It is my (Timothy Zebell) privilege to introduce regular INSIGHTS co-host, creator of the Exploring Reality YouTube channel, and newest Forerunners of America staff member, Than Christopoulos. As an apologist, Than has a heart for equipping believers with the tools they need to deepen their understanding of who God is so they may stand firm in their faith and confidently share it with others. The message below may be co-authored between us, but it is primarily Than’s work and is particularly timely in view of God’s perceived silence on certain issues over this last year. It is our hope that it will help equip us to stand firm in our faith regardless of our circumstances.
Where is God when we need Him most? Why won’t God reveal Himself and liberate us from our troubles? Although not a new question, our struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic, cancel culture, and social unrest have emphasized God’s hiddenness. Why do our fellow citizens seem to be more concerned about the wellbeing of others than God does? Surely this is evidence that God doesn’t exist—or if He does exist, He clearly doesn’t care. How else can we justify God leaving so many prayers unanswered?
Among those who seek to defend or deny the faith, this is called the problem of divine hiddenness. Using sarcasm, Atheist philosopher John L. Schellenberg powerfully illustrates in his book The Hiddenness Argument – Philosophy’s New Challenge to Belief in God the seeming contradiction of a loving God and Father who remains distant and silent when His children need Him most: “‘Wow, are they ever great — I wish everyone could have parents like mine, who are so wonderfully loving! Granted, they don’t want anything to do with me. They’ve never been around. Sometimes I find myself looking for them — once, I have to admit, I even called out for them when I was sick — but to no avail. Apparently they aren’t open to being in a relationship with me — at least not yet. But it’s so good that they love me as much and as beautifully as they do!’”
Such arguments rely upon emotional rhetoric that elicit strong emotional responses. At this point, it is worth noting that these feelings are entirely natural—even among men of great faith whom God used to write the Bible. The Psalmist writes, “Why do You stand afar off, O Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (Psa. 10:1). Likewise, “Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psa. 13:1). Scripture is filled with examples of people who felt like God was far away.
We are not the first to question why God sometimes seems so distant, nor will we be the last. Considering that we live in a culture that emphasizes personal feelings as a means of discerning truth, this problem is among the most difficult and confusing for many Christians to answer. Unfortunately, we cannot address every aspect of this question in the space of a single article, so let us focus on prayer specifically. Are unanswered prayers proof that God doesn’t care—or worse, that God doesn’t even exist?
Some of us have pleaded with God for days, weeks, or even years for something to happen, but it never did. Maybe we prayed for racial peace in our country, only to see the opposite. Perhaps we prayed for a loved one to recover from illness only to watch them succumb to its debilitating effects and die. Maybe we prayed for job security and finances to meet our needs, only to be drowned in a mountain of debt. Whatever it may be, we’ve all experienced unanswered prayers which have tempted us to become skeptical of God’s concern for us, and even of His very existence. After all, scripture seems to be lined with promises of God’s provision, and Jesus Himself promised, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7).
So, what about when God doesn’t answer our prayers according to our expectations? It may seem like a simple answer, but it is because God simply knows better than us! God has a purpose for our lives, and He acts accordingly.
At this point, it is tempting to view God as heartless and indifferent to our desires—and even to our suffering. Lest we succumb to such a thought, let us recall that we are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26–27). We experience emotions because we are fashioned after a God who, likewise, experiences emotion. God cares about our suffering so much that He actually entered into our suffering!
There is an incredible scene detailed in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ life. On the eve of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, Jesus entered the garden of Gethsemane to pray. Asking His disciples to pray for Him, Jesus told them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt. 26:36–38). He then fell upon His face and prayed, “‘My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will’” (Matt. 26:39). Jesus prayed this desperate prayer three times (Matt. 26:39–44). So passionate was Jesus’ prayer that in Luke’s account we are told, “And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Today we know enough about the human body to understand what Jesus was experiencing. In rare instances of extraordinary stress, the human body may endeavor to release heat by swelling the capillaries so close to the skin’s surface that blood can seep out through the pores. In other words, Jesus experienced a level of stress and agony to which few, if any, of us can relate. Moreover, He prayed to His heavenly Father three times—something that in Jewish culture signified fervency. Nevertheless, Jesus knew that the emotions He was experiencing could not be trusted. Instead, He entrusted His fate to the will of God the Father whose perspective is not bound by human limitations.
Jesus cannot be faulted for desiring a different path than crucifixion. Moreover, there is nothing inappropriate about His request that God spare Him such a fate. But Jesus kept in mind that His emotions and His perspective could not be trusted above that of His Father’s. Ultimately, Jesus wanted something for Himself that was not according to His Father’s will. Jesus wanted to be spared temporary pain and suffering, but God knew that it would come at the expense of eternal reward and satisfaction. Thus, God refused to grant Jesus’ prayer—not because it was illegitimate or inappropriate, but because God had something better in mind. God will always seek to give us what is truly best for us—not just what appears to be best in the moment according to our limited perspective.
Like Jesus, we sometimes pray according to our desires and limited perspective for what is not within God’s will. When we do this, our requests are not granted. We tend to refer to this as unanswered prayers, but in reality, we did receive an answer. The answer was no. First John 5:14–15 says, “And this is the confidence that we have toward 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 the requests that we have asked of him” (emphasis added). Likewise, Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (emphasis added.)
Much more could be said here which I hope to cover in a future article. Knowing how to recognize God’s will and pray according to it deserves its own article. In the meantime, let us simply recognize that Jesus’ promise that we will receive what we ask for is conditional upon our asking in accordance with God’s will.
Sometimes we go through “desert seasons” when no matter how hard we seek to experience the embrace of God, He doesn’t seem to be there. This is natural. Even Jesus had a moment where He felt forsaken by God (Matt. 27:46).
Some emotions cannot be prevented. This is why we cannot judge something as fundamental to our faith as prayer by how we feel in the moment. Prayer is how we communicate with the Lord. We are not promised experiences and feelings designed to make us feel heard in our prayers, but we are told that God hears our every word (Psa. 139:1–4).
At times, God does refuse to receive our prayers. When we ask with selfish motives, God may refuse our prayers (James 4:3). Likewise, when we persist in our sin and refuse to repent, God may refuse our prayers (Isa. 1:15). According to Proverbs 28:9, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” There are times when God seems distant because we have distanced ourselves from God.
When experiencing desert seasons, we ought to first evaluate our hearts to determine whether we have distanced ourselves from God. It may be that we need to repent and realign ourselves with God, as James 4:8 teaches, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”
If our desert season persists, we must trust that God remains faithful even when we feel distanced from Him. As King David wrote, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? … But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my shall rejoice in your salvation” (Psa. 13:1, 5).
Our belief in the efficacy of prayer stems not from an experience, but from a belief that God exists and that Jesus rose from the dead. We believe in prayer because we believe God exists and is faithful, not the other way around. As soon as we reverse the two, we make a fatal mistake in how we ascertain truth in prayer.
Weighing the Evidence
One final note on prayer. We seem to have an imbalance in the way we test our hypothesis—a phenomena officially known as “epistemic asymmetry.” We are looking in our prayers for evidence of the existence of God, but there’s an imbalance in the weight we should be giving to our observations.
Allow me to provide a simple example of this. Imagine I’m in a restaurant where I know my friend works at a time when I know my friend is supposed to be on shift. If I see my friend, that is strong evidence that my friend is in that building. On the other hand, if I don’t see my friend, it is weak evidence that he is not in the building. There are simply too many other possible explanations as to why I can’t see my friend to prove anything. My friend could be in the back, the restroom, taking out the garbage, etc.
Now let’s extend the logic of this illustration to prayer. When our prayers are answered it is strong evidence that God indeed exists and hears our prayers—just like when I witnessed my friend in the restaurant. Likewise, when our prayers go unanswered, those unanswered prayers hold little to no weight against the claim that God exists and hears our prayers due to all the possible reasons he didn’t answer the prayers. Just like my friend may have been in the restroom when I searched for him at the restaurant, so also our prayers may be rooted in selfish motivations; we may be living in unrepentant sin which is provoking God to refuse to receive our prayers, or we may not be asking for something that matches God’s will for our lives.
Remember Jesus at Gethsemane? Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Jesus himself had what many of us would see as an unanswered prayer, but this did not cause Him to doubt the existence or the faithfulness of God the Father. In this account Jesus models for us how to pray. This is what it looks like to apply Jesus’ instruction in Matthew 6:10 to our practical life experiences: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
When it comes to prayer, it is tempting to doubt that God exists and that He hears us—especially when our prayers are not answered according to our desires, and we feel unheard. However, this doubt is rooted in a distorted understanding of prayer and our relationship to God. We have a tendency to insert our own expectations into what God has ordained for us. Likewise, we have a tendency to judge things from our own subjective perspective instead of God’s eternal perspective. Add into the mix something as complex as epistemic asymmetry—an imbalance in the way we test our hypothesis—and it’s no wonder we have our struggles and doubts with prayer!
So where do we go from here? The Apostle Paul teaches, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). This would be a good start! We pray whether or not we feel like it, whether or not we get what we want, and whether or not we feel heard. All-the-while, we give thanks to God in every circumstance, no matter how difficult. Perhaps this may require that we re-evaluate our heart attitude towards God and our motivations in prayer.
Secondly, we should remember the promises of God in their right context and with the caveats that scripture clearly outlines for us. In other words, we should set our expectations according to the Bible rather than our own feelings. God is not a personal, magic genie tasked with granting us our every wish. We do not force God to comply to our will and desires, rather, we must conform our will and desires to match that of God.
The prophet Jeremiah informs us that God is near and not far off (Jer. 23:23). Likewise, Psalm 145:18 declares, “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth.” God does not move away from us, but through selfishness, sin, and unrepentance, we can distance ourselves from God. Fortunately, the solution to this problem is simple. We need only purify our minds, motivations, and desires in Christ and turn wholeheartedly to God (James 4:8).
A global pandemic, social unrest, cancel culture, or any number of difficult circumstances are facts of life. We do not understand how, but God promises to work all our circumstances into something good for His people, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Let us take hold of this promise, whether or not we sense God working.
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