In Vs. Through
“Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.”
If you know those lyrics you may be showing something about your age and the kind of music you've been exposed to. You won't find this song at a Chris Tomlin or Matt Redman concert. Released in 1990, Garth Brooks wrote the song Unanswered Prayers which contained the lyric above. I wore out his CD, The Hits.
Although there’s some irony in Garth’s song “Unanswered Prayers”, I think it’s fitting for the Christian life. Deep down, the renewed heart that’s made alive by the Holy Spirit is one that longs for our home with God (Philippians 1:23) and to know Him as we’re fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). However, our prayers often betray the deepest longings of our heart (Romans 8:26).
We pray for things that, if given, would result in greater distance and less dependence on God. In his book, The World, The Flesh, and Father Smith, Bruce Marshall pens these words: “The man who rings the bell at the brothel, unconsciously does so seeking God.” We seek the things God gives, wrongly thinking they’ll satisfy our hearts. God delights to give us more of Himself. To give us the superficial desire of our heart could very well be the worst thing that can happen to us (James 4:3). The deep desire of our heart’s longing is answered truly and only by getting more God (Psalm 37:4).
People warn, sometimes jokingly, to be careful about praying for patience or humility because of what God will do to answer your prayers. You don’t get more patience from comfortable situations or harmonious people. You get patience from the pressure cooker of situations that require it. And, in that cooker you realize you don’t have it in yourself and it must be found from what only God can provide. We don’t typically ask God to place us around difficult people or in strenuous situations. We typically ask, implicitly or directly, for comfortable situations and easy to love people. Left to ourselves we’ll jump from people-to-people and place-to-place to escape the sanctifying work God's doing.
We pray for success. We ask for greatness. We may cloak the blatant search for our own glory with softer language, but it’s still there. There are a few pastors who may be so bold to say, “I want to have the biggest church in the area; I want to be nationally recognized for my efforts; I want people to really like me.” Maybe there are some parents who’d publicly profess, “I want my kids to do better than your kids. I want them to be smarter, more athletic, and more successful than everyone else’s kids.” Behind closed doors, I’m sure some owners and financers would acknowledge, “I’d like to put my competitors out of business as I shore up the market and make profits that’d make other’s heads spin.”
The anvil and hammer God uses to shape us into the image of his Son is not our great accomplishments but our great losses. In the absence of the thing for which we long, or the loss of the thing we obtained, God meets us. He satisfies us. He gives Himself and shows us it was Him, all along, that we most deeply needed (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Years ago, a friend told me, “God is always more interested in what He wants to do in you than what He wants to do through you.” Although most of us would like to do great things for God - and we pray to this effect - God wants to do great things in us. By His grace, our prayers go unanswered. By His grace, He keeps praying for us (Romans 8:27).