Good News: what does it mean to share the Gospel?

And then he told them, “Go into all the world and preach the Good News to everyone.

Mark 16:15 (NLT)

How often have you heard pastors preach on the Great Commission? Or heard other people in church speak about the importance of effective evangelism? Of not being ashamed of the gospel, and being ready to share your testimony?

Go out and make disciples of all nations, they cry! Tell everyone you meet about this Good News, about what Christ has done for them and for you! Take every opportunity to tell the world, tell someone, tell anyone, how good it is to be a Christian!

But what does it really mean to “share the Good News”? What was Christ really asking of his disciples, and what is he really asking of us?

The “Three Minute Sales Pitch Testimony”

Have you come across this idea in evangelical circles of having a prepared, practised, “three minute testimony”? Something you can spout out and recite on command whenever required, whenever an opening presents itself?

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that preparing such an account is without merit. It’s a great exercise for our own spiritual growth to think about and write down an honest, concise description of why you’re a Christian. It’s helpful to clarify what your spirituality actually means to you, and what experiences have led you to hold your current set of beliefs.

The problem arises not with giving an authentic account of our faith, but with transforming it into some kind of marketing spiel. Such speeches tend to fall on deaf ears. Worse, they do harm, because it becomes apparent in the delivery that the speaker doesn’t actually care about their audience. They only see them as a potential sale for this “gospel” they’re advertising.

A better testimony: Listen and love

By all means, share honestly and vulnerably what Christ has done for you. But be careful your testimony doesn’t come across as a weapon, designed to manipulate or to shame. That was never the intention of the Great Commission.

In our last post, we saw how instead of jumping into trying to “fix things”, the example set by Christ is to love first. And just as Jesus grieved with Mary and Martha before raising Lazarus, so too we should sit with a person and love them before trying to “sell” them our idea of salvation.

How can we know what “salvation” is for a person, if we haven’t taken the time to find out what they need saving from? How can we preach the “good news” to someone, if we haven’t listened to them enough to know their needs? Reducing the Gospel to a one-size-fits-all marketing message is dehumanising. It dehumanises those we deliver it to, who are individuals with their own unique hurts and desires, worthy of being known and heard. It dehumanises us, too! You’re worth more to Jesus than the slickness of your three minute testimony and your ability to market it well. And it cheapens the actual good news of Christ, which says that each one of us is loved and valued for who we are.

Remember that good news looks different to each person. So let’s not be blind to someone’s unique situation in the rush to tell our practised story. If you really want to bring someone good news, first love them enough to know what “good news” means to them.

“Jesus wept” – God prioritises loving over fixing things

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
Jesus wept.
Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

John 11:32-37 (NIV)

It’s famously the shortest verse in the Bible – the verse that lazy Sunday School kids trot out when tasked with memorising Scripture.

Jesus wept.

It may be brief, but boy, do those two words pack a punch.

The setting: One of Jesus’ close friends in Bethany, Lazarus, has tragically fallen ill and died. And worse, Jesus wasn’t even there for him during his final days. Visiting a neighbouring town, Jesus received word of Lazarus’ illness, but chose not to return to Bethany sooner.

When he does arrive back, Lazarus’ sisters Martha and Mary, also dear friends of Jesus, cry out to him in anguish. Why weren’t you there? Why couldn’t you save him? They are desperately grieving for the loss of their brother, and wanting to understand how it all went wrong. They can’t understand why their friend – and the one they called Savior – seemed to leave them all alone in their darkest hour.

Now, we know how this story ends. We know that only a few verses later, Jesus gives the triumphal cry of “Lazarus, come out!” – and miraculously, Lazarus rises from the dead.

But before we get to that extraordinary finale, we have this curious moment, where Jesus…

weeps.

Jesus grieves alongside Mary and Martha, even knowing what will happen next.

Jesus doesn’t diminish Mary and Martha for their grief. He doesn’t tell them that their sadness comes from a lack of faith. He reminds Martha of her faith, yes, and asks her to reassert her belief in him (see earlier verses 21–27), but there is no reprimand there, just comfort and reassurance; a gentle but powerful declaration of hope in the midst of her despair.

Nor is he aloof from or unaffected by their emotion. No, he shares in their sadness, and this is perhaps the most confounding thing, because we see from earlier verses that he knows Lazarus will be raised. It seems reasonable to expect that Jesus would stride in, say, don’t worry! I’ve got it all under control! and simply cut straight to the resurrection part. Isn’t that what we would do, given the ability? If we’ve got the power to fix things, then surely we should just get on with the fixing! Why waste time crying, grieving, over something that’s going to get better soon?

Jesus shows us by example here what it is to be fully present in each moment. In this particular moment, there was pain and grief that needed acknowledgment. In the moment that followed, there would be miraculous healing and joy – but they weren’t there yet. And so Jesus demonstrates his love for Lazarus, Mary, and Martha by sitting in this present moment of grief for Lazarus’ death – even though doing so means experiencing the same pain and heartbreak that his friends are suffering.

Christ doesn’t consider himself above grieving alongside his friends. Christ does not separate himself from this painful emotion; no, he walks through it with Mary and Martha, feeling every bit of distress that they are at the loss of Lazarus. When Jesus sees Mary weeping, he is “deeply moved and troubled”, writes John. God is with us in our pain and grief.

We’re told that many saw the raising of Lazarus, and believed in Jesus as a result. No doubt they were amazed and in awe of such a miracle.

But those who witnessed the moment just beforehand, when Jesus wept, said this: “See how he loved him!”

And that, right there, reveals to us so much about the character of God. Christ responds to us in each moment by choosing love, even if it’s painful. God doesn’t rush to smooth things over, diminishing us in the process. God sits and weeps with us first, letting us know that we truly are not alone. That demonstration of love takes precedence over any miracles, any demonstration of power.

Blessed are we when our impulse is to love first, before trying to fix things, even if we are derided as weak and ineffective for doing so. Blessed are we when we understand that this is as much a part of any healing as the ‘fixing’ itself.

New Year decluttering… for the soul

It’s January, less than a week into a new year – a new decade, in fact. A time of year traditionally filled with dieting and exercising, wardrobe clear-outs, trips to the op-shop… decluttering and downsizing in every way imaginable.

We all relate to this urge to “start afresh” with each new year, to embark on a decluttering frenzy that lets us shed ourselves of everything unnecessary in our lives. To rid ourselves of all those things we accumulated over the past twelve months, things that we thought would bring us happiness, but which only ended up taking up space and weighing us down (sometimes quite literally, hence the dieting and exercising). So we sign up to programs that promise a better way – a lighter, less encumbered way. We try and Marie Kondo our way into “sparking joy” in our heart, in a way that all those possessions and all that decadent living never quite seemed to achieve.

The man who couldn’t declutter

In the Gospel of Mark, we hear a similar kind of story about a man who had it all, but was searching for something deeper. He came to Jesus and asked him what he could do. He already did all the right things, he said, he’d followed the Ten Commandments ever since he was a boy! But even though this man insists he’s done all that’s required of him, his questioning of Jesus seems to indicate that there’s still some burden weighing him down; some feeling that he’s not quite getting it.

Jesus’ response to him confirms his suspicion – but not in the way he’d hoped:

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Mark 10:21-22 (NIV)

Sell everything you have. Wow.

I hate to say it, but I think I would have “gone away sad”, too.

It’s hard to let go of our attachment to the things of this world. Whether it’s too much food or drink, or buying possessions we don’t really need – we’ve become addicts to consumerism, to being able to have what we want, when we want it.

And when the voice of Christ whispers in our ears gently saying – give this away! Come, follow me! – we become sad, and afraid, because letting go of our creature comforts can honestly be very, very scary. Even when we know they are weighing us down; even when we know they are simply taking up space in our lives, or sometimes even harming us.

Letting go of our attachment

Better one handful with tranquillity
    than two handfuls with toil
    and chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:6

Let’s use this opportunity of the New Year for a decluttering of our cupboards, firstly, but also a decluttering that goes right down into our souls.

Let’s give away those belongings we don’t need, yes, but let’s also let go of our attachment to such things.

Instead of making space in our homes only to spend the next twelve months filling it up again with more of the same, let’s make an effort to turn to Christ for that sense of comfort, of fulfilment, of peace and purpose that we’re all searching for so desperately.

Whatever it is that you’ve filled your cupboards and your heart with that’s weighing you down and keeping you from following Jesus, give yourself permission to set it aside. It’s scary, I know… but it will be worth it.

Eternity in the human heart: sitting with the mystery

He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Ecclesiastes 3:11

This verse from Ecclesiastes is my favorite verse in the Bible. I remember the first time I read it, feeling stunned at the truth that seemed to ring in my soul at those words.

God has set eternity in the human heart. A longing, a yearning for something greater than this. A sense there is something beyond ourselves.

I wasn’t raised in a Christian family, but still I always had this sense – this odd feeling that there was something bigger, more meaningful, more important out there than what I could perceive around me with my senses. Some purpose behind it all, some intention holding it all together.

Even before I had the language to describe this feeling as God, God had set eternity in my heart.

I think we all have inside us this unexplainable sense of infiniteness. But at the same time, no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever fully comprehend it. We cannot fathom what he has done from beginning to end.

We do try, though, don’t we? It’s so tempting to want to explain eternity, to conquer it, to squeeze it and mold it into our own created paradigms. Sometimes it even works, to some extent, for a little while. Sometimes we come up with an explanation that seems to help, to give us a little glimpse of what it all means. But then it all falls down again, and we realise just how great and vast eternity really is, how infinite God is, how impossible it is for our small, finite minds to grasp any kind of complete understanding of it all.

At some point we have to accept the mystery; to wonder at it; to worship.

The image of God needs no Instagram filter

So God created mankind in his own image,
    in the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:27

Our complex identities

Who do you define yourself as? When someone first meets you at a party and says, ‘tell me about yourself,’ what’s the first thing you say to them?

Maybe you define yourself by:

  • Your job: are you a teacher, doctor, lawyer, accountant, pastor?
  • Family: are you a daughter, brother, son, mother, father, wife, husband?
  • Your nationality, your religion, or your cultural background?
  • Pets, passions, hobbies, volunteer work, musical preferences, favorite films… maybe there’s even a favourite meal you love to eat, or love to cook, so much that it’s become a part of you, so much that you’d even introduce yourself at a party by mentioning it.

These different roles we play in our lives all combine together to make up who we are, and how we view ourselves. All these things intertwine to help form our purpose, our worth, our callings, even.

Our ‘tidied up’ images: filtered for public consumption

We spend so much of our lives forming and trying to understand our identities, “curating” our identities, even — deciding how we present them to the world. Of course, social media has pushed this concept to the forefront of many people’s lives. We all have our own ‘brand’, now. It’s become a whole art form: we reveal just enough of ourselves to the world to give an image that we think represents some kind of ideal.

Maybe you post a picture on Instagram of that favourite meal you like to cook — but you only show that one time it turned out perfectly. You don’t post the pictures of the burnt ones, or the undercooked ones, or the ones that came out a bit lopsided.

Embracing the beauty of complexity

The truth is, though, those messed-up meals are a part of your identity too. The so-called ‘failures’ you went through were necessary to get to that final product. So this ‘curated identity’ we present to the world doesn’t really reflect the depth of who we are. It doesn’t show all the shades of light and dark, all of the good and bad parts, all of the growth we’ve been through to get to where we are now.

Our identities are often a whole lot more complex than we’d like to admit.

So let’s instead learn to embrace our identities in all of their fullness, in all of their depth. Let’s acknowledge our complexity and our uniqueness. Look at what it says in Psalm 139:

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well.

Psalm 139:13-14

Each one of us has been made in God’s image — we’ve been knitted together, fearfully and wonderfully. Every single human bears a different part of the image of the infinite God. Every single one of us carries our own unique reflection of the wondrous, perfect creativity of our Creator.

That means we can stop worrying about presenting our lives through soft-focus filters with carefully constructed angles and air-brushing. We can stop trying to strip away our complexities and our complications, and allow ourselves to just be ourselves. Because who we are is who we were made to be, and that means there’s a place and a purpose for us, just as we are.

Go out there and show the world the image of God in you.

Where do I belong? The search for purpose and place

I’ve written a few times in earlier posts about the importance of understanding our identity. Today’s post looks at how that fits into our quest to find our place and purpose in the world. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out not just who we are, but where we belong.

Identity crisis: when we lose sense of where we belong in the world

Sometimes, a thing we might have seen as central to our identity and purpose gets taken away from us.

When I was a young child learning piano, I had a bad habit of carelessly dropping the heavy lid of our upright piano so that it made a loud bang, and all the strings in the piano vibrated and echoed with the impact. After a few too many loud crashes, my dad told me a story about a young girl who was training to be a concert pianist. One day, this unfortunate girl carelessly allowed the piano lid to drop on to her hands — and she lost all her fingers! Her carelessness ended up destroying her bright future.

In retrospect, I’m not so sure this story was entirely true… but at the time, it had the desired effect on me. “What if that happened to me?” I wondered. “What if I lost all my fingers? Would I still be me, if I couldn’t play piano anymore?” Even at that young age, music-lover that I was, I’d learned to associate my passion for playing piano with my identity, and with my sense of purpose in the world.

And this is a fear many of us have, I think. What if tragedy strikes, and we’re no longer ‘useful’ in the things we’ve become valued for? No doubt you can think of examples that would be powerful for you.

  • What if I lose my job, and can’t support my family?
  • What if my marriage breaks up, and I end up on my own?
  • What if my health fails, and I can’t look after myself anymore?

Holding life with a looser hand

Often, things like this happening might cause a kind of ‘crisis of identity’. Not only do we grieve the loss of whatever has gone, but we grieve the death of who we were. We fear our identity has gone, along with the job, relationship, skill, whatever it was. We end up unsure of who we’re supposed to be, and of what we’re supposed to be doing.

I think we all have this awareness that on some level, our lives are very fragile. And all the blessings, the gifts we have are fragile. We’re not in control, not really, even though we like to think we are.

That might leave us feeling uncertain of our ‘place’, our purpose, and our identity. It might make us fearful. It might cause us to cling on to things too tightly — jobs, for instance: making sure no one else knows how to do your job so they can’t replace you. Or relationships: trying to find your meaning and purpose in the other person, to fit them into a particular mold of some ‘ideal’ in your mind which isn’t really them.

When we’re not confident of our identity and our purpose, we take these things in our lives that are meant to be gifts and blessings, and we try and squeeze all the meaning we can out of them.

We try and force them to provide the meaning and the purpose that we’re craving.

But the truth is, as Christians, we don’t need to operate out of that kind of fear. Instead, we can afford to hold the blessings in our life with a looser hand.

Belonging in God’s house

Because, as I’ve written elsewhere, Scripture tells us our identity is in Christ (Gal 2:20) and that we are beloved children of God (1 John 3:1).

When we know this, when we remember this deep truth about ourselves, it changes us. It has far-reaching implications for how we live our lives, because it means that no matter what happens to us, we can lean on this sense of belonging.

Jesus describes beautifully to his disciples this knowledge of belonging somewhere:

Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?

John 14:1-2

Notice how he doesn’t just say that God has “left a place vacant for you”, or that there’s “space for you to fit in God’s house”. He goes much further than that. There’s a room prepared, just for you. And we know the difference, don’t we? Between someone that just ‘makes space’, and someone that goes the extra mile to make sure you belong somewhere. God is doing the latter. God is excited about your uniqueness, your distinct personality that you’re bringing to the Kingdom, and God is making his house ready for that.

A resetting of priorities and purpose

Now, I don’t mean to say that we shouldn’t pursue passions and gain satisfaction from them. None of this means we won’t have things we love, experiences we learn and grow from, pastimes we find meaning in. Nor does it mean that we can’t look for motivation and fulfilment from our jobs, our marriages, our families, or our hobbies.

But it does mean that we don’t need to be fearful if those things don’t give us that deep purpose we desire. Because the truth is that they’ll never fulfil us completely. They’ll never provide you with that ultimate understanding of who you are, where you belong, and what you’re doing here. Because none of these things are the most fundamental aspect of your being, which is this: You’re a beloved son or daughter of the Most High, and there’s a place prepared for you in God’s house.

You belong — if you’ve never quite felt that before, then know it now. And if you’ve been searching for that feeling of belonging in certain groups, certain labels — maybe even within the church! — then as of now, you can let it go. Nothing can separate you from the love of God. Nothing can take away that place He’s prepared for you.

Prayer: Lord, thank you that you call us your children. Thank you that we can rest knowing that you’ve prepared a place for us in Your house. Help us to live in the certainty of these truths: that we belong, and that we’re loved. Help us to live our lives grounded in this knowledge, and willing to love fearlessly and freely, just the way you did.

(Note: This, along with the post Who am I? The quest to understand our identity, is adapted from a sermon I delivered on 12 May 2019.)

Forgiveness and acknowledging sin

So watch yourselves. “If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them.

Luke 17:3

Forgiveness is important, but we can’t really forgive someone until we’ve acknowledged — even if just to ourselves — that we’ve been sinned against.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes have a tendency to brush aside offences against me, and to act as though they didn’t happen. Maybe for the sake of keeping the peace. Or maybe because I don’t want to admit that someone’s managed to hurt me. Admitting hurt means admitting vulnerability, and showing vulnerability might make me look weak.

Or sometimes it might be because I’m all too conscious of my own sins and offences against others. This might leave me feeling as though I don’t have the right to speak out when someone else is at fault. But this is a false line of thinking that only leads to further deception and hurt down the track. The response to my own sin and guilt needs to be repentance, not covering up the sins of others.

The end result of all this soldiering on and pretending everything is fine is that resentment builds up without me noticing. Without realising, I end up holding on to unforgiveness towards my offender, because I didn’t acknowledge that forgiveness was necessary.

Sometimes it’s important to just take a step back and admit: yes, this hurt.

Maybe the next step might be to confront the person directly about their offence — or maybe not. What happens next really depends on the situation, and on the people involved. Maybe the next step might be to share the experience with another trusted person in your life. Or to talk honestly to God about your hurt.

Whatever follows, the important thing is that we need to acknowledge when someone sins against us. Admitting this doesn’t make us weak, or a victim. Nor does it mean we’re saying that we’re faultless in our own lives.

It does mean that we can begin the process of working through the hurt, of letting go, and of granting forgiveness, just as we’re called to do.

Head or heart? Faith has room for both

There’s a lot of talk about how faith in God should be a “heart relationship, not a head relationship.”

But let’s be honest for a moment here. Our hearts don’t always do what we want them to do.

What about those days (… weeks, months, years?) when you just “don’t feel God”? Does that mean your faith is useless?

I don’t believe so: here’s why.

Faith is a journey of mountains and valleys

We don’t get to float through on the mountain-top experiences all the time. Sometimes walking in faith means we keep doing the hard work of trusting, even though we don’t have any real feeling of assurance to go on. All we have to go on are past experiences, and the commitment we’ve already made to believe.

Sometimes all we can do is fall back on our head knowledge: pray the Lord’s Prayer, read the Psalms, let the spiritual disciplines we’ve learned carry us through. Pray that in doing so, eventually the joy of that “heart knowledge” will return.

Head and heart

Perhaps it’s a false dichotomy to talk about “head vs. heart”. I wonder even if this is a particularly western kind of division to make. Apparently the Hebrew word for heart and mind is in fact the same word (lebh). The same is true in Chinese (xīn 心 ),1 and I would suspect a number of other languages as well. There’s a different kind of cultural understanding at play here, one that sees the heart and the head as working in harmony with one another, rather than as diametrically opposed.

Jesus certainly doesn’t seem to favor faith-with-the-heart over faith-with-the-head. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,”1 is his exhortation — the first, most important commandment! — that we know so well.

Jesus seemed to advocate a whole-of-body kind of faith. His was a dirty, messy, hands-on faith that involved putting mud on people’s eyes and spitting on the ground. It involved the messy actions of feeding people, tending to their needs, listening to them, weeping with them. It involved his heart, his soul, his mind, and his strength — no one part more or less than the other.

But it wasn’t always about “feeling” the right way. At the pinnacle of Christ’s story, as he hangs on the cross, Jesus has nothing to go on but his head-knowledge of who He is, and of who His Father is. His heart-cry to the Father, on the other hand, is one that breaks our own hearts to hear: “Why have You abandoned me?”

Lean on the ‘head’ until the ‘heart’ catches up

So if believing with your “heart” is something you can’t quite muster up some days, take comfort that you’re not alone in having experienced this. Trust in the remembrance of times past; the things God has done for you. Pare everything back to the foundations of your faith: what unshakeable truths do you know about God? Start from that. Sit with that, and trust God in the midst of the unknowing.

Many times, for me, it’s about going back to the Gospels and re-reading who Jesus is; the kind of person He lived as. When all else seems murky and unsure, I trust that this person, this person who lived and loved in such a revolutionary way, is the revelation of who God is. I trust that his life lived in rebellious love is the only real answer we have in our broken world.

And this head-knowledge carries me through, until my heart can sing out in praise again.

Today you will be with me in paradise

One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

Two thieves, suffering the same fate as Jesus — hanging on a cross, experiencing unimaginable pain.

Both men speak to him, but in very different ways.

To the second thief, Jesus speaks in return: offering a promise of hope.

We might have expected Jesus to speak to the first thief, as well; the one who “rails” at him and hurls insults. But there are no words for this first man — no words of hope, but no words of condemnation or judgement, either. Jesus only has silence to offer the first thief, and his own suffering alongside him.

It’s easy for us, I think, to pass our own judgement on this first man. In doing so, we tell ourselves that we’d never speak to Christ like that.

It’s easy to forget the pain this man was in was equal to that of Christ; that he suffered in the same way, that he also hung on a cross.

This man was speaking out of his pain.

Maybe you also know what that’s like. Have you ever railed at God out of a place of pain? Or perhaps not at God directly — perhaps it was at another person. But then, remember Christ says that “whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me”, so when we say hurtful things to one another, even if it’s because we’re in pain ourselves, we’re no different to that first thief on the cross.

And in the same way, when we do this, Jesus doesn’t speak to us harshly in response. He doesn’t give us any words of condemnation and judgement. Instead, He remains silent, and shares in our suffering, waiting for us to finish whatever it is we have to say.

Eventually, we’re done with our railing and our anger. We finally get to that point in our pain where there’s no more hurtful words left to say. We reach a place where the only thing left for us to cry out is, “Jesus — remember me!”

That’s the point when Christ finally speaks. That’s the point when He turns towards us, and He says, “Today — today, you’re with me.”

(Note: This article is adapted from a short message I delivered at my church on Good Friday, as part of a series on Jesus’ seven final sayings on the cross.)

Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.