When Prayer Doesn’t Work3 min read

Recently, I preached a sermon titled, “When Prayer Doesn’t Work.” I can tell you the exact moment that title came to mind: it was shortly before midnight on Friday, December 4, 2015.

A Little Background

Our 23-year old daughter, Emily, has struggled for most of her life with a terrible illness called Crohn’s Disease. She’s had many different treatments over the years for this incurable disease. Some of those treatments include surgery, others involve IV medications. In July of 2015 she had yet another surgery. The unintended result of that surgery was a tiny hole in her intestine. She was placed on powerful antibiotics and received her nourishment through a port. After waiting several months in the hope that her body might heal itself, another surgery was scheduled for November 30th. While that surgery successfully closed the hole, we discovered two days later that it had caused another hole so tiny that the surgeons couldn’t see it. Emergency surgery to fix that hole resulted in yet a third hole that needed to be addressed with yet another surgery the very next day.

All the while, we were praying and hoping and waiting to hear that the problem had been resolved. Those surgeries had been on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday of that week. That takes us to midnight on Friday, about 36 hours after Emily’s third surgery. All indications up to the point were that the surgery had finally been successful.

My wife and I had been taking turns sleeping in the chair next to Emily’s bed. Friday night was my turn.

I had been sleeping for just a little bit when I heard Emily’s panicked voice: “Dad, wake up, I think I’m leaking again.” I can’t explain and don’t even want to remember the feeling that came over me. Now, I’m an optimistic guy, but the truth is that a person can’t live with the contents of their intestines spilling into their abdominal cavity and a body can’t endure surgery after surgery, especially when those surgeries seemed to be making things worse rather than better.

Not Working

Our prayers hadn’t been working. There was no other way to think about it.

Throughout Emily’s ordeal, I had been keeping our congregation informed of her situation with periodic email updates. These resulted in an outpouring of love, prayer, and all kinds of support. In an email following the events described above, I mentioned that I was thinking of preaching a sermon titled, “When Prayer Doesn’t Work.” That email prompted a different kind of response than the others had, as many of my wonderful members apparently were concerned that their pastor’s faith was wavering.

It wasn’t. I was simply experiencing what most people go through at one time or another in wondering what this thing called prayer is really about.

A Mystery

I still can’t answer that question–prayer is a deep, deep mystery that is far beyond our ability to comprehend. I would like to make two suggestions, though, for what you can do the next time prayer doesn’t work in your life:

1) Accept the mystery. We want answers, we want to get them and we love to give them, but that’s not always possible. This is one of those times. Accept that.

2) Embrace the mystery. When prayer doesn’t work, what should we do? Well, conventional wisdom says that when something doesn’t work, smart people stop doing it. Embracing the mystery means doing just the opposite. Embracing the mystery means that when prayer doesn’t work, we keep praying.

Such is the mystery and wonder of faith.

By the way – Emily has fully recovered from her ordeal and has a return-to-work date of March 17th. God is good!

Photo (c) Shaun Menary/Lightstock

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About the Author

Rev. Mark D. Brandt serves as the 1st Vice President of the Michigan District, LCMS.

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