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When prayer "doesn't work"

For anyone who is in a long-term struggle of life, such as dealing with serious illness, issues of fertility, or singleness, it can be easy to think that if God isn't answering our prayers, then He isn't listening… and if He isn't listening, then there’s no point in praying. But what is the purpose of prayer? Is it to get God to conform and do what we want Him to do, or is there something more to it? By Stephanie Cottam

In my own journey of sub-fertility, the fact that 2013 drew to an unsuccessful close and 2014 has kind-of limped into its place, one could argue that in this respect God has switched off to my voice.

Asking helpIt's easy to read stories in the Bible, like Hannah's at the beginning of 1 Samuel, and to get the impression that God was really tuned into her cries and stepped in quickly to answer her request for a child. It's easy to compare ourselves to her, or others like her who seemed to have their prayers answered, and to think we must be doing something drastically wrong to have reached the end of another year and STILL not have the emptiness of our womb filled with the hope and joy of a successful pregnancy, to have found love and the marriage partner we long for, or to have received the healing we long for.

It is easy to think that maybe we have not cried desperatley enough, pleaded hard enough or become so despondent in our hopelessness that we are mistaken for a drunkard. But what we are not privy to, in Hannah's story, are the years prior to that one moment in the Temple. The years she, like you and I, spent crying out to God to take away the reproach of her barrenness, and to grant her the opportunity to bear a child of her own.

It is hard to understand how to pray at times, when it seems like our one simple request is being unmet - it can have huge impact on our overall opinion of what prayer is all about. How often have I heard it said, or even said it myself, “prayer doesn't work”. In what sense is prayer “not working”? Well surely that depends on your theology of what prayer actually is. It's easy to come out with the Christian jargon, "Prayer is our way of connecting with God", or "Prayer is about laying our hopes and dreams before God in submission to His plan for our life", or "Prayer is about listening to God, as well as presenting what is on our hearts".

How easily these appear to roll off the tongue, and yet how many women (and men) in the long drawn-out, no guarantee, unanswered hopes for our future, actually feel connected to God in prayer? In the beginning, sure, we are full of hope and excited anticipation of what God is going to do in our lives, but as the years roll by, hope diminishes and hearts become hardened, and if we are honest, we know we aren't as close to God as we once were.

If we were going to "keep it real", many of us can quote the verses like "Ask and you shall receive" or, "the fervent prayers of a righteous man avails much"! So when we struggle to pray we feel the added guilt of obviously not being "righteous" enough, or of not "asking in the right way" because we also know the Bible says, "You have not because you ask not, and when you do ask you ask amiss"!

I don't believe these verses are in the Bible to condemn people like us whose prayers seem to go unheard from one year to the next. I don't believe God means for us to feel that we are not righteous enough, or not holy enough, or not praying right, or any of these things, because through Jesus we are made righteous, we are made holy and a way is offered where we can approach our heavenly Father about anything at any time. The enemy would love to make us feel worthless and condemned, and he uses unanswered prayers to trick us into thinking God doesn't care. Especially in long-term struggles like yours.

Maybe the start of 2014 is the perfect opportunity for us to truly understand what prayer really is about, rather than to mistakenly accept the lie that "prayer doesn't work". Otherwise we might as well start to believe that conversation, in general, is pointless.

We know that conversation "works" in the sense that it allows us to share ideas, hopes, plans, dreams, thoughts, opinions etc... but if someone doesn't start to do what we think they should be doing, we don't suddenly decide that person doesn't listen to us, or doesn't care, because they aren't doing what we told them to do, when we have told them to do it! And we wouldn't stop talking to that person just because they dared to do things their way instead of ours! Yet we do this of God. Prayer should be like our conversation with God, and this involves going to Him with the disappointments and hurts, as well as with all the other stuff. He cares enough to listen.... ALWAYS. Whether we recognise it, feel it, sense it, hear it or not, God always listens. To stop praying because we aren't being given the answer we desperately seek causes resentment and bitterness to spring up between us and our Heavenly Father - causing us to feel isolated, distant and alone - as if this journey isn't isolating and lonely enough.

I wish I had the answers to give you, as to why this area of your life appears to be beyond God's hand, I wish I had the answer to my own questions too. And my understanding of prayer may be being challenged, but this is all in God's plan and I have entrusted my life into His hands. He promised to hear me, to listen when I call on Him, and He has promised He is is faithful, so as I bid farewell to a difficult 2013, I choose to hold onto God, in the hope that through 2014, whether my prayer for a baby is answered or not, I will gain a deeper understanding of God and His conversation with me. Even if this means taking small steps back into His arms.

What about you?


Stephanie Cottam writes and edits a girls magazine for Christian teens, called SHINE. She blogs and is the author of Ready or Not - He is Coming

Picture: Lusi/RGB Stock

Steph Cottam, 15/01/2014
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