At age 55, my father-in-law was diagnosed with an advanced stage of colon cancer. He received an aggressive round of chemotherapy. Inexplicably, he went into a coma. We recruited prayer warriors throughout the country. In just a few weeks, one of his medical interns happened to read a case study that perfectly fit my father-in-laws profile. They adapted his treatment. He returned to full function. He is now 85 and enjoying life to its fullest.
Prayers answered, “Yes.”
Some time ago, my (then) wife and I separated after 20 years of marriage. I desperately wanted to reconcile. I sought intensive counseling for over a year. I met with church elders and deacons. I prayed. My family prayed. My friends prayed. My church prayed. After 5 years, it became clear marriage reconciliation would not happen and we got a divorce.
Prayers answered, “No.”
I served in pastoral ministry for twenty years while battling bipolar. When I was diagnosed, the hospital staff told me I would never serve in ministry again. Yet, through the power of the Holy Spirit, our ministry became even more fruitful. God blessed us with growth and abundance. I was not healed from my mental illness, but I was given God’s grace which was more than sufficient. The prayers of God’s people sustained me.
But in 2008, I experienced a radical decline in functioning. I was advised by my doctors and ministry supervisors to resign. I was blessed to receive a disability package. But, I wanted to work. For over 5 years, I prayed that I would find “gainful employment.” Others joined me in prayer.
The wait for an answer was excruciating. Each night I would have “vocation dreams,” images of jobs I could perform. But in the light of day, it became clear none of these fit what I could or should do. One door after another closed.
Prayers answered, “Wait and See.”
In 2011, I began writing again. It was a dream deferred by the demands of earning a living wage. Now, it became my clear calling. In 2014, I published my spiritual memoir, Delight in Disorder: Ministry, Madness, Mission. Writing has become my passion, my vocation. God has fashioned this into a new ministry, reaching people both within and beyond the faith community.
God answers every prayer, though not always in the way we want.
It is natural and good that we express to God the desires of our heart, as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” Jesus did not want to suffer so. Who would? Nobody wants to go through such pain and die regardless of the circumstances. (see Matthew 26.36-46).
God wants to hear us express our deepest desires of our hearts. He also wants us to hear how he responds to these prayers. “Yes,” when it is best. “No,” when it isn’t. And, “Wait and See,” when there is more to be revealed. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to us is for our prayers to come true. God knows better than to give us what we want. God gives us what we need.
Singer-songwriter Iris Dement has a song called “The Night I Learned How Not to Pray.” It’s about a young boy who falls down the stairs and is rushed to the hospital. His sister witnesses this and, as he is rushed to the hospital, she enters deeply into prayer.
“Well I prayed into the evening, never even took the time to have a bite
I was sure if I prayed hard enough that God would make it right.”
In spite of her prayers, the boy dies. This crushes his sister’s faith.
That was the night I learned how not to pray
God does what God wants to any way
And I never did tell my mother,
I kept it from my sisters and all my brothers
That was the night I learned how not to pray.
On the surface, this is a tragic story of unanswered prayer. A story of lost faith.
But I see more to it than this. It’s “I learned how not to pray. Not, “I learned to not pray. I don’t know what Dement meant here, but I like to believe the little girl in this song does not abandon faith, but grows deeper in it. Some people who come to know sorrow turn their backs on God. Others, however, come to know God better. We walk closer with the One who suffered for us, who died for us so we might have hope for abundant life now and forever.
The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. ―