Despite the countless number of books on prayer that have been written, C. S. Lewis observed that he had never come across one that was of any use to him. Ironically, he made this observation ina book he wrote about prayer. Lewis said that he had seen many books of prayers, but when it came to those written about prayer, the writers usually made the wrong assumptions about the reader. Or, at least, they made the wrong assumption about the kind of reader Lewis was. “The author assumes that you will want to be chatting in the kitchen when you ought to be in your cell,” he observes. “Our temptation is to be in our studies when we ought to be chatting in the kitchen.”
Not long after I started following Christ, my mother became so sick that my father had to carry her to the car to drive her to the doctor. Unable to diagnose her condition, the doctor admitted her to the hospital, where she grew worse. All the Christians I knew at the time believed that miraculous healing was an everyday occurrence. I decided that it was God’s plan to heal her. Like the blind man in John 9:3, I thought God had allowed her sickness “so that the works of God might be displayed” in her. What better way to show my parents to the truth of the gospel?
With my heart pounding, I stood at her hospital bedside and prayed, but nothing seemed to happen. Instead of getting better, over the next few days, she grew worse. And then she died. But I continued to pray, thinking that what God had in mind might be even more remarkable. I had read about Jesus raising the dead in the gospels. Maybe that’s what He planned to do. My father had asked the funeral director for a closed casket ceremony. But if God could move the stone from Jesus’ grave, surely that would be no obstacle. I prayed on. I think you can guess how this story ends.
Someone has said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world. But if that means we can force God’s hand by praying, I have found it to be otherwise. To me, prayer seems more like a discipline of waiting than an act of call and response. I am not saying that God never grants my request. Sometimes He does. But He rarely seems quick about it. God takes His time. Days, weeks, months, and even years may go by without any signs of movement on His part.
The irony, or perhaps I should say awkwardness, of this, is that Jesus claimed that God is not slow. In the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, Jesus promised not only that God hears those “who cry out to Him day and night,” but that He will “see that they get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:7–8). It seems that my definition of what constitutes delay and God’s definition disagree.
In His parable, a widow goes to a judge with this request: “Grant me justice against my adversary.” And for some time, the judge refused. But when she kept coming to him, the judge said to himself, “Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t wear me out!’” Jesus aims to contrast the disposition of the judge with that of God. The comparison in the story turns on the similarity between the widow’s experience and our perception that God is ignoring us. Jesus says that God doesn’t delay, but it often feels like He does.
What, then, are we to make of the apparent contradiction between God’s haste and our experience? Those who claim the most for prayer tend to lay the blame at our feet. God can do anything, they say. If our prayers go unanswered, it is not His fault. The reason must be our insufficient faith or our lack of perseverance. Maybe we have secret sin or some other spiritual impediment that places an obstacle in the way of God’s answer. The power is God’s, yet somehow, at least for them, we always seem to be the key that unlocks it.
Jesus’ parable implies the opposite. Where the widow is concerned, all the power lies in the hands of others. She cannot protect herself against her adversary, and she cannot control the judge. Despite the helplessness of her position, nevertheless, she displays a kind of brazenness through her persistence. She keeps coming to the judge with her plea, despite his repeated refusals. One can’t help wondering why anyone would do such a thing. It couldn’t have been based on her confidence in the judge’s character or his sympathy. According to Jesus, he “neither feared God nor cared what people thought” (v. 2). The only plausible explanation is that it was her own helplessness that made her persevere. She had no one else to whom she could turn. Jesus’ point in this parable is really a counterpoint. God is not like the judge. If the widow can be so persistent with someone who has no natural regard for her, how much more should we persist with God, who cares for His own? In other words, the point of Jesus’ story seems to be that the real situation when it comes to prayer differs from our experience.
The key that unlocks the parable is the language of the widow’s petition. Most of the translations say that the woman asked for justice against her adversary. We immediately think of this as a request with a terminal point. She is looking for revenge. She wants the judge to render a decision against her opponent.
Most of the prayers we pray are like this. They may not be prayers for vengance, but they are terminal in that they have a specific fulfillment in view. We want a particular job. We want God to heal our disease, or maybe we need money to pay a bill. There’s nothing wrong with such requests. Quite the opposite, it was Jesus who taught us to pray for daily bread (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3). No request could be more concrete than this.
Furthermore, the bread which Jesus teaches us to ask for is a non-renewable resource. Once eaten, it will be gone. Yet anyone who has prayed the Lord’s prayer instinctively senses that the point of the petition is not terminal but ongoing. We know that having asked for bread today, we will need to ask again tomorrow. We grasp that this is the lesson of the prayer for us. The God who fed us today will also feed us tomorrow.
The widow’s request in Jesus’ parable is similar. The word that some versions translate as justice really means protection. “What the widow was seeking was not fundamentally vengeance on her adversary, but relief from his oppressions,” theologian B. B. Warfield points out in an essay on this parable. Although there may have been punishment inflicted on the man, Warfield explains, “. . . punishment was not the main end aimed at or obtained; it was only the means by which the real end of relief and protection was secured.” The widow’s request was actually a plea for ongoing protection. Warfield points out that Jesus uses her language to say that God will do the same for His chosen ones. When He promises that God will see that His chosen ones get justice quickly, He is: “. . . giving a gracious assurance to them of the unfailing protection of God amid the evils which assault them in this life.”
Warfield’s clarification eliminates the seeming contradiction between Jesus’ application and our experience. God hears us when we cry out to Him night and day. When God hears, He responds immediately. Although He may not always grant us the particular object of our desire, we can be sure that He will act in our interest. Warfield expresses it beautifully when he asserts that the intent of Jesus’ parable was to “deny that God is indifferent to the sufferings of His people; and in its most natural interpretation it declares that as his ears are always filled with their cries he will not be slow to act in their defense.”
I have often wondered why God’s failure to heal my mother or subsequently raise her from the dead didn’t shatter my newfound faith in Christ. Perhaps it was because I knew that I wasn’t confident in my prayer. I was young in the faith and still had many of the rough edges of my former life. Maybe it was because I realized how audacious the request was. Maybe I didn’t believe He would grant it to begin with. But I’d like to think that, even in the infancy of my faith, I understood the point that Jesus made in His parable. That God’s ears are always filled with the cries of those who are His. And, no matter how He may respond to our specific requests, He is never slow to act in our defense.
In one of his sermons, Clarence Macartney called prayer the word that conquers God. “What is the word that turns back the shadow of death on the face of life’s dial? What is the word that gives songs in the night and that lifts the load of guilt from the conscience smitten heart?” he asked. “That mighty, all prevailing, God-conquering word is prayer.” Perhaps, the old poet who said that prayer moves the hand that moves the world was right. But if it’s true, it’s not because we can strong-arm God with our prayers. It’s because prayer moves the heart of the one whose hand moves the world.
We know God is perfect. We know that he can do no wrong. So why is it that we are sometimes so disappointed with Jesus? Four of the most common reasons include:
1. Unfulfilled Expectations: This is the fundamental cause of all disappointment with God. He does not act as we expect him to. He does not do what we want. This is so common as to be universal. Ocassionally we are disappointed because our expectations were unrealistic. But often they are not. The single who wanted to be married, the childless couple that wanted to be parents, the parents who hoped their child would walk a different path all have reasonable expectations. What makes this especially difficult is that the ordinary nature of these expectations means that every day we are confronted with examples of others for whom these same expectations were fulfilled. This kind of disappointment is often related to God’s plan for us. (cf. Luke 24:21 the two on the road to Emmaus who said, “We had hoped…”).
2. Misinterpretation of my Circumstances: We may be disappointed with God because we look at our circumstances and draw wrong conclusions either about God’s motive or his intent. Things go badly for us and we see this as a sign that God hates us or that he ignores us. Or our circumstances are difficult and we think that all of this is working for our destruction. Jacob thought this way when his sons tried to take Benjamin back to Egypt in Gen. 42:36. “All these things are against me” he said. In fact, the opposite was true. God was orchestrating these things to preserve his life and keep his promises.
4. We blame God for what others have done: Often we blame God for things that others have done. Sometimes it’s Christians who have hurt us. We attribute to God the bad behavior or evil motives of those who represent him. Or we may suffer at the hands of those who are evil. God’s plan for our lives may mean that we suffer at the hands of others. We are right in concluding that God is ultimately in control but wrong about the motive. Job is a good example of this (cf. Job 2:3).
4. Drawing the wrong conclusions about answers to prayer. We may think that we or someone else is God’s “court favorite.” When our requests are not granted or if there is delay, we become embittered. In a wonderful essay entitled “The Efficacy of Prayer,” C. S. Lewis points out the folly of such thinking. “Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God” Lewis writes. “It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that.”
Lewis points to the “hard saying” he once heard from and older Christian. The Christian said: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But they usually come at the beginning: before conversion or soon after it. AS the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.”
“Does god then forsake just those who serve Him best?” Lewis asks. “Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God at his greatest need.” Lewis rightly concludes that there is a mystery here and urges those whose prayers are sometimes granted not to draw hasty conclusions. “If we were strong, we might be less tenderly treated” he warns. “If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”
I just started reading the new Ravi Zacharias book Has Christianity Failed You. I have enjoyed Ravi as a speaker but I came away from the first chapter disappointed. I am not able to assess the book as a whole, since I haven’t finished it yet. But I did find myself wondering how you engage someone who is genuinely disappointed with Christianity. I know several people who fall into that category, some who are very dear to me, and have not yet discovered the secret to connecting with them on this subject.
The first step, I suppose, must be to at least acknowledge that Christianity can be profoundly disappointing. Unfortunately, we do not seem to be able to do this without adding some kind of caveat like: “Christianity may disappoint you, but Jesus never will.” I do not believe this for a moment. I find that Jesus often disappoints me. He is almost as disappointing as the church. He works out his plans without regard for my opinion of them. He has almost as much disregard for my plans. The suggestions I make for the advancement of my personal interests are frequently rebuffed. He does not rebuke me openly like Peter. Instead, my good ideas are treated, or at least seem to be treated, with silent disregard.
If I sound ungrateful, I do not mean to. It is not anger but embarassment that I feel. I do not attribute such treatment to contempt so much as to dismissal. Like a child who has said something in the midst of adult conversation and knows by the ensuing silence that what they have uttered is foolish.
Maybe a book about disappointment with the church ought to begin with a chapter that says, “So you’re disappointed with the church? Me too. That’s not the half of it.” But I don’t know what I would say after that. Probably that I am even more disappointed with myself.