In the Face of Unanswered Prayer

Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question, lifting the heart to God about it whenever it intrudes upon one’s thoughts.

―Elisabeth Elliot

Scripture: Psalm 66.19

But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.

Reflection: In the Face of Unanswered Prayer
By Steven Dilla

Disobedience can fracture our relationship with God in such a way that he will not answer our prayers. David acknowledges this just prior to talking about answered prayer, “If I had harbored sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”

Yet obedience doesn’t earn answered prayer. If this were the case Jesus’ experience in Gethsemane would have been vastly different.

Jesus obeyed every letter of God’s law with exacting precision and still faced unanswered prayer. “Remove this cup from me” he begged with such intensity the blood vessels under his skin ruptured mixing blood with sweat and tears. Yet the Father had other plans.

Christ would have known this—for, as Hebrews says, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” He faced greater battles than we face, yet he was perfect where we fail.

Christ not only prayed to have the cup of the crucifixion and God’s rejection taken from him, he also prayed, “Your will be done.” This is the prayer of a fully surrendered man—a man fully and sacrificially committed to the Father.

Unanswered prayer reveals whether our heart truly trusts God. In this way prayer is different from thinking about God. “To the thinker, God is an object. To one who prays, God is the subject,” observes Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity.

What we receive in prayer is greater than any request we can make. In this way no prayer goes unanswered because all prayer deepens our relationship with God—something worth far more than anything we could imagine.

As for the particulars of our prayers, which are God’s joy to fulfill, “God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows,” says Timothy Keller.

Our intimacy with God is deepened through prayer—which is what we need most. Trust becomes the foundation we stand on when our prayers are unanswered. Our satisfaction in God makes him the object of our rejoicing when our prayers are answered.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

Protect me, O God, for I take refuge in you; I have said to the Lord, “You are my Lord, my good above all other.” —Psalm 16.1

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 24 (Listen – 3:37)
Psalm 66-67 (Listen – 2:43)

 

To Dream in League with God

Prayer begins at the edge of emptiness.

―Abraham Joshua Heschel

Scripture: Psalm 61.1-3

Hear my cry, O God, listen to my prayer; from the end of the earth I call to you when my heart is faint. Lead me to the rock that is higher than I, for you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy.

Reflection: To Dream in League with God
By Abraham Joshua Heschel

Religion is a critique of all satisfaction. Its end is joy, but its beginning is discontent, detesting boasts, smashing idols.

The predicament of prayer is twofold: Not only do we not know how to pray; we do not know what to pray for. We have lost the ability to be shocked. Should we not pray for the ability to be shocked at atrocities committed by humanity, for the capacity to be dismayed at our inability to be dismayed?

The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech. The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake. In speech, the act and the content are not always contemporaneous. What we wish to communicate to others is usually present in our minds prior to the moment of communication.

In contrast, the actual content of prayer comes into being in the moment of praying. For the true content of prayer, the true sacrifice we offer, is not the prescribed word which we repeat, but the response to it, the self-examination of the heart, the realization of what is at stake in living as a child of God.

The quality of a speech is not judged by the good intention of the speaker but by the degree to which it succeeds to simplify an idea and to make it relevant to others. Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self.

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement, seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.

Prayer, too, is frequently an inner vision, an intense dreaming for God – the reflection of the Divine intentions in the soul of humankind. We dream of a time “when the world will be perfected under the Sovereignty of God, and all the children of flesh will call upon Your name, when You will turn unto Yourself all the wicked of the earth.” We anticipate the fulfillment of the hope shared by both God and humankind. To pray is to dream in league with God, to envision God’s holy visions.

*Excerpted and abridged from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity and Man’s Quest for God by Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Prayer: The Request for Presence

I call with my whole heart; answer me, O Lord, that I may keep your statutes. —Psalm 119:.45

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 21 (Listen – 5:03)
Psalm 60-61 (Listen – 2:27)

This Weekend’s Readings
Numbers 22 (Listen – 5:55) Psalm 62-63 (Listen – 2:44)
Numbers 23 (Listen – 4:01) Psalm 64-65 (Listen – 2:39)

Faith’s Cry

I struggle with all that says to me, ‘What is the use of your praying? So many others, who know more of prayer than you do, are praying.

―Elisabeth Elliot

Scripture: Psalm 59.10

My God in his steadfast love will meet me.

Reflection: Faith’s Cry
By Steven Dilla

It is often disorientation that pushes us into prayer. At the national level it is the immorality of leaders, threats of war, and unpredictability that drive us to pray in unity. I was reminded this week of the proclamation President Obama issued on the National Day of Prayer a few years ago:

For many of us, prayer is an important expression of faith—an essential act of worship and a daily discipline that allows reflection, provides guidance, and offers solace.

Though less than 600 words, the White House document read like a theology of prayer. It was a calling to pray—not for personal or political ends—to engage in the act of faith that is prayer. President Obama presented three outcomes of prayer:

Through prayer we find the strength to do God’s work: to feed the hungry, care for the poor, comfort the afflicted, and make peace where there is strife. In times of uncertainty or tragedy, Americans offer humble supplications for comfort for those who mourn, for healing for those who are sick, and for protection for those who are in harm’s way. When we pray, we are reminded that we are not alone—our hope is a common hope, our pain is shared, and we are all children of God.

There is much to be learned about a person’s theology from their understanding of prayer and much will likely be written about this, and our current, president’s views. But even more can be learned from how a person prays. This is what makes the Psalms so powerful—they teach Christians how to pray by exposing us to intellectually honest, emotionally vulnerable, dedicated times of prayer.

“Faith is never quiet; true faith is a crying faith,” Charles Spurgeon says in his exposition on the Psalms. “If you have confidence in God of such a kind that you do not need to pray, get rid of it; for it is of no use to you; it is a false confidence, it is presumption. Only a crying faith will be a prevailing faith.”

The easiest way to take for granted a country where prayer is nationally endorsed, and—more egregiously—a God who desires to meet us in prayers, is simply not to pray.

The Call to Prayer

Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the Lord our Maker.

For he is our God,* and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand. —Psalm 95.6–7

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 20 (Listen – 4:15)
Psalm 58-59 (Listen – 3:32)

 

Placing Trust in God

We say with our mouths that we believe in him, but we live with our lives like he never existed.

― Dr. Martin Luther King

Scripture: Psalm 56.11

In God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?

Reflection: Placing Trust in God
By Dr. Martin Luther King (1929-1968)

There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong. I don’t think we have to look too far to see that. I’m sure that most of you would agree with me in making that assertion. And when we stop to analyze the cause of our world’s ills, many things come to mind.

We begin to wonder if it is due to the fact that we don’t know enough. But it can’t be that. Because in terms of accumulated knowledge we know more today than men have known in any period of human history. I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men. (Lord help him.)

We must remember that it’s possible to affirm the existence of God with your lips and deny his existence with your life. (Amen, Preach.) The most dangerous type of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism. (Lord have mercy.) And I think, my friends, that that is the thing that has happened in America. That we have unconsciously left God behind. Now, we haven’t consciously done it; we have unconsciously done it.

The materialism in America has been an unconscious thing. Since the rise of the Industrial Revolution in England, and then the invention of all of our gadgets and contrivances and all of the things and modern conveniences—we unconsciously left God behind. We didn’t mean to do it.

I decided early (Oh yeah.) to give my life to something eternal and absolute. (All right.) Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow, (Come on.) but to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Amen, Amen) Not in the little gods that can be with us in a few moments of prosperity, (Yes.) but in the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, (That’s right.) and causes us to fear no evil. (All right.) That’s the God. (Come on.)

Go out and be assured that that God is going to last forever. (Yes.) Storms might come and go. (Yes.) Our great skyscraping buildings will come and go. (Yes.) Our beautiful automobiles will come and go, but God will be here. (Amen.) Plants may wither, the flowers may fade away, but the word of our God shall stand forever and nothing can ever stop him.

*Abridged from Dr. Martin Luther King’s, Rediscovering Lost Values. Audio (30:25)

The Call to Prayer

Taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are they who trust in him! —Psalm 34:8

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 19 (Listen – 3:39)
Psalm 56-57 (Listen – 3:11)

 

Pridefully Carrying Our Burdens

The school of modern psychology which regards the will-to-power as the most dominant of human motives has not yet recognized how basically it is related to insecurity.

―Reinhold Niebuhr

Scripture: Psalm 55.22

Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.

Reflection: Pridefully Carrying Our Burdens
By Steven Dilla

We have to distinguish, philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “between the pride which does not recognize human weakness and the pride which seeks power in order to overcome or obscure a recognized weakness.”

The first form of pride we are rather adept at seeing:

The human ego assumes its self-sufficiency and self-mastery and imagines itself secure against all vicissitudes. It does not recognize the contingent and dependent character of its life and believes itself to be the author of its own existence, the judge of its own values and the master of its own destiny.

This proud pretension is present in an inchoate form in all human life but rises to greater heights among those individuals and classes who have a more than ordinary degree of social power.

It is more difficult to see the second form of pride that Niebuhr identifies—partially because it is cherished in most of our culture and required in any meritocratic environment:

Closely related to the pride which seems to rest upon the possession of either the ordinary or some extraordinary measure of human freedom and self-mastery, is the lust for power with has pride as its end. The ego does not feel secure and therefore grasps for more power in order to make itself secure. It does not regard itself as sufficiently significant or respected or feared and therefore seeks to enhance its position in nature and in society.

We do not cast our burdens on the Lord, as the Psalmist charges us, because we believe more highly of our selves than we do of God. A person’s ability to carry their own problems allows them to demonstrate their strength and remain in control of the narrative.

Casting a burden unto God is an act of faith—yet David is not asking the faithful to become passive in the face of problems. We see from David’s words in the Psalms that though he never relinquished personal responsibility to be part of the solution, he located his hope and trust outside of his own power and actions.

Psalm 55 is a prayer following the betrayal of a close friend. David gives voices to his anger, recites the impending confrontation with his betrayer, and closes with the promise to move his hope outside of his own emotion and action—“I will trust in you.”

The Concluding Prayer of the Church

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day: Preserve me with your mighty power, that I may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all I do direct me to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ my Lord. Amen.

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Springtime by Phyllis Tickle.

Full prayer available online and in print.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 17-18 (Listen – 7:02)
Psalm 55 (Listen – 2:43)

 

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