Unanswered Prayer – Dr Cindy Guthrie Ryan

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Unanswered Prayer
Dr. Cindy Guthrie Ryan

The doctor delivered the news to the wife just after I introduced myself as the hospital chaplain, “Your husband has no heartbeat. He is not breathing on his own. We are working as hard as we can. But, it doesn’t look good.”

The wife’s shocked and terrified eyes met mine. Before I could offer to pray, she was on her knees there in the ER Family Room. No one ever gets good news in the Family Room. But, I’d never seen anyone go to their knees there either. Deep from her soul came the prayer, two words repeated over and over and over, “Please God, please God, please God, please, please, please.” I didn’t have much to add to the prayer, so I simply stayed beside her and added my own silent prayers for mercy, comfort, peace… anything at all.

Agonizing time went by until the doctor returned shaking his head. Her husband, age 49, was dead. The “Please God” prayers she’d prayed echoed around that tiny room mocking her faith and now mixing in with her cries of grief and anguish.

Studies have shown that people who pray and who have a spiritual component in their lives tend to experience less stress and depression; recover more quickly from illnesses and even live longer. Some studies have shown that specific prayers can actually cause a change in a person or a physical outcome. One study even showed that people who were being prayed for recovered more quickly than those who were not prayed for…even when all the subjects of the study didn’t know anyone was praying. Prayer is powerful.

But what do we say about unanswered prayers; those prayers that seem to fall into a black hole? What do we say when entire communities are praying for the child with leukemia and still he dies? What do we say when planes crash, buildings collapse, wars rage, illness strikes or one particular family suffers cruel loss after cruel loss? What if 10,000 Disciples pray and our denomination still declines?

You’ve seen it and so have I. Maybe you’ve even been in the midst of it. “Please God, please God, please.” You know that gut wrenching, from-the-heart prayer.

Once, in the midst of an uncertain time, I became bold enough to demand that God speak to me and answer my distress. I asked for an answer, for direction, anything…and then I listened. Never in my life, have I heard such deafening, sickening silence. All I could hear was nothing.

What do we say to that? How powerful is prayer when it comes from deep within us but seemingly God is busy with other things? How powerful is prayer when it encompasses all we are, all we feel and all we desire and God silently turns away?

In the area of spirituality and theology, experts abound. I’ve heard and read many “experts” postulating why some prayers go unanswered. Some say prayers go unanswered because the one praying has forgiveness issues to resolve. Others say it is because we don’t know how to pray as we ought to. Some say unanswered prayers are simply the ones which don’t align with God’s will or that we are not in proper fellowship with God. Others theorize that it must be that the person praying is lacking faith. One scholar even denied the reality of unanswered prayers saying simply, “there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer.” Country singer Garth Brooks even managed to get in on the theories singing “…some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

I’m not sure any of the theories hold up if you are the one on your knees in the ER family room pleading, “Please God, please God, please.” Or, if you are Jesus crying out to God, “…if you are willing, let this cup pass from me….” (Luke 22:42). Or Paul who writes of asking God over and over to remove his thorn in the flesh, but it did not happen. (2 Corinthians 12: 8-9). Unanswered prayers are when the husband dies anyway; when the cup does not pass from even Jesus’ lips; when Paul’s thorn is not removed, not the first time or the second time or even the third time he asks. It simply does not happen.

Truly, if prayers are answered or not based on our ability to be close to God, fully forgiving, properly faithful and only asking for the “right” things, then I imagine we are all in trouble. If somehow the answer to prayer depends upon our prayer technique and our ability to properly attach ourselves to God, then, let’s face it, we’re doomed.

The older I get, the more years I spend in ministry and in parenting and in life, I find the less expertise I have…the less I really have to say about anything. I really don’t know why life is so painful for some. I really don’t know what to say about some of the tragedy, injustice or evil I’ve seen. If someone asks me a “why” question these days, I certainly don’t try to answer it, what do I know, after all?

But, one thing I do know is that when we pray…when we fall to our knees crying, “Please God” or when we demand an answer or join with a whole community in praying or when we simply sit beside someone silently praying for some unnamed something… we have moved from the place where we control our destiny to a different place. When we realize we just might not be able to figure this one out on our own… when we realize that our physical lives are finite and that the people we care about will not be around forever…when we arrive at that place…the place of crying out… of falling down…of screaming kinds of prayers…no matter what the answer or lack of answer… we’ve arrived. “Please God, please God, please” is just another way of saying “Suddenly, I realize I am not going to be able to handle this alone. I am not going to be able to control it, fix it, outsmart it or micromanage it. My life, O God, is in your hands I am in your hands.”

When we get there, to that soul-laid-out before-God-place, we’ve arrived. When we stand or kneel or lay ourselves out before God, vividly aware that this life is not all about us…or our requests…then we have arrived at the incredible place of trusting in the mystery and the love which gave us life in the first place. It is the place where we know without a doubt that we are not our own, we are God’s. At that place, it is not the answers that matter so much as to Whom we belong.

I’ve seen people who have lived through horrendous losses and tragedies, and yet somehow have peace. Clearly, their most fervent prayers went unanswered. Peace and comfort and inner joy probably don’t come from specific prayers answered or not answered…those gifts must come from finding oneself face to face with God and enfolded in something bigger than even the stumbling words of our very best prayers. To finally understand that we are utterly and completely God’s, and to, in that same moment, be wrapped in the transforming light of God’s presence, is to have arrived.

“Please God; please God, please, please, please.” Maybe it’s not so much the answer that brings the power to our prayers, it’s simply the place.

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