Trusting the Gifts of Unanswered Prayers

Trusting the Gifts of Unanswered Prayers

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It was not for this

I prayed at the holy shrines That she would become As pitiless and cold
As the storm on Hase’s Hills

–Minamoto no Toshiyori (10th Century Japanese Poet)

Have you ever prayed with great sincerity and fervor for something only to feel like those prayers have gone unanswered—or worse answered with a resounding no?

Unanswered prayers, or prayers that are not answered in the way we hope they will be, may hurt. I know, I prayed for my little daughter to be healed of cancer. Everyone I knew seemed to pray the same thing—fervently, sincerely, and with great hope. There were healing unction services held for her with several priests and two famous icons, the Sitka icon and the Kursk Root icon. We prayed, we hoped, we tried to do everything right. Yet, with all that, and the best medical care possible, she died.

Confronting Loss

Sometimes after her death, I felt that God had been close to us in our suffering, and He was still close to us. I simply needed to be patient and wait, because my loss was not forever. I trusted He was giving us comfort and caring for us even in our grief.

Other times, I felt bitterness invading my heart. I’d pray but feel like I was just talking to my walls. I tried not to ask why, but then I would ask why and become lost within my own despair. I felt like hiding at home, hiding from the joy my friends had, because it reminded me of my loss. Many times I wished that I could run away from my own grief, because inside my heart, the grief felt relentless.

It was not for this that I had prayed.

We know in our hearts that when we pray, sincerely and fervently, we are praying for God’s will, not our own will. Jesus Himself modelled that for us in the Garden of Gethsemane. But our own will keeps tugging us back in its direction. Surely God would want us to be happy, healed, loved, or successful.

Does He? What does God want for us?

He tells us He wants something even better for us than the things of this passing world. God wants us to become like Him. Our purpose, our reason for living, is not to be happy, healthy, and accomplished in this life, but to be deified, to become ever more like Christ both now and on into eternity.

Our prayers are precious to God, even the embarrassing ones where we feel like a cranky toddler afterwards. He understands us. The Holy Spirit intercedes with us, giving utterance when we have no words.

The Mystery of Prayer

Prayer is a mystical, beautiful thing. Habitually praying the morning and evening prayers from the prayer book help keep our prayers from descending into something that resembles a list for Santa by expressing lofty thoughts that are hard for most of us to come up with on our own. Praying written prayers, along with our own prayers from the heart, helps us keep praying when we think we’ve heard a big no, because common prayers remind us that prayer is not just about what we want, it’s about giving glory and thanks to God for His great mercy. Common prayers remind us that we pray together, in unity, as part of the communion of saints.

I don’t know why my daughter died of cancer, but I do believe that her life was more than I can comprehend. Her eight years here, eight years filled with laughter, love, and too much chemo were not the sum total of her existence. Her life goes on, the greatest part of it unseen by me in this present world.

“For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”—Romans 8:18

When it seems God is saying no, it’s always more nuanced than that. There is a promise of healing that comes along with the hurts and disappointments we bear. C.S. Lewis wrote that “heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

I can’t explain how that will work, but I can anticipate it with faith. Somehow, the healing will go right back into the dark ugly corners and illumine them, changing them in a mystical way. Maybe it’s like when you’re a child who’s afraid of the dark, until your mom comes in your bedroom and turns on a light, showing you that the ghost was just your jacket which you had tossed on a chair. The light dispels the darkness and removes fear.

Maybe the heavenly light of Christ will show us things in such a different way, in such a new perspective, that we will experience healing on a scale we can’t imagine now.

But we do get tiny glimpses which give us hope.

Finding Gratefulness

Seven years after my daughter’s passing, my daughter’s friend who is now a teenager, sent me a message telling me how my daughter comforts her. She confided that she feels close to my daughter and encouraged by her everyday. This comfort, this closeness, is something that wouldn’t be happening in the same way if my daughter were still physically present here. It is a heavenly comfort, and spiritual encouragement—a little peek at the way Heaven, once attained, works backward.

Choosing to pray, even in the heart’s darkest moments, is faith. Faith eventually is rewarded with encouragement. Prayers are always answered, in God’s time and in His way, and while we wait, our faith has an opportunity to grow.

It was not for this that I prayed, but this happened for God’s purposes, mysterious to me, but which I trust in faith, knowing that all will come right in the end, for His glory.

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About author
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Edna King

Edna King, B.S.Ed., M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education, home schools her two younger sons. She and her husband, Mark, have four children. Edna’s oldest child is an adult, her youngest child is in heaven after a lengthy battle with cancer, and her middle children are adopted boys from Ukraine. She brings a unique perspective on parenting to her role in Family Life Ministry and draws upon her varied life experiences, 17 years of teaching, and the Orthodox faith to lovingly help other parents.