Unanswered Prayers of Faith
Nearly ten years ago (March 5, 2014) I was admitted to the University of Virginia Hospital (we were living in Virginia at that time) to undergo a major colorectal surgery. It had only been ten days since our daughter Abigail (our first child) had been born. Melissa was home alone with our newborn. Her mother, who under normal circumstances would have been with her to help, had recently been diagnosed with ALS and could not be present.
Because of major complications following surgery (in which over a meter of my intestines were removed), I ended up spending 25 days in the hospital, had to go under the knife again because of a life-threatening infection that developed, ended up with a post-operative ileus, did not eat for a total of forty days, went home with four JP drains, a peg tube, a pic line (through which I was fed what they TPN, and an ileostomy bag (that I kept for a total of four months). The catheter was removed before I was discharged. Those 25 days spent in the hospital were the worst and longest days of my life.
Two years prior to that (2012), I began feeling excruciating abdominal pain. We were living and working in Brazil. This went on for months, and it wasn’t long before we realized something was seriously wrong with my body. There were many sleepless nights when I would crawl on the floor with indescribable cramps. There were many days that I could not stomach food. I had to take a leave of absence from work. We used up all of our savings. We had no health insurance. No assets. No hope of getting the help I desperately needed from Brazil’s “free” healthcare system in crowded Rio de Janeiro hospitals. I had come to what seemed like the beginning of the end. Those were the worst and longest two years of my life.
If you’re like me, when something goes wrong, you pray for God to make things right. We pray in order for God to change the negative circumstances that surround us. We pray for God to heal us or a loved one from disease. We pray for God to help us get out of debt. We pray for God to help us sell our house. We pray for God to help us get the job we’re applying for. From our limited view of things, all we can do is plead with God to remove our suffering.
Well, I prayed desperately that God would heal me from Crohn’s Disease (an autoimmune inflammatory bowel disease). But God did not answer my prayer. I was not miraculously healed of Crohn's. To this day, it is a thorn in my flesh. But does this mean that all of my prayers for healing were not said in faith? Could it be that if I had had more faith, I may have had better outcomes? After all, didn’t Jesus say that the prayer of faith could remove mountains (Matt. 17:20; 21:21; cf. 1 Cor. 13:2)?
Obviously, God has spared my life, so He has not completely ignored me. During the past ten years, I have seen unmistakable evidence of His love and care in my life. But the fact remains that I still have Crohn’s. Would I not be healed if I only had enough faith?
I invite you to consider Paul’s testimony of an unanswered prayer of faith in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. In this context, Paul is defending his apostolic authority because of his detractors in Corinth. One of the pieces of evidence he gives for the authenticity of his apostleship is what he refers to as “the abundance of the revelations” that Jesus had given him (vs. 1-6). Then he digresses in vs. 7-10 to explain that God, in order to keep him humble as his minister, allowed Satan to buffet him with what he refers to as “a thorn in the flesh.”
And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure (vs 7).
No one knows for sure what Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was exactly. It is very possible that it was some sort of physical “infirmity” (cf. vs. 9, 10). Whatever it may have been, we know for certain that it was something very undesirable, and we know that it was not something that God inflicted upon Paul, but rather something that God allowed Satan to inflict upon him, much like the story of Job.
We continue reading in vs. 8:
Concerning this thing [the thorn] I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me.
Paul prayed about this “thorn” earnestly and perseveringly. I believe when he was pleading with God to remove it, it wasn't clear yet that God allowed this in order to save him from spiritual pride. God’s purpose must have only become clear in hindsight.
This text took on new meaning for me after I began struggling with Crohn’s. After 2012, I could relate to Paul in ways I never imagined. When we’re suffering from something, whether it be physical, emotional, or financial pain, our natural response is to pray. We ask God to remove whatever it is that is afflicting us. Nothing wrong with that.
Didn’t John the Baptist want to be delivered from Herod’s prison?
Didn’t Habakkuk want wrongs to be made right in Judah in his generation?
Didn’t Stephen desire to live to see the expansion of the Christian movement beyond Palestine?
Wouldn’t James have been glad if God had delivered him the way he would later deliver Peter from prison?
Didn’t Jesus request that the cup of suffering pass from him?
Nothing wrong or faithless with asking God to remove the negative circumstances that afflict us. It’s the human thing to do.
Paul goes on in vs. 9a:
And He [Jesus] said to me [Paul], “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
Jesus’s answer to Paul’s specific request was: NO. In other words, the thorn was not removed. Jesus simply promised that He would give grace in (not deliverance from) his affliction. Jesus promised Paul strength in the apostle’s moment of weakness.
Then comes Paul’s response in vs. 9b:
Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
This is powerful! This is supernatural. This is faith at its best. This is prayer at its best. Paul prays for healing, he prays for deliverance from his thorn. Jesus says NO. Then with childlike trust, Paul submits to God’s wisdom and loving care and experiences a transformation in his own attitude towards the thorn in his flesh. He now gladly boasts in his affliction, recognizing that it is an opportunity for the power of Jesus to be revealed in and through him.
Then comes the climax in vs. 10:
Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
How can a person sincerely say that he or she takes “pleasure” in a situation that brought so much pain and elicited continuous cries for deliverance? This, in my view, is the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. It’s the power of prayer.
The prayer of faith does not necessarily change our circumstances, but it will always transform us.
Often phrases like “Prayer changes things,” “God answers prayer (meaning God grants requests),” or misconceptions such as “If I have enough faith, God will grant my request,” have created false expectations about prayer and God. If we sow these seeds of theological inaccuracies in the hearts of our children, we may unwittingly reap a harvest of skepticism and unbelief when tragedy visits them.
John the Baptist, Habakuk, Paul, and Jesus—these are all examples of unanswered prayers of faith. Perhaps we could say that their prayers were answered, but just not in the way they originally asked. Like Paul, who was unaware of God’s broader purpose when he persistently requested that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” they learned to trust God in their situation with no promise of better outcomes in this life.
I love this quote from The Ministry of Healing, p. 474:
In the future life the mysteries that here have annoyed and disappointed us will be made plain. We shall see that our seemingly unanswered prayers and disappointed hopes have been among our greatest blessings.
Then on page 479:
God never leads His children otherwise than they would choose to be led, if they could see the end from the beginning and discern the glory of the purpose which they are fulfilling as co-workers with Him.
We don’t know exactly what Paul’s thorn was, but we do know that it was something that Satan, not God, inflicted upon him. It was obviously a painful chapter in his life that God could have prevented had He chosen to do so. I wrestled with God a lot over why He allowed me to have Crohn’s Disease. I was often tempted to think that my life would have been so much better if I had never gotten sick.
Perhaps you are struggling with a thorn right now, and are perplexed as to why God seems to do nothing about it. I will give you no promise that God will deliver you from your thorn in this life. But of one thing you can be certain. Like in Paul’s case, and I trust in mine as well, could we see the end of the from the beginning, we would have it no other way.
God gave Paul a glimpse of why the thorn was not removed. It was for his own spiritual well-being. Could Stephen have seen the end from the beginning, perhaps he would have been glad to know that his blood was the seed that resulted in Paul’s conversion. John the Baptist died in Herod’s prison perhaps not fully understanding why, if Jesus was the Messiah, he did not intervene on his behalf. But I believe he died trusting in God. Job couldn’t see the cosmic conflict playing out, but he refused to stop believing that God was on his side. I long for the faith of Job, which enabled him to say: “Though he slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15), or to say with Jesus: “Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will (Matt. 26:39)?