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Let Thy Will Be Mine: Answered and Unanswered Prayers

An obstacle frequently encountered by those among the Christian faithful who seek to fulfill the necessary Biblical directive to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is that of disheartenment occasioned by questioning whether God truly hears their prayers. Particularly in difficult circumstances, these may feel that their cries fall short of reaching the “ears” of God, even as they continue to offer up prayers to Him, sometimes begrudgingly, in the hope that He might hear and grant their requests. In some instances, they may even abandon prayer entirely. It is therefore necessary to carefully consider the efficacy of prayer and its place in Christian practice, drawing from both the God-breathed Scriptures and the experience and wisdom of the early Church so that, from this reflection, we may altogether attain refreshment, a renewed vigor, and incitement to venture deeper into the life of prayer which is fellowship with God and nourishment in Him.

God knows all things and “sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). The Lord “searches all hearts, and understands every plan and thought” (1 Chronicles 28:9). He “knows the secrets of the heart” (Psalm 44:21) and from His sight “no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare” (Hebrews 4:13). Nevertheless, the Scriptures advise that “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6) for “the Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth” (Psalm 145:18).

In keeping with this divinely ordained emphasis on prayer, the Lord Jesus Christ Himself prayed often and taught both His own disciples and the people more generally to pray. For instance, He prayed during His baptism in the Jordan (See Luke 3:21); after He healed Simon’s mother in law (See Mark 1:35); before He chose the twelve disciples (See Luke 6:12); before He walked on the water to His disciples in the boat (See Matthew 14:23; Mark 6:46); at His transfiguration (See Luke 9:28-29); in His long prayer to the Father (See John 17); in Gethsemane, on the night of His betrayal by Judas (See Matthew 26; Mark 14; Luke 22); and in many other recorded, and doubtless also unrecorded, instances. Indeed, “He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed” (Luke 5:16), and His prayers were of such power and beauty that once, after He had finished praying, one of His disciples asked Him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1).

The Lord also taught frequently regarding prayer. In His Sermon on the Mount, He instructed the people to pray for those who spitefully use and persecute them (See Matthew 5:44), emphasized the practice of secret prayer (See Matthew 6:6-7), and noted the necessity of intelligent prayer (See Matthew 6:7-8). He also highlighted the prerequisite of forgiveness to prayer, saying, “whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (Mark 11:25), and encouraged his hearers “to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

The Apostles, faithfully following the Lord’s example and teaching, also prayed often, and urged the believers to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), and to “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2) and “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). They prayed individually and collectively, as is mentioned frequently in the Book of Acts: for instance, all who were gathered in the upper room after the Ascension “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14); the disciples prayed when choosing a replacement for Judas Iscariot (See Acts 1:24-25); Peter and John went together to pray at the Temple at the ninth hour (See Acts 3:1); the Apostles prayed when ordaining the seven deacons to serve the tables (See Acts 6:6); Saul prayed after the Lord appeared to him on the road, as he sat unable to see in Damascus (See Acts 9:11); Peter prayed before raising Tabitha from the dead by the power of God (See Acts 9:40) and on the rooftop at the sixth hour when he saw the vision of common and uncommon animals (See Acts 10:9); Paul and Silas prayed at midnight while imprisoned in Philippi (See Acts 16:25); and Paul prayed before laying his hands upon the father of Publius to heal him (See Acts 28:8).

Prayer was not solely practiced by Christ and His Apostles. Rather, it is evident all throughout the inspired Scriptures that prayer was faithfully practiced in every generation by believing men and women who, regardless of their circumstances, sought to discern and fulfill God’s will and abide in the inexpressible joy of His presence. Prayer, then, is the means by which one enters into the life with God and communion with Him, and it is God who both teaches and enables the human to offer appropriate prayer. Origen therefore writes:

“Just as a sick man does not ask the doctor for things which will restore him to health but rather for things which his disease longs for, so likewise we, as long as we are languishing in the weakness of this life, will from time to time ask God for things which are not good for us. This is why the Spirit has to help us. The weakness which the Spirit helps us with is our flesh…Whenever the Holy Spirit sees our spirit struggling with the flesh and being drawn to it, He stretches out His hand and helps us in our weakness.”[1]

Elsewhere, he elaborates:

“Therefore, the discussion of prayer is so great a task that it requires the Father to reveal it, His Firstborn Word to teach it, and the Spirit to enable us to think and speak rightly of so great a subject.”[2]

In perfect prayer, the human, repeating the words taught by Christ, asks God: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.” This petition is a sublime expression of the Christian life, for through it, the believer seeks to enter into communion with God. Truly the Scriptures teach that God’s will is for all men “to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:3-4; See also 2 Peter 3:9; John 17:3); to be sanctified (See 1 Thessalonians 4:3); to love one another (See John 13:34-35); to be one with Him and with one another (See John 17:11,20-23); to abide with Him where He is (See John 17:24); and to discern His voice and live according to His will (See John 10:27, 14:23-24; 1 John 5:2-3).

In prayer, as in life, the Christian believer seeks to align his will with that of His Lord by emptying himself in the presence of God so as to be filled and guided by Him. In silencing his own thoughts, he is able to hear the voice of God. But this is not enough: it is essential not only to hear His voice, but also to properly discern it. This capability is achieved by living with God and knowing His word, particularly through the life the Church freely offers to her members — the liturgical life of prayer, worship, and intimacy with the Scriptures. In the experience of the Church, “prayer was not an activity undertaken for a few hours each day, it was a life continually turned to God.”[3] Thus, in the monastic experience especially, prayer “was life orientated towards God. ‘Unless a man can say, ‘I alone and God are here,’ he will not find the prayer of the quiet.’ It is the other side of the saying of St. Anthony, ‘My life is with my brother.’”[4] In offering with sincerity this petition, “Thy will be done,” the Christian submits his personal ambitions, opinions, and plans to the will of God for him — “Thy will,” not “my will.”

When we approach prayer in this way, we no longer find it necessary to present a checklist to God in our discourse with Him, nor do we any longer deal with Him as a banker, offering Him collateral or some valuable sacrifice in exchange for the objects of our prayers. Instead, in prayer, “setting our minds on things above” (Colossians 3:2), we enter into life with God, laying down our desires, our longings, and even our very lives before Him in order to become instruments in His hands to accomplish His will. It then becomes sufficient to heed the guidance of Abba Macarius, who, when asked how one should pray, said: “There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, ‘Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.’ And if the conflict grows fiercer say, ‘Lord, help!’ He knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.’”[5] Only then will we no longer await an immediate, perceptible, or apparently favorable answer to our requests and prayers. Instead, we will recognize, believe, and ask that all things are done according to the will of God, as He deems fit, being thankful for His presence in and management of our lives[6] irrespective of what His response is, or whether He responds at all, to our individual petitions.

When the will of God becomes our own, we experience the realization of the Lord’s promise: “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Truly “this is the confidence which we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of Him” (1 John 5:14-15).

Unanswered prayers ought not stir up resentment in our hearts towards God, for prayer is the accomplishment of a much greater task — namely, communion and fellowship with God, for “our fellowship is with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3) through the Holy Spirit (See Romans 8:9-17; 2 Corinthians 13:14). If we are disheartened by prayers which, in our eyes, have gone unanswered by God, let us remember the example of our Lord Jesus Christ who, in preparation for His Pascha, prayed saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will” (Matthew 26:39). Highlighting this example, the Christian writer C.S. Lewis writes:

“Prayer is not a machine. It is not magic. It is not advice offered to God. Our act, when we pray, must not, any more than all our other acts, be separated from the continuous act of God Himself, in which alone all finite causes operate. It would be even worse to think of those who get what they pray for as a sort of court favorites, people who have influence with the throne. The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough for that…Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need. There is a mystery here which, even if I had the power, I might not have the courage to explore. Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated. If we were braver, we might be sent, with far less help, to defend far more desperate posts in the great battle.”[7]

May God grant us His mercy and peace, fill our hearts with His joy and gladness, and support us as we venture deeper through prayer into our lives with Him, to Whom is due all glory now and forever. Amen.

“Your servants, O Lord, who are serving You, entreating Your holy Name, and bowing down their heads to You, dwell in them, O Lord, walk among them, aid them in every good deed, and awaken their hearts from every vile and earthly thought, grant them to live and think of what is pertaining to the living and understand the things that are Yours”

(Coptic Prayer of Submission to the Father).

[1] Origen, Commentary on Romans 4.76-78

[2] Origen, On Prayer 2.6

[3] Benedicta Ward, The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Foreword

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 131

[6] See Divine Liturgy of Saint Basil (Coptic), Seven Prayers

[7] CS Lewis, "The Efficacy of Prayer," The World's Last Night and Other Essays, 9-10


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