Please don’t hear this as an uncompassionate explanation. I’d be very slow to use this in response to a complex & difficult pastoral situation, but our expectations have a huge bearing on how we respond to unanswered prayer.
Contrary to the beliefs of my youth group, I wasn’t alive in the 19th Century, but from my limited grasp of history it appears that people used to expect life to be difficult, demanding & problem-filled. Today we presume life is wrapped in cotton-wool, that the silver spoon should always be close at hand, and whilst we would endure some small mishaps along the way, we generally feel hard done by when life doesn’t pan out the way we want.
When tough times come we can feel as if God has robbed us of our deserved happiness. And despite advances in technology & medical treatment we must remember that it’s normal to have problems, get sick, have financial difficulties & wrestle with fractured relationships. Jesus promises His disciples that “You will have trouble” (John 16:33), but nobody sticks that on the car bumper or the banner at the front of church.
God’s goal for your life is not to make you happy. It is to make you holy. Life is tough, but surely that should make us all the more grateful for the abundant daily blessings of our Lord & prevent us from blaming Him for what is simply the reality of existence in a messed up planet. As Christians our ultimate hope is not set in a succession of deliveries from human affliction, but a deepening relationship with the eternal God of this Universe.
Peter was aware of it this, “Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as if something strange were happening to you” (1 Peter 4:12). And Paul was braver than I could ever dare to be when he prayed, “to know Christ & the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, becoming like Him in death” (Philippians 3:10).
Pete Greig summarises this better than I ever could, “Perhaps we should accept what older people and poorer people and many of those with disabilities already know: Things are probably going to be very difficult today & just as hard tomorrow. Maybe by adjusting our expectations we can reduce the sense of disappointment, isolation & unfairness riding on the back of unanswered prayer... when such times come, we should feel a little less outrage & a lot more hope because Jesus, who went through similar struggles, predicted that we would have them & promised to be with us in the midst of them.”