When Your Prayers Go Unanswered & Your Friends Die

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I learned how to pray the summer after my freshmen year of college. Wet behind the ears in my Christianity, I devoured “The Praying Life” and set out to pray with intention. Throughout that year, I delighted to see my prayers answered in specific ways, right and left. I felt like a spoiled child, asking Daddy for whatever delighted her heart and receiving it with flair. It nursed a powerful desire within my heart, one that has stubbornly stuck around in all of the highs and lows of my Christian life since – the desire to pray, earnestly and often. I began to make a habit out of finding some solitary, quiet moments in the morning to sit and ask the Lord for a variety of requests. And for the most part, they have been answered very clearly, and almost always with a resounding “Yes!”

After my senior year of college, I learned to “pray big.” I learned to ask for massive requests, and then “jump out of the boat”, trusting God to keep me from sinking. I used to pull into the parking lot of Hocking College and utter a quick prayer for the Holy Spirit to lead me to who He wanted me to share Jesus with that day, then step out and wait. I normally never waited more than an hour before an opportunity arose. I prayed, and prayed and prayed – and again and again and again, saw the answers materialize in ways that made my heart leap.

So when I found out my friend had brain cancer, my first thought was to pray for his healing. God will heal him, of course He will.

When I found out my friends were expecting a baby, my first thought was to pray for a healthy child. God will keep her safe, of course He will.

When we faced a few challenging circumstances in our ministry, my first thought was to pray for a change in circumstance.  God will make everything ok, of course He will.

I never, ever, ever thought the answer to those prayers would be anything other than “Yes."

The circumstances remain stubborn and unchanged.
The baby was miscarried.
My friend died.

My heart is so utterly broken that I have no words to describe it. I pick up the pieces of a broken heart, page through the days and months and years of confident prayers and ask myself “Did I miss it? Am I that far from God’s heart? How did I pray with such confidence and get so many heartbreaking 'No’s'?"

‘Did I miss it? Am I that far from God’s heart? How did I pray with such confidence and get so many heartbreaking “No’s”?

I know the theology. I know the Bible. I know that God is sovereign, that He is just, that He is good. I know that He works His plans in ways unfathomable. I know Romans 8:28, James 4:3, Matthew 21:22, Psalm 37:4.

And yet all of that feels so utterly, horribly empty as I am face to face with death and grief and disappointment.

As I stare at a grave that is painfully full, I think of someone else whose loved one died, whose prayers went unanswered.

Mary loved Jesus. She wept at his knee, wiped his feet with her hair. She trusted Him utterly. So when her brother Lazarus fell ill, she sent for Jesus.

“Of course he’ll come,” she thought. “Of course he’ll come, and heal Lazarus. Why wouldn’t he? He loves me. He loves Lazarus! He will come, and this will all be ok.”

But the days passed, and Lazarus got sicker, and Jesus didn’t come. I wonder if her heart was like mine, confident and sure. He is coming!

But he didn’t come.

And Lazarus died.

And they wrapped him up, and placed him in a grave, and cried.

I imagine her heartbreak was like mine. Thick and deep, and punctuated with utter bewilderment. “Why did he not come? Why did he not answer my call? Why did He not save Lazarus? Does he even love us at all?”

Why did Jesus not come? Why did He not answer my prayers? Why did he not save my friends? Does he even love us at all?

Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him,  “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11:32)

Oh, how alike we are, Mary – so utterly convinced in our God’s ability to save, and yet so utterly devastated by the reality of death and loss. Was she angry, like I am? Was she scared, like I am? Was she confused, like I am? Did she wonder if she had just prayed harder, or longer, or more fervently – would things have been different? As she sat in the middle of her story, I’m sure she wondered how this could possibly be part of God’s plan.

"Even the other mourners whispered, saying, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?'" (John 37)

Could not He who opened the eyes of the blind change our circumstances, saved my friends’ child, kept my friend from dying?

 But you and I, we know the end of this story. Jesus says the word, and Lazarus is raised back to life. He walks out of his grave. He leaves the tomb empty. Jesus did answer their calls for help – just not in the way or the time frame that they expected.

 In this life, I live on this side of the tomb. I live in the part of the story where the grave is full and the grief stays put. I am still in the middle of this story. I don’t have the luxury of seeing the end. But this is what I know:

 God is real.
God is good.
God is going to answer my prayers.

 He will.

 He already has.

 You see, Jesus is coming back one day. He promised He would. And when He does, He’s going to set the world right.

 No more pain. No more fear. No more crying. No more sickness, and sin, and death.

And on that day, I’ll understand it all. All the fervent prayers that have seemed to be met with indifference, a closed door, will be revealed.

 I’ll see how our unchanged circumstances fit into His plan for my good.
I’ll meet my friends’ baby for the first time – whole and well and alive.
I’ll see Ty again – healed and healthy and cancer-free.

 My prayers will all be answered. Just not in the way or the time frame that I expected.

My prayers will all be answered. Just not in the way or the time frame that I expected.

 I imagine I’ll be like Mary on that day, too. Bewildered, but amazed. Enthralled, entranced. Utterly, completely, totally overjoyed. Blissfully taking in the full reality of not only believing, but seeing that all things work together for the good of those who love God.

I am learning to be content in the waiting, though every single bone in my body longs for that day. And on the days when the longing gets too strong to bear, and I can’t hold in the grief and the brokenness I feel, I’m learning to let myself fall apart in His arms.

We can trust Him, friends. He is good. He is loving. He is not ignoring your prayers. Every “No” from God is always a “No, but better.” Won’t you trust Him with me?

When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
— C.S Lewis
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well
— Julian of Norwich

Music by Zach Winters - You can hear more of his work and buy the album here.