What to do with unanswered Prayer

Two weeks ago today you may have noticed I was not at St. George’s. I was in fact at Lords cricket ground, watching the Cricket World Cup final where with a few balls of the match remaining England looked to be heading for certain defeat. In the grip of an enthralling match, much conversation had passed between me and my two neighbours during the day. “You’re a priest aren’t you said one at this moment. “Why don’t you put in a call to higher authority?”

Shortly afterwards, a thousand to one event happened – something I have never seen before in a cricket match. Ben Stokes hit the ball towards the boundary, the return throw from the fielder hit Stokes’s bat and was deflected to the boundary to give England an extra four runs, leaving them with three runs to get off two balls. They didn’t achieve exactly that, only scoring two runs. The match was tied. And, you will know England eventually won the match by the narrowest margin.

So, seemingly, my prayers had been answered.

Today in the Gospel, we have the words “So I say to you, Ask and it shall be given to you.”

Now I have to confide in you. I did not pray that England would win the match.

Today I would like us to consider the words:

“Ask and it shall be given to you”

What happens when our prayers don’t seem to be answered.

The first thing to say is that I do not think prayer is about discussing a private wish list with God. It is perfectly reasonable to ask for help and I will be sharing some, what I think is very good, advice on this. Prayer is also about adoration and thanking – as St. Paul says, to abound in thanks giving.

To return to unanswered prayer.

Let me share with you the story of Revd David Watson, a vicar in York who was a leading evangelist, who based much of his ministry in York. In his early 50s he found he was ill with pancreatic cancer.

There was a tremendous outpouring of prayer on Watson’s behalf. Several prominent pastors flew from California to London to pray and lay hands on Watson. A number of English bishops visited Watson, prayed for him, gave him communion, anointed him with oil, laid hands on him-all seemingly to no avail. Watson died at about the time the doctors predicted. Healing never occurred. Miracles do happen but very rarely, which is of course why they are viewed as miracles. And on this occasion, sadly, no miracle took place.

So what happened? Did God hear their prayers? And if He did, why did he ignore them?

Let me be very clear. I believe that God hears all our prayers, but we may not always get the answer that we want or expect. We should remember Paul’s words addressed to the Colossians which we heard today, “to be rooted in Christ and established in faith.”

Those who prayed for David reflected on what happened. they came to realise, as one of them explained, that in this life we see through the glass darkly. We must let God be God and not negotiate with God. We should not test him in the way that Abraham seems to be doing in today’s Old Testament reading, behaving rather like a child who keeps coming back with questions, about whether He will spare the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah.

We can and do of course ask for outcomes but we should remember the example of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asks for this Cup to be taken away and then adds: “Lord not my will, but yours be done.”

So how might we pray when we ask God to intercede? And shortly in our service, we will have our prayers of intercession, when we bring before God, the names of those known to us.

Some years ago, the BBC radio correspondent in India Mark Tully interviewed Rowan Williams. What you may not know is that Sir Mark on leaving university, considered the call to ordination to the priesthood and attended a theological college before dropping out.

I’m going to conclude this morning with part of this interview which I hope might be helpful:

Mark Tully:

How do you feel about intercessory prayer?

The Archbishop:

A great Church of England writer of the twentieth century writing to a friend said, 'I'm going to spend ten minutes just thinking about you and Jesus', and I think that's a brilliant definition of intercessory prayer. You don't send in your list of requests or bombard God with your demands. You just hold the image and sense of a person or situation in the presence of God as if you want to let the one seep into the other. The bringing together of those two realities in your mind and heart is very much how I find intercession works.

Mark Tully:

So isn't there any element really of saying to God, 'Please help this person' or whatever?

The Archbishop:

Well, of course there is because your emotions are involved here, and in particularly intense circumstances of need of course I say sometimes, 'God please make a difference to this'. Your emotions push you towards saying these kinds of things, and there's no need to be ashamed of that. But the reality is just to let God into the situation to hold it there. That's the bottom line.”

So when praying for others can I suggest you write into your hearts:

'I'm going to spend ten minutes just thinking about that person and Jesus”– to let God into the situation, to hold it there – and to let God seep into that person and vice versa.

Fr Peter Wolton