I’ve always believed and hoped that God answers prayers. I have prayed many times in my life, and have received answers and guidance at various times. However, I have also prayed at other times, and have not received the items I earnestly sought for. Many of my prayers have simply resulted in silence and more questions and doubts rather than in guidance, inspiration, or clarity.
I don’t imagine that my experience is much different than those around me. Some might feel that all of their prayers are answered, some may feel that their prayers are never answered, while many may get some answers and some silence. Due to the number of prayers I have offered resulting in no answer, I have had a lot of opportunity to reflect on what is taking place. This time to reflect taught me a few things about myself, my faith, and errors present in my own heart.
I finished law school in May of 2010, right as the legal industry was hitting rock bottom following the recession. Tens of thousands of attorneys were unemployed across the country, and it was virtually impossible to find work. I had a wife and three young children to support, and prayed extensively that God would give me a job.
Time continued to drag on. My prayers remained unanswered. No job, no money, and no way to support my family. I prayed at great lengths, over and over, trying to exhibit faith or something else to try to ‘qualify’ for help or an answer. I felt that the more earnestly I prayed, the more faith I was exhibiting. Yet, nothing that I prayed for came.
During this time I was upset. I had tried to do everything I had been instructed by the world and by previous promptings. I had worked very hard and performed well during law school, and had done each item recommended to make me more employable or valuable. I had worked at internships, done Moot Court Competitions, participated in the International Law Journal, and otherwise involved myself trying to increase my resume.
Internally during this time, things grew darker and darker. My prayers felt as if they never made it outside the walls of the room I was in. My life wasn’t improving and things were falling apart. It hurt a lot that I couldn’t find God anywhere during this time.
The darker things got due to unemployment and other things taking place at the time, the more insistent I became in my prayers, almost demanding that God change things or lift me and my family out of the situation. All of these prayers, petitions, and demands remained unanswered, and I eventually reached the point where I had to decide if I still believed in God, or if my past beliefs had been false for some reason.
As I wasn’t employed, I spent significant time thinking through the consequences of the paths before me. I realized then that I certainly believed in the eternal nature of the soul, and that I would only ever be fulfilled pursuing a path that at least professed a method of providing for our souls in the next life.
As I continued to reflect on the consequences of the paths before me, I saw that the only path that involved eternal hope was one with God in it. Nothing else the world could offer provided anything that extended beyond this life. I decided then to give God another try, but somehow, my heart had been slightly changed during this time. Somehow, probably since I felt I had little left to lose at that point, I humbled myself and stopped asking for what I wanted, I started asking to be open to what God had for me. My thought process begrudgingly changed to “if I’m not supposed to work, at least let me know what I am supposed to do.”
When my heart slowly changed, my prayers did too, and I started getting answers, slowly, to my prayers. It was, and still is, a slow, painful process as there is so much darkness inside to work through, but I am learning something that I should have known before but never fully appreciated. I can’t put more faith in what I think I need than in what God knows I need.
In other words, when I was praying I had a predetermined solution in mind. In my exalted view of myself, I was convinced that I knew – I thought I knew what I needed, what the solution should be, and was convinced that I knew enough to tell God how to solve my problems. However, the only faith I was exercising was faith in my ability to see and understand. I was not putting faith in God’s ability to see or understand what was best for me.
I learned then that God loves me enough to tell me no. He loves me enough to withhold something that I desperately want in order to teach me, to train me, and to refine me. He loves me enough to let my pride and confidence in my ability to see and understand ‘everything’ cause me serious internal conflict. In other words, the fact that my prayers remained unanswered was proof itself that God truly loved me, as He wasn’t going to give me that which I didn’t truly need.
God did not simply remove my problems even though I begged Him to. I learned that prayers aren’t a way for us to impose our will over God’s will. I still find myself doing this all of the time, simply letting God know the way things should be, and when I do, my prayers remain unanswered.
However, when I explain to God everything that I can see, everything that I can understand, and then tell Him based on that, this is what I think needs to happen, He is kind. He probably smiles at what I am missing still, but then, if I follow up with “and please teach me what I am missing still,” or “not my will but Thine be done,” then thoughts start come into my mind, sometimes slowly, sometimes more clearly. I learn, line upon line. I see, as the fog slowly dissipates. Rarely do I get everything at once, but I at least get something, and as I continue to seek to understand what I am missing, the light continues to grow.
I learned that for my prayers to be answered, I have to have faith in God’s omnipotence, not faith in my ‘omnipotence’. When I demand that things be a certain way, internally I am telling God that I know more than He does, and prayer and life simply don’t work that way. However, when I trust that God can see things I can’t, when I humble myself and recognize that I might need to change, then my prayers become more of a two-way communication.
In addition, I learned that I have to work for things. God is a God of progression, and He never stops working for our benefit. If I am to become like God and fulfill the purpose of this life, I have to learn how to work. I have to learn how to create. I have to learn how to overcome an obstacle in front of me. In essence, I have to learn what faith really entails.
Faith is belief coupled with actions. Praying in faith means that I open my heart to God in belief, with a willingness to work to accomplish what I am told. To me, I learned that faith didn’t mean simply asking, demanding, or repeatedly praying. Rather, faith meant being willing to work to obtain what I was asking for. When I lacked the willingness to work for what I prayed for, I lacked faith.
Even though I am beginning to see that I have to be willing to work, my prayers still often beg for God to simply solve the problem for me. Instead of seeking ways to improve myself while I was unemployed, I simply asked God to drop a job in my lap. Instead of enjoying the ‘forced’ time with my family, I complained about not having what I wanted. However, when I make myself ready and willing to work, my prayers are answered far more than when I simply ask God to magically change things, as the willingness to work is an essential component of faith.
A few examples throughout my life highlight some of these points. When I was in high school, I decided to wrestle. I joined the team as a sophomore with no experience, but I learned quickly and ended up providing decent competition by the end of the season. When my junior year began, I had registered for a lot of AP classes to help me get a little ahead in my future college work, and I had a lot of homework. I knew it was important to get the homework done, pass the AP classes and tests, and keep good grades so that I could get a scholarship, but I wanted to wrestle. My coach had set my hopes high that I would make it to State that year, and when the season began I secured the varsity spot for my weight class.
However, I quickly realized that if I wrestled, I wouldn’t have time to do my homework to a sufficient degree and wrestle. Recognizing the conflict, I did what I thought a person that believed in God’s power and loved wrestling would do, I knelt down and prayed for a miracle. I prayed that God would somehow, in His miraculous ways, give me enough time to get my homework done. I told Him I was wrestling, that I was going to do well, and because of that, I needed additional time somehow to get to my other obligations in life.
Maybe due to my young age, or maybe due to my mother always praying for me, or something else, God answered that prayer in a merciful but powerful way. I went to my first meet quite behind in my homework, and something told me that I shouldn’t be there wrestling. I ignored the feeling though, and wrote it off as nervousness for my first meet that season. The first match started, and internally I knew that I was doing something wrong, but I persisted. Two minutes into the match, my opponent and I ended up tripping and falling in a unique manner, and I tore the ligament in my elbow.
This ligament tear ended my entire wrestling season. As I sat in a sling, I thought of all of the things I was missing out on. I wouldn’t be able to wrestle, lift weights, play any sports, or otherwise have much fun for quite some time. At some point, I finally thought “What will I do with all of my time?”, to which God gently whispered “Homework.”
That wrestling experience taught me a lot of things. I learned that I had already made up my mind before even praying, and I was simply asking God to support me in the path that I chose. I didn’t ask Him what path I should pursue, I simply decided that wrestling was best for me. I exercised faith in my ‘omnipotence’ and wasn’t humble enough to listen to what God wanted for me. I was so stubborn that I ignored the warnings, and I ended up breaking an arm and tearing a ligament, all because I was certain of what I wanted.
Also, I asked God to give me something that I could do for myself. I asked Him for more time, so that I could fit everything I wanted in to my life. However, I could have more time, if I simply was willing to give up the things that I wanted. It was wrong of me to ask God for something that I could do for myself, as there is great value and growth associated with sacrifice.
Now, fast forward to this last winter. It has been one where someone in my house is sick almost every day. Nothing too serious, but plenty of colds and the normal winter sickness. I have prayed a lot that the sickness will simply be taken from our house, and yet it hasn’t. During this time of praying though, I have repeatedly ignored a prompting to go out jogging and take the kids with me. After months of praying that God would simply give me health, I finally realized that God gave me the tools to have health, and that He expected me to use them. He wasn’t going to simply take away my sickness that was the result of my not exercising, but He was willing to give me the opportunity to exercise with my kids so that we could be healthy. Yes, I learned that I need to exercise, or work, to have the health, or things, I have prayed for.
In addition to health, I had been praying for answers about my children over the last year or so, as certain ones were struggling with different things. I was asking God to change them, to make things better for them, to remove the problems, etc. But, things kept getting worse. They weren’t improving, and my prayers weren’t helping.
At some point in this process, I finally became desperate enough to ask the question that I should have asked from the beginning. I asked what I could do for them. I still couldn’t detect any specific answer to this question, but I knew somehow that an answer had been given. I tried to figure out why I couldn’t discern the answer even though I could tell it was present.
The answer to that, I eventually learned, was that I internally was blocking the answer because it meant I would need to change in a significant way. The answer to what I could do for my children was to get them a dog. Anyone that knows me well knows how much I despised dogs while growing up. I had no love for them, and always swore that I would never have a dog when I grew up.
However, God was telling me that my children needed a dog, and I wasn’t processing the answer because I didn’t want to change. I didn’t want to hear that my kids needed a dog. I wanted something like “buy them more hamburgers,” “take them on a date,” “go camping more,” or something fun like that. I certainly wasn’t looking for something though that would require me to change and give up a significant portion of who I considered myself to be.
Because I was resistant to change, the answer never came through. Because I wanted to continue on and be who I wanted to be, my prayers remained unanswered. Once I decided to let go of my pride and let go of my commitment to never have a dog, the answers became accessible and clear. I had to work to change, a lot, to let a dog into our home. I wasn’t a dog person, but when I finally was humble enough to recognize that I could be a better person by following what God had for me, I was able to start the work of changing my heart, which, for me, is a long process as I tend to be rather stubborn.
In sum, my unanswered prayers taught me that I need to trust in what God can see, not in what I see or feel, that I need to sacrifice things of value to me to obtain what God has to give, that I need to be willing to work rather than just pray for a miracle, and that I need to realize that my distance from God isn’t a problem with God, it is a problem with me that I need to be willing to fix.
In other words, I learned that prayer is about changing me. Prayer isn’t to change everything around me to make it fit my preferences. When I’m not willing to change or admit that God sees more than I do, I don’t get any answers, and my prayers are of no effect. When I’m not willing to exercise true faith by being willing to act on what I’m told, my prayers aren’t as effective as they could be.
I think of this often as I listen to people describe the darkness or confusion they may feel. Many of us struggle understanding everything that takes place in this world, that takes place in our church, or that takes place in our own lives or the lives of others. Too often, we blame the world, the church, others, or even God for things, and we lose faith. Too little, I learn over and over again, do I seek to recognize how my own blindness, my own desires, or my own problems cause the silence to exist or cause my prayers to remain ineffective.
If you have prayed and not received an answer, please consider that maybe, just maybe, there is something amiss in your heart. Maybe you are, like me, in effect, telling God the way things should be, maybe you are, like me, wanting God to give you something you could work for yourself, maybe you are, like me, not willing to change parts of who you are in order to get what you are asking God to simply give you. I have learned that God answers, but we only receive as we fine tune who we are inside to accept what He has to offer us.
Our answers to our prayers and questions often aren’t the things we want to hear. If we want a testimony of the scriptures, we have to be willing to change a lot about our life. If we want health, we have to be willing to live a healthy lifestyle. If we want answers, we have to be willing to set aside our own thoughts, feelings, knowledge, and desires to receive the items that God has for us.
The main thing that my unanswered prayers have taught me is that I’m imperfect. God is always there, but He loves me enough to withhold the things from me that detract from my eternal progression until I have changed myself enough to follow the path that He has for me. Hopefully, I can learn to focus on changing myself first so that I can avoid the broken arms, darkness, and pain associated with setting my heart so much on the things that I want as opposed to being willing to receive the things that God has for me.