Because I wrote a book with the title Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? I receive letters and emails from readers who give wrenching accounts of unanswered prayers.  A man quit his job at a printing plant when it began printing pornography and, despite his urgent prayers, never landed another job.  A couple desperately wanted a child and found themselves infertile.  Another woman got her wish for a child, only to have her daughter die of a rare disease before reaching the age of two.

I wrote two chapters on unanswered prayer, but frankly, all words seem impotent against the mystery of why such prayers go unanswered.  When prayer seems more like struggle than relationship, when I find myself repeating the same requests over and over and wonder, “Is anyone really listening?” I take some comfort in remembering that Jesus, too, had unanswered prayers.  Four come to mind.

Numeral1As Luke records, Jesus spent an entire night in prayer before choosing the inner core of twelve disciples.  Yet if you read the Gospels, you marvel that this dodgy dozen could represent an answer to prayer.  They included, Luke pointedly notes, “Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor,” not to mention the pettily ambitious Sons of Thunder and the hothead Simon, whom Jesus would later rebuke as “Satan.”

“O unbelieving generation,” Jesus once sighed about these twelve, “how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?”  I wonder if, in that moment of exasperation, Jesus questioned the Father’s response to his night of prayer.

The particular makeup of the twelve may not truly qualify as an unanswered prayer, for we have no reason to believe that any other choices might have served Jesus better.  Even so, I find it comforting that while on earth Jesus faced the same limitations as does anyone in leadership.  The Son of God himself could only draw from the talent pool available.

Numeral2 A clearer instance of unanswered prayer occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane when, as Luther put it, “God struggled with God.”  While Jesus lay prostrate on the ground, sweat falling from him like drops of blood, his prayers took on an uncharacteristic tone of pleading.  He “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death,” the Book of Hebrews says—but of course Jesus was not saved from death.  As that awareness grew, Jesus felt distress.  His community of support had all fallen asleep.  “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” he chided.

We have few details about the content of Jesus’ prayers, since any potential witnesses were dozing.  Perhaps he reviewed his entire ministry on earth.  The weight of all that went undone may have borne down upon him: his disciples were unstable, irresponsible; the movement seemed in peril; God’s chosen people had rejected him; the world still harbored evil and much suffering.

In Gethsemane Jesus seemed at the very edge of human endurance.  He no more relished the idea of pain and death than you or I do.  “Everything is possible for you,” Jesus pleaded to the Father; “Take this cup from me.”

Numeral3 The third unanswered prayer appears in an intimate scene recorded by John, the disciples’ last supper with their master.  Jesus expanded the scope of his prayer far beyond the walls of the Upper Room, to encompass even those of us who live today:

My prayer is not for them (the disciples) alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.

Disunity virtually defines the history of the church.  Pick at random any year of history—pick now, with 45,000 Christian denominations—and you will see how far short we fall of Jesus’ final request.  The church, and the watching world, still await an answer.

Numeral4 The fourth unanswered prayer appears in what has become known as the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught as a model.  It includes the sweeping request that “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  Surely that prayer remains unanswered today.

On television I watch the long lines of migrants fleeing war—some 42,000 displaced every day—and think of their prayers for peace and the simple yearning to return to their homes someday.  I am haunted by the image of twenty-one Egyptian Christians kneeling in orange jumpsuits by the Libyan surf, their heads bowed in prayer as, one by one, each is beheaded by ISIS.  God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven—not yet, at least.

I sense a partial clue into the mystery of unanswered prayer in what I call boomerang prayers.  Often when we pray, we want God to intervene in spectacular fashion: to heal miraculously, to change evil hearts, to quash injustice.  More commonly, God works through us.  Like a boomerang, the prayers we toss at God come swishing back toward us, testing our response.

I think back to Jesus’ unanswered prayers.  The disciples?  Eventually, except for Judas, the twelve submitted to a slow but steady transformation, providing a kind of long-term answer to Jesus’ petition.  John, a Son of Thunder, softened into “the apostle of Love.”  Peter, who earned Jesus’ rebuke by recoiling from the idea of Messiah suffering, later urged his followers to “follow in his steps” by suffering as Christ did.

In Gethsemane, Jesus did not receive what he requested, removal of the cup of suffering.   His plea for intervention looped back like a boomerang.  Hebrews affirms that, though Jesus was not saved from death, nevertheless “he was heard because of his reverent submission.  Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”  It was God’s will that Jesus had come to do, after all, and his plea resolved into these words: “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Not many hours later he would cry out, in profound summation, “It is finished.”

How many times have I prayed for one thing only to receive another?  I long for the sense of detachment, of trust, that I see in Gethsemane.  God and God alone is qualified to answer my prayers, even if it means transmuting them from my own self-protective will into God’s perfect will.  When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; he got instead the salvation of the world.

The final two prayers, for unity and for seeing God’s will done on earth as it is in heaven, put Jesus’ followers in the spotlight.  “It is for your good that I am going away,” Jesus assured the disciples.  “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”  He turned over the mission to us, as ill-equipped and undependable as that original band of twelve.

Bono bestIn Vanishing Grace I wrote about hearing the musician Bono of the band U2 describe his short-term mission to an orphanage in Ethiopia.  For a month he and his wife Ali held babies, helped nurse them back to health, and then donated money to equip the orphanage.  Bono said that after his return to Ireland his prayers changed, taking on an angry, defiant tone.  “God, don’t you care about those children in Africa?  They did nothing wrong and yet because of AIDS there may soon be fifteen million parentless babies on that continent.  Don’t you care?!”

Gradually Bono heard in reply that, yes, God cares.  Where did he think his idea of a mission trip to Africa came from?  The questions he had hurled at God came sailing back to him, boomerang-like, as a prod to action.  Get moving.  Do something.  The role of leading a global campaign against AIDS held little appeal for Bono at first—“I’m a rock star, not a social worker!”—but eventually he could not ignore what felt unmistakably like a calling.

Over the next years politicians as varied as President Bill Clinton and Senator Strom Thurmond, and then Tony Blair and Kofi Annan and George W. Bush, found a musician dressed all in black and wearing his signature sunglasses camped outside their offices waiting to see them.  In a time of economic cutbacks, somehow Bono managed to persuade those leaders to ante up fifteen billion dollars to combat AIDS.

With government support assured, Bono went on a bus tour of the United States, speaking to large churches and Christian colleges because he believed that Christians were key to addressing the global problem of AIDS.  He invited others to participate in what God wanted accomplished in the world, and many did.

My understanding of prayer has changed.  I now see it less as trying to convince God to do what I want done and more as a way of discerning what God wants done in the world, and how I can be a part of it.  Mystery endures, but a different kind of mystery: What tiny role can I play in answering Jesus’ prayer for unity, and in doing God’s will on earth as it is in heaven?  The boomerang circles back.

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26 responses to “Boomerang Prayers”

  1. Crystal says:

    I’m in the middle of reading Prayer Does it Make Any Difference? and I felt compelled to share a story with you about my own journey with prayer. As I’ve mentioned to you before my first child was born a quadriplegic, which was diagnosed when he was 13 months old and I was 17 years old. My loved ones tried to comfort me by saying “special kids go to special parents”. The doctors involved told me “Mother Nature is cruel sometimes”, and religious people told me that God was punishing me for having a baby out of wedlock. All of these just made more furious. I prayed for healing for my son’s brain and body for years. Most doctors could not give me any answers but finally when my son was 5, a doctor told me the hard truth. My son would never be able to walk and I needed to learn how to accept that and support him through the many obstacles that would come his way. All of my hopes were crushed but I was thankful that somebody had finally been honest with me. I stopped praying for his healing, for a while I stopped praying at all. About 10 years later, God revealed himself to me and thus began my spiritual journey. I began to pray for my son’s healing again. At the height of this point in my journey I decided to do something I had heard pastors talk about on T.V. I told my son about it and I proceeded to get him out of his wheelchair and hold him up in a seated position on his bed. I told him that we were going to pray and envision him standing up and walking, then I would let him go and he would do that. Our faith would heal him. The first time he fell to the floor like a bag of bricks. I caught his head in time and proceeded to try again. We did this 3 times and he did have some small bruises…after the 3rd time I couldn’t take it any more. I couldn’t bear to watch him crumble to the floor again. I felt tears welling in my eyes and I had no idea what to say to my son. After getting him back into his wheelchair, he broke the silence by saying that he had really believed it would work and he tried to have as much faith as he could. I realized that he was blaming himself so I assured him that God knew we had faith and must have a different plan for us. As soon as I could I found a place to be alone and cry. I was furious at God and disappointed to say the least. I never prayed for my son’s healing again and that incident became a raw place in my heart. About 2 years later, I heard the Holy Spirit tell me to pray to see my son walk. I became livid and shouted ” How dare you?! How dare you ask for me to pray that? That hope is dead! You killed it!” Then I walked out of the room and tried to calm down. After an hour of being in deep thought, I realized that I had to make a couple choices. Did I believe that God is so cruel or was he really up to something that was good? I decided that he must have something planned and wants me in on the process. I went ahead and prayed.
    Later that week I took my son to his physical therapy appointment. As I sat in the waiting room with my other children, his therapist came out and invited me back. They had my son strapped to a huge metal contraption and I proceeded to watch him walk for the first time in his 17 years. With a lot of exertion and grunting he walked the entire length of the hallway and back. I was speechless with tears running down my face. God showed me that my healing prayers would indeed be answered one day when he restores the world. It was my first lesson on learning about the hope of heaven or a new earth. I knew with all my heart that I would see my son walk and run one day, perhaps not in this life but in the next to come. Jesus restored my hope that day and it changed my perspective on prayer too.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      An incredible story, Crystal. My goodness, you went through all the stages of faith. To me, the real miracle is in you, the caregiver, and your persistent love for your son–and that you didn’t give up on God after God’s flawed representatives gave you reason to. I know this will help many people. –Philip

      • Crystal says:

        Thank you, Philip. I’ve begun to believe that my son is disabled for God’s glory and is also a special gift. It was through deep sorrow that I receive great joy. I marvel at how the stack was dealt against me yet God’s love was too powerful to be overcomed. I have learned a lot about who God is by who he isn’t, and I can now forgive those flawed representatives because I too am a flawed representative. It continues to amaze me how he lives in us and loves us so much. Thank you for your books. They have been such a gift and relief to learn that I can be completely honest with God instead of always trying to pretend that I am happy or grateful or everything’s ok. We’re such complex creatures and it’s quite healthy to embrace that. I pray that one day we can all learn to let love consume us completely and drive out fears. Even though everything is not ok we can stand firm in the hope of our faith that one day everything will be as it should. And in the meantime we can learn to completely depend on God and bring everything to him because we matter and he cares. It’s strange but I’m grateful that the church did do that because I believe that’s the reason God showed up so strongly for me. I would never have come to learn who he is and lived my life in hopelessness and despair. He rescued me and continues to do so.

  2. Rachel says:

    Dear Philip,
    I’m not sure if this is still an appropriate email address for reaching you, but I wanted to share some art that was inspired by your books.
    It’s not the first set of paintings that was inspired by you. …I think it’s that when I’m going through a spiritually tough time I reach for books like, “Disappointment With God” and, “Prayer: Does it make Any Difference”, and those tough times inspire the paintings… but they’re nudged on by your words of encouragement.

    Here’s my latest:

    “His Eye is On the Sparrow”
    rachelpeters [dot] com/his-eye-is-on-the-sparrow/3050/

    Thanks again for your artwork!

    Rachel.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Wow, this shows the gritty reality behind a song that usually conveys the opposite. Radical, Rachel–you cut right to the root.

      Philip

  3. Joseph says:

    You’ve written a very insightful and timeless article, Mr. Yancey.

    We know that Jesus is both God and Man but sometimes it’s hard to really accept that He had limitations during the 33 years He spent on earth. Paul said that Jesus emptied Himself and that He was subject to what we mere mortals are subject to – hunger, disease, anxiety, etc.

    I think that although Jesus’s mortal body prayed for deliverance from the sacrifice during that long night in the garden of Gethsemane, His Spirit knew that without the sacrifice, humanity would have come to a screeching halt right then and there.

    But what you said about God using us as instruments of prayer is quite remarkable. Christians often rely on grace alone, thinking that it is merely their faith in God that matters. True, there are folks who don’t come to Jesus until they are taking their last breath, and it is the faith that God will forgive their sins that does save them. But for most people, James’s words also apply i.e. “faith without works is dead”. If we have the Spirit of God flowing through us, we will do our Christian duty to help others.

    I guess when it comes down to it, the unanswered prayers are what ground us most deeply to our faith in the love and FAITHFULNESS of our Father who is in heaven. 🙂

  4. Cynthia says:

    My desire is to live a life of gratitude and to express that not only to our Father but to those who have provided a moment in my life for which I’m grateful. You have provided many, many of those moments. I purchased your book ‘Where is God When It Hurts’ several years ago while raising my children. It seemed there was never much time during those years to pursue my passion of reading. A few years ago I picked up a copy of ‘Grace Notes’. After reading this devotional book every day for that year I knew I had to go back and read your other books. The first one I read was ‘Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?’. This came at a time in my life that I was asking that very question. After reading this one I knew I wanted to read the others. None have failed to speak to me and make a difference in my life. The highlighter and journal are quite busy when I’m reading your books. This year I read ‘Soul Survivor,’ and it is one of my favorite books. Not only a favorite of your books but of all books. Wow, my reading list has grown, too as I want to read the many books you mentioned. You wrote about 13 people who influenced you and encouraged the reader to make their own list. You are on my list. I have been encouraged to a deeper study of God’s word and history, to read more passionately and to even write a bit. I felt compelled to write and thank you for your influence in my life. In searching for a physical address to mail a note to you I found this blog. So another thing to add to my gratitude journal. Thank you, Mr. Yancey, for writing and sharing your perspective and talent with the reader. We have been truly blessed.

    • Philip Yancey says:

      You are very kind, Cynthia. Trust me, I read this, and it gave me a boost and courage as I head out to the mountains to spend another week writing. If I don’t hurry up, you might run out of my words at this rate! –Philip

  5. Laurie says:

    Hi Philip, Our weekly Bible Study group is reading your book , Prayer – Does It Make Any Difference? We are thoroughly enjoying our study (using your study guide). I must say, it has provoked so much discussion. Just last night I told the group that I never knew prayer was such a complex subject! You have just dug up the very depths of prayer from so many angles. I am stimulated, challenged, convicted and blessed, all at the same time. I also told our group that I’m glad I wrote my blog series (I am a writer too) on prayer last summer, before I even knew about your book. Why? Because I really believe I would have given up and never attempted to write about such a subject after delving so deep into it through your book! I would have thrown up my hands and said, this subject is just too big to tackle. But I had already written my blogs, albeit with my limited perspective!

    Because there are so many unanswered questions about unanswered prayer and really, suffering in general, I tried to tackle some of those questions in my book, Beyond Regret – Living Your Life Purpose in Spite of Past Choices. Of course, I ended up in the vicinity of everyone else over the centuries, with questions directed to our God that He has deliberately chosen not to answer. And then I think there must be a reason that He doesn’t give us all the answers; because His purpose and plan is just so much bigger and greater than we can comprehend. If we did understand God completely, wouldn’t that mean He’s not big enough for us? Of course, He is too lofty for us to be on the same intellectual level with Him. We may not even desire the fullness of His plan, we are “satisfied” with our little delights here on earth. Wait until we get to Heaven, wow! When His great plan is revealed and we live with Him, we’ll finally understand why He didn’t answer all of our prayers. I did include one section in my book that talks about the bird’s eye view of suffering. In it I explain what I really believe about how God allows suffering and then uses that very suffering as a tool in His mighty hand to make us more like Christ. He does this to His people, throughout their lives and then finally uses Satan’s ultimate weapon (death) to turn it around into God’s ultimate gift of life, eternal life! So we, as Christians, win no matter what!
    Thank you for your deep perspectives and for your raw truth, laid out on paper for us to learn and grow.

    Laurie Driesen

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Your conclusion is exactly what God communicated in the long speech at the end of Job. There is much that we cannot comprehend–yet.
      Philip

  6. Jim says:

    Um, so what you’re saying, is that it’s still up to us to figure out the mind of God, even though the bible teaches it’s impossible to know. Yours is a lousy argument to why prayer makes no difference.

  7. gary says:

    Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. —Jesus

    “Wow! Anything, Jesus? If I ask for anything in your name and do not doubt in my heart, it will happen?!!” How many Christians really believe that? The typical Christian prayer is asking Jesus to give us a good day, bless our food, thanking him for blessings, and asking him to keep our families safe. Amen. Why don’t we ask Jesus to place a package with a million bucks inside on our doorstep? Why didn’t we ask Jesus to put a new Porsche in the driveway? Why didn’t we ask Jesus to change our looks to that of a supermodel?

    Clergyman: You silly man. Jesus isn’t going to answer those prayers because none of those things are God’s will! Jesus will only answer your prayer if you ask for it in his name, if you do not doubt in your heart, and, if it is his will! Sheesh!

    But the Bible passage above doesn’t say anything about it having to be God’s will!

    Clergyman: Well, if you read the rest of the Bible, that is what it says.

    Ok, well how about if I pray for the following things. They are surely God’s will: Heal all the sick in the world today. Stop all the violence in the world today. End world starvation today.
    If I pray for these things they will be done, right?

    Clergyman: Silly, silly man. Humans have brought the pain and suffering of sickness, violence, and starvation upon themselves by their willful, sinful acts against God. God allows these things out of his righteous justice. It pains him greatly to watch this suffering day after day, year after year, century after century, millennia after millennia, but his righteousness demands mankind’s punishment. God will not answer those prayers.

    Ok, so adults are all wicked and sinful and deserve to suffer sickness, violence, and starvation because they have willfully sinned against God, but what about the little children? Surely God will answer these prayers for children: No child will die of starvation today. No child will die of sickness today.

    Clergyman: Silly, silly, silly man. God grieves to see children suffer from starvation and disease but this suffering is the consequence of their ancient ancestors’ wicked sin of eating God’s forbidden fruit.

    That doesn’t really seem fair, but…what about this: If children must die by disease and starvation, that is one thing, but surely it isn’t God’s will for little children to be brutally tortured, raped, and murdered. Surely God would answer my prayer for all torture, rape, and murder of little children to stop today so that they can die by natural causes, like disease, war, and starvation, don’t you think? Jesus wouldn’t want a little child to suffer so horribly in such a vile, horrific act when he has the power to stop it, would he?

    Clergyman: God’s ways are not our ways, my son.

    Dear Reader: So you see friends, Jesus only answers the easy stuff. That is why Christians don’t ask Jesus anything tough. We thank him for healing Aunt Hilda of her sinus infection, but don’t dare ask Jesus to heal the amputees. That would be really rude of us to be so demanding! Jesus only answers the fluff; the kind of stuff that would probably happen anyway… Hmm. They probably would happen anyway… Wait a minute. Maybe… Maybe…Jesus isn’t listening.

    Maybe Jesus isn’t there. Ever consider that, dear Christian?

    • Joseph says:

      Your sense of outrage about the unfairness of suffering stems from a realization that the world is truly evil and cruel. But what is evil without good? You only know that things are cruel and unjust because you have an in-born sense of right and wrong. Not merely a social construct but a deeper sense that comes from the Moral Compass which is God.

      C.S. Lewis expressed it similarly in his book Mere Christianity.

      So in essence, you prove the very existence of God through your disappointment in His seeming indifference to the ills of this world. May God use your pain to heal not only your sadness but that of others in need.

      • Philip Yancey says:

        Good dialogue, Joseph. I agree completely that we are offended by unfairness because of the “Moral Compass” or Tao, for Lewis. I also take solace in the fact that God accepts, even welcomes our sense of outrage–witness Job, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and much of the Psalms. True justice will require a rather dramatic re-tooling of this planet, which is the Christian hope that Lewis articulated so well.
        Philip

        • Doug says:

          Philip,

          A year ago to the day, I added to this blog somewhere and even received a cordial response from you Mr. Yancey. Though I can’t find it now, I recall your comments were most unhelpful. I had read “The Question That Never Goes Away” and found myself saddened by your answers. It’s clear that the question never goes away for a reason.

          As for Gary’s post above, I think he outlines one of the main issues of Christian faith brilliantly. Joseph’s answer to Gary was condescending and I find your response trite. Gary is upset, and rightly so. Like me, he just wants answers. Unfortunately, they are not forthcoming.

          Think of what has happened in the 12 months since we last ‘chatted:’ 22 veterans killed themselves every day; 7 people die every day in US home fires; annually, 6 million children under the age of 5 die (1.26 million in India alone); every 7 seconds a girl under 15 is married; Paris was attacked, killing 130; 84 were killed in Nice by a truck; Istanbul’s main airport was bombed (I was there 2 days after); Hurricane Matthew killed over 800 in Haiti (adding insult to injury after the earthquake in 2010 killed over 316,000); 300 were killed in Italy from an earthquake — as did 673 in Equador and 117 in Taiwan; in Louisiana, 13 were killed and they suffered $9 billion in losses from flooding; roughly 17 million humans died from heart disease and 7 million from cancer; a plane crashed in Egypt killing all 224 aboard; wars rage on in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere leaving 60 million displaced in the global refugee crisis; Chicago’s murder rate is up 72%; we learned of the Panama Papers and had CEOs from Wells Fargo, Och-Ziff, Merrill Lynch and others skate free after paying billions of dollars in fines. As you know, the list goes on and on.

          Last month, I stood at the 9/11 Memorial in New York City where 343 of my brothers died. In July, I honored those lost in the Armenian Genocide while in Yerevan (I also visited Khor Virap and saw the stunning Mt. Ararat, minus the ark). I’ve placed flowers at the stupa filled with 5,000 skulls in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. I was near the Yangtze River in China where, not even 100 years ago, nearly 4 million were killed by flood. I’ve stood at Ground Zero in Hiroshima. I’ve walked through the gate at Auschwitz which reads “Arbeit macht frei” and I stood on the train tracks at Birkenau. I’ve climbed Mayon Volcano in the Philippines where 12,000 of my wife’s countrymen were killed. I’ve also been in Leyte where Typhoon Haiyan killed another 10,000 Filipinos. I’ve knelt in the sand on Patong Beach and pondered the death of a quarter million people from a 2004 tsunami. A few years back, I listened to a man order the honor killing of his sister. Professionally, I’ve witnessed children struck by vehicles and burned in house fires. I’ve consoled victims of spouse abuse and held infants with ‘raccoon eyes.’ Closest to home, I’ve witnessed my daughter suffer from Crohn’s Disease.

          Imagine, not so long ago, a Bangladeshi child suffering with the now-eradicated smallpox disease. This child likely died of respiratory complications following a frightening period of breathing difficulty. Humankind suffered for 12,000 years and it’s estimated that as many as 500 million people died in just the 20th century from this disease. This number far exceeds deaths from all the world’s wars. Similarly, ponder the Black Death’s destruction of human life – another pathogen killing as much as 60% of the population of Europe in the 14th century. This plague was blamed on the alignment of planets which resulted in ‘bad air.’ Imagine the children of the 58 million AIDS deaths. Was no one praying?

          My issue continues to be, as it was last year, that if the Christian God exists, then He is grossly negligent. By negligent I mean to say that He does not do what He promises to do. I’m making no claim that these things are ‘evil.’ I’m not addressing the “Problem of Evil.” Nor do I claim your God doesn’t exist – that’s for another day (even if I grant you the virgin birth and the Resurrection, all your work is still ahead of you). My question remains: “How could an omniscient, omnipresent and all-loving God watch human suffering, with crossed arms of indifference, even after He’s promised to act?” What is beyond debate is that God does not intervene. This I’m sure we can agree on. So, it begs the question, “Why won’t He honor the promises He has made?” In Mark 16:18, the Word of God says, “…they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well. [NIV]” The King James Bible says, “…they shall recover” and the New Living Translation says, “…they will be healed.” This seems possible as earlier in Mark, Jesus has an encounter with Jarius’ daughter where he says, “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

          Let’s forget for a moment that this passage comes from the ‘longer ending of Mark’ and is not a part of the most trusted manuscripts of the Bible. Let’s instead focus on the fact that in this, The Great Commission, God promises He will heal the sick when “those who believe” place their hands on them. God administers neither caveats nor conditions, he just requires belief. Among many other records of God’s healing intervention, James 5 reads, “Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.” Likewise, God just requires faith.

          Yet, believers pray without relief. There should be no debate: in no uncertain terms, God clearly promises that the sick will be healed, but this does not occur. I know first-hand. My entire family and indeed my entire church family have prayed now for almost 15 years while my daughter’s Crohn’s Disease continues unabated.

          Also clear is that the burden of proof doesn’t rest with me. The burden of proof rests squarely on the shoulders of the person claiming God answers prayers, like you and Joseph. I’ve read many of the Christian apologists who try to explain. In addition to you, I’ve read Bruce Metzger, William Lane Craig, C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, J.P. Moreland, Norman Geisler and others. I’ve met personally with Ravi Zacharias over the course of a few months. Who, in the end, only left me with the wholly unsatisfying book, “True for You, But Not for Me” by Paul Copan. On the request of my parents, I read “The Shack” by William P. Young. It was through this book, with tears in my eyes, I came to understand the fact that God intervenes, or even cares about my daughter, is simply untrue.

          Consider further not healing, but just the alleviation of suffering? God says in 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.” Luke 11:9-10 says the same.

          I imagine that some of the people I identified above either asked God, was seeking God, or knocked on God’s door. I can image being the parent of the smallpox-ridden Bangladeshi girl and asking God for the alleviation of her suffering. I can imagine riding in a box car towards the Auschwitz Concentration Camp and seeking God’s intervention. I can imagine knocking on God’s door while clinging to an Indonesian tree as the rising tsunami waters threaten my life. I can imagine being in the path of a Philippine typhoon and asking God to divert it towards open waters. I can imagine seeing a flash in Hiroshima and seeking God’s protection for me and my family. I can imagine knocking on God’s door as I stood atop the World Trade Center trying to decide if I should jump or wait for my firefighting brothers to rescue me.

          As you and I both know, God didn’t show up for the Bangladeshi girl, those who died under the Final Solution, those killed in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or 2013 super typhoon, those who suffered near Ground Zero or those men and women who jumped to their death on 9/11. But, most importantly, I can remember clutching my dear daughter as she wailed in pain. And I remember with uncanny clarity asking, seeking and knocking on God’s door. Yet, even though He promised, no help was forthcoming.

          Consider further the case of Elisabeth Fritzl. At age 11, her father began sexually abusing her. At 18, Elisabeth was lured into the basement and imprisoned behind eight locked doors. For 24 years, Joesph Fritzl, her father, assaulted, abused and raped her. She gave birth to seven children. Her abuse was often in front of them. Imagine how she prayed. Imagine how she begged. But nothing supernatural; from nowhere ‘out there.’ Imagine now those women who haven’t been found.

          In the same vein, consider the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and nuns. One would think the rape and abuse of children would represent the worst in humanity. However, it is the cover-up and shuffling of priests that leaves my heart ripped to shreds. Should you not be able to trust a man of God (or his hierarchy), who can a child trust? Isn’t it true that much of the abuse occurred in the confessional itself? The one person that should have protected them took advantage of them, and in what should be the most sacred place. Did a couple of those children not pray? Did not a few of those children’s parents rest in God’s promises?

          Or finally, consider the suffering in the Bible? The Old Testament is wrought with suffering caused in the name of or by God Himself. Recall the Great Flood. Should this story be true, how many humans and animals suffered? Recall the horrific story of God’s vengeance on the Midianites. Here, the Bible tells that 12,000 Israelites killed every Midian man. They captured all the women and children as well as plundered the flocks and goods. They then burned the towns and camps. They then brought the captives and spoils of war to Moses who became angry. “Have you allowed all the women to live?” he says. Moses then commands the Israelites to kill all the boys and non-virgins “but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” God then commands Moses to make a count of the people and animals capture so they may divide equally between the soldiers and community plus a tribute to the Lord. At the end of the chapter, the totals are given. Following the list of animals, we learn that 32,000 virgins were kept for themselves. Did they suffer? Do you know the story of Lot and his daughters? Did not Lot or his daughters suffer? Or, how about the strange story of forty two boys mocking Elisha in II Kings? In it, the Bible says Elisha cursed them in the name of the Lord and two female bears came out of the woods and tore them up. The crime worthy of death? The boys yelled, “Get out of here, baldy!” To my mind, this seems to be indiscriminate suffering. I’d imagine some cried out for God’s intervention.

          Or what of the New Testament? Here we find The Massacre of the Innocents in Matthew 2 and in Luke 19, Jesus says, “But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and kill them in front of me.” And most incredibly, it’s not until Jesus enters the picture, meek and mild, that we have eternal damnation in a lake of fire. I speak for myself, and only myself, when I say I’ve suffered greatly growing up with this religious doctrine. I’ve personally cried for relief. And no One showed.

          My issue is simple: if God makes a promise, He must keep the promise. That’s certainly not too much to ask — it’s right there in His Book! Mark 16:18 and James 5:14-15 are quite clear. If You promise healing and then don’t deliver, You are breaking a promise. If You promise answered prayers and then don’t deliver, You are breaking a promise. I don’t know how to see it any other way. And, like the aforementioned, it breaks my heart.

          In the end though, science has eradicated smallpox. We also know that the alignment of planets and ‘bad air’ had nothing to do with the Black Death. And, thanks to science, my daughter finds some relief to her suffering with Remicade, Humira and Prednisone. It is men and women employing rationality, logic, knowledge and freethought that produced these drugs.

          Thank you for taking the time to read. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak openly with you and share ideas. In this country and many around me, blasphemy and apostasy is punished by death. I learned just this week that starting tomorrow, insulting the president of the UAE carries a prison term of between 15 and 25 years in prison. Unfortunately, we live in an age where freethought is suppressed.

          Cordially,
          Doug

          p.s., Mark Twain said, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” Agreed.

  8. Myrtle says:

    Dear Philip,

    Prayer is the heart and soul of Christians. But many times we shy away from our duty to pray, when it is exactly what we needed the most. It is a gift to be able to present our requests and our earnest plea to God. There maybe many heart-wrenching prayers uttered that have not received the answer they were hoping for, but each prayer is answered, according to God’s time, and His good and perfect will. It takes faith to embrace and believe that He has our best interest in mind. Nevertheless, we must trust the One who poured out all heaven in one gift.

    I truly thank you for sharing this wonderful article about prayer. You are truly inspiring and remarkable in so many ways. I am a young Christian writing my first book. And I’ve been trying to get in touch with you. I quoted a paragraph from your book, and I hope to get your permission:

    Philip Yancey wrote it beautifully in his book Where Is God When It Hurts?
    “God wants us to choose to love him freely, even when that choice involves pain, because we are committed to him, not to our own good feelings and rewards. He wants us to cleave to him, as Job did, even when we have every reason to deny him hotly. That, I believe, is the central message of Job. Satan had taunted God with the accusation that humans are not truly free. Was Job being faithful simply because God had allowed him a prosperous life? Job’s fiery trials proved the answer beyond doubt. Job clung to God’s justice when he was the best example in history of God’s apparent injustice. He did not seek the Giver because of his gifts; when all gifts were removed he still sought the Giver.”

    Thank you so much for your time and kind consideration.

    Sincerely,
    Myrtle

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Permission happily granted! All the best with your writing.

      Philip

      • Myrtle says:

        Thank you so much! I pray that God will continue to bless you, keep you, and lavish His love on you. You are special in His eyes!

        sincerely,
        Myrtle

      • Dann says:

        I, like Myrtle, am a first-time author, and at the beginning of chapters in my book, rather than trotting out an impressive barrage of well-rounded quote sources pulled from quote files I don’t have, I use a limited number of people multiple times. [Remember when you chalked up the existence of your files having no kids? I will chalk up the non-existence of mine to the fact that I have six :-)]

        I’ve got quotes from two authors (happens to be you and H.B.Stowe) whose books influenced me recently plus also Confucius (I live in China) and some band pertinent to the story itself. And so now (even though I came on your site to see if there was any news on your memoir and ask a question re: the 300 memoirs you read recently) I find myself now wondering (because of Myrtle’s question): Is it polite to ask? Necessary? Do you expect it? Appreciate it?

        Lastly, would reading a memoirist who did such (quoted the same person 4 times) be on its own sufficient cause for failure of your exercise machine test? And just how many memoirs did fail until you were able to finally read 300 of them? (Ha, there: that was going to be my original question.)

        • Philip Yancey says:

          Brief quotes of 100 words or so don’t need permission, no. They’re considered “fair usage” and you’re welcome to them.

          As for memoirs, lots of them didn’t prove to be worth the time they took to read. On the other hand, every single one of them sparked a long-buried memory from childhood or adolescence, so none completely failed. Best wishes…
          Philip

  9. Mark says:

    Philip,

    I very much appreciate your insights on prayer.

    As a lifelong and increasingly disaffected Mormon, I’ve always struggled with feeling worthy to receive answers to my prayers. (It’s probably a relic from the traditional Mormon “worthiness” interviews with the ward bishop that begin at age 12.) From my perspective, Mormonism in practice if not in actual doctrine tends to devolve into a legalistic, checklist-oriented faith. Just last week I finally reached the end of my decades-long struggle with prayer, and of course, and that’s when I found your books. (I’m convinced in hindsight that God actually does answer my prayers now and then by pointing me to books.) I’ve been staying up too late every night reading. You’ve not only deepened my understanding of prayer but of Christ as well. Many thanks from a fellow traveler who is similarly blessed and cursed with a skeptical mind.

    By the way, check out the Spencer Tracy/Frank Sinatra movie *The The Devil at 4 O’Clock.* Midway through the movie, the doctor, an atheist who’s committed his life to work at a hospital for children with leprosy, observes something to the effect of “Religion is for busybodies.” I was in a particularly skeptical mood when watching the movie, and it perfectly captured my experience with the legalistic aspects of organized religion.

    Mark

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I understand, and books have often been my answers to prayer as well.

      I don’t know that movie. The irony is that most of the work with leprosy in history has been done by Christians, the only “busybodies” willing to work with a feared disease. God keeps using the talent pool available.
      –Philip

      • Mark says:

        I perhaps gave you the wrong impression about the movie. The hospital was a religious effort, started and run by a cantankerous priest (Spencer Tracy). The atheist is talking to a new arrival who was asking him why he had never converted. His response caught me off guard and made me laugh.

        I emphatically admire the efforts of religious men and women, to be sure; I also know that sometimes these efforts follow a trajectory that begins with enthusiasm and great ideas and ends with bureaucracy.

  10. Saskia says:

    Hi Philip,
    Your books and other writing has been a source of wisdom, encouragement and learning about God for me for many years – thank you for your gentle and compassionate understanding and way of communicating what God is like.
    Reading this I was struck very powerfully by the idea that Jesus was just as afraid of death as I am. Somehow I never thought he was really afraid before, but somehow what you wrote convinced me he really was, but he was brave and trusted God anyway, and that helps me have courage.

    Thanks again
    Saskia

  11. Avenel Grace says:

    Dear Charles Price once said “you pray, and you wait… A Christian’s life is made up of waiting.”
    God answers prayers always, … just not in the way we often expect, and later down the track we can see why. We have to trust that He knows best, and leave it to Him.
    Baxter Kruger , in his book Jesus And The Undoing Of Adam, comments that tragedies and death , illness etc are not His doing, it happens because of the fall of Adam and all that has gone on since. Jesus Death and Resurrection took away the old Adamic order, but we are still behind in the acceptance that we can do nothing of ourselves except believe in faith.

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