I can guess that during this pandemic numerous prayers are being offered to God. Some are for healing, of course, and others are for protection and provision. But many of us, if not all, pray for it to end. Some prayers are certainly being answered, for which we rejoice. But . . . let’s be honest . . . what about those prayers that are not?
If you are reading this blog, you probably know that I am a pentecostal. You may also know that as a pentecostal, one of our substantial beliefs is the power of prayer. This makes me one of the more unlikely persons to write about unanswered prayer.
Put simply: pentecostals believe in miracles. In the same way God was active during the days of the early church in the Book of Acts, God continues to be active today. We frequently testify about God’s interventions, such as the healing of our bodies and God’s protection of us. For us, God wants to be and is personally involved in our lives. This also means that God always answers prayer. Granted, pentecostals may admit that the response may not be what they want. “Sometimes God says, ‘Yes’; sometimes God says, ‘No’; and still other times, God says, ‘Wait,’ a pentecostal may say. But what of unanswered prayer? Why do we tend to be silent about God’s silence? I suspect . . . that if push came to shove . . . many of us would admit that we exist in that tension that remains between answered prayer and unanswered prayer.
My mother did. As a pentecostal family, we persisted in our belief that God answered prayers while prayers for my mother’s physical healing remained unanswered.
At 20 years old and a mere month after her wedding, my mother began to experience severe headaches—again. The first time was at age 16, which resulted in a brain tumor being removed at a world-renowned clinic. Now, as a brand-new bride, the return of the headaches was all too familiar. A tumor was discovered, and a portion of her cerebellum had to be removed. In the end, the surgery, which undoubtedly saved her life, stole from her body. Reminders of the removed tumor remained even after physical rehabilitation: a crossed left eye; no hearing in her left ear; partial paralysis on her left side; and an inability to maintain her balance.
It was several years later that my parents embraced pentecostalism. Like many people in my denomination, my family was influenced by the Word of Faith movement during the eighties. On the one hand, the upside of the Word of Faith movement was its teaching in God’s daily activity in the life of the believer. On the other hand, the downside of the Word of Faith movement was its overemphasis on self-agency. It was more than likely your fault if you did not receive the sought-after miracle. Perhaps you did not complete all the necessary steps to obtain said miracle Maybe you lacked faith, or possibly you neglected to confess the right sin. Like the self-help books of our time, the Word of Faith movement indicated that you have control. You can have your miracle by simply plugging in the right formula. God is waiting for you to ask.
Unfortunately, this mistaken belief in our control may lead to despair and/or self-blame when the miracle fails to appear. (See Kate Bowler’s podcast Heather Lanier: Whole and Holy, which speaks of self-help books and control).
As a pentecostal family, we believed in the miracle-working God. I recall during my youth, watching my mother walk to the front of the church to receive special prayer from guest speakers. I desperately wanted to witness a miracle, and if my mother was healed, that would be the greatest miracle of all. Yet time and again, my mother walked away without her miracle. Hidden underneath cognitive layers of understanding that miracles do not always appear, a piece of me questioned why she was not healed . . . Were we at fault? Did we not believe enough? But despite her lack of healing, my mother persevered in her walk with God.
Maybe my family lived out a paradox. On the one hand, we believed in answered prayer as pentecostals. We prayed in tongues without understanding and prayed for divine interventions with understanding. On the other hand, my mother’s body signified unanswered prayer. Her body betrayed the evidences of brain surgery, leaving her to live in this tension between answered prayer and unanswered prayer.
But I, unknowingly, resisted this tension. I clung to my formulaic God.
My husband and I had been married seven and a half years when we accompanied my mother to Orlando to take in the sights. While in Florida, we decided to check out a controversial healing televangelist that had recently obtained credentials with our denomination. We disapproved of this man’s theology, but when a well-respected pastor had supported this man’s pursuit of ministerial credentials, we began to question our unwavering stance. Since the televangelist pastored a church nearby, we chose to see and judge for ourselves by attending a Sunday morning service. During the service, the televangelist invited people to receive prayer for healing, and I watched as my mother made the journey from her pew to the front of the sanctuary. Hope sprung forth when I saw her fall to the floor as he prayed for her, but it was quickly dashed when healing eluded her body once again. Still, she enthusiastically spoke of God’s presence being incredibly powerful while I doubted. I just could not fathom God’s presence being so overwhelming without evidence of healing in my mother’s body.
But . . . my mother persevered in her walk with God.
It was several years later I became aware of my own need to learn to sit in the tension between answered prayer and unanswered prayer. It evolved amid a long, arduous journey of intense emotional pain that involved God’s silence—unanswered prayer. It included a crushing of both what I had believed to be God’s promises and of how I had believed God operated in the world (see The Unmapped Experience: An Escort to Empathy). I discovered along the journey the paradox of God’s absence (unanswered prayer) while God is present. I began to realize that unanswered prayers were not to be equated with God’s absence. Neither were they to be identified strictly as an occasion to blame myself for I simply did not have that much control.
Today, it is only natural that I revisit the subject of unanswered prayer, being in the middle of a pandemic and all.
This season conjures up the distress that God’s silence produces. Sometimes my distress surfaces as shame when I hear other pentecostals talk about hearing God’s voice. Hearing from God seems to be expected, or maybe presumed, particularly when someone asks, “What is God saying to you?” My response to such an inquiry these days is similar to God’s response to me: Silence.
This causes me to wonder if there could be anything quite as unnerving as unanswered prayer for a pentecostal. Even a no or wait would be better than silence. Since we believe that God regularly interacts with us, unanswered prayer may foster uncertainty and insecurity. Quite frankly, it induces within me increased introspection, something I am exceedingly prone to do anyway. It asks me if I am drifting away or if my heart has hardened to the things of God. Such silence by God may generate doubts of God’s presence, or even existence, and stimulates apprehension about the abandonment of God. Flowing out of unanswered prayers comes the deep longing to hear God’s voice, causing me to cry aloud, “Where are you, God?”
But I have received comfort in the knowledge that I am not alone in my experience of unanswered prayer.
Jesus himself experienced such silence as each of the Synoptic Gospels testifies (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42). Mark puts it this way: “He [Jesus] said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.’” German theologian Jürgen Moltmann comments in his discussion on this prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane:
“This unanswered prayer is the beginning of Jesus’ real passion—his agony at his forsakenness by the Father.”
“But here the Father withdraws from the Son, leaving him alone.”
That is, Jesus’ heartfelt prayer is only to be met with silence from the Father.
Once again, we are reminded that Jesus himself dwells in a paradox in that Jesus experiences unanswered prayer while he is within himself God’s answer to humanity (see my discussion about Jesus and paradox in previous blog When Jesus Asked Why). Undeterred by this unanswered prayer, Jesus maintains an absurd trust in the Father. Amidst such potent silence, Jesus entrusts himself to the loving Father by uttering the words, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” In short, Jesus abandons himself to the Father in the face of the Father’s abandonment of him. How can such unthinkable trust be possible? Unlike us, Jesus intimately knows the fierce love of God. He came from above (Jn 8:23), so he existed relationally in the complete love of the Trinity. He is God (Jn 1:1-3), so his very being is God’s embodied act of this relentless love, a grand gesture of ministry (Jn 3:16). At the same time, as a true human, his very being is also a grand gesture of faith.
Such a realization for me is a powerful pull towards trust.
Jesus’ unanswered prayer signifies that humanity’s experience of God’s silence is within the very being of God, the eternal life of God. It also indicates that my not having enough faith is a moot point. Jesus’ trust in the Father in light of an unanswered prayer conveys that Jesus completes the little trust I offer, making it more than enough.
Jesus’ brazen trust, then, is an invitation for me (and for all of us) to “make eye contact with my unanswered prayers and keep praying anyway” (to borrow the words from Sarah Bessey’s Miracles and Other Reasonable Things: A Story of Unlearning and Relearning God, p. 47). It means a refusal to deny or hide my unanswered prayers in shame, but rather embrace God’s silence and persevere in my relationship with God. It is an invitation to receive and dwell in God’s empathy as I experience unanswered prayers. It is an opportunity to trust in the fierce love of God.
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom, translated by Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 76.