Conundrum: “a confusing or difficult problem.”
That’s what prayer often is. There just doesn’t seem to be many straight lines when it comes to prayer. I pray this. That happens. I pray that. This happens. I call; God is quiet. I implore; it seems nothing happens. Every once in a while it seems there comes a direct answer to prayer, just enough encouragement to keep it up, but then the indirect nature of the conversation seems to dominate again.
We’ll never entirely comprehend this prayer conundrum. We possess neither the nature nor the information required for entire understanding.
But there is a hint in Jeremiah’s prophecies that I think may help us. It doesn’t explain everything, but it does explain something … and that something is a significant part of the mystery, I think.
It begins with a promise from God—a prayer-promise. Which puts it in a class of divine promises that at one and the same time raise our expectations about the possibilities and dash our understanding of the actualities.
God offered this to His prophet: “Call to me and I will answer you …” (33:3a). A simple, pointed promise with a seemingly simple, pointed condition. I must call upon God (pray). When I do, God promises: “I will answer you.” But so often that just doesn’t seem to be the way it works out. I call. In the absence of any apparent answer, I call again. And again. And again. And, if nothing appears to correspond to my prayers, well, I probably give up at some point. And I wonder. I wonder about why. I wonder how to understand God’s promise.
God explained to His prophet: “… I have called to them and they have not answered” (35:17b). God has spoken to us (“I have called”). The call expects (and demands!) a response from us. But God can honestly say, “they have not answered.”
So then, God speaks first—otherwise we would not know He was even there, nor would we have any assurance that He would answer if we did make a move toward Him. So, God speaks first. Part of that is seen in His making the promise of prayer. But we simply either did not hear God or we did not heed God. We have disregarded God’s word and then wondered why He has disregarded ours.
This raises for me the possibility that perhaps the first and most fundamental thing I can do when my prayers seem not to be answered is to examine, not my speaking (Have I asked correctly?), but my listening. Am I asking God to grant me a courtesy that I have not afforded to Him? Am I demanding of Him what I am withholding from Him?
In other words: There is a direct line here after all—the direct line between my obedience and the effectiveness of my prayer life. And doesn’t the Bible tell us plainly this is part of the answer to the conundrum?
- The psalmist says, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psalm 66:18).
- The sage teaches us: “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).
- The prophet says, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood” (Isaiah 1:15).
- And the apostle adds, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3).
This does not mean every prayer of a clean heart is answered just as it is asked. Nor does it mean that every seemingly unanswered prayer is because of sin in my life. But it does find at least one straight line in the conundrum of prayer—a line well worth tracing out: Listening must precede speaking; obedience comes before answer.