What happens when God doesn’t answer your prayer after three, four, or five years? How about when he doesn’t answer it after ten, or fifteen, or even twenty years? Do you still trust him, decades down the line? Do you still ask him — again — for an answer to that same prayer?
I’m walking this road, because I’ve been asking God to answer one prayer — for healing from a medical condition I developed as a child — for over twenty years.
Still, after these long years of waiting, I can tell you two things with complete honesty:
- I trust God.
- I definitely don’t always understand him.
I trust that God is who he says he is — good, just, merciful. And I trust that Christ’s death on the cross was his proving once and for all just how much he loves me and all people (Romans 5:8).
Yet I don’t always understand him. It’s hard to square what I read about Jesus in the Bible — his willingness and ability to heal, his miracles, his compassion and tenderness — with what seems like a lack of help and healing in my own life. I know it wouldn’t be hard for him to heal me, but in twenty years, he still hasn’t done it. And if I’m going to be honest, I have to say that if this is his love toward me, it sure doesn’t feel like love.
A Strange Way to Love
Do you remember the story of Lazarus? A family of siblings — Mary, Martha, and Jesus’s close friend Lazarus — is begging Jesus to come and be with them, because Lazarus is seriously ill. He’s on his deathbed, in fact, and Mary and Martha know — they just know — that if Jesus would stop whatever else he was doing and come to their city, he could heal Lazarus.
“I trust God. But I definitely don’t always understand him.”
The problem? Jesus doesn’t come. In fact, knowing their need, the Lord intentionally doesn’t go to them. Imagine for a moment that you don’t know the end of this story, and take this moment for what it was: Mary and Martha needed Jesus’s help, and instead of coming to them in the town of Bethany, a short forty-minute walk from where he was at the time, Jesus waits.
In fact, he waits until Lazarus is dead. Why would Jesus do this? He was only two miles away. He could have easily healed Lazarus, but he didn’t. Instead, he waited. Why? Well, the Bible tells us why: “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5–6).
Jesus waited because he loved them. Not because he was too busy, or because he was incapable, or because he was ignoring them. Jesus waited on answering their cry for his help because he loved them.
This blows all my boxes and ruins all my perceptions of love. “That’s not love,” we might say. “Love is when the hero comes in to save the day when the moment is most dire. The hero doesn’t let people die, and he certainly doesn’t hold back when he knows he can help.”
But it seems that Jesus isn’t bent on fulfilling our version of a hero. He’s completely committed to fulfilling the truest role of a hero, an eternal one — and that means doing things on his timeline, not on ours.
When Love Doesn’t Feel Like Love
The truth is that while Jesus eventually went to Bethany and did the miraculous work of raising Lazarus from the dead (John 11:38–44), he doesn’t always do that. We don’t always see the miracle in this life. People die without a miraculous resurrection, and many of us walk around with bodies that are hurting, with minds and relationships and situations that feel incredibly broken. All of us have prayers that haven’t been answered for years and, for some of us, decades.
But Jesus still loves us. He is waiting on answering our prayers because he loves us. It’s not because he’s incapable or slow or because he’s ignoring us. He’s waiting, more than anything, out of his deep and unfailing love for us.
I know, I know — it doesn’t seem to make sense. Our waiting sometimes feels like his withholding, especially when everyone around us seems to be getting their prayers answered. But I promise you, he is loving you in the middle of your waiting.
“One day we will see God’s love for us is far better than any love we would choose for ourselves now.”
It might not feel like love, but that’s because we can’t yet see the resurrection up ahead. We’re still standing by the deathbed with tears in our eyes and despair in our hearts. But there is a day coming when everything dead will be resurrected, when every broken thing will be renewed. I don’t know if that day will come soon for you or if it will finally come on that last day when Jesus will return to right every wrong. But it will come.
A Better Love
And until then, we keep praying. We keep asking and seeking and knocking (Matthew 7:7–11), and we also ask him to help us receive the way he’s loving us, even if it doesn’t feel like love right now.
One day, we will see it as the love that it is. It will feel like the greatest and best love we’ve ever experienced, better than the feeling of love that we would choose now if we could. When it comes, it will feel like the best love we’ve ever known, because it will be.