The pain and glory of unanswered prayer

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me…”

alluaudia-procera-spice-plant-branch-38282Few things can be more confusing or frustrating for Christians than unanswered prayer, especially when we’re sure there are good, obvious reasons for God to grant our requests.

Recently I spoke to a good friend, a young man in (what should be) the prime of his life. Sadly, he’s afflicted with mysterious and chronic back pain. He’s tried every kind of medical treatment under the sun, and has persistently and faithfully prayed for relief. Yet his debilitating pain persists—unseen by most people, yet severe enough to prevent any real exercise and make everything in life difficult and uncomfortable.

My friend told me that he recently accepted an invitation to attend a large healing service. As the meeting went on and as many people appeared to be miraculously healed right before his eyes, my friend started to hope for a miracle of his own. “Maybe tonight’s the night,” he thought. “Maybe my suffering comes to an end—right here, right now.”

What struck me about this was not that my friend hoped to be healed. That’s pretty obvious. What struck me was why he wanted to be healed. He told me that he longed to be healed specifically so he’d have the opportunity to glorify God. And knowing this young man as I do, I’m confident that really was the deepest desire of his heart. “God, if you heal me, I can use this to glorify your name!” he prayed. “I can run to my brother’s house, and I’ll tell him I can finally run again because God healed me. He won’t be able to deny the truth about God anymore. I can tell all my friends how much God has done for me. I can testify to God’s kindness in a new and special way.”

But it never happened. The meeting came and went, but his back pain remained. His prayers went painfully unanswered.

Strictly speaking, of course, his prayers weren’t unanswered. It’s just that the answer was ‘no’ (or at least ‘not right now’). But why? Why would God not heal my friend, especially when his desire is so manifestly good? This wasn’t an example of the failed prayer of James 4:3 (“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures”). This was a request for God to glorify himself in the situation. Isn’t God committed to doing whatever will most glorify his name? And wasn’t this a perfect opportunity to do just that—and to relieve some awful suffering to boot?

There are no simplistic answers to these questions, no Band-Aid solutions to remove the sting of disappointment we feel when our prayers aren’t answered as we hoped. But there are some deeper answers—truths that we should embed into our souls to sustain us when we just don’t know what God is doing.

At the heart of it, we need to remember that God’s ways are not our ways.

In 1 Peter 1, Peter reflects on the ‘living hope’ and the ‘inheritance’ that are ‘kept in heaven’ for every believer, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He then turns his attention to the suffering that characterizes so much of this life, even as we wait with longing for our eternal inheritance.

In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9)

I remember reading these words some time ago and having the initial (and fairly stupid) question, “Why will we receive ‘praise, glory and honour’ for enduring our sufferings when Jesus Christ is revealed?” But of course it’s not us who will receive the praise; it’s God. Praise, glory and honour go to God when his people rejoice in the midst of trials.

To put it another way, our trials come so that our faith in Jesus will be proven genuine, and our genuine faith (especially when it persists through trials) glorifies God. By continuing to trust God even when life hurts, we testify that God is glorious, that God is good, and that Jesus matters more to us than a comfortable, happy life. Put most simply, our trials come so that God can be glorified.

My friend longed for his chronic pain to be healed so he could glorify God. And, if he had been healed, no doubt it would have glorified God. But God’s ways are not our ways.

God’s good design is that we will glorify him not just despite our sufferings, but in our sufferings. We glorify God when we suffer trials and yet do not give up on Jesus. We glorify God when we ‘love him’ and ‘believe in him’ even though we don’t see him now.

One day, when Jesus returns, my friend will be there – along with countless other saints whose faith has been refined and proven genuine through the grief of all kinds of trials. Their perseverance through hardship won’t be for their glory; it will be for God’s glory, because their perseverance will show that Jesus was worth it—that Jesus’ greatness surpasses the awfulness of our sufferings, and that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).

My friend wanted to run to his brother’s house and glorify God. But instead, he can walk (slowly, in pain) to his brother’s house and testify: “My back still hurts. And it sucks. But I still love and trust Jesus more than anything in this world. He is that good. He is that glorious. I wouldn’t let go of him for a second, even if it meant my back pain went away forever. And you know what else? One day all my pain will be totally healed, and I’ll receive the eternal inheritance that Jesus secured for me by rising from the dead. I can’t wait for that day!”

Which option glorifies God more? Running and leaping and praising God, or mourning and weeping and yet praising God?

Of course we should pray for relief from the sufferings of this life. You should pray, for example, that the darkness of mental illness will lift. You should pray that your sick loved one will get better and not die. You should pray that God will bring new joy into a difficult or loveless marriage, or that he will relieve your financial burdens, or provide relief from a miserable job, or that he’ll heal your chronic pain. But if (or when) he says no, you can still look forward to that day when your patient endurance will bring glory to God, when your faith is proven genuine, and when the object of your faith is shown to be that much more glorious because you didn’t give up.

The apostle Paul lived with a ‘thorn in his flesh’, something so terrible that he could call it a ‘messenger of Satan’ that ‘tormented’ him. “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me,” he confesses. “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:7-10)

When our prayers are not answered as we hope, we’re in the company of the apostle Paul. And one day, we can stand shoulder to shoulder with him, rejoicing that our earthly suffering can’t even compare to the glory now revealed in us, thankful beyond measure for the privilege of persevering through trials and bringing praise, glory and honour to God.

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