“And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.”
-Matthew 26:39 NRSV
Before I begin on the question presented to me this week, I want to let the contemporary crowd know that starting Sunday you will witness some changes to the flow of worship during the 11:00 am hour.
The changes come from some feedback amongst staff and worshippers and are meant to emphasize the flow and connectivity between different elements of worship. What I really want you to know is that the primary scripture of the day will be integrated into the music set towards the front of the service, to set the theme for the day, and the message will follow the music immediately. So…if you enjoy walking in 15 minutes late, you’re going to miss a lot. Also, children’s time will come right after the message (unless there is communion), instead of before. This will give children a whole segment at the end of worship to do children’s time before coming to join the band for the final song. We look forward to worshipping with you on Sunday!
Now – this week I received one of the more challenging questions that always perplexes me: “What if my prayers don’t work?” or “Why doesn’t God answer some prayers?” Seeing as many of us will claim to have seen prayers answered or hold to the belief from John 14:13-14, “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it,” it can be lonely when you feel your prayers aren’t being heard – or acknowledged.
There are common answers to this question including:
- You don’t have enough faith – James 1:5-8
- God has something better for you – Ephesians 3:20
- God is waiting for you to be obedient first – Psalm 84:11
- God’s idea of “good” might be different than yours – Matthew 7:11
What trips me up every time is that none of these apply to when Jesus’ prayer doesn’t get answered in the way he would like. To think that the Son of God doesn’t have enough faith isn’t holy or obedient enough, or somehow has a different definition of “good” than God, whom he is the same essence as, would land many in the “heretical” category. But in the Garden, Jesus’ prayer for easing his life doesn’t get answered.
Søren Kierkegaard writes, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” In that moment, in the garden, Jesus very easily could have run away or muttered to himself or even had a chat with his disciples who could have talked him out of the whole thing. Instead, he brings his concern before God – with the explicit idea that he’s willing to bend to God’s will. Jesus’ prayer is a petition, but it’s a petition meant to express the difference between a human and God, and ultimately to trust that God is with him through the suffering he will endure.
One person I always lean on when I think about unanswered prayers is a gentleman named Jason Morgan that attended a men’s Bible study I sometimes led in place of the senior pastor when I was an associate. Jason was paralyzed from the waist down on a special ops mission in Central America and immediately started praying to walk again. It’s been at least 30 years since that fateful mission, and Jason still needs the use of a wheelchair, but Jason’s bitterness with God began to fade as his prayers turned from “let me walk again” to “Lord, help me.” He was paired with a service dog named Roo who was much more than a helper; Roo became Jason’s best friend. Through his experience with Roo, the military asked Jason to go on a campaign around the country promoting the need and benefit of service dogs for veterans, and eventually, he wrote a book and appeared on Good Morning America, promoting service dogs for disabled veterans. Since that moment, thousands of veterans have been blessed by faithful canine companions that serve to get the mail as much as they help manage depression.
I don’t know why some miracles happen and some don’t. I don’t know why some people walk again and some don’t. But when I think about Jason, I think about Paul’s words about “the thorn in my side,” that he lived with during his ministry. So much of our prayer life is spent in disappointment, expecting biology, physics, and more to be overturned, when so much of Paul’s prayer life was spent wondering how God was moving despite his circumstances being less than ideal. Jason Morgan found prayer to be more of a conversation between friends than a list to Santa Claus, and knowing God was there gave him the confidence to lead others in healthy ways.
When I pray for people in hospitals, I do pray for healing. But what I pray for most often is for God to give us peace in the circumstances. In no way does an unanswered prayer or lack of healing make God impotent – on the contrary – imagine a God who can take the biggest challenges life has to give us, and help us turn them into avenues of transformation. Perhaps the difference is not wondering if God answers prayers – but knowing that God hears prayers and transforms us in God’s listening presence.
Please know that if your specific prayer has gone unanswered in the way you would like to see, it doesn’t have to do with your level of holiness or faithfulness. It doesn’t mean God is ignoring you or making you suffer just a bit longer. It might be that we’ve simply misunderstood what prayer is, and need to adjust what we ask for.
I’m praying for you today. For peace in the midst of joyful or challenging circumstances. For God to feel especially close. For an opportunity to come your way that will challenge you in transformative ways. For a moment to pass your way where you can provide care for someone in need. And for chances to come to all of us to make this world look more like the world Jesus paints a picture of in the Gospels. I hope you’ll say a prayer for me today too.