I’ve been struggling in prayer lately. I’ve needed sleep and I haven’t been getting nearly as much as I would like. Chemotherapy forced me into early menopause and the resultant side effects, especially hot flashes, have conspired to rob me of the rest I so desperately want. I have prayed often for God to give me that gift of an unbroken eight hours’ sleep, only to feel somewhat betrayed as I lay in bed for hours waiting to fall asleep or wake up multiple times in the middle of the night with another hot flash. Others have prayed for me, and I’ve tried multiple sleep supplements, but it hasn’t gotten much better. As a result, I’ve been reluctant to ask for this request anymore. It seems that the answer right now is no.
So what do you do when your prayers seem to go unanswered? Prayers for good things. Not just for sleep during cancer treatment, but for things that are more important, like the salvation of loved ones and friends? How many of us have prayed for decades for people to be saved and seen little evidence of God working?
If I’m really honest, unanswered prayer makes me impatient, like someone who’s tempted to kick the vending machine when they don’t get what they paid for. Questions and doubts about God’s character and his intentions can pile up in the deep recesses of my spirit and make it really hard to bring these requests to the Lord, again and again and again. Why is prayer so hard sometimes?
Life is hard. This truth seems obvious when we look around and within, but I think we all want to deny it. We’re all tempted to create a safe space for ourselves in this world, a little temporary utopia where everything matches up completely with our desires, but when that gets shattered by lost jobs, broken cars and cancer, we’re jolted. We wake up every day expecting normalcy, not realizing that normal doesn’t exist in this world that’s been polluted by sin.
In this broken world, peace and sunshine are the exceptions, not the rule. We should take Jesus at his word – “In this world you will have trouble…” John 16:33 Trouble is the default and trouble affects all aspects of our lives – physically, relationally, and spiritually. Just because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean I’m immune to the trouble, both in my sleep and in my prayer life.
We have faulty understanding. Proverbs 3:5 would not warn us against leaning on our own understanding unless that was what we were so prone to do. We are so prone to operate out of what we think is right, what we think God should do. We need a constant reminder that our understanding is defective, narrow, and inaccurate. By contrast, Isaiah 40 teaches us that no one has known the mind of the Lord and his understanding is unsearchable. So when our prayers go unanswered, at least according to our understanding, we need to press pause and remember our limitations. We don’t know everything God knows and even if we’re certain that what we’re asking for is good for us in that moment (like sleep), we don’t understand how God may be working through these hard things now for a greater good later on. And not just for ourselves. Joseph, after being sold as a slave and spending years in prison, was able to tell his brothers at the end of Genesis that the evil they did to him, God used for good. But he only saw that after many years.
We don’t rely on the Spirit. One big lesson I’m learning about prayer right now is to rely on the Spirit, to pray in the Spirit. What does that mean? Charles Spurgeon said it means to pray with the Spirit’s power, guided by his desires. It’s to pray with fervency, perseverance, sincerity, love and faith. But most of all, to pray in the Spirit is to pray in humble dependence. A lot of people have prayer journals or lists of people to pray for. I also use something like that. But if we’re not careful those lists can just become another box to check and if we get through the list we feel good about ourselves. What if, before we even started praying, we acknowledged our weakness and inability to know how to pray properly? What if we asked humbly for the Spirit’s help in praying, for his power and wisdom as we bring that unsaved loved one before him again? What if, as I ask yet again for sleep, I also asked for the Spirit’s help to persevere and trust that God is still good, that he loves me as his beloved child, that he is not at all like a vending machine, and is still very much with me supplying everything I need even if I again wake multiple times in the night?
A couple weeks ago I was reflecting on Romans 8 and what impacted me was the reality that this world is groaning under the weight of sin, waiting to obtain freedom. And we groan along with it as we wait for our redemption to be complete. Groaning is normal. And it affects our prayer lives. But what’s amazing is what comes after that passage. In the groaning we have help. We have someone who groans along with us!
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Romans 8:26-27
Prayer is hard, but we have help. We have a perfect high priest, the Lord Jesus, who ever lives to intercede for us, and we have a wonderful counselor and helper, the Holy Spirit, who mercifully groans along with us when we don’t know how to pray. And we can be confident that with this kind of help, all things will work together for our good. Indeed, after Jesus told his disciples about the troubles they would have in this world, he reassured them by saying, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.”