As someone who’s interested in Christian apologetics, I used to think that unanswered prayer posed a bigger “challenge” to Christianity than I do today. I explain why in this podcast. The gist is this: I know my own heart to some extent. I often don’t know what’s good for me. And I often want things that ultimately cause me harm. Our Father, by contrast, only wants to give us “good things,” as Jesus says. So we can trust him.
Devotional Text: Matthew 7:7-11
You can subscribe to my podcast in iTunes, Google Play, and Stitcher.
Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Wednesday, January 17, and this is the fourth podcast of my new series of devotional podcasts. I’m posting new podcasts in this series every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I’ll also post my Sunday sermons whenever I get around to it. So stay tuned.
You’re listening to the song “Beautiful One,” by the band Daniel Amos, sometimes known as DA, from their 1986 album Fearful Symmetry. It’s hard not to hear echoes of the Beatles’ song “Across the Universe.”
Years ago—eleven, to be exact—I attended a debate in Atlanta between Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British political commentator, author, and journalist, and Timothy Jackson, one of my professors at the Candler School of Theology. At the time, the late Mr. Hitchens was staging debates with religious people as part of a publicity tour for his new book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.
Hitchens was a quick wit and a famously fierce debater, and, although you wouldn’t know it from the boisterous reactions of Hitchens partisans in the audience—it was his book tour, after all—my guy, Dr. Jackson, won the debate… handily. In fact, the debate sparked my interest in Christian apologetics—the art of defending the Christian faith—that remains to this day. It’s hard to remember this now, but I started my blog in 2009 in part to address skeptical questions about the Christian faith.
One such question is the challenge posed by unanswered prayer. How do we square the fact of unanswered prayer with Jesus’ own words on the subject—for example, Matthew 7:7: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” Or John 14:13: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
There are many good answers to this question, but I like this analogy from science: Chaos theory teaches us that a butterfly flapping its wings in China could be “magnified through a ripple effect so as to determine the path of a hurricane in the South Pacific.” So even a seemingly small event like a butterfly flapping its wings can change the course of history in ways that we can’t predict. Now think about our prayer petitions: the things we ask God to do for us will likely be far more significant than a butterfly flapping its wings; and only God can foresee whether the consequences of granting our petition will ultimately be good for us, for everyone else, and for the rest of Creation.
My point is, if God doesn’t grant our petition, we can trust that he knows best; we certainly don’t. As pastor Tim Keller puts it, “God gives us what we would have asked for, if we knew everything that God knows.”
I like that answer… I do! But it’s still a little academic.
How about this answer: Often God doesn’t give us—his children—what we ask for because God wants us to be happy—I mean, deeply happy; with a lasting kind of happiness, an invulnerable kind of joy. And we simply don’t know what we need in order to achieve that kind of happiness. But God does.
In that same passage from Matthew chapter 7 that I referred to a moment ago, Jesus says, “[W]hich one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Notice Jesus says that our Father will give us “good things.” I hate to say it, but I’m not convinced I want good things much of the time!
Don’t get me wrong: I want things! For example, I desperately want recognition… I want people to praise me… I want people to appreciate me… I want people to show me how much they love me.
And you might say, “What do you want? A medal?” Yes! That’s a good start!
And if I don’t get a medal, I’d be willing to settle for lots of money! I’m not hard to please!
My point is, the things I want… even if I got them, they would never be enough. I would never be satisfied. God knows that!
So thank God for unanswered prayer! I mean that literally… Thank God! Our Father only wants to give his children good things. See, I’m the one asking for stones, and my Father gives me bread instead. I’m the one asking for a serpent, and my Father gives me a fish instead. Or, from Luke’s gospel, I’m the one asking for a scorpion, and my Father gives me an egg instead. Thank God!
God wants us to be happy… Our problem is our willingness to settle for something far less than happiness. Listen to the way C.S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:
George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.
“O God, I’m weary from hunger. I don’t want to starve any longer. Give me your bread of life. Give me your Son Jesus! Give me Jesus, and I’ll be satisfied. Amen.”
That’s a prayer that God will answer every time!
1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 100.
2. Matthew 7:9-10 ESV
3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.