A man was out on his boat when he got caught in a nasty storm. The boat got wrecked by the storm, and he washed up on the shore of a deserted island. He prayed feverishly day and night day after day to be saved, but no one came. After a few days, the man built himself a hut on the beach out of some of the driftwood that had washed up on shore with him to both protect himself and what few possessions he had left. Then, the next day, when he came back from scavenging for food, he found his small hut ablaze, smoke billowing up into the sky. He had lost everything but his life. “God, how could you do this to me?!” he screamed up towards the heavens. That next morning, he was awoken by the sound of a ship heading his way. He asked them how they knew where to find him. They told him that they saw his smoke signal.
Have you ever wondered why your prayers aren’t answered, or when they are, they aren’t answered in the way you wanted? You prayed for the winning numbers to the lottery but didn’t get them. You prayed for patience, but only find yourself growing more impatient with life and the people in it. You prayed to be more forgiving, but only find you have more people to forgive and see more things wrong with yourself to forgive. This is a strange occurrence that leaves many (myself included) frustrated. We pray for something, and when we don’t get it right away, we get frustrated. Similarly, when we pray for something and it’s not answered according to our plans, we also get frustrated. However, there are a few things worth clearing up about how we view prayer.
In our day of mass consumerism, we are used to getting things almost instantaneously. When I was a kid, if you wanted to download something off the internet, you needed to make sure no one used the phone, hoped the file wasn’t too big, and that there wasn’t a power outage. Even then, the bar that told you how long it would take to download might tell you it would take hours, days, even years (my record was over 143 years for a single game). Now, we can get any show or song we want instantly, watch it on our devices anywhere, and have anything we want shipped to our door in two days or less. Unfortunately, this mentality of “what I want when I want it” has rubbed off onto much of how we pray. We pray for something and expect that same “two-day shipping” or “instant download.” When it doesn’t happen, that same frustration we feel when a package gets delayed or we’re told to “try later” to download something boils up within us against God. However, there are a couple valid reasons for why this is the case.
One reason we don’t always get what we want is because it’s not part of God’s plan. Our plan might be to win the lottery and live on a mega yacht the rest of our days, but that’s not in God’s plan for us. We plan to be doctors, lawyers, Nobel Prize winners, to achieve these many great things, but we never get that far. So, that “wish list” many of us (myself included) sometimes lift up to God in prayer, hoping and praying that God will be convinced that our plan is better, those will never get answered simply because those are not things we need. Additionally, God’s plan is absolute, and as much as we might try, nothing we do or say will be able to change God’s mind to “see things our way.” This however is not all there is to why our prayers are seemingly “unanswered.”
Another possibility is that our prayers are in fact being answered, but not in the way we think or expect. Just as was the case of the man in the parable above, so is this also the case with us. We pray for something, having in mind how we imagine it will go down, how that answer will look, etc. However, this vision of “how it will be answered” gives us a tunnel vision of sorts whereby our view is obstructed. The truth is we need to have wider scopes. God may never provide us with the monetary wealth that comes with a winning lottery ticket, but we nonetheless will be made wealthy in friendships, love, experiences, wisdom and/or knowledge, etc. To limit our prayers of “wealth” to just money is to not allow ourselves to see all that God can do or see those answers elsewhere in our lives, places where that “wealth” might be better suited. This however is not the only reason we don’t get the answers we want.
The other half of the answer as to why we don’t get the “two-day” prayer answer is because it’s not the right time. I can recall praying when I was in college that I would find a sweetheart that I could marry right out of college, settle down with, have children with, and with whom to grow old (essentially what my parents and both of my brothers did). Had that prayer been answered at that time, I would have never been able to avoid student loans for seminary, never done a year as a Young Adult Volunteer, never met Katie, never thought of adoption out of the foster care system, any of these things and more. By the same token, I prayed in seminary to pass my written ordination exams on the first go only to graduate having not passed all of them. Had that not happened, though, I wouldn’t have done a year as a Young Adult Volunteer in New Orleans, never met Katie or my host family, never learned more about my enneagram or White privilege, any of that. As you can see, I passed those exams, I’m happily married (coming up on 6 years married, a little over 8 years together), but at the time of my prayers, they weren’t the right time. Again, God has a plan. It’s possible that, while our plan is God’s plan, God’s plan has those answers coming at a later time.
In conclusion, I would invite you, the next time you don’t get the answer you want when you want it, to consider three things:
- Is your prayer a “want” or a “need”?
- Is God answering your prayer, just in a different way?
- If not, might there be a better time for it to be answered?
It’s true, God may not give “two-day delivery” when we hit our internal “pray now” button, but God’s service and timing is impeccable in the grand scheme of things and has a 100% satisfaction rate. Can you really beat that?