Our all-powerful, all-loving God encourages us to ask Him for what we want. But sometimes, after we’ve put it out there, He seems to turn and walk in the opposite direction. We are left with questions: Why did He want us to pray if He was just going to say no, anyway? Were we praying “wrong” in the first place? What are we supposed to do now?
I have repeated this cycle multiple times. More than a decade ago, I began experiencing unrelenting fatigue, muscle soreness and waning strength. Countless tests and doctor visits later, I received the diagnosis of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. For the next five years, I politely asked God for healing, then demanded healing, then finally gave up hope for healing.
As a result, I have been accused of lacking faith by earnest friends and prayer ministers. I’ve confessed and repented of every sin I can think of, wept, protested and spent more than a few days crippled by despair.
Apparently, I am not the only one who struggled because of unanswered prayer. Last week, I invited friends to fill in the blank on my Facebook wall: “Unanswered prayer … ” I received more than 40 responses, including the following: is deeply disappointing, makes me feel unloved, feels like a betrayal, is confusing, can be overwhelming, is business as usual.
Some of our bewilderment emerges because we actually believe that God is all powerful and that He not only wants us to come to Him like little children, but also encourages us to ask Him for everything, from babies to spouses to jobs to housing to help losing weight. Hence the disconnect when He doesn’t always give us what we want.
This paradox reminds me of our youngest son’s attitude at Christmas. He starts composing his gift list in September, and for the next four months, he will revise, add to and shamelessly share it. Yet when Christmas day rolls around, he is filled with dread—because experience has shown him that though we are good parents, we don’t always give him precisely what he requested. He has told us, “Why bother asking me if you aren’t going to buy me exactly what I want?”
Isn’t this how we feel about our heavenly Father? We tend to have one of two responses when what we asked for is not given in a timely fashion: trying harder or angry blaming.
My five years of spiritual activism post-diagnosis offer you a snapshot of trying harder. I succeeded only in wearing myself out and spiraling deeper into doubt. None of us can make ourselves worthy—that only comes as a gift from Jesus.
Angry blaming similarly leads us into a dead-end. In night four of an insomnia jag, I remember spewing at God, “Why don’t you help me get to sleep? The Bible tells me that you give sleep to those you love! Don’t you love me?” Powerlessness is its own form of suffering. When we’ve run out of other options, anger and blame give us the illusion of control. But it really is only an illusion. It didn’t help my faith, and it certainly didn’t help me to sleep.
For us to avoid these and other unhelpful responses when our prayers aren’t answered the way we’d hoped, we need to zoom out and glimpse the larger story.
Every day, there is an epic battle being waged for our hearts. The enemy of our soul has an entire arsenal at his disposal, but his go-to weapon is doubt. Adam and Eve didn’t disobey because they craved the apple, but because they fell for the serpent’s ruse that God was withholding good things from them. If you ever find yourself doubting God’s love or questioning His character, push back—hold to what you know to be true.
Expressing gratitude also helps to defuse our despair and suffering. Due to fibromyalgia, I can no longer book all-day photo shoots—but I can still see. I can no longer play basketball with my sons—but I can walk, and I constantly thank God for this gift and many others. Turning our hearts to God in gratitude has the capacity to flip our disappointment upside-down.
Finally, we must be willing to explore any attachment to entitlement that might contribute to our resentment at how God has answered our prayer. We live in a consumer society and have become accustomed to getting what we want when we want it. Jesus does not promise to give us everything that we want but rather asks us to sacrifice everything—including our own desires for a specific outcome or result. This changes everything when it comes to how we pray.
What if, rather than interpreting God’s “no” or “not yet” as punishment or indifference, we view it as an invitation to be transformed? C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “We are a Divine work of art, something that God is making and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.”
The possibility that waiting and suffering have the capacity to transform us offers us profound comfort while crushing our fear of God being fickle. Rather than needing God to answer my accusatory questions of “Why?” I am free to ask, “How can I find You in the midst of this?” This inquiry provides us with the traction we need to move beyond our pain and into the transformation that God has for us.
Dorothy Littell Greco is a writer, author, and photographer who lives and works outside Boston. You can find more of her work on Twitter (@DorothyGreco) or Facebook (Words&Images by Dorothy Greco).