Unanswered Prayer: You Can’t Handle the Truth

We’ve been considering the troubling topic of unanswered prayer.  In our most recent post we considered the biblical example of the apostle Paul and his “thorn.”  Paul’s request to have it removed went unanswered because it was a means of forcing Paul to rely upon the strength of God rather than upon his own resources.  Today another biblical example: Job.

Job was a righteous man.  He wasn’t guilty of any particular sin that would lead to him experiencing unimaginable calamity (despite the unhelpful analysis of his “friends” – with friends like these….).  Yet, the poor fellow lost everything.  He lost his wealth.  He lost his children – all killed tragically.  He lost his wife (“Curse God and die!”).  He lost his health.  By the end of chapter 2 Job is sitting in the dust scratching his miserable boil-infested flesh with broken pottery – a vivid picture of human misery. The most natural thing in the world when we experience calamity of 1/1000 the magnitude of this is to cry out to heaven in a particular form of prayer.  The prayer of “Why?!?!?”

This is what Job did.  The book of Job is an extended poem dealing with this very relevant human question.  “God, why would you let this happen to me?”  This is among the most difficult questions for any Christian to deal with.  The problem of suffering is a subset of the problem of evil.

On the one hand the problem of evil and suffering is pretty easy to explain.  It is all due to the Fall.  See C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.  On the other hand, these explanations prove remarkably unsatisfying when it becomes the problem of your pain, or (even more so) the pain of someone you love.  See C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed.  The first book is a coolly reasoned, abstract, and theologically accurate consideration of the problem.  The second one is the incredibly transparent and agonizing personal account of Lewis losing his beloved wife.  There is a huge difference between dealing with suffering in theory and dealing with suffering in substance.

Job is dealing with suffering at first hand.  It is a sobering reality to find oneself bereft of all that one holds dear.  How does this square with faith in a good, benevolent, loving, gracious, merciful heavenly Father?  If God is really good, how can he let this awful thing happen to me?  In fact, Job has some questions for God:

2 “Today also my complaint is bitter; my hand is heavy on account of my groaning. 3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his seat! 4 I would lay my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. 5 I would know what he would answer me and understand what he would say to me. 6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; he would pay attention to me. 7 There an upright man could argue with him, and I would be acquitted forever by my judge. 8 “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; 9 on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. 10 But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.  (Job 23:2-10 ESV)

I’m sure that Job is perfectly sincere in his search for answers.  He really believes (in the moment!) that he would love for God to give an account of himself.  He doesn’t suppose that such an answer is even possible.  He supposes that his standard of justice in this regard is something that is unassailable.  How could God possibly respond?

Most of us will find ourselves in a similar situation at some point.  When we view evil or suffering – the gratuitous evil on display when Syrian children are gassed by their own government, or when government corruption leads to citizen starvation, or…when someone we love gets cancer, or is killed in a car accident.  Why?!?  This is a form of prayer that generally goes unanswered.

Actually there are a number of answers that the scriptures provide to the problem of evil/suffering (something we can take up as a topic on another occasion).  One of those answers is found in Job.  In Job’s case, his desire is granted.  God shows up to answer his questions.

The answer of God is a little different than what Job had expected.  In fact, God’s answer takes the form of a series of questions.

2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:2-7 ESV)

This questioning persists throughout chapters 38-41.  A series of posers.  Not a one of these questions is remotely answerable by a human being.  And this is the point.  Job thought he had a legitimate gripe with the way the Almighty is running the universe.  He believed he had sufficient knowledge to call into question the wisdom of the current divine administration.  But God makes it clear via interrogation that even a righteous and godly man like Job has very little by way of understanding in comparison to the all-wise, all-knowing governance of God.  Job can’t understand the most basic information about the world’s founding; how could he possibly have enough understanding to question God’s governance of his life?

It is fascinating to consider Job’s response to this unexpected heavenly response.  This conversation doesn’t play out at all as he no doubt imagined it in his mind’s eye.  In fact, he doesn’t confront God with any of the questions he thought he would.  He is stunned.  He is overwhelmed by his own ignorance and inability to stand before the wisdom of the Deity.  Who is Job (or you, or me) before the wisdom of Yahweh?

2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6 ESV)

When actually face to face with God, he wasn’t tempted to call God’s justice into question, but was overwhelmed by his own incapacity and need to repent his own utter unworthiness before a holy God.  So it will be for all of us when we stand before God.  Every prayer of “why?” will be answered, to the glory of our all-wise God.