Let’s take a quick look at things from God’s perspective. 17 billion years ago or so, God set this creation into motion. Presumably when God did it, it was with the knowledge that eventually a life form such as ourselves would come into existance. But in the meantime, it takes about a million years for the first stars to form. Some explode, some go on and on, some die out. Galaxies form. Planets form. Life probably shows up here and there.
God watches it all, delighting in the beautiful and unexpected ways it all takes shape. And he waits. One day, according to the plan being played out, there will be these creatures who will bear his own image. What will they look like? Where will they be? When will they show up? What will be the signs that their time is nearing?
Perhaps God searched through the galaxy, narrowing down the places we may appear, watching for signs of life, for the development of the prerequisites to being able to carry his image. Creatures who could create and shape things. Make plans and execute them. Be in relationship and bond to each other. Sit and think. Have a relationship with their maker.
Probably God spent the intervening time with all sorts of other distractions. Relating to other life forms. Watching the workings of stars, mapping the trajectories of atoms, observing the battles played out between colliding galaxies to see which would swallow the other. But at some point, after 17 billion years, the sign were there, the conditions were right, the groundwork had been laid and we began to emerge. It’s game time for humanity. The image bearers are ready for the breath of God.
So after all this time, God is in relationship with human beings. And here I come, begging him to help me find a parking spot. After about 5 minutes, I get frustrated and give up. Consider for a moment, what 5 minutes is to a God who has been dealing with his creation for 17 billion years. Clearly, we’re working with completely different time frames here.
It’s probably the result of getting to middle age, but over the last few years, I have become more and more aware that God is playing the long game while I’ve spent most of my life focused on fixing what’s going on right this very minute. It’s a mismatch in priorities and perspectives which leads to a good number of seemingly unanswered prayers.
Consider the issue of my old 1987 Chevy Celebrity with the bad starter. On many occassions back in the late 90s, I begged God to start that damn car for me. I believed for it to be so. I named it and claimed it. But it never worked. Unanswered prayer.
But within weeks, I got the car repaired and it lasted me for another 2 years with shockingly few problems. So my prayer for the moment was unanswer. But ultimately I did get the cheap, reliable transportation I needed.
If we don’t get what we ask for immediately, but the ultimate goal comes in time, is that really unanswered prayer?
If I pray for sucess and it takes 20 years to arrive, is that unanswered prayer? What if the fruits of my labor aren’t clear until after I am gone? Does that count as my prayers for sucess going unanswered?
Certainly, not all unanswered prayers fall into the category of “just hasn’t happened yet”. And it can be very, very hard to tell the difference between “just hasn’t happened yet” and “aint never gonna happen”. But some of our unanswered prayers are really being-answered-in-time prayers.
As I said yesterday, God is always giving us what we need. And one of the things we need is to expand our perspective beyond the current crisis. Especially in the middle of pressing problems, it’s easy to forget that no matter what, the sun just keeps rising and setting. Babies keep getting born and while other people die. Life goes on and everything passes in time. If your prayer isn’t answered in the moment, life will continue and quite often, the prayer gets answered in time anyways.
Sometimes, God is even calling us to expand our perspective beyond our own lifetimes. We moderns (or post-moderns, if you prefer) are rather unique in that we tend to see ourselves as disconnected from what went before us and what will come after us. We think of ourselves as unique entities who popped into existance to try our hand at the game of life before leaving again.
But what we really are is part of an ongoing game that is much bigger than any one person’s lifetime. In fact, we may be the answer to a prayer said long before we arrived, by somone who is no longer here. And it could be that the answer to our own prayers will only be found after we are gone as well.
Again, not all prayers which seem unanswered are actually a work in progress. But some of them are. When we don’t recognize this, bad things happen. One is that we can lose heart, thinking God is rejecting us or not attentive to us. Even worse, we can be so stuck on an unanswered prayer that we actually miss it when the answer does come.
So, if you’re struggling with unanswered prayer, stop and consider if maybe this is something that God is working out over time. If so, it’s not an unanswered prayer. Just one that’s going to take more than you thought to come to fruition.
Now, it does take some trust to accept that what you’ve asked God for is on it’s way. Which is why it can be enormously helpful to keep a prayer journal. You just write down whatever you are asking God for each day. And then, after a year or so, go back through and re-read what you have written.
You will be shocked to discover that much, if not most, of what you ask for has been given. Often the answer doesn’t look like you thought it would (or should). But you will still find that your needs did get met, one way or another.
Of course, not all of your prayers will be answered, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the God who waited 17 billion years for us to arrive takes more than a year to work things out in our lives. But it becomes much easier to trust that an answer is coming, once you have a better view of all the times it’s happened before