Why Doesn't My Prayer Work?

Why Doesn't My Prayer Work?

What does it mean when the things I pray for don't happen?
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Q. I know a woman who says God healed her of major health problems. My stepbrother has cystic fibrosis. We pray, but it's getting worse. How come God hasn't healed my stepbrother?

A. I wish I knew. I remember praying that my 2-year-old daughter Mandy could breathe as she lay gasping with pneumonia. After five days of struggle, she died. Then I heard some Christian happily say, "I needed a parking space, so I prayed and God gave me one right by the mall entrance!"

So God says yes to a parking spot, but no to Mandy's breathing? How's that fair?

But God is up to something even more important than giving us exactly what we want or think we need. The Bible says, "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love" (1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV). God answers some prayers the way we want, and doesn't answer others, in order to increase what's most important about us: our faith, hope and love.

Let me explain. Early church leaders wrote about the distinction between virtue and innocence. Innocence, these church fathers wrote, is when we've faced no temptation. Virtue is when we've been tempted but stayed strong. A similar distinction can be found in faith. Innocent faith can trust God because it hasn't seen darkness and trial; virtuous faith has known hardship and still chooses to trust God. This idea of virtuous faith makes me think of Job. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed, "Job's faith was unshakable because it was the result of being shaken."

Ever read a novel? Often, you'll be confused during the opening chapters. New characters are introduced. Seemingly random events take place. Subplots are complicated and don't seem to make any sense in relation to the main plot. But I've learned to keep reading. Why? Because you know the author will weave them all together by the end of the book. Eventually, each element will be meaningful.

So it is with answers to our prayers. At times, we receive what we ask; at times we don't. Accepting both by faith has to be a conscious choice. I choose to trust that before the book closes, the Author of my life will make things clear. I also choose to believe this important promise: "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope" (Jeremiah 29:11, NKJV).

Marshall, a former pastor, is editor of Leadership Journal, a magazine for pastors.

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