Christianity 201

October 24, 2022

Prayer: Erring on the Side of Audacious Expectations

John 14 : 14 (NIV)  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.

John 16 : 23 (NIV) In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.

John 16: 24 (NIV) Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

John 16: 23-24 (The Message) “This is what I want you to do: Ask the Father for whatever is in keeping with the things I’ve revealed to you. Ask in my name, according to my will, and he’ll most certainly give it to you. Your joy will be a river overflowing its banks!

It can be hard to find the balance. On the continuum between, at one end, half-hearted prayer that is more doubt than faith, and the other end, believing that as your day began God was like a genie ready to grant you your daily three wishes.

We are commanded to go to God with our needs — our prayer petitions — and leave them before him. But what are our expectations of what happens next?

There are many people who believe that God’s intervention in the affairs of humankind are an extreme rarity, if he intervenes at all. The world is simply what it is, and that is the answer to the question, “If God… why all the suffering in the world?” We live in a fallen world where there is bound to pain and sorrow; flood, fire and famine; doom, defeat and despair. (That wasn’t a cheery sentence; but it was rather alliterative.)

There are other people who believe that God certainly hears our prayer requests and that this is the end in itself: That God wants to be in communication (or fellowship) with us. This is the idea that just as a father behaves towards his children, God wants us to tell us when and where it hurts. He wants each situation to bring us back to him. He wants us to come to him when we are ‘burdened and heavy-laden.’ But it’s about keeping the channel of communication open, ‘without ceasing.’

Still others believe that while God’s intervention is rarity, miracles do exist; they just don’t happen every day. We’re talking about genuine miracles here, not things contrived for the glare of the television lights or the crowd in the arena. So God is indeed a miracle working God, it’s not (as with the first group) a complete rarity, but just don’t get your hopes up.

Further up the ‘hope’ ladder are those who would say, ‘God is positively disposed and favorably inclined to give us what we ask.’ Why this doesn’t happen may be related to the complexities of other situations we can’t see, or a lesson that we need to learn before the answer comes. But absent those factors, God’s default position would be to give us what we come to him asking. I wrote about that this time last year:

A former pastor of ours used the phrase, “God is positively disposed and favorably inclined” to hear and answer our prayers. Many are praying right now for the world to be set right (or as N.T. Wright phrases it, “set to rights.”) It might appear that God is not answering. I believe that’s why we’re told to be tenacious about our praying. Keep on asking. Keep on seeking. Keep on knocking. (Matthew 7:7 even spells out the acronym ASK!) But it doesn’t say that if we ask enough times we’ll get a ‘yes.’  Even as many are praying, we would appear to be living in what a songwriter called, “the mystery of unanswered prayer.”

And there are those who believe that God is constantly orchestrating more details in the lives of his people than anything we can possibly imagine; that there are constantly situations where God is even giving us ‘answers to requests we haven’t made;’ or that life consists of many seen and unseen coincidences, defined as, “Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous.”  This view ranges — depending on the person — from the dramatic holding on to the hope of healing even when doctors say the situation is incurable; to the trivial belief of some that God is truly willing to intervene in life on Planet Earth so that you will get a parking space next to the big box store entrance.

…Parking spaces notwithstanding, I fall into the latter camp. I have to pray believing that my prayer is not only keeping the lines of communication open, not only making a difference in me, but making a difference also in the situation. Regardless of statistical odds or past prayer performance, I have to go to him with an ultimate faith that he is willing and able to execute deliverance from whatever situation is pressing in. This is the faith of children; what it means to ‘come as a child,’ and it’s a faith that is not double-minded, but believes without doubt (See James 1:8 and 1:6 and Mark 11:23) and without wrong motivation (see James 4:3).

(Deliverance might be a better way of defining the situation. If you are praying for money for a specific need you are praying for a deliverance from poverty with respect to that financial issue!)

…The greatest danger I see is in not asking at all. Not coming to God to bear our souls and cry out for help or mercy because the petitions we brought before him last month were not answered in the affirmative. I believe God will respect our tenacity in prayer; our willingness to go to him even in the absence (so far) of the answers we sought before.

He longs to see faith that is lived out in a concrete assurance of things not apparent (Hebrews 11:1).

Right now, we hear a lot about deconstruction or to say it slightly different, people deconstructing their faith. I think some of this has to do with is termed “the mystery of unanswered prayer.” (We wrote about that here in this 2020 devotional.)

Some of this may have to do with the ‘big one’ that God didn’t answer. Maybe the request was indeed to audacious, or our motives were wrong, or God clearly had another plan and granting the request would have been to our peril.

But I also think we need to consider what our general expectations are when we pray. Where do we fit in with respect to the above five categories of what we think God can do, is doing, or will do?

September 29, 2020

The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Keep trusting in God. Keep trusting in me.” – John 14:1

Every once in awhile, my mother speaks to me from the grave.

Before you change channels, let me explain.

In her later years — and even some not so later ones — she had a habit of writing fragments of hymn lyrics on scraps of paper. Her thing wasn’t Amazing Grace or How Great Thou Art, but those older, richer hymns that nobody bothers with anymore unless Chris Tomlin ‘discovers’ them.

The green piece of scrap paper read,

Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

It’s a line from “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart” (full lyrics below) and it somewhat captures one of the things I’ve been wrestling with since the pandemic began. I’m convinced that what keeps people from crossing the line of faith, and what causes others to wander from the fold, is not the allegiance of Evangelicals with a particular political party, the injustice of police interactions with people of color, or the tornadoes, floods and brush fires.

I think it’s more personal. I think it’s unanswered prayer. The time they reached out to God and God didn’t appear to come through for them in the desired time-frame. (Click the date-links in each to read in full.)

It’s been a recurring theme here at C201.

In December, 2011, we quoted from Steven Furtick’s book, Sun Stand Still:

…I’ve seen couples who had been labeled infertile give birth to healthy boys and girls. I’ve seen people lose their job, pray, and quickly land a new job that paid twice as much and required a fraction of the travel as the last job.

Sometimes—a lot of times—it goes that way. Faith works. Prayers produce. Praise God. There’s nothing better.

But sometimes—a lot of times, honestly—it goes the other way. Sometimes the sun doesn’t stand still. Sometimes the sun goes down.

Sometimes you pray your best, most honest, heartfelt prayers—and there is no answer. Or the answer is no. Sometimes, even though your motives are pure, your desire is good, and your need is urgent, the breakthrough doesn’t come. The turnaround moment doesn’t occur. The cancer spreads. The finances get tighter. The marriage feels more lonely. The kids grow more distant…

Also in December, 2011, we borrowed from Jon Swanson:

Jairus had a dying daughter. He went to Jesus. Jesus started coming to his house. Jesus was distracted by a different miracle. And then someone says, “never mind, she’s dead. Leave him alone.”

Jesus says, “Don’t be afraid; just believe and she will be healed.” The next thing we read is that Jesus arrives at the house.

Between those sentences, between “she will be healed” and Jesus arriving was a very long walk for Jairus.

…“Just believe” was all that Jesus told Jarius to do. We often turn that into some kind of measure, and we think that if we believe enough amazing things will happen. If they don’t happen, it’s our fault, because we didn’t believe enough. In this case, believing was simple. It just meant walking with Jesus all the way home…

…Jairus walked home with Jesus, ignoring the apparent certainty of her death.

Not every child is raised. But every promise is kept.

In January, 2012, our guest author was Robert Moon:

Hebrews 11:1 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

There are many things that hinder answered prayer, one of which is praying prayers we shouldn’t pray. Some prayers involve other people, and we forget that GOD deals with each of us individually, and it is not our place to control other people. There are myriads of reasons for seemingly unanswered prayer, and one of the most difficult one is time, waiting until the time is right in GOD’S eyes and not ours.

It is good to have a scripture in mind with a promise of answered prayer before I pray, and yet the answer is not always apparent. When this happens I never allow this to affect my relationship with the Father for faith in HIM comes far ahead of faith for things. Learn this secret when praying whether successful or not, allow your faith to grow exceedingly in GOD for this is what James 1:3 was talking about “You know that such testing of your faith produces endurance” and that is truly important.

I have heard of mothers who prayed for their children for many years and some have died before their prayer was answered. It would have seemed to have been an ineffective prayer effort but in reality it was victory.

In March, 2012, some powerful thoughts from an anonymous writer:

“I do not count myself to have apprehended; but one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead” (Philippians 3:13, NKJV)

We all go through disappointments, setbacks and things that we don’t understand. Maybe you prayed for a loved one, but they didn’t get well. Or maybe you worked hard for a promotion, but you didn’t get it. You stood in faith for a relationship, but it didn’t work out. One of the best things you can do is release it. Let it go. Don’t dwell on it anymore. If you go around wondering why things didn’t work out, all that’s going to do is lead to bitterness, resentment and self-pity. Before long, you’ll be blaming others, blaming yourself, or even God. You may not have understood what happened. It may not have been fair. But when you release it, it’s an act of your faith. You’re saying, “God, I trust You. I know You’re in control. And even though it didn’t work out my way, You said, ‘All things are going to work together for my good.’ So I believe You still have something good in my future.”

Finally (for today) from August, 2012 from Kevin White:

…God can seem alien to us at times, even cruel. His understanding exceeds our own far more than a human father’s exceeds that of the youngest child. His ways are infinitely more unsearchable than that of a dad who holds his kid down to receive a shot. Indeed, we would know hardly a thing about God unless he revealed it to us.

So sometimes, it is hard to see the goodness in what Cowper described as “a frowning Providence.” And yet, a key part of God’s self-revelation is that he watches his people, neither slumbering nor sleeping. Like a nesting hen, sheltering the hatchlings. He is a loving Father who gives good gifts. And yet the world is full of snakes.

This difficulty is made worse when we just don’t understand what is happening. When friends and family suffer. When natural goods, rightly desired, are placed out of reach. When we see that one of the greatest impediments to our flourishing is staring at us in the mirror. It is hard to see how a loving Father can be watching over all of that.

Instead, it is easy to covet, easy to resent. It is easy to say that it is all wrong, and should not be happening. Not in the sense of, “it is a fallen world and I long for paradise,” but in the sense of “what kind of God could allow this?” Or to wonder if our concerns are too small for God to notice. For the Christian, that attitude is doubly false, since Jesus Christ himself, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” says that God pays mind even to the fall of a sparrow.

And yet, there is an odd thing about invoking God’s providence in difficult times. It is a classic piece of bad comforting to simply tell someone, “God is in control.” Even so, recognizing, resting in, and/or wrestling with God’s control over circumstances can be a powerful form of reassurance. Why the disconnect?

I think it is because the trite statement is a shortcut. In some ways, it merely restates part of the presenting problem. How is this bread and not a stone? Too easily, it skips all the messy business of “rejoice with those who are rejoicing, mourn with those who are mourning.” It skips straight to the pithy takeaway and moves on.

Part of the answer is that we live in a sinful and fallen world. The restoration of all things is not here yet. All accounts will be settled, but we have at best a foretaste of that reality. Some of our suffering comes from our own bad decisions, or from our own weakness and limitation. And much more comes with living in a world that is systemically corrupted and distorted by sin and the curse that it brought…


Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move.
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art,
And make me love Thee as I ought to love.

Hast Thou not bid me love Thee, God and King?
All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see Thy cross; there teach my heart to cling:
Oh, let me seek Thee, and, oh, let me find!

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The kindling of the heav’n-descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and Thy love the flame.

August 31, 2012

A Frowning Providence

Is it just me or is the body of Christ wrestling more deeply these days with the issues of hard times, suffering, disappointment, unanswered prayer, adverse circumstances? Here’s another perspective on the subject from Kevin White at the blog Mere Orthodoxy, where it appeared under the title,  A Loving Father and Difficult Gifts.  As always you’re encouraged to click the link and read at source; C201 readers will enjoy this particular blog.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.Or which 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!” — Matthew 7:7-11

The power of this passage is the very perversity of the image it draws. How strangely cruel would a man have to be to give a destructive non sequitur instead of life-giving food? “Ha! That isn’t a rock-hard crust on that bread; it’s a ROCK!”

But I think Jesus means to press us into a corner here. He is encouraging us to pray, to seek from God what we need and to trust his provision. Trusting in the Father’s provision is one of Jesus’ great themes. It is why he has just called our attention to the birds and the lilies, and commands us not to worry about how our needs will be met. But this passage comes in the same discourse in which Jesus promises his followers great suffering and grief. Far from being an overlooked reality that undermines Jesus’ point in the passage, I suspect Jesus intends to push us into the tension between the promise of God’s goodness and the rocky and snakish things he sends our way.

God can seem alien to us at times, even cruel. His understanding exceeds our own far more than a human father’s exceeds that of the youngest child. His ways are infinitely more unsearchable than that of a dad who holds his kid down to receive a shot. Indeed, we would know hardly a thing about God unless he revealed it to us.

So sometimes, it is hard to see the goodness in what Cowper described as “a frowning Providence.” And yet, a key part of God’s self-revelation is that he watches his people, neither slumbering nor sleeping. Like a nesting hen, sheltering the hatchlings. He is a loving Father who gives good gifts. And yet the world is full of snakes.

This difficulty is made worse when we just don’t understand what is happening. When friends and family suffer. When natural goods, rightly desired, are placed out of reach. When we see that one of the greatest impediments to our flourishing is staring at us in the mirror. It is hard to see how a loving Father can be watching over all of that.

Instead, it is easy to covet, easy to resent. It is easy to say that it is all wrong, and should not be happening. Not in the sense of, “it is a fallen world and I long for paradise,” but in the sense of “what kind of God could allow this?” Or to wonder if our concerns are too small for God to notice. For the Christian, that attitude is doubly false, since Jesus Christ himself, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief,” says that God pays mind even to the fall of a sparrow.

And yet, there is an odd thing about invoking God’s providence in difficult times. It is a classic piece of bad comforting to simply tell someone, “God is in control.” Even so, recognizing, resting in, and/or wrestling with God’s control over circumstances can be a powerful form of reassurance. Why the disconnect?

I think it is because the trite statement is a shortcut. In some ways, it merely restates part of the presenting problem. How is this bread and not a stone? Too easily, it skips all the messy business of “rejoice with those who are rejoicing, mourn with those who are mourning.” It skips straight to the pithy takeaway and moves on.

Part of the answer is that we live in a sinful and fallen world. The restoration of all things is not here yet. All accounts will be settled, but we have at best a foretaste of that reality. Some of our suffering comes from our own bad decisions, or from our own weakness and limitation. And much more comes with living in a world that is systemically corrupted and distorted by sin and the curse that it brought.

But short of blind, questionably pious, fideistic leaps, how can we trust that God does work all things for good, for those who love him? In part, because of that very apostolic word I have just paraphrased.

In larger part, because in the whole sweep of Scripture we see, again and again, God’s way of using bewildering events, evil deeds, and questionable human motives to advance his good and graceful plan for history. It is easier to name the major, storied heroes of the Bible who weren’t born to grieving, childless parents. God used wicked nations to chastise and purify his people. In short, we see the beginning and middle of God’s story of the world, with hints and previews of the story’s end and the glorious sequel to come.

But more fundamentally, we can trust the Father because the Father sent the Son. God is no longer simply a distant, alien presence, unsearchable and unknowable. God became one of us. The Son of God suffered scorn and loss and frustration. He even, at the critical moment, wrestled with the Father’s will. And submitted to death, a death he had the power to prevent and the love to endure. He stared down an unjust and horrible death, foreseeing it as God and quivering before it as a man, and said, “not my will, but Yours be done.” For his ultimate glorification, and to ransom us as his prize. To give us the gift of the Holy Spirit, who Jesus called an even greater comforter than himself! And on the last day, to raise us back to glorious life in a renewed world.

And so we can trust, because God claimed the worst portion. We can cry desperately like the Psalmists, we can wrestle like Jacob, we can weep like Jeremiah, but trust as Jesus did. Trust in a good Father, even if we cannot understand what gifts we are being given, or why.

Because God is a loving Father, and even his difficult gifts are perfect.

March 15, 2012

Philip Yancey on Pain and Suffering

I really wish Philip Yancey blogged more often. His reflections are always fresh, insightful and pastoral. But between books, the blog and articles in Christian periodicals he does provide us with a large body of literature sharing his unique perspective.  Instead of reading what follows, I hope you’ll link to the fuller context and even explore more of the blog. Yancey is, without doubt, my favorite Christian author.

This is taken from two posts. The first section is from a fairly recent blog post, Following a Trail of Tears

On March 5 Janet and I leave for Japan, where I will speak at several events commemorating the earthquake and tsunami.  We’ve all seen videos that seem taken from a special-effects horror movie: of ships, houses, and trucks tossed down the streets like toys, of a modern airport suddenly submerged under water, of a nuclear reactor tower exploding in a thick black cloud.

While preparing for this trip I’ve been reminded again of the magnitude of the 2011 disaster in which 20,000 people died.  The wall of water reached a maximum height of 132 feet—as tall as a twelve-story building!—destroying 270,000 buildings in its path and forcing hundreds of thousands of people into temporary housing.  A year later, many still live in those temporary structures, and it will cost at least $200 billion to replace the damaged buildings.  When I think of the enormous effort involved in addressing the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina, I can hardly fathom the challenges facing Japan…

…I have spoken in some tough places, such as Virginia Tech after the shootings and Mumbai the night after the terrorist attacks.  Never have I faced a tragedy so massive in scale.  I’ve learned, though, that for the people involved, scale doesn’t matter so much.  Pain zooms in very personally: a child swept away from a kindergarten playground, pets and livestock abandoned as their owners had to flee, a family business destroyed in an instant, a teenager terrified by the aftershocks that hit weekly, everyone frightened by the invisible threat of radiation.  For a theme my hosts chose the title of my last book, What Good Is God?—an appropriate question for people who have endured such an event…

And then he shares this:

The Apostle Paul gave us a clear formula for how we should respond to those in suffering and need:

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.  For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” 

May we channel that comfort to the people of Japan, whose suffering has not ended.

The theme is quite similar at the end of a description of a tour that he did in Australia and New Zealand in September, titled Notes from the Great Southland:

…One of the sketches performed by the actors comes from the play Shadowlands.  “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” proclaims the confident professor C. S. Lewis from a lectern.  Yet later in the sketch, as he comes to terms with Joy Davidman’s imminent death, and then tries to comfort her son Douglas, his confidence has melted into confusion and doubt.  The book he wrote about Joy’s illness and death, A Grief Observed, has a very different tone than his earlier treatise The Problem of Pain.

Rather than megaphone, I prefer the image of pain as a hearing aid: while the Bible generally ignores the messy question of causation, it encourages us to “tune in” to the redemptive power of suffering.  Some respond by switching off the hearing aid and turning away from God.  Others follow the Apostle Paul’s example in allowing God to wrest goodness and growth from the bad things of this world.  Even wintry times offer reasons for hope.  We saw this most clearly at the site of our last event, held in New Zealand’s second largest city, Christchurch, site of a devastating earthquake last February…

…Often after a natural disaster, communities look to churches for help.  For example, six years after Hurricane Katrina, long after the federal government has moved on, churches in Houston and Dallas still send weekend teams to repair and rebuild houses in New Orleans.  In New Zealand, denominations banded together, assigned response teams to the neediest areas, and organized a food bank and tool bank.  More than 700 aftershocks have hit the area, creating an oppressive mood of fear and anxiety.  In a city whose very name expresses their identity, the churches hope to convey

“the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3).

As I told the group gathered in Christchurch, on the surface winter looks like death.  Trees once resplendent with leaves now appear as dead sticks.  Yet botanists tell us that most plant growth occurs during winter, below the surface, as roots spread out and absorb the moisture and nutrients they will need for the vitality of spring and summer.  May it be so, not just in Christchurch, New Zealand, but all across that nation and its larger cousin Australia, once known as “the great Southland of the Holy Spirit.”

…to which I would add, ‘and in Canada, the United States, the UK and everywhere else!’

If you’ve never read any of Philip’s books, may I recommend The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace as two good titles to begin with.

If you particularly resonate with Philip’s response to his world travels (as described above) you might enjoy the new title What Good is God? The title is rather provocative, and each of the 20 chapters consists of a description of the details which brought him to a particular place and time, paired with the transcript of the address he gave to that particular group of people, for a total of ten different locations and events.