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“Some, but not all, unanswered prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prays. Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mystifying respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all, trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence, and the potential for tragic accident.”

That, seems to me, to be the problem with unanswered prayer; there are no easy answers. There’s not a simple rule to describe why prayer does or does not get answered.

Jesus seems to contribute to the problem. Jesus says things like:

Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. (Matt. 21:21).

Truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. (Matt. 18:19).

Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mark 11:24).

You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:14).

Yancey argues that Jesus could have said something like:

“I am bestowing the gift of prayer. You must realize, of course, that humans cannot have perfect wisdom, so there are limits as to whether your prayers will be answered. Prayer operates like a suggestion box. Spell out your requests clearly to God, and I guarantee that all requests will be carefully considered.”

But Jesus didn’t. He made statements like the ones quoted. And how do we deal with the unanswered prayers of Jesus and Paul? Yancey asks, “How can we reconcile the lavish promises with the actual experience of so many sincere Christians who struggle with unanswered prayer?”

Sometimes prayer offers us a time to wait. Some times God may be developing a situation in which he can be glorified. Some times God is waiting for us to act. Prayer is not the simple, straightforward, wish granter that we may like; but it is still a powerful tool in maintaining our relationship to God if we can learn to live with the mystery.

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“I do not doubt that God answers prayer. Rather, I struggle with the inconsistency of those apparent answers.”

Why does God answer some prayers and not others? Why is one person healed and another not? Both were prayed for. One is saved from a bus crash and his family proclaims the grace and mercy of God. But what of the families of those who were lost?

Yancey answers that some prayers go unanswered because they are merely frivolous. Other times sin disrupts our communication with God. Sometimes prayers are contradictory; athletes and farmers praying for weather at the same time. Some prayers are better off not answered.

Yancey concludes, “Prayer does not work according to a fixed formula: get your life in order, say the right words, and the desired result will come. . . . Between the two questions ‘Does God answer prayer?’ and ‘Will God grant my specific prayer for this sick child or this particular injustice?’ lies a great pool of mystery.”

Let us embrace the mystery of prayer.

“On the hill behind my mountain home, each spring a pair of red foxes raises a litter of kits. The parents have grown quite accustomed to me roaming the hill and think it not at all strange that I stop in front of the den and whistle a greeting. Sometimes the young ones poke their faces out the crevice in the rock, sniffing the air and staring at me with alert, shiny eyes. Sometimes I hear them scrabbling around inside. Sometimes I hear nothing and assume them asleep. Once, when a visitor from New Zealand stopped by, I took him to the den, warning him that he may see and hear nothing at all. ‘They are wild animals, you know,’ I said. ‘We’re not in charge. It’s up to them whether they make an appearance or not.’

“A bold young fox did poke his nose out of the den that day, thrilling my visitor, and a few weeks later I received a letter from him, now back home in New Zealand. As he reflected on it, oddly enough, my comment about foxes helped him understand God. He had just gone through a long season of depression. Sometimes God seemed as close as his wife or children. Sometimes he had no sense of God’s presence, no faith to lean on. ‘He is wild, you know,’ he wrote. ‘We’re not in charge.'”

I liked that story and thought I’d share it. I’ll be back in about a week.

“Sooner or later most pray-ers hit the wall, to borrow a term from marathon running. Feelings go numb, words fail, confusion chases away clear thought. The act of prayer suddenly seems silly, even preposterous. You mumble alone in a room: Isn’t talking to yourself a sign of a disturbed person?”

I talked about his one night at a church in Philadelphia. I was trying to tell them about “the dark night of the soul,” to borrow a phrase from John of the Cross. I remember the small group looking at me as if I had lost my mind. They had never experienced such a thing as feeling the absence of God, at least they wouldn’t admit to it. I must admit it is a disturbing experience. They’ve seemed to think it was a spiritual defect and I’m not sure what they thought of me afterwards.

Yancey recommends a prayer from Thomas Green:

“Lord, you care for me more than I care for myself. I cannot believe that you are playing guessing games with me. If the dryness I experience is due to some failing of mine, you make it clear to me and I will try to remedy it. But I will not entertain vague doubts; unless and until you make my failing clear to me, I will assume that is not the reason for the dryness.”

Yancey observes that we face numerous obstacles to our prayers. We are sometimes blocked by our feelings of unworthiness, drawn away by distractions, hindered by our need to “do it right.”

Yancey looks to Jesus’ teaching in his model prayer, the Lord’s prayer, and believes that Jesus’ teaching can be reduced to three principles: “Keep it honest, keep it simple, and keep it up.”

Yancey believes that we can learn to pray by listening to the prayers of the Bible. He says that the Bible contains around 650 prayers. The Lord’s Prayers and the Psalms provide powerful guides to our own prayer life.

Here’s a list of some of the prayers:

Genesis 18: Abraham’s plea for Sodom.
Exodus 15: Moses’ song to the Lord.
Exodus 33: Moses meets with God.
2 Samuel 7: David’s response to God’s promises.
1 Kings 8: Solomon’s dedication of the temple.
2 Chronicles 20: Jehoshaphat prays for victory.
Ezra 9: Ezra’s prayer for the people’s sins.
Psalm 22: A cry to God for help.
Psalm 104: A prayer of praise
Daniel 9: Daniel’s prayer for the salvation of Jerusalem.
Habakkuk 3: A prophet’s prayer of acceptance.
Matthew 6: The Lord’s prayer.
John 17: Jesus’ prayer for his disciples.
Colossians 1: Paul’s prayer of thanksgiving.

There is also the Book of Common Prayer and various other written guides to prayer. What resources do you find helpful to lead you in prayer?

“In the midst of a hectic, confusing period of his life, Henri Nouwen took a sabbatical from his professorship at Yale and spent seven months at a Trappist monastery in upstate New York. He asked a mentor there for advice on how to develop a deeper prayer life in the midst of his busyness. When he tried to pray, he said, his mind drifted to many things he had to do, most of which seemed more urgent and important than prayer. The mentor recommended that Nouwen set a prayer schedule that he would stick to at all costs. He suggested an hour in the morning before work and a half hour before going to bed, a schedule far more lenient than the monks’ own.

Nouwen decided on a more realistic prayer regimen of half an hour each day. At first his thoughts ran wild, like untamed animals. He kept at it, telling himself, ‘Since I am here for this half hour anyhow, I might just as well pray.’ The sense of awkwardness gradually faded, and in time he felt his soul settling down to a more calming rhythm. It may seem that nothing happens when you pray, he observed. But when you stay with a routine, over time you realize that something indeed has happened.”

It’s sometimes encouraging to me when I hear that someone so spiritual like Henri Nouwen was also struggled with prayer. I don’t mean to be negative and wish for someone else to fail. It’s just comforting to know that I’m not the only one.

It’s also encouraging to know what they did to deal with their struggles. Sometimes routine feels spiritually empty, but it also provides necessary structure.

Yancey advises, “I must find my own way to pray, not someone else’s. And as life changes, my prayer practice will no doubt change with it. . . . The only fatal mistake is to stop praying and not begin again.”

So how do we keep company with God? How do we develop that close relationship? Yancey argues that it is through prayer that we stay close to God. But how do we learn to pray?

“If I want fluency in a foreign language, I must set aside time, no doubt giving up something else in the process. I must keep working at it, persisting despite the awkward feelings of a beginner. I persevere only because I value the final result. Nearly everything worthwhile–learning a sport, mastering the guitar, improving computer skills–involves the same process.”

“Prayer remains a struggle for me. On the other hand, so does forgiving someone who has wronged me. So does loving my neighbor. So does caring for the needy. I persist because I am fulfilling God’s command, and also because I believe I am doing what is best for me whether or not I feel like it at the time. Moreover, I believe that my perseverance, in some unfathomable way, brings pleasure to God. We should always pray and not give up, Jesus taught.”

How do we learn to pray? Yancey quotes Mother Teresa, “By praying. . . . If you want to pray better, you must pray more.”

“Some who attempt prayer never have the sense of anyone listening on the other end. They blame themselves for doing it wrong, feeling ever a failure,” writes Yancey.

In response to this problem, Yancey had another friend compare prayer to sex.

“As I thought about her unlikely analogy, it occurred to me that reading a book about prayer has some parallels to reading a sex manual. What sounds so thrilling on paper bears little resemblance to how sex usually plays out between two vulnerable people who approach it with very different expectations. Like sex, prayer centers in relationship more than in technique, and the differences between the two parties in prayer are far more profound than the differences between two lovers. Should it surprise us that problems arise?”

And like sex, we frequently look for a quick fix to our problems. We think everything should be simple. And when it is not we get easy frustrated.

Yancey cautions, “The secret to keeping company with God will likely not be found in a new set of tapes, another book, a different preacher, a weekend seminar.”

So what is the secret to keeping company with God? Ideas? More tomorrow.