This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 03 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
“Lord, please send your angels to protect my mom.” I lifted this prayer late
on night ten of my mother’s fierce battle with COVID-19.
Five hours later, I was roused from restless sleep by
my phone’s buzzing. I answered,
and the terrible words came, “Your mother has passed away.”
Unanswered prayer does not always lead to bitterness and cynicism, but once in a while it does. How will we respond when we pray for protection, and our mom dies instead? How will we respond when we cry out for years for the seemingly good gifts we believe the Father would give us — return of a wayward child, freedom from deeply rooted sin patterns, relief from chronic pain — and yet, with the Psalmist, we seemingly hear no answer (Ps. 22:2)?
Some, after weeks or months or years of such disappointment, sadly or angrily turn their backs on God. Others resign themselves to a safe and stagnant faith. They mumble a blessing over meals and slap an “All things work together for good…” (Rom. 8:28)1 on the unendurable pain of prayers left unanswered.
And yet, many persist in prayer, in faith, in hope, in love, despite the unceasing suffering of unanswered prayer. Not only do they endure thorns in the flesh that will last a lifetime and grief that will end only when Jesus returns, they mature spiritually. They are transformed into people of strengthened faith, confident hope, and extravagant love. If unanswered prayer can lead to greater spiritual maturity, how might such transformation take place? It begins with a sound understanding of the richness of prayer.
PRAYER: ANSWERING GOD
The late Eugene Peterson asserts that prayer is “answering God.”2 God has spoken — He has told us a true story about a Creator King who spoke His creation into being. He loved His people, but they rebelled against their King. Even so, He made a covenant of steadfast love with them and sent His sinless Son, Jesus, to rescue them from their sins. A good Father, He went to extraordinary lengths to adopt His people as His own children, and through the resurrected Christ, He has raised them to new life. One day, He will send Jesus back to restore all broken things. In that day, they will dwell with God forever, and their communication with Him will never be broken. The story God has spoken invites a response. Our response is prayer.
Enabled by the Spirit translator, we speak back to God. We thank God for His kindness, we praise God for His faithfulness, we ask God for forgiveness, protection, and provision. We pray for God’s will to be done and for His kingdom to come. As we engage in this answering of God, we discover the primary purpose of prayer: “Prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming….Prayers are tools that God uses to work his will in our bodies and souls. Prayers are tools that collaborate with his work in us.”3 In short, prayer conforms us to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
What happens, though, when we answer Jesus’ invitation to pray about anything (John 14:14), but no answer comes? What happens when we cry out daily for relief from the agonizing pain of cancer, but no answer comes? What happens when we cry out for months for healing of our daughter’s eating disorder, but no answer comes? What happens when a child cries out for years for her mother to return home, but no answer comes?
As we hang in the balance of the seeming silence, we have a choice. Some choose to encase their hearts in a protective shell of bitterness. Others choose to wait, to hope, to trust, to keep asking, seeking, knocking — banging on the door like the persistent widow or the insistent Job. We know our Redeemer lives (Job 19:25), and we firmly believe we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living (Ps. 27:13). Those who persevere in the face of unanswered prayer will grow more and more like Christ, becoming people marked by strong faith, confident hope, and extravagant love.
Those who grow spiritually mature in seasons of unanswered prayer are characterized by three crucial practices: they learn the language of lament, which deepens their faith; they lean into community, which grows their hope; and they listen for God’s declaration of His unfailing love, which expands their love for God and for others.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF LAMENT
In the face of unanswered prayer, learning the language of lament can help us to emerge with a stronger faith. As Mark Vroegop, author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, notes, “Lament is a prayer in pain that leads to trust.”4 It not only expresses our faith in the goodness of God, it strengthens our faith in its expression.
Prayers of lament often process through four categories: turning to God, naming the grief, asking persistently and boldly for help, and expressing restored confidence. Lamentations, Jeremiah’s lament over the fall of Jerusalem, illustrates each of these categories.
Rather than turning away from God when relief from suffering doesn’t come, lamenters turn toward God. Jeremiah addresses his complaints to God in raw words few of us would dare to utter aloud: “You have wrapped yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can pass through” (Lam. 3:44). Lamenters name their grief, refusing to minimize their suffering: “I am the one who has seen the affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven me and brought me into darkness without any light” (Lam. 3:1). Arguing that their current experience doesn’t seem to match their understanding of God’s goodness and mercy, lamenters ask persistently and boldly for help. Jeremiah keeps crying for help, “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (Lam. 5:1). In doing so, he expresses his firm conviction that “no one is abandoned by the Lord forever” (Lam. 3:31). Not always, but often, lamenters turn from complaint, expressing restored confidence that the Lord will redeem and restore again. Jeremiah’s turn comes in the familiar assurance: “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam. 3:21–22).
As Vroegop asserts, “Lament is rooted in what we believe. It is a prayer loaded with theology. Christians affirm that the world is broken, God is powerful, and he will be faithful. Therefore, lament stands in the gap between pain and promise.”5 When God’s answers to our cries for relief seem (in our limited understanding) to be either tardy or wrong-headed, we must continue hanging out in the space between the already and the not-yet, believing that God is in the void. In that void, we discover our faithful God holding us, and our faith grows stronger.
LEANING INTO COMMUNITY
At the crossroads of unanswered prayer stand two signs pointing in different directions. The first depicts a single stick figure and reads, “This way to despair.” The second depicts a church crowded with stick figures and reads, “This way to hope.” Those who grow more spiritually mature in seasons of silence and suffering shun the road of isolation, leaning into the body of Christ and discovering a hope that foresees redemption at the end of the painful path.
Prayer was never designed to be primarily a solo activity. The Psalms were written and sung corporately. The Lord’s Prayer was given to the disciples by Jesus to pray together. When unanswered prayer mutes us, we need others to answer for us, to point us back to the God who redeems and restores.
As we lean into the body of Christ, we find rest that buoys hope. As K. J. Ramsey explains, we need the recognition that “my wholeness is inextricably connected to yours. My hope is bound up in yours.”6 When we understand this reality, we invite the body of Christ to fulfill its calling to “Bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2). We acknowledge our weakness and rely on the body’s strength to lay us on the mat before Jesus’ tender care. Jerry Sittser, who lost his mother, wife, and daughter in a car accident, explains how community strengthened him in his season of grief: “The church is a community. Sometimes some members of that community, even through time and space, carry others….I remember very vividly my inability to sing and pray…in the months and, really, years after the accident. I decided to let the church sing and pray for me. I do the same for others now. I sing for them; I pray for them.”7
To lean into community is to allow ourselves to be hoisted onto the shoulders of others so we can gain the perspective to see the far-off day when Jesus will return to restore all things. In the face of unanswered prayer, as we allow others to “sing for us, to pray for us,” our vision of hope expands.
LISTENING FOR GOD’S DECLARATION OF UNFAILING LOVE
A third mark of spiritual maturity is a love that “bears all things believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). If, in the seeming silence of unanswered prayer, we listen for God’s declaration of unfailing love, we will grow in the capacity to love as God first loved us.
Unanswered prayer is, as many realize, not truly unanswered, but in fact answer unheard or undesired. God has spoken, “Wait,” or “Not yet,” or “No,” but we have often talked over God, refusing to listen. As we grow more spiritually mature, we will learn to listen in prayer, and as we do, we will, like the Psalmist in Psalm 22:24, learn to recognize the song line of redemption, God singing His love over us.
We hear this song sung most loudly in Jesus’ unanswered prayer in Gethsemane. The night before He was to die on a cross, Jesus poured out His troubled spirit in prayer. As He imagined bearing God’s wrath for our sin, He sweated blood. He spoke His deepest desire to God, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me…” He finished the sentence, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
How did God answer such a prayer? If we lean in and listen carefully, we notice two answers. The first and more obvious is “No, I cannot let the cup of suffering pass from you. You must die for my people’s sins so that they may become my children.” But the second answer, the one we often miss, is “I will comfort you in your suffering.” Just after Jesus’ prayer, Luke tells us, “And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him” (Luke 22:43).
In God’s response to Jesus, we hear His answers to the piercing questions evoked by unanswered prayer:
“God, do you really love me?”
“Yes. I sent my Son to the cross so you could be mine.”
“God, have you forsaken me?”
“No. My Son endured the suffering and death you deserved as punishment for your sins so that you might never be separated from my love.”
“God, do you care about my suffering?”
“Yes, I am with you in it.”
When we hear God’s profound declaration of His love for us, we come to understand, “The meaning of suffering isn’t pain; it is to learn to give and receive love.”8 As we listen to God’s profound declaration of His love for us, our doubts fade, our hope brightens, and our capacity to love God and others expands. We become people of strong faith, confident hope, and extraordinary love.
Since that dark night in January, I’ve thought often about the prayer I uttered for my mom’s protection. What if God did answer my prayer? What if, as my mother slept, an angel came? What if that angel led my mother gently to her Father, where she would know a safety and security she had never known on this earth? Though I can’t say for sure, I dare to believe, I dare to hope — my prayer was answered.
Elizabeth Reynolds Turnage, MA, MACS, teaches, writes, and coaches to help people understand God’s grace in the midst of suffering. She is the author of two bestselling devotionals: The Waiting Room: 60 Meditations for Finding Peace and Hope in a Health Crisis (Living Hope, 2019) and From Recovery to Restoration: 60 Meditations for Finding Peace and Hope in Crisis (Living Story, 2020).
- All Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version.
- Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1989).
- Peterson, Answering God, 2.
- Mark Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 30.
- Vroegop, Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy, 28.
- J. Ramsey, This Too Shall Last: Finding Grace When Suffering Lingers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020), 77.
- Jerry Sittser, email to author, 2018.
- Tish Harrison Warren, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2021), 126.