Tens of millions of people are praying that the Biden/Harris ticket wins the presidential election. Tens of millions of people are praying that the Trump/Pence ticket wins. That means that whoever wins in November, tens of millions of people will be disappointed.
The fact that millions of people can pray for mutually exclusive outcomes is a problem, if not for God, at least for theologians. But it is also a problem for the people doing the praying. They passionately desire a particular result. They genuinely believe their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of others – the nation, even the world – hangs on a positive answer to their request.
Yet tens of millions of people will not receive a positive answer to their request. What are they to think? That God has abandoned them? That God does not care; that he is, as the ancient Greeks believed, apathetic about human needs?
Many of us have prayed desperately for something – in my case, healing for a family member – only to be disappointed. What is a person to think then, when the job that was absolutely perfect (or at least urgently needed) falls through or when a son or daughter sinks deeper into self-destructive behaviors?
This is sometimes referred to as the “problem of unanswered prayer,” but I’ve noticed that unanswered prayer is a much bigger problem on some occasions than on others. If my prayer for nice weather for the church picnic goes unanswered, I can say, “Oh, well, the farmers needed the rain more than we needed the sun.” But if my prayer for my child’s survival goes unanswered, I will not say, “Oh, well…”
The people who wrote the Bible were aware of the problem of unanswered prayer. They complained about it just like we do, if not more vehemently. Psalm 89 provides a good example. After rehearsing God’s goodness, the psalmist laments his apparent absence: How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?” Then, almost pathetically, he adds: “Lord, where is your former great love?”
Not only did the biblical writers complain about unanswered prayer, they questioned it, wrestled with it. How was it possible, they wondered, that God does not act? The lack of divine response made no sense. They were confused.
“Confused” is a fitting description of the great John the Baptist, as he waited, seemingly forgotten, in a prison cell. Not only did he not understand why God did nothing about his own circumstances, he began to doubt his previous convictions. Doubt can be a painful byproduct of unanswered prayer.
The apostle Paul was also familiar with unanswered prayer. He was deeply troubled by what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” The nature of this thorn is uncertain. Many scholars believe it to have been a physical disability, perhaps a condition that affected his vision. He prayed repeatedly for healing, but to no avail. When he finally received an answer, it was an unmistakable no.
Even Jesus experienced unanswered prayer. “He offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” and, though “he was heard,” he was not spared. If these great people experienced unanswered prayer, perhaps we should not be surprised if our prayers are not always answered as we wish.
God, the Bible teaches, is actively pursuing his own goals, not slavishly serving ours. He has, to put it crudely, bigger fish to fry than our general election results. Free to work outside our temporal limitations, he is confidently and fearlessly pursuing his own goals which, thankfully, include human blessing and plenitude.
They also include the flourishing of the person whose prayer seems to go unanswered. Oddly enough, unanswered prayer can benefit the faithful. Their suffering teaches them to listen for God and obey him. Their endurance shapes them into people of compassion and courage and makes them a source of benefit to others. People who pray for a specific result in the upcoming election may be disappointed but they will not be abandoned or forgotten. God will remember and bless them as he pursues an even better future than they – or Donald Trump or Joe Biden – can imagine.
(First published by Gatehouse Media.)