Greetings from the Arctic tundra known as Dallas, Texas.
A major winter storm brought rain, freezing rain, ice, and snow to the middle section of the US yesterday. More than one hundred million people in twenty-five states have been under winter weather alerts. Thousands of flights have been canceled, schools and businesses are closed, and officials are urging us to stay off roads. I am writing this article inside a house covered in snow surrounded by roads covered in ice.
In my current circumstances, I found this story interesting: a homeowner in Connecticut accidentally set their house ablaze while trying to thaw their property with a flamethrower. The owner was attempting to melt ice and snow and “accidentally ignited” the side of the home, according to fire officials. Firefighters were able to extinguish the flames and save the house.
Let’s consider this story as a cultural metaphor.
Why trust God when trusting God doesn’t seem to help?
The social scientist Julian Rappaport defined “empowerment” as “the mechanism by which people, organizations, and communities gain mastery over their lives.” It is empowering to take proactive steps in dealing with a threat.
For example, the leader of the Islamic State was killed yesterday in Syria. He blew himself up along with members of his family as US special operations forces targeted his location. This news comes as evidence of a resurgence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq grows by the day. (For more, see “Should we fear radical Islam?”)
By contrast, when we face challenges for which we can find no solutions or take no apparent action, we feel impotent and frustrated. Like the Connecticut flamethrowing homeowner, we might take steps to solve the problem that only make it worse. Or we might retreat from the “storms” we face and abandon the struggle.
We are all facing such storms, from the ongoing pandemic to geopolitical threats to chasmic political divisions to ever more aggressive immorality. When you’re “stuck inside” as I am today, how is biblical hope relevant? If you’ve prayed for God to change your circumstances but your circumstances do not seem to change, what difference did praying make? If you feel trapped by your world, why should you keep trusting the God who made your world?
If my car broke down constantly, I wouldn’t keep buying cars from that manufacturer. If a restaurant’s food repeatedly gave me food poisoning, I wouldn’t keep eating in that restaurant. If my doctor’s advice and prescriptions were not helping my condition, I wouldn’t keep going back to that doctor.
It’s not surprising when skeptics ask, “Why trust God when trusting God doesn’t seem to help?” It’s only human for Christians to ask the same question.
Let’s consider two biblical responses.
One: Ask and keep on asking
For the first several years of my Christian life, I thought doubts were sins. I believed that if I had enough faith, I wouldn’t have faith questions. Then I found Jesus’ cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). I realized that if the sinless Son of God could ask hard questions, so could I.
I was also encouraged by God’s invitation in Isaiah 1:18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lᴏʀᴅ.” I learned that the Hebrew can be translated literally, “Come now, let us argue it out.” Asking hard faith questions is not just not sinful—it is encouraged by God.
So, let’s begin by defining our problem and asking our questions as specifically as possible. Name your suffering, disappointment, fear, guilt, or discouragement. Ask God to heal your pain, respond to your problem, or encourage your mind and heart.
Then take Jesus at his word: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and [the door] will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7–8, my emphasis).
But know this: Jesus’ invitation in the original Greek should be translated, “Ask and keep on asking . . . seek and keep on seeking . . . knock and keep on knocking.” Persist in prayer, not because your prayers change God but because they position you to be changed by his Spirit. They connect you to his presence and power. And they submit your spirit to his Spirit as he works in your life and circumstances according to his perfect will (Romans 12:2).
I believe many “unanswered” prayers were actually prayers we stopped praying before they could be answered. It is always too soon to give up on God.
Two: Be willing to do whatever God says in response
The New York Times reports that nasal vaccines may be the best way to prevent coronavirus infections long term because “they provide protection exactly where it is needed to fend off the virus: the mucosal linings of the airways, where the coronavirus first lands.” However, such vaccines will obviously need to be used to be effective.
We are often the answer to our prayers. If we are praying for spiritual awakening in our immoral culture, we should ask for that awakening to begin with us (2 Chronicles 7:13–14). If we are praying for God’s protection for the homeless in winter, we should ask him how we can help meet their needs (Matthew 25:35–36). If we are praying for reconciliation in a relationship, we should ask how we can take the first step (Matthew 18:15).
A skeptic once asked God, “Why don’t you do more about the suffering in your world?”
God replied, “I was just about to ask you the same question.”
I believe many “unanswered” prayers were answered by God in ways that required our obedience in response. However, God cannot give what we will not receive or lead where we will not follow.
My decades of “wrestling with God”
I do not mean to suggest that these two factors explain all our apparently unanswered prayers or answer all our faith questions. I still do not understand my father’s early death or have complete explanations for much of the suffering of our fallen world.
But after decades of “wrestling with God” (cf. Genesis 32:22–32), I have learned that if I will “ask and keep on asking” from a heart that is willing to do whatever my Father asks and go wherever he leads, I often experience his presence, power, and peace in ways that respond to and even transcend my questions and struggles.
Biblical scholar William Barclay observed, “If a man fights his way through his doubts to the conviction that Jesus Christ is Lord, he has attained to a certainty that the man who unthinkingly accepts things can never reach.”
Why do you need such certainty today?