God does not always answer prayer, despite what I was taught in Sunday School. It is not always “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”. Sometimes it is a deafening silence that resounds for years and years. And I don’t believe this just because of my own unanswered prayers. I am also convinced because there are people living on the streets, immigrants trudging toward borders, refuges clinging to loved ones, and patients taking shallow breaths in hospital rooms that would be doing very different things if God had declared “No” to their pleas.
I have my own experience with unanswered prayers, and some anger at well-meaning others who promised that there was a good purpose to the rejection (or that maybe I wasn’t listening or maybe I wasn’t using the right words or maybe…there were a lot of well-meaning words). And even now there are prayers that have been on my heart and mind for over a decade that are still no closer to “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”.
In a way, that’s okay. And in another way it really isn’t. I try to focus on the ways it is okay. The ways that I still believe that prayer matters.
Prayer Changes Things
I believe that prayer really can change things. That there are miracles that occur, big and small, because there is someone with much more power than me involved. There is a child at my church that should have died because of a traumatic brain injury; but he is running down the halls with more energy and creativity than any doctor thought possible. And there is a youth living with one of my friends through the foster care system who was prayed for for years before she ever moved in, before anyone even knew she needed a new home. And yes, I believe that some times the perfect song comes on the radio when you need it or the light changes so you can make it just on time.
Prayer Changes You
I believe there are times when the prayer is not answered in the way that you want, but that you are changed instead. I remember once attending youth event with friends, lying outside under the stars while a concert was still going on a half-mile away. And because of a fight with one of the other girls, I was scrunched into my sleeping bag, praying for God’s justice upon her. I was seriously hoping for some fire and brimstone as revenge for my hurt feelings. I am happy to share that no hellfire rained down that night, and that in time we were friends again. I look back at that memory now, able to see her side of that evening and the emotions that were so strong among a bunch of teenagers. The justice that God granted us both was the chance to get older, wiser, and kinder towards other people.
Prayer Changes Nothing…but at least you’re not alone
I believe that sometimes unanswered prayer is just unanswered prayer. That the world does not change because of the words I say or however many times I say them. That I am not being refined through the process of humbly asking, just like the mother speaking over a sick child is not blessed for having prayed every night. Instead, there are times that prayer is about not being alone. Admitting this world hurts gives space for God to perhaps nod in agreement. While crying over someone’s death, our Father in Heaven cries beside us. And shouting at the closed opportunity that should have been there, invites the Creator of the opportunity, the door, and everything else to stand beside us and listen to each and every shout. When it can feel like we are most alone, prayer is evidence we are not.
“Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”.
Prayer is way more complicated than that. And somehow, simpler too. It is just speaking and listening. Yes.