Waiting is quite a many splendoured thing. There are times in the Church year which lend themselves to thoughts of waiting: advent and Lent – waiting for the Incarnation of Christ, and his death and resurrection respectively. Waiting on God is also something we think about quite often in terms of being a contemplative discipline, taking time to listen to God in stillness. All of which brings me round to thinking about waiting in the longer term. I’m thinking about those situations when people pray in the long term and see no positive result in return, but keep on praying. Are they deluded? Praying for the wrong thing? Or faithful?
Let me run a couple of case studies past you.
Case #1 – a church in London, 1970s
A church had a dwindling and generally ageing congregation. Its Victorian building was costing a lot to keep going and there was little in the way of outreach into the wider community. A small group of roughly six retired ladies started a prayer group. They met at each others’ houses and prayed for their church. In time, they came to believe that praying for a children’s ministry was important and so they prayed for that. They kept praying for many years, regularly, faithfully. Time passed, some of them died, but the others kept on praying. Their church didn’t seem to change. There was still no children’s ministry, no discernible outreach, no growth.
Case #2 – a church in Yorkshire, 1980s.
One Easter, a teenager was sitting in the congregation of his church. The vicar was liberal in his theology to say the least. That Easter Sunday, the Brownies and Guides were there in full uniform and were sitting at the front. The vicar’s sermon turned to the events of the resurrection and included a question, addressed to the Brownies and Guides, “Do you think this is one of those stories like a fisherman’s tale, where the fish gets bigger and bigger the more it gets told over time?”. The teenager expected a killer, Gospel punchline answer. Sadly, the vicar told everyone that there was no resurrection other than some kind of inner “transcending ourselves” when we love others. The teenager was angry but felt powerless. In his anger he prayed, telling God that he knew that this vicar was wrong, he knew that the truth of the Gospel was far different to what he had just heard but that he didn’t really know God all that well himself. The teenager resolved to pray that God would reveal his truth to him. It didn’t stop there: he prayed this prayer each week. There were no blinding flashes of light and inspiration, however. Two years passed by, years filled with faithful prayer and during that time, it seemed to the teenager that nothing changed.
Both of these cases – true stories both – involved faithful prayer over a period of years. And neither story ends where I left it, of which more later, but first let’s see what light the writer of the letter to the Hebrews can shine on this. In chapter 11 of Hebrews, the issue under discussion is faith. Prayer of the kind I am talking about must be strong in faith (and let’s assume it is faith, rather than mere pig-headedness which keeps people praying in the face of little in the way of obvious answers). So what does this expression of faith actually mean?
Faith, we’re told “means putting our full confidence in the things we hope for, it means being certain of things we cannot see. It was this kind of faith that won their reputation for the saints of old.” The writer of Hebrews goes on to list some examples of faith from the Old Testament. However, at first glance, the expressions of faith cited are more on the lines of obedient and responsive faith rather than to do with long-term prayer: Abel offering a greater sacrifice to God than Cain because of his faith; Enoch pleasing God because of his faith; Noah building the ark; Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac; Sarah’s faith empowering her to become a mother late in life. None of these really seem to tie in with being faithful in prayer.
However, this whole section of Hebrews has another, broader theme: that of faith being something played out over time. Verse 13 points out that “all these whom we have mentioned maintained their faith but died without actually receiving God’s promises, though they had seen them in the distance, had hailed them as true and were quite convinced of their reality”, and at the very end of the chapter, “All these won a glowing testimony to their faith, but they did not then and there receive the fulfilment of the promise. God had something better planned for our day, and it was not his plan that they should reach perfection without us.”. Their faith is presented in a long-term context, in terms of faith being rewarded in the first instance, but that same faith being brought to perfection in Jesus long after their lifetime but part of the same overarching story of faith: God in relationship with humankind.
So where does that leave us with our two case studies?
In the first case, the church which was prayed for by an ageing group who, one by one, died off with seemingly no answer to their prayer, ended up with a revived church with more than fifty children at its children’s church and more than twenty in its choir. It was the children’s ministry which led the expansion of the church across the age ranges and built a strong Christian community, engaged with it’s neighbours. One member of the original prayer group lived to see this, and it transpired that the quiet faithfulness of the group had inspired others to act upon it and make the children’s ministry happen. I met this lady and heard this testimony first hand from her, and saw the resulting church so this is no urban legend.
In the second case, nothing happened to the teenager for more than two years. And yet, when he left home to go to university he suddenly found he had a living faith to share with others which, seemingly, came from out of the blue. And when he returned in the holidays to his home church, he found the liturgy and Bible readings alive and fresh as they had somehow never seemed before, but realised how much scripture he had taken in during his years at that church with apparently “nothing happening”. He discovered how alive the Holy Spirit had made that experience and knowledge of scripture and liturgy come with his newly anointed task of sharing his faith with others. Faithful prayer had been enough to invite the Holy Spirit to set him on fire with love for God, and a God whom he found he really did now know.
In both cases, seemingly nothing happened for a long time: a few years in the second case, but decades in the first. Faithful prayer was not actually about getting the right answer. It was about lifting groans, sighs and tears to God and faithfully waiting upon Him. The active answer to these prayers came through the Holy Spirit breathing into the church in case #1 and anointing people to the task, and breathing the solid foundations of a life-long faith into a teenager in case #2. We may not always get the answer we want in our prayers, not all prayers seem to be answered the way we’d imagined, and some don’t seem to be answered at all. Faith is knowing God listens anyway and being able to trust anyway. And if we are faithful, we may be changed by our prayers. I’m grateful that I was given that gift of faithful prayer as a teenager and that I was changed from the inside out by it. And yes, it was me, if you hadn’t guessed.
Pause for reflection…
Are my prayers sometimes too result-focussed?
Do I trust God enough, even when prayers seem unanswered?
Is unanswered prayer always a sign that I’m praying for the wrong thing, or can I accept that it’s the right thing, but seems to have an answer or outcome I’m unhappy with, or which I may never live to see myself?
I have to admit that I find these questions quite a challenge, but it helps to remember the words from Hebrews 11: “God had something better planned for our day”. This puts our prayers in their proper context. This most makes sense if you read on into chapter 12. The author goes on to remind his readers of what we have to rely on: the source of our faith. “Surrounded then as we are by these serried ranks of witnesses, let us strip off everything that hinders us, as well as the sin which dogs our feet, and let us run the race that we have to run with patience, our eyes fixed on Jesus the source and the goal of our faith.”
Jesus: the source and goal of our faith. Keep praying, keep your eyes on Jesus. God is faithful: how can we doubt it when we look at Jesus?
Nick Morgan, Ripon – June 2012
Footnote on the translation I’ve used in this post.
All quotes from Hebrews are from the J.B. Phillips translation which I find rather useful to have as one of the versions of the epistles I use – it reflects the human aspect of these letters’ tone rather well I think, though for a more strictly accurate version at the expense of being more difficult to unpick the syntax and meaning) I tend to look to the New American Standard Version, even though their translations of Paul tend to do my head in a bit. The site I link to gives the option of selecting from a variety of translations of the same text which is rather handy.
Image Credits: @CorkyDog (Nick Morgan alias)