In a recent Discipleship community class there was a discussion about the difference between faith and unbelief. The scope of the conversation was rather large but one particular vein caught my attention.
It started with a couple of people talking about praying for “prodigal” children for years and waiting on the Lord to work in their life. Then another man talked extensively about one of his children and how he and his wife have been praying for years for a healing only to have those prayers seemingly going unanswered.
As others in the group discussed these concerns the topic came up, as it invariably does, that perhaps it’s not God’s timing, or our need to keep our faith focused. After all, God doesn’t always do as we request. He does as he desires.
It reminded me of the story in Daniel 3 of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were called to bow down to the King and worship his god. They refused. In the moments before they were thrown into the fiery furnace they spoke confidently to the King: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods…” (Dan. 3:17-18)
These three men were willing to burn no matter what. If God delivered them fine, if he didn’t fine.
I would suggest most of us live in the “but if not” area of life when it comes to our significant prayers on major issues. We pray hoping that God will answer our prayers according to our desires—not always selfish I might add. When he doesn’t we resort to the “but if not” safety net to keep our faith in one piece. We could conclude it’s a timing issue, an issue of not enough faith, an issue of sin, or whatever. There’s always conditions we want to wrap our unanswered prayer in order to come out of it unscathed with personal faith firmly in tack.
In other words, we want to put conditions on our asking so we can cover ourselves if our prayers are not answered accordingly. It’s the old “if it be your will” signature.
Now I’ve had my share of unanswered prayer. Still do. Yet the one thing that I cannot escape is Jesus does not always put qualitative or quantitative conditions on prayers. There was one time that I’m aware of, when he took the but, if not road and that was in the garden of Gethsemane. A time, I’m pretty sure he desired road B and God desired road A. Other than that, when it came to his thoughts on prayer, they were pretty straight forward.
When instructing his disciples on prayer, there were very few conditions. A couple of times (Mat. 21:22 and Mark 11:24) he talks about asking with faith or believing. Yes, there are times when there are if/then stipulations, but it’s important to ask, how much love is necessary in those instances? How much obedience, how much faith, how much belief is enough? If a prayer is not answered is it because we’re lacking something?
In the electronic version of Holman’s Bible Dictionary there is this statement in the opening paragraphs about prayer:
The ironies of prayer are evident: God knows our needs, yet we must ask; God is ready to answer, yet we must patiently persist. Children of the kingdom will have their requests heard (Matt. 6:8; 7:7-11; 21:22; John 14:13; 15:7,16; 16:23; cp. 1 John 3:22; 5:14; James 1:5), particularly believers gathered in Jesus’ name (Matt. 18:19).
The dilemma of unanswered prayer is, to say the least, wrapped with “ironies.” Yet it’s a part of the Christian life that we are encouraged to participate in the most. We have opening prayers, closing prayers, intercessory prayers, prayers for healing, prayers for deliverance, prayers for salvation, prayers for peace, prayers for our leaders, prayers for our pastors; family prayer time, personal prayer time, and congregational prayer time.
Yet, prayers often go unanswered. Nevertheless, we keep asking God and prepare ourselves for the “But, if not…”