.
Difficulty of overthinking and struggling with faith
Something that I learned from the experience of the “Singapore” thing is that it is very easy to overthink. There is a fine line between listening for the voice of God and becoming superstitious.
There were times in that whole period where I seemed to be jumping at my own shadow. I would be looking for a sign so hard, that every little happening in the day became fraught with meaning.
The fact is (at least in my view) that when God speaks, He will ensure you understand that it is He who speaks.
At one point, I hadn’t heard much, and I wasn’t sure what was happening with the job, so I prayed, “Lord, you know where I am. This situation is stressing me. Please provide me with a sign that things are still moving forward.”
About an hour later, I got a phone call from Singapore. “Hi Scott, I just wanted to let you know that we are still working through things here. Things are still moving forward. I just wanted to let you know that we haven’t forgotten you.”
God’s Voice is Unmistakeable
You see what I mean about God’s voice being unmistakable? “Things are still moving forward.” I can’t tell you how often in my life, I have had such unmistakable encounters with the voice of God.
You could say, “oh, but He didn’t give you what you wanted.” And my answer would have to be, “no… He hasn’t yet, and He may not ever in this situation.”
The fact is, if there is one really big thing I have learnt from this and the other experiences of the last year or so, it’s this.
I am God’s servant. He is not mine. God is no genie in a bottle waiting to pop out and grant me my three wishes.
Moses learnt that. Moses was given the great charge of taking Israel into the promised land. Every step of the way, he had that promise reaffirmed. He got so close to the promised land that he could just about smell it.
The problem was that Moses made a very bad choice in Numbers 20:10-11.
Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. 12 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.Numbers 20:10-11 ESV
Did you see what Moses did there? It was one little two letter word. “we”.
In that word, Moses placed himself on a level with God. Not even Jesus did that. There is only one other who seemed to do the same.
Elijah seems to me to have done the same thing as Moses. You have to read a little more closely.
He said, “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”1 Kings 19:10 ESV
He repeats it in verse 14.
Your Work Here is Done…
God’s response is gentle but final. Go and do these tasks and when they are done… your work is finished. You will take no further part in these affairs.
We see Elijah and Moses only once more. On the mount of transfiguration with Jesus. I have some theories about why and how, but I will leave that for another article.
God is not our servant. He is not bound to leap to our requests. He has a plan and He will see it come to fruition. If we obey Him, we will be part of that plan.
Our dreams will all be fulfilled one day, if we are true servants of God. That’s because the dreams of the servants of God are to see His plan fulfilled.
Oh yes, we can and often do experience the bitter pain of an unfulfilled dream and of unanswered prayer. The truth is that sometimes, that’s because our dreams are incompatible with the plan of God. Sometimes, they are just not feasible because of circumstances to do with a world that is on fire and our wants are just collateral damage to the raging inferno around us. Sometimes, in God’s infinite wisdom, those desires we have, may in some way take us away from God and He does not want that for us.