What do we do when God does not answer our prayer?
I know they say he always answers – just not necessarily as we would like. So what do we do when God answers “no”?
This week I’ve been meditating on Psalm 38, the third of seven “penitential psalms.” It’s a psalm of David, who infamously committed adultery with Bathsheba and sent her husband to his death when she became pregnant. He poured out his confession to God in Psalm 51 and asked for a “clean heart” after that affair. But I wonder if this psalm wasn’t written then, too? Here’s some of it —
O Lord, rebuke me not in thy anger,
nor chasten me in thy wrath!
For thy arrows have sunk into me,
and thy hand has come down on me. …
For my iniquities have gone over my head;
they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. …
But for thee, O Lord, do I wait;
it is thou, O Lord my God, who wilt answer. …
For I am ready to fall,
and my pain is ever with me.
I confess my iniquity,
I am sorry for my sin.
(Psalm 38:1-2, 4, 15, 17-18)
As I read that, I thought about what happened after David was confronted by the prophet Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12:15-25. After Nathan leaves, the baby gets sick and David pleads with God. He fasts; he puts on sackcloth; he spends every night lying on the ground. A whole week goes by and David never stops praying. Perhaps he prayed the final lines of Psalm 38: “Do not forsake me! … Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation!”
I have prayed like that before, in desperate times. Maybe you have, too.
So I repeat my question: What do we do, when God does not answer our prayer? Because in David’s case, in spite of all this concentrated prayer and fasting from a man who’s known to be “after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) — Bathsheba’s baby dies.
This has to hit him hard. His servants are so afraid he’ll do something desperate, they tiptoe around afraid to tell him. Imagine their surprise when he finds out! Because instead of harming himself, “then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the Lord, and worshiped” (2 Samuel 12:20).
Worship is not just for the good times
This was a game-changer for me when I first read it. It’s easy to think of worship as what we do when things are going well. Think David “dancing before the Lord with all his might” when he brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6). But this is worship too! Bowing before the Lord when we don’t understand his ways. Worshiping when the answer to prayer is no. Worshiping because he is God and God IS love even when we don’t recognize it. Because “we know that in everything God works for good with those who love him” (Romans 8:28). Even the bad things.
The value of an eternal perspective
That eternal perspective is so important. Without knowing that this life is just a prequel to restoration and eternal joy and blessing, I’m not sure how to cope with things like the death of a child. But we can learn a lot from David. “Why should I fast [now]?” David asked his servants. “Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.”
David accepted God’s will – and he worshiped. Maybe that’s how he got the strength to move on with his life. Because here’s what happened next: David comforted his wife. He made love to Bathsheba and she conceived again. “And the Lord loved him, and sent a message by Nathan the prophet; so he called his name Jedidiah [“loved by the Lord”], because of the Lord” (vss. 24-25).
The Lord met them, in their sorrow, with love
I’m sure their sorrow didn’t end there. But they filled the void in their life with love, and the Lord met them there with the assurance of his love. New life springs from tragedy, the fruit of reconciliation.
Solomon isn’t called Jedidiah elsewhere in the Bible, so maybe it became his parents’ “pet name” for him. I have to think that any time David or Bathsheba used that name, it was a reminder that Solomon was loved by the Lord. And that they were loved, too, in spite of everything that happened. Perhaps that name was a salve protecting against the memories and sadness. God’s love covered their loss.
God’s love covers our loss
However we might question or be tempted to doubt when God doesn’t answer a prayer as we want: we can be sure of his love. He is able to bring good out of evil, life out of death. God is with us to heal us, not harm us. It’s why we can trust. It’s why we can worship. Whenever.
Lord, give me the grace to worship when my prayers aren’t answered my way. Help me to trust in the power of your love.
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation!
© 2018 Sarah Christmyer.