Unanswered Prayer

I will never forget shaking Dennis’ hand, squeezing their baby, and hugging Christina as they exited the church door. They were telling me that they were heading south to Dennis’ parents to help his family get the last of the logging done before the snow set in. They wouldn’t be seeing me for a few months. I wished them well and told them that I would be saving their seats.

Early the next morning, our phone rang. As my wife answered the phone, I could hear a lady’s voice screaming on the other end of the line. I grabbed the phone and suddenly realized that it was Christina’s mother screaming and sobbing about Dennis, Christina, and the baby. They were dead? I couldn’t believe my ears. This had to be a bad dream. Unfortunately, it was not.

I remember making our way to their house in the country like it was yesterday. We were shocked, bewildered, and helpless about what to say. Talk about really depending on God to show up and give me some divine word to speak or proclaim!  However, it was pretty quiet, awkwardly quiet. I felt like God had left me to handle this one on my own.

Unfortunately, the story isn’t finished yet. Within a year, I found myself answering the phone in the middle of the night and once again it was about this family. Their neighbor was on the phone telling me, “Thought you might like to know that the Johnson’s house is currently burning to the ground.” Once again, I jumped up and found myself crying out to God, “What am I to do this time?” Once again, it was pretty quiet.

Has God ever been really quiet when you desperately needed to hear from Him? How many people do you know who have had disappointments with God? Do you ever find yourself wondering why your prayers go unanswered? Especially, when you have been purposeful in really trying to conscientiously live for God? Why do you suppose that God would seemingly ignore the prayers offered up from a sincere heart, and why is it that we so quickly start to doubt God? The story of Jesus asleep in the midst of a massive storm reveals our doubts about whether He really cares for us and is in control.

Two unexpected questions arise…

In Luke’s writings (Luke chapter 8), we read of a time when the disciples of Jesus had a similar experience asking, “Where is Jesus when I need Him?” Why should they not wonder? These disciples knew all about sailing. They were professionals when it came to handling a boat. I have no doubt that they looked at the sky before they set out and scanned the horizon for indicators of bad weather. I suspect that all the signs pointed to smooth sailing. Then, something unexpected happened; they found themselves fighting some of the toughest waters they had ever faced and wondering if they were going to make it out alive.

A squall arose. It dropped from the sky like a bird of prey swooping down on their small craft with so much velocity that they were helpless in the face of it. The storm must have howled like a category two as it tore through the rigging and churned the sea to a boil. This was the kind of storm that could snap a mast, or cause a small craft like the one the disciples were in to keel over and sink in seconds.

I am reminded of a time just a couple of years ago when I was crossing the Sea of Galilee on the north end. The captain told us that we were fortunate to be up north because there was a violent storm at the south end of the lake; it still happens today.

It was this kind of wind that fell on the disciples’ little craft. Certainly, if the disciples had been able to see this storm looming on the horizon, they would have tried to steer clear of it; however, there was no such warning. If they had been unable to get out of its path, they might have at least been able to brace themselves and try to sail through it to the best of their ability. This is what you do in times of trouble. You batten down the hatches and adjust the sails. You do the best that you can. Nonetheless, this wind was just too big for the disciples to handle alone.

I wonder how long they had been fighting the storm before someone asked, “Hey, where is Jesus?” To their surprise and dismay, they realized that Jesus was right where they had left Him at the beginning of this voyage, fast asleep on a cushion in the stern of the ship. How do you suppose these disciples felt when they realized that Jesus was sleeping through the storm? Do you suppose they crept up to him on tiptoe and shook him gently? Did they whisper in His ear the way your mother whispered in your ear when she woke you as a child? I don’t think so. I think they cried out in terror, if only to be heard over the shrieking of the wind.

There is a note of chiding. “Master, how can you sleep at a time like this?” they cried. “Don’t you see that we are all about to die? Don’t you care?” Can you blame them for these feelings towards Jesus? The storm is raging, and the ship is going down. But Jesus … well, He is a different story. He does not leap to His feet with a gasp, nor does He demand to know why they did not wake him sooner. He gets up and speaks, not just to his disciples, but also to the wind and waters. The effect upon the storm is immediate. Jesus rebukes the wind and it grows quiet, He speaks and the churning waters settle themselves, like a kid who has just been seriously told to, “knock it off.” Even so, a different kind of storm is just beginning to brew in the disciples’ hearts. “Where is your faith?” Jesus asks them. They reply with a question of their own, “Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

I cannot help being struck by the counterpoint reflected in these two questions. First, there is the question posed by Jesus. “Where is your faith?” he asks his disciples. Something inside me wants to answer back what do you mean, where is my faith? How can you ask such a question, Jesus? The ship was sinking! What did you expect them to do, walk on water? They have not learned that trick yet! By the way, Jesus, where were you as the storm was raging? Asleep. What would have happened if the disciples had not called on you for help? Where would you be? What would have happened to the rest of your ministry?

Any challenge, I might offer, dies quickly and subsides when I hear the question asked by the disciples. “Who is this?” They also said, “He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” What do you disciples mean, “Who is this?” Why are you so surprised?  If you did not think Jesus could do anything about the winds and the water, why did you wake him?

What makes these two questions most disturbing is the way they reveal the true landscape of our spiritual lives. Like zeroing in with Google earth, these two questions mark the boundaries of our struggle with doubt.

At one point is the question of Jesus: “Where is your faith?”

“Where is your faith?” Jesus asks his disciples. I hate this question because it is so confrontational, and besides, it is not an easy question to understand, let alone answer.

What can Jesus mean by it? Is He just being grumpy? Is He irritated with the disciples for disturbing his nap? That seems doubtful. It certainly does not match the picture of Jesus we have elsewhere in the gospels. Jesus was often interrupted. He frequently put His own concerns aside to meet the needs of others. The gospel writers never portray Him as someone who was impatient, selfish, or moody.

So perhaps Jesus felt the disciples were overreacting. This does not seem to be the case here. Verse 23 says the boat was “being swamped.” The waves were crashing over the side. Verse 24 says the waters were “raging.” This little ship really was in trouble. Verse 23 also says, “They were in great danger.”

So what is the rebuke implied in Jesus’ question? What does He mean when He asks, “Where is your faith?” I think Jesus is partly responding to their implied criticism that He had been asleep on the job.

Have you not at times come to the point in your Christian faith when it appears as if God is asleep on the job? When this happens, we cry out as these disciples did, “Master, Master, we’re going to drown!” This is precisely the tone of much of our praying. We sometimes treat prayer like a petition. We are convinced that if we obtain enough signatures, God will be compelled to act. We are convinced that our prayers have a better chance of being heard if there are more of us praying, or if we pray longer or louder and more passionately than anyone else.

Jesus throws a direct question, “Where is your faith?” Frankly, this seems hard to me—even harsh—and entirely out of character with what I expect from Jesus. Until I hear Jesus’ question in concert with the one posed by the disciples.

At the other extremity is the question of the disciples: “Who is this man?”

Jesus’ question may be hard to understand, but it is this question of the disciples that is even harder to accept. That’s because it points to something in my heart that I would really rather ignore. It shows me that despite all of my Bible reading, my assertions about faith, and all my prayers, that I am not entirely convinced that God will do what I have asked Him to do. In verse 25, Jesus asks his disciples, “Where is your faith?” In fear and amazement they ask one another, “Who is this?  He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.”

It is easy for us to smirk at their amazement. After all, we know what Jesus is capable of; we’ve read the gospels. What we are not entirely convinced of is that Jesus will do the same for us—and rightly so! Our own experiences have shown us that the story does not always end this way. Jesus does not always speak to the wind and the waves and quiet them right before us. If we fail to recognize this, we may misinterpret our circumstances. In some cases, it is the mistake of thinking that easy sailing is a mark of God’s favor, and trouble is a sign of His displeasure.  If we are healthy, if things are going well with the kids, if the job is going great, and traffic through Wilsonville to the I-205 has been a breeze, we may conclude that God is pleased with us. However, when the skies darken and the seas begin to rise, before you know it, we are experiencing a crisis of faith.

In his book Spiritual Depression, Martyn Lloyd Jones writes: “God permits storms. He permits difficulties. He permits the winds to blow and the billows to roll, and everything may seem to be going wrong and we ourselves to be in jeopardy.”  God’s guidance in our lives does not always steer us away from the storm; sometimes He sends us into it. That is the time to remember that it is not you who charts the course but Christ.

It is not the heavy weather on the horizon of our lives that bothers us the most. It is God’s apparent lack of interest that sends us over the edge. It is the silence of God that causes us to stumble. We are haunted by the fear that we are still on the course that God initially charted for us, but Jesus has checked out. In the midst of that painful silence, we are compelled to redefine our concept of prayer.

How, then, should we interpret Jesus’ sleeping in the midst of the storm? Surely it is not as a sign of His absence or a mark of His disinterest. While His need for sleep does bear witness to the reality of His humanity, it was a reflection of His peace. The storm was part of God’s plan. To God it was no big deal.

Christ’s ability to sleep in the midst of the storm helps us to see a new dimension to the “peace of God.” We usually think of the peace of God primarily as something we experience. We think of a peace that we receive—the peace that passes all understanding. However, our experience of peace must ultimately have its origin in God’s own peace. God is not anxious, nor is He afraid. God is certain of the future. The wind and waves that are so troubling to us cannot reach Him. Though He may be removed from them, He is not unmoved by them.

This, then, is the answer to Christ’s question, “Where is your faith?” Our faith is not in the wind, in the waves, in the sails, nor in the ship. Faith is neither in our charts and maps, nor in our skill as sailors. Our faith is in the One who “commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him.” Our faith is in the God who became flesh and dwelt among us. Our faith is in the One who died on the cross and rose again. Our faith is in Christ alone.

_______________________________________

Dave McGarrah is Senior Pastor of Salem First Church of the Nazarene in Salem, Oregon. He truly loves Jesus and will stop at nothing to make Him known.

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