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Unanswered - What does it mean when our prayers aren't answered?

By Barb Stanley

I lean in a little closer and try to decipher the nearly illegible script. I should be able to read it, I think, since it’s my own handwriting. But, it’s tough to make out these hurried strokes, penned in a hybrid of print and cursive, passionately put down on the page without caring for future records. A few words jump out at me - the names of friends, circumstances gone by, some scripture that I had forgotten how much I needed to hear again. I lean in further and read and read and read, and when I am done I close the book and take a deep breath.

I rest my head on the back of the Adirondack chair on my porch and breathe in the muggy, summer air. I listen to the unnerving caws of the crows that have taken residence in my tree, and I think about what I have just read from the prayer journal in my lap. Rereading this old journal did not go as I expected. Now, I am quiet. I am unsettled. I am left in wonder.

What about you?

I learned long ago that if I wanted to make it through each day with any sense of peace, then I needed to pray. I mean really pray, spending time on deep reflection, conversation, and connection with God, not just the daily checklist mumbled through before my head hits the pillow. Some days I do better than others, and when I do, I can feel the difference. I also learned that for me, writing my prayers down in a journal was the most authentic and effective way to connect. And with this, I have many old prayer journals scattered around my house.

Every once in a while, I pick one up and reread it. Almost always this is affirming. I look back at what was happening before, the things that had made me heavy at the time, and often I see how God answered these prayers. They are not always answered the way I had hoped, but often I can see how God provided, gave clarity, or grew me or others through the tough stuff. But today’s reading was different.

Today, I picked up an old, random journal and dove in, expecting to find encouragement and reassurance. Instead, what I found was page after page after page of heartfelt prayers that I am still praying the same way today. I found page after page of prayers that have not been answered in the way anyone would had hoped. I heard the voice of a person, praying earnestly about things she thought were tough, but having no idea of the actual tough things that were yet to come. And yes, there were flashes of light here too, places where God provided, wins that came, blessings that were poured in, but, overall, after reading this journal from a year and a half ago, I realized that though much has changed in my life, and the lives of those I care for, little is different. And truth be told, many situations have arisen since then that are actually harder.

And so, as I sit here on my porch, trying to get a clean breath from the sweltering air, I start to ask myself this question. “What does all this mean?” But, instead, I stop and exhale, because I already know the answer deep in my soul. It means this:

God is good.

When my prayers are answered in ways that realize my hopes, God is good. When my prayers are answered in ways that I never hoped for, God is good. When my prayers are yet to be answered and I live in flux, God is good. Whatever the circumstances, God is good. God never changes.

I think about this encouragement for a moment and reflect on what it means in this season of difficulty in my life. You see, for the better part of the last year one of my family members has been navigating a hard to treat, life-changing illness. Many of our days have been filled with doctor’s visits, WebMD, lots of prayers, but few answers. It has been hard. In fact, it is the very toughness of this season that prompted me to pick up the old prayer journal in the first place. I had wanted to find a laundry list of praises to remind me that God answers prayers. But I found something else instead.

I found this truth: No matter what our circumstances are, God remains the same, but you and I - we change.

When life is on the mountain top or when life is in the valley, we do not remain the same. The circumstances we go through shape us. They give us opportunities to respond in new ways, to grow, to evolve, to change the very fabric of our hearts. Sometimes we choose to change for the better, becoming more compassionate, wiser, more open to accepting help, more trusting in our reliance on God. But sometimes we choose to change in ways that we don’t like to acknowledge. We become angry and bitter, more afraid; we put up higher, thicker walls, or we become more reliant on ourselves and the control we falsely believe that we have. And I know this too; it is not up to our circumstances to determine how we change. It is up to us. What we do during the best of times and the worst of times will determine who we become.

And this is why, as I sit on my porch in the unseasonably hot air, wiping sweat from my brow, I suddenly feel so grateful for this old, unanswered prayer journal in my lap. Because even though it might not be filled with answers, it is filled with time spent in connection with God. And it is filled with moments that shaped me to be prepared for this season of unrest and for the seasons to come after that. And I can feel the difference it has made in my very soul because, as I sit here today, I realize this too. I am quiet, but I am listening. I am unsettled, but I am not shaken. I am in wonder, but I am not afraid.

Life is ever changing, and so am I. And so are you. When life changes us, who will we become? I don’t know, but for me I believe that the answer just might come from a few words I found illegibly scrawled at the bottom of a page from an old prayer journal -

And so I pray for this - good, solid, focused time of connection with You. I invite You in. I am listening.

What about you?

* Update - This post was written over the summer several months ago. Since then some prayers have been answered. Some are still in flux. And as for my family member's illness, after what felt like one of the longest (almost) years ever, things have gotten much, much better and life is starting to feel more normal again. God is good. Always.

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