9. How come some prayers don’t seem to work, even when you believe that it’s God’s Will? And how long do you keep praying for something (especially when it’s a painful issue) when God seems to not be listening or answering?
Boy, I tell you, I struggle with this one all the time. I want something so bad sometimes (even something that’s good and beneficial), and I pray earnestly for it. And when it doesn’t happen, I struggle with why my prayers aren’t getting things done.
When we were considering a possible adoption (of a baby of a relative who was possibly going to give her up), I was reading a book that basically taught the “name it and claim it” idea. If I felt like I could “hear” God’s answer in prayer, then I just had to claim it and cling to it in faith, until it happened. Despite any appearances to the contrary. If I had enough faith to continue to cling to His “promise,” it would happen eventually. And if it didn’t happen, it’s because I gave up too early or because I doubted.
Well, of course, I believed that it would happen. And so, as the book encouraged, I believed that God had already “given” her to us. And all I had to do now was thank Him for it (as proof that I believed) and to wait for it to happen.
But it didn’t happen.
But it didn’t happen.
So what went wrong? Was it my faith, God, or my understanding of God? Or will it still happen sometime in the future, as the book would say, even though it’s been over five years? (And for the record, I don’t want it to happen now. She’s where she should be - with her parents.)
You know, the funny thing is that it’s a Bible verse that confuses me more than anything. Jesus’ own words. The verse that really trips me up is the “If you believe and don’t doubt” verse.
Mark 11:22-24: “‘Have faith in God,’ Jesus answered. ‘I tell you the truth, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart but believes that what he says will happen, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’“
I have to be honest. I struggle with this verse. I really do. I mean, it sounds pretty straightforward to me: believe that you’ll get what you ask for and you’ll get it. Name it and claim it! Sounds great! But there’s a problem . . . that doesn’t always happen. There are things that we pray for and that we are confident are in line with God’s Will, and yet they don’t happen. The mountains didn’t move.
So what went wrong? Is it that I didn’t have enough faith? If I was able to push away all anxiety and calmly say, “I know You can do it, Lord. I trust You,” would it please God enough that He would grant my request? Would He really hold it against me if I waited faithfully for 30 days, but then I faltered and lost faith on day 31?
And can any of us ever move any mountain, or even a molehill, with our prayers if we have to believe ahead of time that it will happen, without any doubts? Is it possible to know for sure what God should do and that He will do it, when we know that God has His own mysterious ways about why and when and how He answers prayer? Is knowing that He can do something as faithfully-effective as claiming that He will do it? Or do we have to “claim” that it will happen without any confirmation, and risk looking like a fool who went out on a limb and put words in God’s mouth? Is it “believing what we say” or “saying what we believe” that makes it happen? I tell ya, this one confuses me. It really does.
There have been times that I have prayed for things that haven’t happened. And I’m guessing that the “name it and claim it” pushers would say that it was the strength of my faith that was the problem - that I didn’t really believe it enough - or that the time hasn’t yet come.
And I don’t know, maybe at times it was my faith. Maybe I cannot really “claim” anything in faith because I’m so afraid of looking foolish if it doesn’t happen. I don’t want to put words in God’s mouth and run around saying “God told me . . .” or “This will happen because I believe it will.” And then, when it doesn’t happen, become an embarrassment to God and our faith. So I guess there is always a bit of doubt in the back of my mind. I know that He can do it, if He chooses. I just can’t presumptuously claim that I know for sure that He will do it. Is that still okay? Is that being faithful?
It’s comforting, in a way, to know that even Paul didn’t get the thorn removed from his side by his prayers. And I don’t think anyone would question the strength of his faith. And of course, even Jesus didn’t get the cup taken away from Him after earnestly praying for it. And for them, it wasn’t about their faith or that they didn’t please God, it was simply that it wasn’t God’s Will.
As I think back on things that I have prayed for that haven’t happened, I have had to reevaluate how I understand those verses. Let me see if I can best explain them, in light of the fact that there are times that we don’t get what we ask for, even if we feel our faith is solid.
I think this verse is best understood when we bring it all back to the beginning of what Jesus says - when we look at what it all hinges on. And Jesus sets up those verses with this: “Have faith in God.” Our problem (at least, my problem) is not with how much faith we have, but with what we set it on. And according to the “name it and claim it” version of Mark 11:22-24, it’s our level of faith and the absence of doubt that will make whatever we say happen. But is that the right interpretation? Is that what faith is - believing that we know what the answer should be and claiming it?
Of course, I would love to be so in line with God that I could be bold and discerning in knowing exactly what to pray for - so that it gets answered. But I am apparently not there yet. I keep trying, though. I really do. I pray for something entirely appropriate (in my view), and I am confident and calm because I know that He can do it. And I believe that what I am asking is His Will, so He will do it. And I feel like a wise, effective prayer-warrior.
And then I wait and I wait and I wait. And I remind Him that I am hanging in there because I have faith in Him to come through for me. I let Him know that I believe that He is a big God who can answer my prayer with one touch of His Heavenly finger. And I feel like a tired, but persistent, prayer-warrior.
And then I wait and I wait and I wait. And after awhile, I get depressed and I doubt and I wonder why He won’t just do this one thing that would be so simple for Him to do. Does He not get involved in this world like He used to in Bible Times? Has He just set the world in motion and then sat back and watched? Where is He and how much more do I have to do to demonstrate my faith in Him to do it? And faith? What is faith anyway? And what does Mark 11 mean if we don’t get what we ask for? And then I feel like a discouraged and defective prayer-worrier.
But it’s usually at this point that God has a lesson to teach me. Because it’s at this point that I learn that it’s not about me. It’s about Him. He doesn’t answer prayers based on my power and wisdom and faith. He answers them based on His power and strength and mercy and grace and wisdom. And whatever He does is for His purposes and His glory.
And sometimes, He shows me what a big God He is by not answering my prayers as I think He should. I have come to realize that what I am really trying to do when I believe that my “strong faith” will make things happen is to manipulate God to do what I am asking. I am saying, “See how much I believe in You to do this? So now You can’t let me down.” I am putting my faith in the strength of my faith to get God to do what I want, instead of putting my faith in God to lead me to do what He wants. Does that make sense?
But this is not having “faith in God,” as Jesus says. It’s faith in my faith. It’s faith in myself to get something accomplished - based on what I do or don’t do, or believe or don’t believe. And this is misplaced faith! “Name it and claim it by the strength of your faith” is not a godly way. It’s a spiritual-sounding, super-subtle way of elevating ourselves over God, of turning God into our errand boy. We act like we are in control and that we get it done - by our prayers, beliefs, and level of faith. But God is so much bigger than that. And Jesus says, “Have faith in God!”
When a lake freezes in the winter, how do you know that it’s strong enough to hold you? You could stand at the edge and do all sorts of tests to determine if it’s safe, but you won’t know for sure until you step out in faith.
And the thing is, it doesn’t matter how strong your faith is. If the ice is not thick enough, no matter how much faith you have in it, it will not hold you up. But a frozen lake will. When the timing and conditions are right, it will hold you up, regardless of your level of faith in it.
Well, God is like that lake. When the timing is right and it is in His Will, you can take a step forward and know that He will hold you up, that He will grant your request. But if it’s not the right time or the right step to take, He will not make the steps you take secure or grant your request, no matter how much you thought He would or wanted Him to. It’s not about your level of faith, but it’s about where you are putting it. Are you putting it in your own presumptuousness about how God should answer your prayers or are you putting it on God and His wisdom, strength, and timing?
Well, I’m learning that I need to focus less on my faith and if it’s “strong enough” and more on the God who is in control; less on the answer that I want and more on what God is trying to accomplish and to teach me through the trial. Genuine faith in God is not one that says, “I asked for this and I believe that You can do it, so I’m claiming in faith that You’ll do it.” That’s presumption about what God wants and about how He should answer.
We say, “I have faith in You that You can do what I am asking You to do.” But God might just be saying, “Yes, but will you still have faith in Me if I don’t do what you’re asking Me to do?” Because a genuine faith in God is a faith that says, “I can’t see what’s ahead and I may not get what I want, but I still believe in You. I believe that You can do what I am asking; but if You don’t, I know that You are good and that You will work all things out for good. You are God and I am not!” That is putting our faith in God. That’s humility.
It’s letting God be God, while we are the children at His feet. We can ask, but we have to let Him decide how to answer. We can desire and plan, but we have to be willing to let Him interrupt and change our desires and plans. And when He wills that a mountain moves, it will move when we pray. But in His time and in His way!
Posts in this "Understanding God's Will" series:
9c: Verses 9d: Idolatry 9e: Unanswered 9f: Not Listening 9g: More Verses 9h: Effective Prayer 9i: Still Waiting 10: Bad Things Happen 11a: Happens For A Reason? 11b: Marriage Trouble 11c: Deliberate Ignorance 11d: Bad Things Beyond Us 12: God Works Good 13: Limiting God? 14/15: God Forcing Things? 16: Change God's Mind? 17: But God Can't Change? 18: Our Responsibilities