So…there’s a joke and goes something like this…
There’s this guy who is living in his house when all of a sudden it starts to rain and rain and rain, and suddenly he realizes the waters outside his house are rising and there is a dramatic flood. As the waters rise in his house he has to run up the stairs and soon he finds himself forced onto the roof of his house with the waters lapping at his toes. This man is a devout follower of Christ and fearing for his life prays to God for rescue and saving. Moments later his neighbor in a canoe paddles by and offers him a lift in his boat and rescue, but the man declines saying to his neighbor that he prayed to God for God to save him and he has a strong faith and believes God will indeed save him. As he watches his neighbor paddle away, the man on the roof begins to get a little nervous as the water is now up to his knees, so he cries out in prayer again, “Lord, please save me.” Moments later a Coast Guard rescue helicopter hovers overhead and over the loud speaker calls down to the man on the roof offering rescue. Gracious as ever the man on the roof (who now is dealing with water up to his chest) declines rescue from the Coast Guard and shares with them his strong faith in Jesus and his firm commitment that God in fact will save him. Sadly, and no doubt surprisingly to the man on the roof, the waters continue to rise and he is overcome in the flood and passes on to glory. When he reaches heaven and sees Jesus face to face he says perturbedly to his Lord, “Jesus, it’s great to see you and all, but why didn’t you answer my prayer. I had faith in you, I believed that you would would save me, so what gives? Why didn’t you save me?” To which Jesus responds, I sent you a canoe and a rescue helicopter what more did you want?
I love how this silly joke gets at deep and profound spiritual questions. How does God answer prayer? Does God always answer our prayers? What happens when we cry out to God for help and our prayers go seemingly unanswered?
These are real questions, and I know that questions about seemingly unanswered prayers come from deep wells of pain, confusion and doubt. I’m certainly not trying to make light of the struggle of coming to grips with prayers that go unanswered. Some prayers do seem to be unanswered. When we’re in pain and when we’re hurting and our suffering continues, it is not consoling to be told we are praying incorrectly, asking for the wrong things, or must be patient (all these things may in fact be true, but when you’re in the midst of suffering and the spiritual struggle of trying to make sense of unanswered prayer they may not prove to be satisfying or helpful, but in fact strongly dissatisfying and hurtful spiritually.) All this is to say that I remain as clueless as you as to why there are times in our life when our prayers seem to echo into the abyss and we remain undelivered from suffering and pain. This is a mystery to me and one that I have more than a few thoughts on (perhaps for a later blog entry).
But our afore-told joke opens our eyes to another possibility when considering how God answers prayer. What if we just miss the ways God is answering our prayers? What if we’re looking in the wrong places or have a preconceived notion in our mind about the ways God will answer our prayers so that when God actually does answer prayers (and it looks different from our preconceived notions or expectations) we fail to recognize it. In these moments, maybe our failing to recognize these answered prayers simply prevents us from acknowledging God’s generosity and saying thank you as we enjoy the gift of answered prayer. But perhaps, like the man on the roof, our inability to recognize the answered prayer prohibits us from even receiving God’s good gift to us.
Something I am beginning to realize in my own spiritual journey is that nearly all the time (and I mean almost every single time) God answers my prayers by sending other people to help me. And most of the time it takes me a while to recognize that these folks are God’s response to my prayer (if I even recognize it at all). In my own life, I’m fairly certain that most of the time I completely fail to identify, and certainly acknowledge in gratitude, all the times God sends someone into my life as an answer to my prayers. Maybe that’s happening in your life too?
One final thought about this kind of (un)answered prayer. Just as God might send someone to be the answer to your prayers, perhaps God is sending you to be the answer to someone else’s prayer. It’s easy to forget that just as others are God’s answer to our prayers, we too can be the ones who God provides to answer the prayers of others.