When God’s not answering your prayers

Last week I preached on Signs and Wonders in the Early Church. But I have to be honest with you when I saw the reading for the day,  the story of Peter raising Dorcas from the dead, my heart sank. It’s a scary passage to preach on: as far as extreme discipleship goes raising the dead is right up there with treading on serpents and walking on water and it might not surprise you to know that I haven’t done either of those things either.

It would have been tough call even if I’d been in a ‘good place’ but I wasn’t.  I was feeling battered, weak, inadequate and ineffective. God hadn’t seemed to be answering my prayers either for myself or for anyone else I prayed for. Disheartened wouldn’t be too strong a word for how I felt.  However three days before the sermon, I went on a retreat day. I was still ranting on about what on earth I could say and generally moaning about a heap of  other stuff God didn’t seem to care about. My spiritual director listened carefully, made several wise observations but most importantly sent me out to spend three hours in a beautiful garden. I was given an orange blanket and a copy of  Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus. Wrapped in the blanket and looking for all the world like the victim of some natural disaster, I soaked up the spring sunshine and read the book (wonderful, wonderful book). Better though than the book, the blanket or the garden was Jesus himself who came to sit with me.

Well, I did go on to write the sermon, although I don’t for a moment think that God turned up just so I’d have something to say. He came because I needed to be reminded that he was on my side. And he didn’t just say it once: the following day, I ‘chanced’ to pick up a true story I myself had written 16 years ago,  I’d forgotten all about this incident but reading it again was like an echo of my conversation with Jesus the day before.

It’s all about how we feel when God seems not to come through for us:

Matthew my son started nursery age 3. He  is now 19 and yes, he has given permisson for me to tell this story. Matthew didn’t want to go to nursery. He found the idea of being left in a strange place with lots of noisy children quite unpalatable. It didn’t do him any good to tell him about the sand-pit, or the train set, the Lego or the playdough: as far as he was concerned the only good thing about nursery was coming home at the end. As it seemed unrealistic to expect him to enjoy it, I turned my attention to reassuring him that he would survive it.  I found out that the session always ended with a group story time, so I promised him that ‘Mummy would come back after the story’. This reassured him on two counts. It told him I would come back and when I would come back, 11.45 being a bit meaningless to a three year old.  So leading up to his first day, we repeated this promise like a mantra, ‘So you’ll come back after the story?’ ‘Yes, I’ll come back after the story’.

On his first day I left him making a noble attempt to be very brave, mouthing the words of the well-worn promise through the window at him as I left. He nodded solemnly.  What happened next was recounted to me by the nursery leader when I duly returned at the appointed time.

Matthew had made the best of the situation for about half an hour and had then decided he’d had enough and ‘could he please go home now?’ Faithful to the formula I’d given him he’d trotted over to the book corner, selected a story and put himself on the knee of an unsuspecting helper. Quite naturally, she read him the story. When they reached the end he looked round expectantly and then burst into tears. ‘Mummy said she’d come back after the story’ he managed to blurt out between heart-rending sobs. He had not been able to make Mummy magically reappear and it had taken the helpers a good twenty minutes to calm him down.*

It can often feel that God lets us down in the same way that I let Matthew down that day. He fails to come through for us in the way we’d like and our distress is made all the greater when we shake our fist and say ‘You promised…’  God has indeed given us many wonderful promises about his love and his power but we cannot control God by quoting these at him.  When God isn’t answering our prayers we have to conceed we may not know the full story. We trust in people who know more than us. That’s why phrases like ‘Trust me I’m a doctor’ or ‘Trust me I’m your mother’ work. On that afternoon in the garden, it was as if Jesus was saying ‘Trust me, I’m your friend’. If you’re not given the miracle you  want, can you trust me enough to receive the miracle of my transforming presence in the midst of pain and confusion?

If you want to hear the sermon, here’s the link. If it doesn’t work just go to m20 on my website list. It’s called ‘Signs and Wonders in the Early Church’ but ‘When God’s not answering your prayers’ would have been a more accurate title.


*First published in The Art of Imperfect Parenting by Sheila Bridge Hodder and Stoughton 1995

  My ‘brave’ boy!

5 thoughts on “When God’s not answering your prayers

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  1. I liked your comments and story here. It is always comforting to read of someone who ‘does God’ for a job but also experiences the big unanswered questions.

  2. Thank you; I have just sat and listened to the sermon and it was very helpful. In years of physical bad health I got to the point of shouting at God and it took a long time to realise that I didn’t have to shout because he was beside me all the time; not observing my pain but sharing it.
    Recently I have been battling depression and yet even in the deepest pit I never lost that awareness of Jesus being with me.
    Today I am stressed – tomorrow there is yet another meeting to review my sick record and this is not a god time to be a Civil Servant with an appalling sick record. Yet listening to your sermon has calmed me down. I may have no idea about the outcome but I know God is going to be with me in the room and will be with me in whatever follows. If he stayed with me when I shouted at him he’s not going to leave now is he?

  3. Enjoyed the telling of your son and “I’ll be back after the story!” I liked the way you related this to God.

    My own son taught me a lot while he was alive and continued to help me learn after his death. Here’s a quick example …

    All his life my son Jason seemed to come up with profound and perceptive comments. Some demonstrated a sensitive, thoughtful young man while others confirmed a witty goof ball was in our midst. I find it sad yet unbelievably beautiful that the most insightful and compelling words uttered by my son were spoken by him after his death.

    Jason was full of energy and took his first steps shortly before he turned nine months. He discovered soccer at the age of five and seemed to have wings on his sneakers. He was inquisitive and sometimes, even in the middle of a soccer match, the flight of a butterfly could draw his rapt attention, to the utter frustration and consternation of his soccer coach, yelling on the sidelines.

    In high school Jason excelled academically and on the track. He was in his element but his successes did not go to his head. I found it heartwarming that my 17-year old son could tell me the personal bests of his fellow teammates, including the youngest members of the track club. He simply cared about others.

    The day Jason was to compete in a major track and field competition he told me he didn’t feel well and I urged him to stay home. He had already been selected for the national team so he could certainly skip this one competition. A runner and triple jumper, he looked forward to the opportunity of improving on his own personal bests and he said, “I just want to see what I can do.” Before leaving for the meet he hugged me. It was to be our last hug. Just an hour later, he lost control of his car and within minutes he was dead.

    After his death, trying to find balance, meaning and comfort in my life was a slow, arduous, and complex process. Five years passed but Jason was never far from my thoughts. One day, the pain of missing my son returned so abruptly I broke down, sobbing. Between huge gulps, I spoke to God in prayer, begging Him to give me a dream where I could once more see my tall, beautiful, blond-haired son. I pleaded. I begged. I cried. “It is very easy for you, God. This is so simple. Please, please give me this dream. I miss him so much. All I ask for is a hug. That’s easy for you, just one hug in a dream.” I cried on and begged as if my life depended upon this one thing. In those five years since his death I had dreams every night, but not once had Jason been in any dream. I ached with a mother’s heart, yearning to see my son, to hold him, if only in a dream.

    God answered my prayers and I indeed got my dream. Strangely though in my dream, Jason was much younger – he might have been seven years old. In the dream I was chastising him for something he
    had done. I said, “Jason don’t do that. Do you want to get killed?”
    And this little blue-eyed boy, my son, looked at me and spoke the most compelling words he ever uttered, “But Mom, death isn’t forever”

    I awoke and immediately felt upset. I thought, “Five years without a dream and now I don’t even get a hug!” Then as I became more fully awake, it dawned on me I’d just been given something far better. Jason had returned to me as a child to comfort me. My son had given me words that have filled me with hope again and again ever since that night. Any time I ache for reassurance and comfort, I need only recall that one sentence from Jason, “But mom, death isn’t forever.”
    God gives us what we need!

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