Rachel Is Still Weeping:
The Question of Unanswered Prayer
"A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more " (Jeremiah 31:15 NIV).
Matthew quotes this, "what the Lord says," in his gospel account (2:18) as a response to Herod's orders for the murder of all boys two years and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding settlements. In his fear, Herod was hoping that the baby Jesus would be among the dead. Jesus later taught how we must approach our Father with the heart of a child to enter His kingdom. Ironically, the first people to die in the name of Christ, unknowingly to them and their parents, were hundreds of very young and innocent children.
Ramah was one of the villages, five miles north of Jerusalem, that the Jewish people traveled through to their Babylonian exile. Jacob's most esteemed wife was Rachel, who became the grand matriarch of the most powerful tribes of Israel's northern kingdom. These were referred variously by the names of Ephraim, Samaria, Jacob and Rachel.
These prominent and powerful tribes of the earthly kingdom were in "great weeping." The northern kingdom refused to be comforted. “Rachel” needed and wanted to mourn and cry for her people "are no more."
However, "This is what the Lord says: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for your work will be rewarded,’ declares the Lord. ‘They will return from the land of the enemy. So there is hope for your future, ‘ declares the Lord" (Jeremiah 31:16-17a NIV).
I am reminded of the proclamation of the Psalms, "Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him" (Psalm 126:5-6 NIV).
Emotional and spiritual famine sometimes strikes, and our harvest of prayer and work seems meager. So we sow again our seeds of hope with more prayer, work and tears. God promises we will return with a great harvest, singing our praise and joy. Jesus promises that those who mourn are blessed, for comfort will follow. But Rachel refuses to be comforted, and the Lord God steps in and tells her to stop, to trust in His promises.
When I was in elementary school, I was so intrigued by the so many promises of Jesus and the spiritual power and work of His disciples and the first century Church. I was also dismayed at the glaring absence of the fruits of faith in my own church. Later, a little older and more learned, my dismay only grew. Jesus said we would do greater works than Him, that our Father would be quickly attentive and responsive to our prayers in the Son's name.
Believing in Christ, my friends and I would attend the big revival tent services of traveling preachers with healing and prayer ministries, thirsting to witness what we read in the book of Acts. We wanted to believe what we saw and heard was divine and sometimes did for a while. But days later, or often immediately, our dismay grew even greater as the bitter realization set in. These guys were imposters, scammers of money, profaners of the sacred. Where were the humble, holy people of God who exalted only the sacred Name of our Father?
For years, to this day, I read, spoke with and listened on radio and lecture halls to established, respected Christian leaders more learned than me, still learning about my childhood passion: the discrepancy between the work and power of the churches of the 1st century and those of the 20th and 21st centuries. Over and over I heard and still hear teachings such as "God always answers prayers for your needs, but not for your wants;" "God always answers prayer, sometimes it's yes, sometimes it's no;" "God has a personal plan for your life, so prayers that don't fit His program won't be answered;" "We are in a new dispensation of grace, so God no longer answers with signs and wonders or revelations since the Bible is complete and is His final and complete revelation;" "We cannot know God's will for us and that's why many of our prayers are not answered."
After years of listening to these kinds of consensus among mainstream preachers, the mind tends to be implanted with them and shuts down its critical faculty. But if the "mind of Christ," which the Scriptures say is in us, is allowed to be heard, we will realize that not only none of these explanations for unanswered prayer are in the Bible, they are all refuted by Scripture. It is as though someone who studies God's promises with great love, gratitude and excitement, and wants to learn more by listening to Biblical expositors, is slowed down by sermon after sermon explaining why the Holy Spirit chooses not to do what Christ said He would, "You will do greater things than Me," including being unified in love, "so that the world will know the Father sent Me.”
Sometimes I wonder what kind of Christian I would have been if I had lived alone with only the Bible and the Holy Spirit as my teachers. Writer and thinker Henry Thoreau retreated to Walden Pond for a year and learned, "Most people live lives of quiet desperation." I contend this is observable in Western Christianity: Many Christians live spiritual lives of quiet desperation and despair. Jesus told one of the churches, "You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first" (Revelation 2:4-5 NIV). Yes, "A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children…"
There are impediments to answered prayer. All those the Scriptures teach, and all are about us, not God. Check out the verse reference and its context for a God-breathed understanding:
1) Harboring sin (Psalm
2) Self-exalting (James 4:3)
3) Lack of faith and doubt (James 1:6-8)
4) Lack of thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6)
5) Unforgiveness (Mark 11:25)
6) Disobedience (Proverbs 28:9)
7) Contention with your spouse (1Peter 3:1-2,7)
8) Giving up or a lack of diligence (Luke 18:1)
9) Pride (Proverbs 18:12)
10) Non-compassion or apathy (Proverbs 21:13)
If you are like me, we share frustration or questioning over some unanswered prayer. St. Paul practiced diligent prayer over his "thorn in the flesh" until God made its purpose clear. So his prayers stopped and Paul was content. But regarding prayers we offer in Christ's name, before we explain away God's teachings and promises about prayer with platitudes that sound Biblical but are not Biblically supported, join me in a rigorous self-examination using the ten Biblically supported impediments listed above. "Passing the test" on each one of them will surely and profoundly increase the intimacy and effectiveness of our prayers and enable us to dwell more deeply in the Heart and Kingdom of our Lord.
Yet we may hear another well-meaning but unbiblical explanation (excuse?) for unanswered prayer: In God's time, not ours. Yes, we live in time and there must be some degree of waiting. But we cannot speak of "God's timing" since He exists and acts out of time. "With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day" (2 Peter 3:8). It is not Biblical to sigh and lament or tell another, "All in God's time." We ought to follow the Scriptures` examples and include time in our prayer: "Hasten, O God, to save me. O Lord, come quickly to help me…I am poor and needy; come quickly to me, O God…O Lord, do not delay" (Psalm 70:1,5).
Throughout the Psalms, the Holy Book of Praises and Prayers, the writers frequently, boldly yet humbly, question and cry out words such as "Arise, O Lord … Why do you delay? … How long, O Lord? … Now is the time." These cries of wonder and impatience do not indicate a lack of faith or hope. Quite the contrary, the Psalmists had such an unwavering faith in God's responsiveness and answered prayer that lead to exclamations of wonder. This is similar to being told by a faithful friend, "I'll come right away," than experiencing a delay. We don't doubt the friend is coming, but we rather question, "What happened? What's taking so long? Where is he/she?"
Praying for divine haste is thus also His will. Jesus said, "And will not God bring justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will see that they get justice, and quickly" (Luke 18:7-8a, NIV). Jesus adds a chilling thought, however, to end verse 8: "However, when the Son of man comes, will He find faith on the earth?" Indeed, God is always faithful to answer our prayers as He promised. We are the ones who impede His ability to work powerfully through us.
Then again, someone will
raise the often quoted verse in Isaiah 40:31, "But they that wait upon
the Lord shall renew their strength…,” to counter these reflections on
prayers, and again, we invoke our penchant for studying the original language.
The Hebrew word translated as "wait" is best rendered as "hope and trust
This gives a deeper meaning to the word translated as "renew” which, in Hebrew, is really "exchange."
Recall the many Scripture verses that assert our strength is nothing and we are to rely upon God's strength instead. Indeed, I don't want my strength renewed. I want to exchange it for God's strength! (Just two verses before this popular one (29) Isaiah writes "He gives strength to the weary.") The same Hebrew word is used in Genesis 35:2 and Judges 14:12 to describe a change of clothes. Indeed Romans 13:14 tells us to clothe ourselves in Christ. So Isaiah 40:31 is not about waiting for prayers to be answered. Unfortunately, another powerful teaching of God was lost in the translation of King James' scholars in 1611. Although many newer translations more accurately reflect the original Hebrew meaning, tradition and popularity will no doubt hold out.
Unfortunately what will also continue is the excuse-making for the difference between the holiness, power of the Spirit and prayer of the apostles and the many servants of God, whose living examples still inspire generations centuries later, and the rest of us. Nonetheless, we can examine ourselves aggressively for the impediments to prayer and intimacy with our God of love. His will is for us to be "conformed to His image," to be like Christ in all ways, to work powerfully through us, to fulfill His promises to answer our prayers quickly. And Jesus told us to pray that the Father's will be done.
As the Lord said, Rachel must stop weeping. Rachel can pray in thanks for God's anticipated promises. Rachel’s mourning and tears must have been impediments to God's promise that those who trust and hope in the Lord will have their poor strength exchanged with His strength, so they will indeed be like eagles and never be weary.
Please, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us together cast off, with His grace, the impediments to lives and prayers of the Spirit's power, supporting one another in prayer and our Father's love.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Spiritual Resource Services © October, 2001
"God's Word" is a copyrighted work of God's Word to the Nations Bible Society. Quotations are used by permission.
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