The Triumph of an Unanswered Prayer
The Christian life is an interesting one where we know that we serve a loving God who is all-powerful, all-knowing and who wants the very best for us; this understanding of our relationship with God and His divine attributes are the basis of faith and the reason why we pray, knowing that he hears us and according to His word, we will have all that we ask of Him.
However, things become problematic when trouble comes, sickness comes knocking on the door or death strikes; we pray believing God for a way out and sometimes, the pain leaves, the sickness is healed and the dead is raised but some other times, irrespective of how much we pray, how many people pray or how much faith we release, it seems almost as if we are praying to a dead God who neither sees our pains nor hears our cry for help.
It is in those times that we experience a crisis of faith and have to reconsider all that we have ever believed in light of what the Bible says and the circumstances of our life that seem unchanging in spite of our prayers.
Over the years, some answers have been given to explain why it seems as if God is no longer a prayer answering God— some have said these difficulties are divinely orchestrated so God can teach us more about Him, some other persons refute such an answer and say the reason we pass through problems is because of a hidden sin, some claim they are the results of generational curses and others simply say the one passing through the problem is faithless or at best has little faith otherwise, the problem would have been solved.
To begin with, when suffering comes what we need is not answers or reasons why, what we need is compassion, love and understanding; answers and reasons and theology are very important and they have their place, but in the face of unbelievable sorrow, incurable disease or disability, compassion is more important than facts and well thought out arguments.
We believe that God is sovereign, all powerful and all knowing; we also believe that He is in charge of the world and our lives, then the question we naturally tend to ask is "why will an all powerful God who is in charge of the world and our lives allow pain and suffering and evil in the world and particularly in the lives of His children when He has the power to save and deliver?"
All of us at one time or another, have experienced disappointment with God— we have looked into the Bible, believed him for a specific answer to a specific prayer and for all practical purposes, our prayer seemed to have gone unanswered. How do we go on believing in a God who seems to be oblivious of our pains and sufferings?
While our finite minds cannot totally grasp the ramifications of a question like this, to allay our fears and remind ourselves that all we know about God is true and that He loves us still and wants the best for us, we need to take a new look at faith and what the Bible teaches about faith.
Hebrews chapter eleven is an exposition on faith and in that passage are truths about faith that if well understood and applied won't only allay our fears and calm our anxieties, they will also remove our doubts and stimulate us to go on believing in God in spite of the circumstances of our life.
The first truth about faith that we see here is that the purpose of faith is approval with God not the change of our circumstances; faith does not necessarily guarantee a change in the circumstances of our lives (at least in the here and now), what faith guarantees is approval with God.
The writer of Hebrews adopts a literary device to show the theme of the entire chapter — in verses 1 and 2, we see that through faith, the elders gained approval with God
Hebrews 11:1-2 [NASB]
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval.
Then he inverts the order at the close of the chapter by showing that they all gained approval with God through faith.
And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised...
This inclusio frames the entire chapter and summarizes the essence of Hebrews 11 which is simply, "faith guarantees approval with God apart from the circumstances of our lives". It is through faith that a real relationship with God can be pursued and sustained and the life that pleases God is one lived by faith.
The second truth about faith that we see in Hebrews 11 is that faith sometimes changes the circumstances of our lives in the here and now; a look at the heroes of faith mentioned in the chapter and the miracles that happened in their lives as a result of faith is proof to show that faith sometimes, changes our circumstances.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the men of old gained approval. By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive, even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. By faith they passed through the Red Sea as though they were passing through dry land; and the Egyptians, when they attempted it, were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection...
This divinely inspired list shows us how faith sometimes dramatically changes human circumstances — here we find acts of healing, miracles, protection, deliverance, victories, etc all produced in the lives of men who chose to walk by faith and believe God in spite of circumstances that looked bleak and hopeless. They believed and their situations were changed.
But there is a third truth in the chapter: faith sometimes does not change circumstances! We can be in faith, trust God for deliverance, protection, respite from pain, and in the here and now, those circumstances may not change! Notice that in the same breath, the writer of Hebrews mentioned examples of people who had their circumstances changed by faith and those who didn't!
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets... women received back their dead by resurrection; and others (notice the contrast) were tortured, not accepting their release, so that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground.
To a mind raised in the "faith movement" it sounds almost sacrilegious to even dare to mention that sometimes faith does not change our circumstances but the Bible is clear— sometimes, the change we want in our circumstances does not come when we are alive to see it in spite of our faith! Not only does the Bible teach this, human experience and church history reveals how sometimes men filled with faith have to live with unchanging undesirable circumstances till the end of their lives.
This is not because God uses the circumstances to "teach" us or because we have sin in our lives or even because our faith is small but because in His overarching plan and design which sometimes our finite minds cannot grasp, He is working out His purposes in our lives in spite of the pain, the hurt, the disappointment and the sorrow.
If faith sometimes does not change our circumstances, then why do we pray or what is the use of faith? The object of true faith isn't merely answers to prayers, the object of true faith is Christ. Faith is not heaven's express delivery service where you drop your request and get the answer packaged and shipped to you within five working days; true Faith is trust in God in spite of the circumstances we face. It is knowing Him and trusting your life to his wisdom and care.
The ultimate goal of faith is not simply answers to prayers; true faith is trust in the Answer; capital letter "A". Faith does not judge God by the circumstances of our lives, it is not merely receiving from God the things we want; beyond that, it is trust in God's sovereignty, His wisdom, His Love and resting securely in the knowledge that irrespective of whatever happens, God works through all things for our good. Rom8:28
Faith knows God as the Healer and also the helper of the helpless, it knows Him as the father of the fatherless and the Husband of the widow and the single mother (see Ps10:14; 68:5; 146:9); the same Jehovah is our refuge who keeps us from the raging storm and He is also our strength who enables us to ride out the storm and come out victorious. (See Ps46)
Finally, though faith can be present in spite of the twists and turns that our lives may take, the God-kind of faith always leads to ultimate victory. We need to realise that faith will always deliver what was promised, however sometimes we will not receive all that God has promised us in this life and for that, we need patience which works off faith like a hand fits into a glove. 2Thess1:4; Heb6:12; Jam1:3
Hebrews 11:13,39-40 [NASB]
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.
Abraham for example who is the Father of faith died before seeing a full manifestation of all that God promised him; God promised him a seed through whom all the earth will be blessed, God promised him descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand by the seashore, God also promised him the land of Canaan but he died before all of these became physical manifestations.
The other heroes of faith also did not receive what was promised in this life but had to wait till the coming of Jesus Christ and God's redemptive purpose was fully worked out; though they ultimately received what was promised, it was according to God's timing and according to His divine design. Faith always leads to ultimate victory, however not necessarily the victory that we want or designed the way we envisaged it or delivered at the time we want it but victory, according to God's design and His timing for our own good and His own glory.
Therefore, the triumph of an unanswered prayer is that no prayer offered to God will go unanswered and though it may seem as if no answer is forthcoming, God is working in us to fulfill His purpose, ultimately God will give us victory and that will be better than anything we could have imagined or expected.
God in His infinite wisdom weaves into the tapestry of our lives all our pains, disappointments, hurts, sorrows, etc whether self-inflicted, inherited or a result of living in a less than perfect world and brings out of all that a beautiful design which though we may not see now, we need to "in faith" trust Him to be the all wise, sovereign, loving and intentional God that He is.
The triumph of an unanswered prayer is in believing that ultimately, God will complete the work of redemption that He started— the world will be reborn, our bodies will be redeemed and He will wipe away all tears from our eyes; there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain and we will dwell in His presence forever and ever!
Dedicated to the Memory of Caleb Sunday (Babafisoye) Amiola; 15th March 1958— 9th January 2018