Saying Yes to an Unanswered Prayer

Two-year old John was crying again. I heaved my massively pregnant body off the sofa and waddled to his bedroom. My second child always had trouble at night; he wanted me to hold him and never let go.

I sat on the floor next to his crib, too exhausted in my third trimester to stand for long. Leaning against the crib leg I stretched my hand up, so that John had to lie down in order to hold it. Wearily, I sang soft songs. I prayed aloud for a while. Then I was quiet. Twenty minutes of silence, and John was still half-awake. I let go of his hand. Another half hour and I sensed him waiting in the dark, drowsy but fearful Mommy would leave. Uncomfortable and desperate for sleep myself, I began to inch across the carpet toward the door. John was instantly on his feet, screaming.

Other kids sob for a while and learn to comfort themselves. John’s hysteria only increased when he was left alone in bed. One night I girded myself to let him cry it out, and our doorbell rang at three a.m. It was our downstairs neighbor, snarling, “Do you realize your child has been screaming for five hours?” I apologized, then guiltily picked up my puffy-eyed son and rocked him until dawn. He was too agitated, too fearful of losing me, to sleep.

This night, eight months pregnant, I was stuck. John wanted Mommy, only Mommy, and I truly had no more to give. I slid back to hold his hand again, whimpering with my own frustration. We were a month away from having a new baby. I was physically exhausted, terrified that if I didn’t get rest I would break. Crumpled on the floor in the dark, my huge belly heaved with quiet sobs. “I can’t take this, Lord,” I prayed silently, “I don’t know what to do. Either take this problem away from me, or give me the grace to endure it. Please, Jesus – I can’t do it alone.” 

My back and legs ached. I cried and prayed for a solid half hour. Let my child to know Your peace, Lord. Hold him in your wounded hands. Calm his fears. Fill his heart with your love. I spoke to God until my heart was empty, but my toddler was still awake. John began to make little noises of distress.
And then I knew: No peace was coming. There was no relief on the way. “Enough!” I roared. And with my last shred of self control, I stormed out of the room.

John’s cries of terror trailed after me. I hid my head under a pillow to block out his panic. I cried some more. I prayed some more. John continued to screech with desperate urgency.

 Finally, listlessly, uncomforted and empty, I went back to his room. I sat in dark silence for a very long time, holding my son’s hand. I felt the sweet flesh of the child God had given me, and whose needs I could not meet. I rubbed my pregnant belly, and felt the ache of my own unmet needs. But most of all I felt the empty echo of having turned faithfully to God in time of need, to meet only with emptiness and silence. It was as if I’d asked for bread, and been given a stone, instead.

I could not speak of what happened for a long, long time.

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The Bible says God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Ps 46:1). I believe this is true. So why hadn’t God helped me? I figured there were three options:
  • God wasn’t who the Bible said He was, or
  • the Bible meant something other than what I thought it did, or
  • there was a specific reason He hadn’t answered.
I decided to start with the last possibility, since it was the easiest to explore. And so, in the weeks and months that followed, I prayed and pondered and read.

Is it me, Lord? I looked up what Scripture says about prayer, and why God may choose not to answer us. Sometimes He doesn’t listen because we’re cherishing iniquity in our hearts (Ps. 66:18), or we’re making a request in order to gratify our passions (Jas 4:3). Our sins act as a barrier, hiding His face from our sight (Isaiah 59:1-2). None of this rang true for my situation, but I asked the Holy Spirit to open my heart to sins I might have overlooked.  I want to know, Lord, what’s keeping me from you. I want to know, even if it’s something I don’t want to admit.

 “The LORD is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” the Psalmist tells us (Ps 15:29). Was I wicked? Again, I didn’t think so. But I wondered if I believed enough for my prayers to be answered. Search the web for why prayers fail, and sermons on lack of faith pop up high on the list. You took your eyes off Christ as you tried to walk on water, the preachers say, you forgot that when you ask you must “believe and not doubt” (James 1:6).   

Well, sometimes that’s true. Sometimes we love God only as much as we love our neighbor, the one we wave to with a cheery, “How’s it going?” as we drive by. And it’s a fact that we’re often rainy-day friends with our maker, attentive mainly when life doesn’t go our way. To expect a blazing display of heavenly solicitude under any of those circumstances is stretching reason.

But on the spectrum of belief, which runs from Pharaoh-like hardheartedness to the martyrdom of Stephen, we don’t have to guess how much faith we need before God listens: He marks the spot with a mustard seed.  Jesus tells us that if we’ve got the tiniest nugget of real faith, it’s enough to move mountains. Whatever our failings may be, we can still offer the fishes and loaves of our faith to God, knowing that though they are in no way enough, He can multiply them into plenty.

And that left me without a satisfying answer to why God hadn’t answered when I needed Him. Was He trying to teach me a lesson? Perhaps. If so, I was clueless as to what it might be. I would have to wait for enough time to pass for hindsight to kick in. And so my question remained unanswered.
 
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Lost and lonely and more than a little hurt by my sleepless child debacle, I went back and re-read Matthew 7.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” 

Yes, it really said what I thought it said. I trusted you, God! I thought as I shook my fist, Psalmist-like, at the seemingly empty sky, I asked for a fish and you gave me a snake! As an afterthought I added, But I still love you. I’m just not sure what it means to trust you. And in that moment I realized I’d been given the right question to explore: What does it mean to trust God?

When I was a child, it was simple. Trust meant you walked into the lion pit and an angel shut the beast’s mouth. It meant the waters parted when Pharaoh’s army was approaching, and manna snowed from the sky when you were hungry. If you reached out to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, your hemorrhage ceased. No matter what happened, God was there, He was on your side, and if you were faithful things worked out okay. As one of the songs in my kids’ Veggie Tales videos goes, ‘God is bigger than the Boogie Man, and he’s watching out for you and me.’

I believe those Bible stories are true. But as an adult I see things with a broader perspective. I know that the early Christians had a different kind of encounter with lions in the Roman arena than Daniel did in the den: they died. I’m aware that the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea had parents and grandparents who, decades before, cried out for help -- and perished in Egypt. The same God who made manna in the wilderness lets the children of pleading mothers in third-world nations starve.

As I pondered this, one thing became clear: my understanding of what it means to trust in God hadn’t grown up with the rest of me. Somewhere deep-down I’d mistaken childlike faith with a na├»ve notion of God as superhero. God is all-good and all-loving and all-just. But He is not the Good Guy in the Sky who always swoops in to save us if we have faith and say the magic words of prayer. His superpowers don’t exist primarily to blast the bad guys (or bad events or bad feelings) out of my life.  

This is so obvious it’s embarrassing to write. But it’s also understandable. One reason the New Testament Jews believed the Messiah would save them from their temporal woes was that scripture is chock-full of times when God did in fact do that. The Lord is a refuge in time of trouble. The problem is, he isn’t always the kind of refuge we want or expect. And, bewilderingly, He doesn’t step in all the time. What are we to make of a God who sometimes does (and sometimes doesn’t) save His people? How can we tell when He’s going to act and when He isn’t?

These questions are extremely uncomfortable. If we’re going to count on God, we want to know what we can count on Him for. And we most certainly want to know under what circumstances that trust applies.

Facing these kinds of thoughts makes me feel like I’m losing my balance on the edge of a precipice. There is one simple fact that keeps me from falling in: if God is bigger than the Boogie Man, He’s bigger than I can comprehend. There is no reason to conclude that my failure to understand His decisions means He is acting on whim. My view of the situation is limited, perhaps severely limited. I don’t have God’s high density, multisound, multiangle view of life here on earth, and on top of that I’m limited by time, intelligence, and a self-centered view of the world. The least I can do is grasp that I actually don’t know it all, and that my lack of a more eternal perspective is probably a big factor in my lack of understanding.

When I fight the whys of life, my husband Andrew reminds me that the reply to all our unanswered questions hangs on the cross. It was there that Christ cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Christ himself died with those words on his lips, it’s safe to assume two things. First, it’s okay if I feel forsaken at times. And second, my sense of abandonment offers a path through which I can grow to be more like my savior.

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John is now a teenager. He is amazingly bright and creative, capable of being a phenomenal big brother to his three younger siblings. He can be insightful and empathetic about the troubles of others. John has talent: he’s been in ballets, plays, and even a movie. He loves history, and is fascinated by science. He can keep his head in a crisis. There is a tremendous amount to like about him. The comment I hear most often from other parents is, “What a great kid!”

Truly, John is a great kid. Unfortunately, many of the issues he had as a toddler grew up with him. When he is upset, he still gets sucked into the whirlwind of his emotions and can’t let go. He panics. When that happens, John is in darkness and can no longer see the parts of himself that reflect light.

One morning recently John had a meltdown. The reason for the upset was inconsequential: he lost a game of chess to his younger sister, in part because his older sister was providing her with advice.
“I’m stupid,” John growled, with a black look. “I’m stupid, I’m stupid, I’m stupid.” This was the beginning. Since our son was diagnosed with a severe anxiety disorder at age eight, we have slowly, painfully become aware of the distorted thought processes which permeate his thinking. His spiral downward usually begins with disappointment. It might be that John made a mistake, or that he’s embarrassed, or that he doesn’t know the answer to a particular question. Or perhaps his acute sense of justice is called into action: he suddenly realizes he did something wrong, or he’s falsely accused, or someone else has done wrong and has not faced appropriate consequences.

Most of us have figured out how to let the occasional wave of humiliation wash over us without getting swept away. John has not. Each wave he experiences takes him off-guard, and he flounders in the panic of being lost at sea forever. For John, the feeling of being stupid or ashamed or embarrassed morphs almost instantly into a belief that he is a horrible person. In John’s world, such people need to be punished. But there is no external proof that John is as awful as he believes. So he has to generate it himself. “Stephen!” he barks to his little brother. “Come here and strangle me. I’m a horrible person and I want to die.”

If I did not have four other children, none of whom act this way, I would think that John’s problems lay at least partly in my parenting skills. I am not a perfect mother, but most of the time I’m a pretty good one. I set clear boundaries; I am consistent in my expectations; I try to balance justice and mercy. I have learned to respond to my kids’ feelings, rather than have knee-jerk reactions to their behavior. I love my kids, and they know it.

If I respond to John by telling him is not a horrible person, he will escalate his behavior to prove me wrong. If I say calmly, “John, you lost a game of chess and you feel horrible. That’s different than being horrible,” he will escalate, too. I can empathize about how lousy it is to lose, but when he is in the thick of it John doesn’t want to feel better. He wants to prove he is right and that his feelings about himself are justified.

For my son, the ultimate proof that he is horrible and deserves to die is for Mommy to be angry at him. This makes life difficult, to say the least. It is hard to be a patient parent under normal circumstances; it’s substantially more challenging when someone is literally out to make you mad.

John’s usual strategy is to do things that are just dangerous enough to require intervention. When he was younger he would bang his head against a hard surface, preferably glass. Or he’d hurl objects, or put his hands around another child’s neck. Nowadays he usually has more self-control, and belligerence with a hint of violence is the norm. Even if no one gets hurt, we have to intervene. If we do not, he raises the ante.

John has been on medication since the day he went into a tailspin at age seven and tried to heave himself through a plate-glass window. He has had years of heart-stoppingly expensive therapy. The upshot is that my son is, in some ways, much better than he was. But it is the nature of his illness that he can go from being healthy to being in crisis at any moment. Nowadays if John gets out of control he is too big for us to restrain, and we have to call 911. Thankfully, we have not had to do that often. About twice a year we have to make the call. About twice a month he has a major meltdown. About twice a week I am not sure whether my heart will break from sadness or from frustration. He is a great kid. But I am keenly aware that there is a reasonable likelihood that someday his feelings will be too big for him, and in a wave of despair he will go under for good.

I am absolutely certain to the depth of my being that God can heal my son. Like the father of the boy with the mute spirit, I have pleaded with Christ to have pity on my boy before he is dashed into destruction. “Jesus said to him, ‘All things are possible to him who believes.’ Immediately the father of the child cried out and said, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’ And when Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, ‘You mute and deaf spirit, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again.’” (Mark 9:23-25)

All things are possible to him who believes. I believe, and I know it is possible for God to work miracles, but it has not happened for my son.  So what am I to make of this passage in Mark? I have prayed with all my heart, I have been persistent, I have earnestly tried to live a life of faith, and my prayers have not been fulfilled. I think the reason is that when we read “Ask and it shall be given to you” (Luke 11:9) or reach out to touch the hem of His garment, we are only considering one side of the coin. On the other side are the four words spoken by Christ in his own agony: “Thy will be done”.

It is not always God’s will that the cup be taken from us. 

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We forget the “Thy will be done” clause when we face the fiery furnace. It trips off the tongue ever so lightly when we rattle through the Lord’s Prayer. But when the words apply because a child’s life is at risk, or the emotional well-being of the family is on the line, or you are faced with personal devastation, it practically takes surgery to get them out.

At John’s worst stage, when it seemed we had tried everything there was to try, every cell in my body yearned for an end to the constant turmoil. Our family life was in shreds. My other children were traumatized. Neither Andrew nor I knew how to handle the situation, though we could each see how the other wasn’t doing it right. We were broke, emotionally drained, and battered anew each day. I’d prayed forever with no response, much less a positive result. One night in desperation I finally cried out, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

Much to my surprise I got an answer right away, quiet but clear as a bell. “Pray and suffer.” 

Oh.

Pray and suffer.

It wasn’t on the list of things I’d hoped for, or even on the waiting list. However, it made infinite sense. I’d been praying: for John’s problems to go away, for superhuman competence, for the grace to master my frustration. I winced as my brain slowly circled the idea that learning to live with not getting what I thought I needed could be part of my cross. If so, I’d been fighting it as much as I’d been fighting the turmoil that had been thrust into my life.

It’s hard to be transformed by God if we refuse to let go of our own way of thinking. Sometimes it is a real struggle to pry my claws out of the solutions I’ve decided are acceptable, and open my heart to whatever God has in mind. This isn’t surprising: the concept of carrying one’s cross is easy, but the execution is miserably hard. It’s made harder by our poor discernment of the burden we are to bear. Crosses can be made of the obvious hardwoods: physical suffering, grief, public humiliation, mental agony. But they can also be made of less obvious materials like confusion, uncertainty, insecurity, and doubt. A friend of mine has been crippled by undiagnosable stomach pain for years; the weight of not knowing what causes her suffering is as tormenting to her as the pain itself. Similarly, a good part of what I had to bear was not understanding why God did not heal my son.

Pray and suffer. Why not? There are worse things to learn to do graciously. If we are to trust God in anything at all, it’s absolutely essential that we trust He will work through any and all circumstances to draw us closer to His son. The cross doesn’t teach us that God will keep us safe from the Boogie Man. It shows us that what we cannot endure alone, we can endure with God, for the love of God. 

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My kids have a CD called “Hide’em In Your Heart” that has catchy, show tune-like songs of Scripture verses. One croons, “When I am afraid, I will trust in You/ I will trust in You, I will trust in You/ When I am afraid, I will trust in You/ My God in whom I praise.” My oldest child learned to ride a bike while singing this song to herself. John sang it while waiting nervously backstage to go on for Nutcracker. My other children have used it to overcome minor anxieties; it reminds them to focus on something bigger than their fear.

One day I looked up the passage, and was surprised to find that Psalm 56 is not a pastoral paeon of praise and gentle comfort. It begins with a blast:
“Have mercy on me, O God, for men trample upon me; all day long foes oppress me; my enemies trample upon me all day long, for many fight against me proudly.”

Life for the Psalmist is neither peaceful nor good. It is so tormented and miserable that he reminds God, “You have kept count of my tossings; put my tears in your bottle! Are they not in your book?”

And it’s here, tucked in between these anguished cries, that we find the passages about trust. It is as if the Psalmist is on an emotional seesaw, first decrying his situation, then remembering that his sovereign Lord is trustworthy and true.

I understand this state of mind entirely. I swing back and forth in my feelings, ranting and railing at God, then praising and glorifying Him. I berate Him for seemingly not remembering me in my distress, then recall all He has done for me and how much I love Him. It helps to realize this is normal. One thing I love about the Psalms is that they make it clear I don’t have to be prissily polite when I pray. They give me courage to cry out, to shake my fist in frustration, to approach God honestly. I can say what’s on my mind, no matter how disjointed or contradictory it may seem. God will understand. He knows what it is I so clumsily try to articulate. And He’s big enough not to take my flip-flopping personally.

And then – what’s this? -- near the end of Psalm 56 comes the alarming statement, “In God I trust without a fear, what can man do to me?” Taken in isolation, this kind of line drives me nuts. All I have to do is open up the New York Times to know what man can do to me! There is genocide, rape, sexual abuse of children, abductions, murders, and road rage. There are kids who shoot teachers, parents who bully their kids’ friends online, con artists who reduce the elderly to poverty, child pornographers, arsonists, and so on. Man can – and does – do horrible things all the time. I pray daily to God to spare my family from these kinds of horrors, but we all have free will, and at times people make extremely bad choices. It’s probably unreasonable to expect my family to be perpetually exempt from being on the other end of other people’s poor decisions.

But as I writhe over the seeming illogic of “In God I trust without a fear, what can man do to me?” I remember one time in my life when I understood this passage perfectly. Ironically, it was during the weeks after 9/11.

At the time, Andrew worked half a block from the Empire State Building. The morning the World Trade Center towers fell, he looked out his window and saw the second one go. Further north, the swish of traffic below our apartment building fell unnervingly silent, as access to the Henry Hudson Parkway was shut off to all but emergency vehicles. The George Washington Bridge, which we can see from our living room window, was strangely still. I peeked out periodically, to make sure it was still standing. We expected more attacks any moment.

Eventually, not knowing what else to do, I took the kids to the library. It was perfect fall weather, crisp and warm, a good day for a walk. I didn’t know how (or if) my husband was going to make it home. I needed to figure out how to get my children out of the city if things got worse. My brain was crowded with images of friends who worked in the financial district, and I kept shoving my worries aside to consider the logistics of what to do next. Fortunately, the walk brought us in contact with people. Living people. Each face made me inordinately happy; it meant the list of the dead was one person shorter.

It was in this surreal see-saw between ghastly horror and intense thankfulness that something I’d never understood before fell in perspective: I could trust in God without a fear, because whatever man could do to me, God was still there. He still loved me. Ultimately, I would go to be with Him in heaven forever. The only sensible thing to do when chaos reigns and man is unreliable is to trust in the eternal. 

Part of my trouble in remembering this daily comes, unfortunately, from focusing too much on the parts of Scripture that suit my fancy. As a child I learned about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, and how their faith saved them from a fiery demise. In the book of Daniel, the young men sentenced to death say to Nebuchadnezzar, “… our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.” This is my childhood level of trust: deep and bold, confident in God’s provision.  But that is not the point of the story. The three young men continue by saying, “But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18)

And this is mature trust: we know God can save us from the fire, but we choose to worship Him whether He saves us or not. God is God, and worthy of being served for that reason alone. To grow up in faith means we move beyond thinking about what God can do for us, and rest in who God is. It means we pray without ceasing because the conversation matters more to us than the outcome.  And it means that we accept the times we get no answer to prayer, because we want His will more than we want whatever we’re asking for.

copyright 2011 Julia Attaway