Unanswered Prayer and God’s Answers

My first vivid experience of answered prayer was the Thanksgiving Eve when I looked up at a star filled night sky and prayed for snow. My five-year-old self didn’t know that from then on I would ask myself how much I wanted a prayer answered before I asked. Thanksgiving morning arrived with  a foot of fresh snow. So very much snow, there was talk about not making the trip to my grandparents home thirty miles away. I vowed from that time on, I would be more cautious in my prayers.

Most of my prayers have not had that vivid answer. More often, prayer has been a source of strength, hope and encouragement when life has taken a painful or punishing turn. Prayers have been answered through people God has put into my life, who have offered wise counsel. Meanwhile, difficult people have continued to be difficult. Problems have not vanished. Rather they have demanded that I walk through them. And yet, there have also been the vivid answers. Unexpected financial resources to help me through the early years of a divorce, a job and a scholarship that came at just the right moment when I started seminary . . . all answers to prayer.

The church I volunteer at has been doing a church wide study on prayer this Lent where I’ve been leading one of the groups. In the weeks we’ve been together, we’ve pondered the mystery of unanswered prayer. We’ve thought about the tragedies in our collective experience. We’ve named heartaches in our lives. We’ve puzzled over those moments while we’ve also recognized moments when we have known God was using us to help another person. We’ve recognized God’s nudges to reach out to a person who was hurting, lonely or afraid with a note, a call, a hug.

Is it that we simply don’t recognize when God is doing the same in our lives? Was that note which came, the unexpected phone call,  a person who reaches out to us (that we might even think is annoying),  all a response to one of God’s nudges? God’s answers clearly, do not always come in the way that we hope and pray for, but they do come. When we wonder why God isn’t answering our prayers, it might be a good time to take a backward look in life . . . To look at the other hard moments when we wondered how we could go on. How did we get through that time? Who was there in our life to give us encouragement or support? Did we ever think of those encouragers as God’s answer in our lives? In the backward look of accrued wisdom we see their light shining in our lives, reflections of God’s love and care for us.

In another era, the Apostle Paul wrote the people of Ephesus with his prayer for them, which is a prayer for each of us: “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 6:16-21 NRSV)    May it be that as you puzzle over God’s answers that you do see the breadth and length, height and depth of Christ’s love in your own life.