Will I Die with Prayers Unanswered?

Tonight I read back over something I had written a couple of years ago about particular situations where it looked to me like God was at work, specifically in answer to my prayers.  I was excited.  Now that time has passed, I can see that my prayers were not, in fact, answered.  Almost all of the initially positive signs of God’s work in people’s lives have come to nothing.  I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced this kind of disappointment. 

The temptation here is to pray less, and to pray with less fervency.  If disappointment is what I will get, why invest myself?  Do I want to die having spent a large amount of time and energy asking God for things that never came to pass?  It only makes sense to slack off on prayer a little and put my time to better use.

And then I remember Paul’s words: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. . . . Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 9:2-3; 10:1).  Paul took a risk.  He invested himself personally in the eternal well-being of his unbelieving kinsmen, the people of Israel.  He allowed himself to be grieved by their lost condition, and he prayed fervently for God to change their hearts.  Then he went to his death with the vast majority of Israelites still hardened to the Messiah.  And so it persists to this day. 

Was Paul a failure on this point?  Should he have gotten the clue that God wasn’t going to do what he was asking and moved on to something more fruitful?  Should he have closed his heart to Israel once enough time had elapsed and he saw that little had changed?  No.  The same Paul who grieves over Israel in Romans 9 is the one who says, “all Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26.  I know there is controversy over the interpretation of this verse, but my view is that it refers to ethnic Israel as a whole, at the return of Christ.  Paul’s kinsmen will be saved, in part because Paul prayed for their salvation.  Even for those who do not share this view of the word “Israel” in this verse, all can agree that Paul argues here for the completion of God’s redemptive purpose, the salvation of all of his people.  And even though Paul died long before the completion of that redemptive purpose, I believe his prayers are planted seeds that will bear fruit at the appointed time, namely, the end. 

And that is where we must constantly look when we pray: to the end.  “Hallowed be your name” is an eschatological request, a desire for the full revelation of God’s glory to all of creation at the end of history.  “Your kingdom come” likewise looks to the final establishment of the Kingdom of God.  The same is true for “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  The requests that follow—for provision, pardon, and protection—focus on what we need in the present that will sustain us until the end.  And so prayer is profoundly eschatological in nature, and that means much of what we pray for will not come to pass until the end, at least if we are praying correctly.

If the Lord tarries and I reach the point of death, will I do so having invested numerous hours over a lifetime praying fervently for things that have not come to pass?  I certainly hope so.

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