But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, “It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!” (1 Kings 19:4)
While re-reading this chapter on the life of Elijah, the absolute irony of his prayer struck me forcefully and gave me cause to pause and think on this. He was, after all, the great prophet of Israel who, singlehandedly – with God on his side, of course – humiliated and slaughtered a total of 850 false prophets in the employ of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. He was also the only man – aside from Methuselah – destined to never die. His reward was to be taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. And yet here he is, flat on his face in the wilderness, praying to die. It opens an interesting examination of the subject of ‘unanswered prayer’ which so many Christians struggle with.
Unanswered prayers can mean that God has something better in mind.
Today’s image spoke to me because, as I looked back on my life and on all those ‘unanswered’ prayers, I realized a single truth. All of these had been prayed in times of stress, difficulty, and struggle. All of them had been prayed when circumstances and fears weighed heavily on me, when the battle pressed in and the storm raged, and when I could not see clearly. The result was that I prayed relying on my human understanding and perception. I prayed for what I thought was the logical solution. I prayed outside the perception of God based on my limited human understanding. I don’t believe that I’m unique in this respect. If we all look back in the leading of the Spirit, I believe we will see that this is true for most, if not all, of our unanswered prayers.
Elijah is a perfect illustration of this very human propensity to pray from self. We may look and wonder, because he endured in the drought and wilderness through divine provision. He had just had a most phenomenal and public victory, and had been given supernatural strength to run and reach Jezreel before the chariot of the king. It’s easy to imagine that, were we in Elijah’s shoes, we would be stronger, would have more faith, would… But the real truth is that Elijah suffered from a universal human condition. He was human. It starts and ends there. This condition is the cause of unanswered prayers, because it initiates self-focused prayers which cannot see from the perspective of God.
To understand this, two other verses are relevant. Proverbs 29:18 tells us that without a vision, the people perish. Hosea 4:6 says that God’s people are destroyed by lack of knowledge. While they may seem very different, they both essentially refer to the same thing – the knowledge and revelation of God and His ways. These are the foundation of our faith, and without them, we simply cannot pray in faith. We can pray and we do – fervently and desperately – but because these prayers do not arise from the vision and knowledge that comes from God, they will all inevitably be unanswered prayers.
The reasoning and logic for this is simple. Anything that is outside the knowledge and vision of God is of the flesh. This doesn’t mean we’ve failed, or that we’re bad Christians. It means that we’re human, just like Elijah. The greatest weakness of our human condition is that we experience weariness. No matter how strong and bold we are, there will be times when we are utterly weary, when the storm feels too much and the battle rages too strong, when all we want to do is crawl under a tree and die. That’s the flesh talking. That’s the place where unanswered prayers are birthed. That’s the place when our eyes slide off God and onto ourselves, and we cannot see through the sand and fog to the knowledge and vision of God.
It’s very interesting that God deals with this human weakness first, before He restores Elijah spiritually, sends him out to complete his work, and finally, takes him gloriously to heaven in the fiery chariot. We can learn a valuable lesson here. Sometimes, it takes simple practical intervention to enable us to adjust our focus off self and back onto God. First, God lets Him rest. Then He feeds him. Twice. This is important. There were two sets of rest and food and only one of restoration. Before God could restore him spiritually, He needed to restore the points of weakness, and only sleep and food could do that. In that place where we begin to pray towards unanswered prayers, we need to take time out, find rest and sustenance, and then, like Elijah, set out to find God.
It may seem contradictory to say that we must focus on the flesh before we focus on God, but it’s entirely logical. Our point of weakness is the flesh, particularly when we’re struggling. We compromise on food and rest, and this weakens us to the point where we don’t have the physical strength that empowers us to spiritual things. God may well give us divine strength to see us through, but that does not mean that we should neglect the real needs of the body – not the wants, the needs – and expect Him to supply what we don’t first attend to. The more we put our bodies under pressure, the more likely we are to pray unanswered prayers. While the body clamors for right attention, we are unable to focus on God.
This doesn’t, of course, preclude the possibility of God-directed fasting. The principle of fasting is entirely biblical, but it should always occur in the context of Spirit-led humility and faith rather than the deprivation of desperation. There is a big difference between depriving ourselves of what our body needs in an unhealthy way and denying ourselves what our body wants in a fast that is obedient and focused on the glory of God and seeking His will. Unless we take care of ourselves and provide our bodies with the food and rest that God Himself has decreed we need, we will remain unable to see the things of God and will continue to pray unanswered prayers. It’s part of His order of doing things that we take care of the practical first.
Like it or not, this body is the ‘vehicle’ in which we move through this world. It’s a part of us for a temporary period, and everything we think, say, and do is connected to the body. Keep the body in the condition it needs to be, and the flesh will be easier to manage. The distinction is that the flesh makes demands for self-gratification and constantly gets in the way of the things of God. It uses every exuse to up its game, and genuine deprivation is a wonderful weapon to keep us focused on self. It’s a subtle deception, but it’s enough to produce unanswered prayers and so slowly erode our faith, constantly shifting our focus off God and back to self by questioning the spiritual realities by fleshly logic.
This is the place that Elijah found himself, and we can see how real it was. Even God saw that certain things were needed before His prophet could be led and restored. Elijah had lost his vision and his knowledge of God – the things his faith and boldness were built on. His prayer is no less ‘ridiculous’ than some of the prayers we pray. We only know the whole picture because we see in hindsight. He didn’t have that luxury, and in our moments of storm and trial, we don’t either. Most times, we see only what’s right under our noses. But this raises a wonderful truth – that often, our unaswered prayers are simply because God has something far better in mind.
We certainly see this with Elijah. God did not intend that he die an ignomious death as an apparent personal failure in the desert. His purpose was a glorious ‘taking home’ without the experience of physical death. It was way beyond what Elijah could ever have imagined. Nor could he have guessed that he would be the one to anoint and release Elisha, a prophet who accomplished literally double what Elijah did in his lifetime. These are the ‘greats’ that God may have in store for all of us. I’m glad that I took a moment to consider all the unanswered prayers in my life, because I now see that many of these were not answered because He intended something better. I see that so many of these would have led to blind alleys and perhaps even greater hardship. I can now see where my fleshly ‘wisdom’ intruded and pushed aside the things of God. I can now honestly thank Him for each one of those unanswered prayers.
It’s wonderful to contemplate and take hold of the truth that, instead of disappointment and compromised faith, we can find joy and grace in unanswered prayers. It’s not easy, in the midst of sorrow, and pain, and difficulty, to look upward and beyond our flesh to the things of God and find the certainty that His purpose remains sure and steadfast. It’s not easy to look beyond the flesh and see through His perspective, especially when we may need the answer now and our judgement is clouded by our perceived need and solutions. The old adage that we should be careful what we pray for in case we get it is very true. But God’s grace is such that He will withold what He knows is not good for us, or which is not part of His glorious plans for us.
In those times where we struggle, not fully understanding, and seeing only the unanswered prayers, let’s look instead to Him who knows all things. Let’s find the joy and grace in the certainty that His ways are not our ways, and that He has something bigger and better in mind for us. It may well be that some of the things we are struggling and fighting to hold onto are the things that He needs us to let go of. It may be that the particular pain we are enduring right now is preparation to enable us to receive the better down the line. One thing we can be sure of is that our God is good all the time. Our task is take care of what we can in obedience to Him, and let Him reveal, in His own time the grace and joy of the perfect alternative the the prayers He loves us too much to grant.
Father God, we do not always understand Your perfect wisdom and purpose. Forgive for the times when we allow our needs and weakness to pull our eyes off You and onto ourselves. Help us to see beyond the sand and fog of circumstance, to look to You in faith, and to give thanks, even when it seems that our prayers remain unanswered. Grant us the grace to live in the certainty of Your eternal faithfulness and goodness.