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If many remedies are prescribed for an illness, you can be certain that the illness has no cure. A. P. Chekhov, from The Cherry Orchard
Eleven years ago I lost my four-year-old daughter, Diana Jane, in a car accident that also took the lives of my wife, Lynda, and my mother, Grace. Their deaths, so sudden and brutal, set me on a spiritual journey that has continued to this day. The journey has been both grueling and wonderful, and the landscape I have crossed in the intervening years has been both bleak and beautiful. I have traveled through deserts that seemed as stark and dead as the moon; I have traveled through meadows lush with wildflowers. I have pondered more questions than I could name and number. But one question has remained, even after all these years: It is the question of unanswered prayer.
I prayed for my daughter's protection on the morning of the accident, as I had every morning since her birth. But something went desperately wrong that day. My prayer for Diana Jane was not answered, or so it seemed at the time.
When our kids were young, Lynda and I followed a bedtime ritual as predictable as the seasons. We never dared deviate from it. If we tried, our kids would resist us like sailors leading a mutiny. We put them in the bath first, usually alone, though sometimes in pairs. Then we dried them off, dressed them in their jammies, and sent them off to bed, where we cuddled, read stories, and sang songs. Finally, just before turning the lights out, we prayed. More often than not they fell asleep right away, with the exception of Diana Jane, who became a master at finding excuses to prolong the ritual as long as she could.
We taught them how to pray, too. We started simple, using a centuries-old prayer known the world over.
Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray thee, Lord, my soul to take.
This prayer reflects a concern that we in the Western world have largely outgrown. Before the advent of vaccines, penicillin, and surgery, many children died from disease, like weak animals culled from the herd before they could reach adulthood. Most deaths occurred during the night. Parents feared a visitation from the grim reaper, who would come under the shadow of darkness to snuff out the life of a precious child.
Lynda and I not only prayed with the kids, but we also prayed for them. I always prayed for them early in the morning, as I still do. I would stumble into the kitchen and make a pot of coffee. While the coffee brewed, I would peek at the paper. Then, after pouring myself a cup of coffee, I would sit down in a special chair and pray.
Some of my prayers were token and halfhearted, uttered more out of habit than in genuine faith. But not when I prayed for my kids. Lynda and I weren't supposed to have our own kids in the first place. That we had four children in six years was so miraculous to us that it engendered a deep sense of gratitude and responsibility in me. I never felt comfortable and adequate in the role of father. I was afraid I would mess up the kids. So I tried to follow Lynda's example, sought advice from experienced fathers, and prayed.
Oh, how I prayed for my kids! Praying for them was like breathing. I prayed because I loved them deeply and wanted to raise them well. I prayed that my kids would grow in faith, mature in character, discover their life's calling, build good friendships, and serve human needs. I prayed God's blessing on them. Finally, I prayed for their protection. I did not qualify my prayers. There were no "if God wills." I wanted them kept safe and secure, healthy and strong. I wanted to see them grow up to honor Jesus. I wanted them to outlive me.
If Diana Jane were alive today, she would be fifteen, a sophomore in high school. She hardly seems real to me now, though I still catch glimpses of her in my imagination. Unlike Lynda, who has remained in my memory pretty much as she was before she died, Diana Jane has changed because she would be so different now were she still alive.
I try to picture her as a teenager. She was always winning and wild, like a pet that could never quite be tamed. She was quick to flash a mischievous smile, walk on her tiptoes, and tease her siblings. She either giggled or cried, with nothing in between. She would press us to the limit, but with such a sweet disposition that we usually ended up laughing. I wonder what she would be like now-her height and appearance, her talents and interests, her personality and tastes. What flavor of ice cream would she like? How would she wear her hair? Who would be her best friend? What would be her favorite books and movies?
We were all together when the accident occurred. Three died, four survived-my daughter, Catherine, my two sons, David and John, and me. The scene of the accident was chaotic and apocalyptic, like something out of a disaster movie. We had to wait almost an hour before an emergency vehicle transported us to the nearest hospital, which was another hour away. The four of us drove in virtual silence, as if we were sitting inside a great cathedral, struck dumb by its grandeur. It gave me time-it actually felt more like an eternity-to think.
I realized in that moment that there was nothing I could do to reverse the catastrophe that had just devastated our family. Still, like a doctor in an emergency room taking extraordinary measures to stop the bleeding, I wanted to control the damage. I looked at my three traumatized children and decided then and there to do whatever would be required to help them through the crisis. My commitment to them from that point on became as fierce as a wounded animal trying to protect its young. I prayed for them, too, right there in the sad and holy silence of that emergency vehicle.
But a few days later a question arose in the back of my mind. That question nagged at me like a mild headache that refuses to go away, no matter how much pain killer you take. Why are you praying, Jerry? You prayed for Diana Jane's protection the morning of the accident, and look what happened! Why didn't God answer that prayer? Can you take prayer seriously, ever again?
Why Unanswered Prayer?
In the years that followed, I realized that it's not just my question. It's most everyone's. Why doesn't God answer our prayers? Not the silly and trivial prayers we say sometimes when we're in a pinch but the sincere prayers we say when we're in desperate need.
It is no longer an abstract question to me, the kind of question that some philosophy class might explore. It's a real question, as gritty and gutsy as the painful experience that forced me to ask it. I simply couldn't keep praying without finding an answer to it.
It wouldn't be such a serious question if we didn't take prayer so seriously. That we pray almost goes without saying, no matter what the circumstances. A grandparent says a prayer of thanksgiving at a holiday celebration. A military chaplain prays for the safety of a special military unit before it launches a secret mission. A parent cries out to God in anguish at the bedside of a sick child.
Prayer is partly a habit. As a habit, prayer is something we learn to do and have to work at, especially when we don't feel like it. Some of us succeed, becoming proficient and consistent, which are the fruits of effort and discipline; others of us fail, lacking the motivation to pray day in and day out. But prayer is also a reflex, like the jerk of a leg when the doctor's mallet strikes it or the blink of the eyes when a loud noise goes off. As a reflex prayer seems to run deep in human nature, as if we have no choice in the matter. Facing danger or difficulty, opportunity or challenge, we feel compelled to pray, even if we're not sure there is a God out there to whom we are praying.
Prayer seems to work, too, which only makes the problem of unanswered prayer more bewildering. At least some of our prayers are clearly answered, often in astonishing ways. I have witnessed many answers to prayer over the course of the last twenty-five years. I have seen a young man healed of cancer (though his prognosis was like a death sentence hanging over his head); I have watched churches come alive, marriages restored, and mental health problems overcome. We may pray out of habit or as a reflex; but we also pray because we get results-at least some of the time. Some people even use a prayer journal, recording their requests and God's answers. When a recipe produces superb food time and again, we are likely to continue using it.
But what about unanswered prayer? What should we do and how should we respond when our prayers-prayers that seem right and true and good-go unanswered, even when we say them with reverence, believing that they reflect what God really wants for us? Unanswered prayer is like a raw nerve in the Christian community. We pray because we believe in God. We tell God our needs-healing, restoration, protection, guidance, wisdom-but God doesn't give us what we need. Sometimes God seems as cold and distant as some far-off galaxy.
I know the conventional answer. It goes like this: God answers every prayer. He says "yes" to some prayers and "no" to others. There is something tidy and cogent about this answer. It provides an easy and rational answer to a troubling question. But sometimes personal experience makes this answer hard to accept. The formula doesn't pass the test. I can understand why God says "no" to some prayers, but not to all. What about a distraught couple who has just lost a son to cancer, though they prayed for healing? Or missionaries who have labored for years in a mission that was shut down because of lack of results, though they asked God for conversions? Or a group of high school kids who lost a good friend to suicide, though they asked God to deliver him from his emotional affliction?
Did God simply decide to say "no"? It seems hard to believe.
The Raw Nerve
Bob Mitchell, former president of Young Life and former vice president of World Vision, preached a sermon in our church recently in which he quoted from a letter he received almost fifty years ago, in May of 1955. The letter was written by Jim Elliot, who had recently moved to Ecuador, with his young wife and baby daughter, to pioneer a new missionary outreach to the Auca Indians. The Aucas lived in a remote area and were considered hostile to outsiders.
Elliot expressed gladness that "the gospel is creeping a little farther out into this big no-man's land of Amazonia." He also mentioned a mutual friend and partner in the missionary endeavor, Ed, who had already left to make contact with the tribe. Expressing both excitement and foreboding, Elliot charged Bob Mitchell to pray for them, especially for Ed. "There are rumors that the same tribe is scouting around there now, so don't forget to pray for Ed-that the Lord will keep him alive as well as make him effective in declaring the truth about Christ."
Of course Bob did not forget to pray for these courageous friends. He prayed for their protection and for the success of their work. He was only one of hundreds who prayed for this new mission. But several months later those friends-Ed, Jim, and three others-were murdered by members of the very tribe they were trying to reach. Bob's prayer was not answered.
Nor are many others. The same story keeps repeating itself. It just involves different people, occurs under different circumstances, and leads to a different disappointment.
Take Pete and Shirley. In their sixties, they were nearing retirement after forty years of faithful service to the church. He was a pastor, she his supporter and an energetic volunteer. Their last church was their best. Though a large congregation (over 1,400 in attendance on a typical Sunday), it had become like a family to them. God had prospered their ministry at the church, too. The church was healthy and vibrant. It was a lighthouse in the community, a place that was attracting broken people.
Then the criticism started. A few in leadership began to question the pastor's vision and the church's lack of explosive growth. One leader said, "This church was once the flagship of the denomination. I want it to return to that position of glory once again." He even threatened them. "You have six months to turn things around, or you're out!"
Pete and Shirley were shocked. They thought that the board understood their philosophy-grow the church in faith, love, and service, and it will eventually grow in numbers, too. They tried to explain their vision and its biblical foundation; they emphasized the importance of availability, brokenness, and confession.
But the criticism continued. Most members of the church were supportive. Many cared for them, prayed for them, and encouraged them, especially during the conflict. Some remained distant and silent. But a small group of people launched a campaign against them. People betrayed them and made false accusations against them. The church became divided, a hostile place, a cancerous community.
They cried out to God. They prayed constantly and asked others to do the same. They fasted and claimed the promises of God. They begged for protection, vindication, and deliverance. "We remembered the deliverance of Joseph from prison, David before Goliath, Elijah on Mount Carmel, Daniel in the lion's den, Peter in prison. Our God was the same God. He would fight for us."
But it became clear after a long battle that there would be no reconciliation and peace. So they resigned. Their farewell was like a funeral. Their losses overwhelmed them-community, friendships, financial security, reputation.
What surprised and bewildered them most of all, however, was God's silence. "God did not answer our prayers. Heaven was strangely silent, cold, distant, as if made of brass. It felt as if we knocked and pounded on the door of heaven until our knuckles were raw and bleeding, and still there was only silence. Why pray when all you get is silence?"
Or take Eddie. Our family met Eddie when we visited Kenya in the summer of 2000 to do volunteer work. Eddie was a refugee. He had not seen or heard from his family in ten years and had no idea if they were still alive. His suffering, however, had ennobled and deepened him. He had become a devout Christian, and he wanted to serve as a pastor in Africa. So he attended a university in Nairobi and was just about to graduate when we met him.
He had big dreams for his future. He thought that the best preparation he could receive for ministry was in the United States.
Excerpted from When God Doesn't Answer Your Prayer by Jerry Sittser Copyright © 2003 by Gerald L. Sittser. Excerpted by permission.
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