A three year old told his dad that he’d like to have a baby brother. “I’ll tell you what,” Dad said, “if every night you pray for a baby brother, and really believe it, I guarantee that God will give you one!” (You see, dad knew something little Bobby didn’t!) Bobby prayed every night – but after several weeks, he got tired and quit. A few months later, mom went to the hospital. When she came home, Bobby’s dad called him into their bedroom. Next to mom lay a bundle wrapped up in a blanket. Mom pulled back the corner to reveal … twins! Dad looked down at his son, “Now, aren’t you glad you prayed?” Young Bobby hesitated a little, then looked up at Dad and said, “Yes – but aren’t YOU glad I quit when I did!”
That’s what I called “answered prayer!”
Now, we laugh at that story, but it raises some serious issues for us as people of faith. What happens when we pray? Does prayer really change anything? And if it does, why are some prayers answered while others go unanswered?
The Bible tells us that the key to answered prayer is “faith:” Mark 11:24 – “I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” Matthew 17:20 – “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” James 5:15 – “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.” Yes, according to scripture, faith is the secret to answered prayer.
But that’s not ALL the Bible says. It also says that doubt is an obstacle to answered prayer: In John 20:27, Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not doubt, but believe.” Matthew 14:31 – this time to Peter, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And from James 1:6-8 “Ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts . . . must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
So, if faith is the secret to answered prayer, doubt is the reason some prayers go unanswered. At least that’s what the Bible says.
We are good Christians. We accept these texts as being true. We want to believe them – but can we?
I have a confession to make. Sometimes, I have a little trouble believing this business about faith and doubt. And I have a hunch that I’m not the only one this morning. Does faith guarantee results? Are our doubts the reason our prayers are ineffective?
Let’s be honest: we all have been in situations which have called into question these teachings from the Bible. For example: I have prayed for the healing of countless people throughout my ministry – sometimes for many years for the same people. Some have been healed, but others have not. I’ve prayed for two different people with the same ailment: the “saint” dies, and the unbeliever is healed.
Maybe you have had similar experiences: You’ve prayed about trouble in the family, and the situation only gets worse; a marriage is on the rocks and you have prayed for a reconciliation, but it ends in a messy divorce; you have prayed for your children or grandchildren that they might go the right way in life, but they end up in serious trouble and make a mess of their lives; You or a loved one have battled a serious illness and so you and everyone you know has prayed for them, but they are not healed.
When your prayers seem to fail, what is the cause? Which is it? Do you not have enough faith – or do you have too much doubt? And why is God so capricious in the way he answers prayer?
What are we to make of all those scriptures that tell us that if we would have enough faith (and no doubts) God will grant us our requests?
After Mother Teresa died, many of us were surprised to hear about the spiritual struggles she endured for most of her adult life as she ministered to the destitute of Calcutta. She felt that God had refused to hear and answer her prayers – that because of her weak faith and nagging doubt, God had turned a deaf ear. In one of her letters to a confidant and friend which was released after her death, she made this attempt at writing out a prayer:
“Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me? . . . I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer — no One on Whom I can cling — no, No One. — Alone … Where is my Faith… I have no Faith — I dare not utter the words & thoughts that crowd in my heart — & make me suffer untold agony. So many unanswered questions live within me afraid to uncover them — because of the blasphemy — If there be God — please forgive me.”
C.S. Lewis, the great defender of the Christian faith during the last century, prayed fervently for his mother that she would be healed. When she died, he lamented the failure of his prayers. He wrote, “The thing had not worked, but I was used to things not working, and I thought no more about it.”
If we are honest, we have all felt that same way at times – that prayer doesn’t work. At least I know I have. When we feel that way, we discover that our doubts increase, while our faith decreases, which only makes us feel worse.
When our prayers do not get results, there are four possible responses we can make – three of which are unhealthy and lead us to despair (away from God), and one which is healthy which leads us into hope (and into the arms of God).
1) First, when our prayers go unanswered, we can completely reject the whole notion of God.
This often happens to people who have prayed for the healing of a loved one, only to watch them die anyway. They conclude that prayer is just wishful thinking. They decide that all religion is fraudulent, the Bible purely fiction. So they end up as atheists, or agnostics, or secular humanists.
Ted Turner, the billionaire founder of CNN, prayed fervently that God would heal his sister. When she died, Turner turned his back on God. Now, before we are too quick to judge Mr. Turner, we have to acknowledge that even many so-called “Christians” function this way – because they have been disappointed with God, they have become “defacto atheists.” Their prayers went unanswered, and therefore, they live as if there is no God.
But the Bible warns of the dangers of rejecting God. In Psalm 14:1 it is written, “Fools say in their hearts, ‘There is no God.’” Yet countless people have done just that. So, first, when prayers are unanswered, we can pretend that God doesn’t exist.
2) Another way we can react is to blame God, believing that it is his will that we suffer.
This is a terrible thing to believe about God, accusing him of being unjust, heartless, – even cruel. To believe this way implies that either God caused our troubles, or he allows our troubles to continue, in order to carry out some unknown mysterious grand purpose – that our tragedies and sufferings are for our own good somehow.
This way of thinking grows out of a theological position referred to as “the doctrine of predestination” (a teaching, by the way, that comes from the Protestant reformer John Calvin, NOT John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement).
Predestination says that, since God is all powerful and all knowing, God must therefore have full control over all events, both good and bad: nothing in life is left to chance – human free will plays no part in our lives. According to this teaching, our lives are mapped out beforehand, every event that happens to us is predetermined – even those who will be saved and those who are damned to hell have already been selected by God before any of us were ever born.
If this is your view of God (and unfortunately it is the predominant view of the majority of Protestant Christians in America) then it would be natural that you would blame God for your tragedies, your misfortunes, and for your unanswered prayers because God would be to blame! As a result, many people conclude, “God doesn’t care about me, why should I care about God?” And their doubts about God’s essential goodness cause them to blame God and to turn their backs on him.
As a Wesleyan and a Methodist, I am NOT a predestinarian. I believe that God loves all people and has issued an invitation to each and every person to accept salvation – and I believe that he gives us the free-will to say “yes” or “no.” I do not believe that God causes evil, but desires only the best for us. Therefore, I do not think God should be blamed for our trials and tribulations, as if God were somehow in league with the Devil. Yet, countless Christians today try to blame God, and as a result, they are bitter, and they lose their faith. So, lots of people blame God.
3) Others of us blame ourselves.
We think that, if God doesn’t answer our prayers, it must be for one of two reasons: 1) either we are sinners, not worthy of God’s mercy, or 2) our faith is not strong enough to prompt God to act.
This is what all those scriptures I cited seem to be saying to us. This is the flip-side of the predestination position. According to this way of thinking, God doesn’t dictate our condition ahead of time. Instead, people who react this way seem to believe that God’s power is limited by our righteousness or unrighteousness, by our faith or doubt. In other words, God isn’t to blame for unanswered prayer – we are (and of course, there is some validity to that statement because faith DOES have a role to play).
But I don’t believe this is the whole truth, either. If the only factors which determine whether prayers were answered or not are how much faith or doubt we have, then those with strong faith would be healed or have their prayers answered, and those with weak faith would not.
But that isn’t always the way it works. Often the prayers of saintly men and women seem to have no effect, while the prayers of sinners get results. In spite of what the Scriptures tell us, it appears that our level of faith or doubt is not the only factor at work. Blaming ourselves is not the answer, any more than blaming God is.
So, we ought not to reject God, blame God – or ourselves. How, then, CAN we respond when our prayers go unanswered?
4) The only thing we can do is to place our trust wholly in God, in spite of our circumstances and troubles.
Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God who are called according to his purpose.” This is the real “faith” our scriptures are talking about. God doesn’t cause the bad things that happen in our lives – but God can and will work in our lives to bring good out of bad – sometimes by answering our prayers, and sometimes not. It’s a mystery. It’s a matter of trusting in God, no matter what.
I believe that the problem stems, not from God, but from our misconceptions about what “faith” is. Most of the time, when we say “faith” we mean “belief.” But faith and belief are two very different things:
“Belief” is an intellectual thing – it is static. You can believe in God and not have faith at all. Many polls have shown that, while a large majority of Americans say they “believe” in God, only a small percentage actually practice their “faith.” They don’t live any differently than people who do not believe in God at all. The scriptures tell us that even the Devil and his demons “believe” there is a God.
“Faith” is something quite different. It is a action verb – and might better be translated “to trust.” In the New Testament, “faith” means “to entrust and commit oneself” – it implies an active dependent relationship with God. I once saw a wonderful plaque that explained this distinction better than anything I have ever read. It said: “Faith is not belief without proof, its trust without reservation.”
In our scripture lesson from Matthew, we see this kind of faith in action. You know the story – the disciples had set out in a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee, while Jesus stayed behind to pray. In the middle of the turbulent lake, Jesus came to them, walking on the water. Peter stepped out of the boat – why? Because he intellectually believed in Jesus? No. Peter stepped out of the boat because he had placed his faith in Jesus, trusting Jesus not to let him sink. And as long as he kept his eyes on Jesus, Peter walked on the water.
But, when he “noticed the wind and the waves,” he sank. Now, Peter still believed in Christ, but he had allowed fear to take control when he took his eyes off Jesus. He stopped trusting Jesus, and so he sank. Peter allowed doubt to get in the way of his relationship with his Lord.
In our other text, James says the same thing. Like Peter’s experienced proved, you cannot trust and doubt at the same time – they are mutually exclusive. “Ask in faith, never doubting,” James writes, “for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.”
Let me try to explain it this way: If I were to give my wife, Terri, reason to doubt my fidelity, she could no longer trust me (faith and doubt are mutually exclusive). Therefore, I must never allow doubt to enter my relationship with Terri, no matter what. We must always nurture the highest level of trust so that we know that we can always count on one another, no matter what life throws at us. It is because of our love and trust that our relationship can weather any storm.
It’s the same way with our relationship with God. When we feel that God has not answered our prayers, it’s easy to get discouraged. But we must never, never allow doubt to gain a foothold in our relationship with our Lord. We must resolve to love him wholly, recommitting our lives to him daily, no matter what. And we must keep our eyes focused on his face, knowing that he loves us more than we can ever know – and that he will never let us sink.