Rejecting the Guilt of Unanswered Prayer image

Rejecting the Guilt of Unanswered Prayer

When I was still single*, and had been for a long time, I often fell into the trap of thinking that God hadn’t sent me the husband I’d been asking him for because of some fault in me.

‘If only I was tall and slim with shampoo-advert hair,’ I thought, ‘then I’d be able to find a husband.’ Or maybe it was that I needed to pray more or be more generous or less selfish or…whatever it was.

I recognised this (eventually) as vending-machine Christianity – ‘If I just put the right things in and press the buttons in the right order, God will dispense what I want.’ It wasn’t until this week’s sermon at church, though, that I realised it could go by another name: guilt.

We’re just embarking on a new sermon series on unanswered prayer, based around Pete Grieg’s book God on Mute, and our guest speaker sought to help us reflect on disappointments in prayer in a healthy way.

Guilt wasn’t a word I had come across in this context before, but it made so much sense. Obviously we know that when a tragedy happens it is common for people to think ‘If only I had been there, this might not have happened,’ and to experience guilt in that way. Or, sadly, there can be the ‘Job’s comforters’ who assume guilt on the part of the person they are praying for, insisting that their illness must be due to some unconfessed sin in their lives. But this was not talking about those things. It was focussing on unanswered prayer in any context – in contexts like mine.

It is part of our fallen human condition, the speaker pointed out, that we want someone to blame when things don’t go the way we want. (That statement deserves significant reflection in itself, doesn’t it? It is so obviously true of the world we live in, and has been true ever since Adam claimed, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit…”, but I’d never really considered before that it was a consequence of the fall. But I digress…)

Unanswered – or perhaps we should say ‘ungranted’ – prayer is not immune from this impulse. If God doesn’t give us what we want, someone must be to blame.

Perhaps the most honest and clear-sighted people are those who hold God himself to blame. The Marthas and Marys who say, “If you had been here, this wouldn’t have happened” (John 11). They know God has the power to do anything, and that all outcomes are entirely in his hands, so if he hasn’t healed our relative, or got us the job we wanted, or provided us with a spouse, the fault is entirely with him. We can express this desperate disappointment without compromising our honour and respect for God, as Martha and Mary demonstrate, or we can allow it to eat away at the bedrock of our faith in him, and eventually fall away. Either response, however, recognises God’s sovereignty in the situation.

But then there are those who take the blame on ourselves. We feel guilty that we didn’t do more – that we didn’t pray persistently enough, or work hard enough, or diet well enough. We believe, deep down, that the situation is our fault.

In other words, we think we have – and we want to have – control over the situation, and by extension, the world. We think, in fact, that we are God.

If we feel any sense of guilt over an ungranted prayer, we are saying that the outcome was down to us and not down to God after all. Our prayers weren’t so much requests as commands, and if the robot didn’t process them how we intended, it must have been a programming error on our part. So we punch the buttons harder, or go away and try to fix the things we can control, to see if that makes it work.

The solution, as always, is humility and repentance.

We need to remember that God is God, and can answer our prayers however he likes. We must recognise that he knows best, and his plans are perfect – always and in everything. As a good Father, he will sometimes say no, even to things that seem good to us, and we have to trust him in that.

The final point of the sermon was also very helpful: “It’s not about you.”

That is so hard for us to grasp, as everything else in our world trains us to believe that we are the centre of our own universe, the star of our show. But we’re not. It’s not about you. God’s ways are for your good, but they are not for you. They are for him. For his glory. For his kingdom.

So how can you escape from the feeling of guilt over your ungranted prayers?

  • Repent: ask God to forgive you for forgetting that he is God and you are not.
  • Rejoice: choose to find your joy and delight in the Lord, and not the gifts you wish he would give you. Praise him until you feel like it.
  • Re-focus: look to the needs of others. Love your neighbour.

As you reorient your gaze from yourself to your heavenly Father and his other children, you will find your ungranted prayer shrinking back to its proper perspective. That doesn’t mean pretending not to mourn your lack or loss, or putting a brave face on things. It simply means holding those things in their rightful place, and living without the burden of trying to be God.

*Status update: I am no longer contentedly single, but now contentedly married. See this post for the story. For more on how to learn contentment when living with ungranted prayers, check out my book If Only (written as Jennie Pollock). The sermon recording is available on the TVBF website now.

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