Christians often say, “Prayers don’t always get answered in the way you’d expect.” To people who don’t believe in God, this sounds a whole lot like an easy excuse to use when prayer doesn’t work.
But I think there’s an explanation behind the cliché that deserves another look.
Consider John Newton. Even if you don’t recognize his name right away, you probably already know some of his innermost thoughts well. John Newton grew up a scoundrel and a troublemaker and worked on the sea as part of the British Royal Navy and then later on slave ships in the 1700s. As part of the Navy, he once tried to desert, and was flogged, shamed and punished severely in front of the ship. He contemplated suicide as a result of the shame, but then he was transferred to work on a slave ship bound for West Africa. I don’t think I even need to explain how horribly awful slave ships were.
A continual troublemaker for the crew and a self-described libertine, the slave trader captain left him in Africa as a servant for his slave wife, where he was brutally abused. How completely lost and alone he must have felt, as his long and painful journey to rock bottom finally left him as a slave to slaves.
But God had other plans for John Newton. He was found and rescued by a ship merchant who was hired by his father to find him. I find that part of the story utterly symbolic– there is literally nowhere we can become lost that our heavenly Father can’t find us and rescue us. But Newton didn’t see that just yet.
He eventually became the captain of a slave ship, and on one homeward journey, the ship was caught up in a storm and began to sink. Newton finally cried out to God in the storm and began his own journey to believing in the very thing he had “labored to destroy.”
Some years later, he wrote:
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me –
I once was lost, but now I’m found;
Was blind but now I see.
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved.
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
What I find both difficult and interesting about John Newton the person is that even after becoming a Christian, it took him years to renounce and to become uninvolved in the slave trade. Some might say that his hypocrisy in the matter proves that Christianity is a farce. I would say that sometimes change happens immediately, like a miraculous transformation, but more often it happens like a slow burn in one’s heart. We’re all hypocrites in one way or another. True Christians pray for their own corruptness to be revealed to them, and changed. But just because humans are always proven to be corrupt (over and over again) it doesn’t prove that God is less meaningful. In fact, I think it’s quite the opposite. As we see our own wretchedness more and more clearly, we become more and more amazed by God’s grace.
Anyway, back to my original point in introducing John Newton in the first place– the statement that prayers don’t often get answered in the way you’d expect them to.
When I was living in Mexico a few years back, I sometimes felt very angry at God. I went to Mexico to try to help others, and instead at times I just felt attacked, beat down, humbled, and depressed.
One week before I came back home to the US after living there for a year and a half, I was on a bus winding through the mountains of Chiapas in Southern Mexico in the middle of the night, and I ran across another one of Newton’s poems, “I asked the Lord that I might grow”:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
‘Twas He to taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer.
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair!
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted by gourds, and laid me low.
Lord why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st seek thy all in Me.”
It was like being punched in the face. Suddenly I realized that God was being active in answering my prayers. If I ask for faith, he makes me find it by testing me with hardship… I ask for grace, he makes me feel the weight of my own corruptness so I can compare it to His perfection. But the process of doing so feels simply awful. I think God knows what most parents the world-over know already… people learn the hard way. People typically don’t change by being patted on the head and given a nice fluffy cloud to rest on… they change by being thrown into fire and becoming melted down and transformed into some other metal entirely. And sometimes it really, really hurts.
Some would call that kind of change “character building” – I think it’s more eternally meaningful than that. Anyway… careful what you ask God for… because you just might get it. And not in the way you might expect.