By Carmen Joy Imes

Unanswered Prayer: A Lesson from the Psalms

Do you ever wonder if you're missing something when it comes to prayer?

I know I do.

Our prayer lives are often anemic.

We pray for good weather, safe travel, good health, a good night's sleep. We pray for good news from the doctor, success in a job interview, a good grade on a test. We thank God for all the blessings we enjoy — food, shelter, family, friends. And then we dive back into the cacophony of noise and images and to-do lists that distract us from thinking much more about it. In a pinch we send up a prayer for peace or strength or wisdom to make it through whatever threatens to make us late to the next appointment or to make us miss the next deadline.

Is that all there is to it?

The more I read the Psalms, the more I'm convinced that we need a prayer overhaul.

The Psalms invite us to come as we are, expressing the full range of our most carefully-guarded thoughts in God's presence. They model for us raw emotion — unflinching honesty, unhinged violence, unabated longing, unadulterated gratitude, unfiltered praise. Biblical psalms run the whole gamut of attitudes and experiences —  wrestling, protesting, celebrating, lamenting.

I suspect most of us prefer the cheerful psalms — psalms that offer reassurance and comfort, reminding us of all that our great God has done and assuring us of all he will do to make things right.

But there comes a season when these psalms merely rub salt in the wound. It is then that we need the darker psalms — psalms that echo our own experiences of alienation and struggle; psalms willing to voice the questions we thought were off limits. Most of these darker psalms have a note of hope that resolves the tensions of the psalmist's experience. They begin with questions and end with answers.

But not all breathe hope. This week I discovered two psalms that break the pattern: Psalms 88 and 89. Neither one ties a neat bow on the psalmist's ache. They simply leave it there, heaving and trembling, waiting for a response. And that response never comes.

Psalm 88 is strikingly different from other lament psalms. While others complain about vicious enemies who attack, bent on destruction, Psalm 88 mentions no human foe. Here the problem is none other than God.

You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths.
Your wrath lies heavily on me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves...
Why, LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? (Psalm 88:6–7, 14; NIV).

Can you see the direct challenge to God? Instead of resolving this tension with a closing note of hope, the psalm ends in darkness.

You have taken from me friend and neighbor — darkness is my closest friend (v. 18).

In Hebrew, the original language of the psalm, "darkness" is the final word. No happy endings here. The psalmist has dared to confront God. And now he sits alone in darkness.

Psalm 89 begins with praise, and a long recital of all the cosmic wonders God has done. We might initially think that this psalm offers relief from the despair of Psalm 88. Another long stanza retells the glorious covenant with David from 2 Samuel 7 — God's promise that David and his descendants will reign over God's people "as long as the heavens endure" (Psalm 89:29). This is the centerpiece of Israel's national theology, her most treasured promise.

But, everything changes in verse 38.

The psalmist confronts God with the brutal reality that does not match God's promise.

But you have rejected, you have spurned,
you have been very angry with your anointed one.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant
and have defiled his crown in the dust (Psalm 89:38–39; NIV).

The psalmist is understandably distressed. We could understand if Israel's enemies attacked her king. But God? And he dares to call God to account.

How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?
How long will your wrath burn like fire? (v. 46).

And then the piercing question, one that looks God full in the face:

Lord, where is your former great love,
which in your faithfulness you swore to David?

Whatever happened to the Davidic Covenant? Has it expired? Can we no longer count on God to fulfill the promise?

The last word of this Psalm in Hebrew is Mashiach (Messiah). But this is no triumphant Messiah. He is the subject of mockery, shamed, plundered, and scorned, with his crown and throne in the dust.

We sit, with both psalmists, in the dark, in the dust. Waiting.

I find a strange comfort in these psalms. They may be unanswered, but they have been kept for us. That in itself implies that God heard these cries. The fact that these appear in sacred Scripture tells me that unanswered prayer is a normal part of the experience of faith. These psalms invite us to bring our darkest and most dangerous questions to God. Doing so does not disqualify us from the faith — quite the opposite. Doing so is the prerequisite of faith — trusting God with how we really feel and with what we really think.

These unanswered psalms are a snapshot of faithful prayer. Having voiced our desolation to God, we wait. That praying, that waiting — these are the stuff of faith. And while we don't see an immediate answer to Psalms 88 and 89, they are beautiful in their own way because they preserve a part of our shared experience. They show us we are in good company. And because they are tucked in the middle of a host of other prayers, answered ones, we know that they are not the end of the story.

Do we perhaps avoid certain kinds of prayer because we doubt they will be answered? God invites us to pray without holding back. No desire is too deep, no darkness is too ugly, no hope is too outlandish, no accusation too blasphemous. We can say it all. And then we wait.

About the Author

Carmen Joy Imes (PhD, Wheaton) is associate professor of Old Testament at Biola University. A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, she is the author of Bearing YHWH's Name at Sinai, Bearing God's Name: Why Sinai Still Matters, Being God's Image: Why Creation Still Matters, and the editor of Praying the Psalms with Augustine and Friends.

Imes has written for a variety of websites, including Christianity Today, The Well, and the Politics of Scripture blog. She is a fellow of Every Voice, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society, the Institute for Biblical Research, and the Society of Biblical Literature. Imes and her husband, Daniel, have followed God's call around the globe together for over 25 years.

Read Carmen's article on being God's image as a woman in the academy and the church.

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