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One of the biggest stumbling blocks to accepting the existence of God often comes from unanswered prayer.
I was talking to a gentleman the other day who recalled a story that “proved” God did not exist because of an unanswered prayer.
More than 40 years ago, when he was 15 years old, he and a 17-year-old friend borrowed a car to go cruising around together. Yes, they had permission from the owner for the older teen to drive because he had a driver’s license. The other teen did not.
Around 11 p.m., the youngsters decided to explore a steep, narrow, winding road through a wooded area leading down to a major river. The older, wiser teen realized they might get to the river and discover there was no place to turn the car around. The younger teen suggested they back down the road instead so they could easily drive out later.
The older teen was not skilled at backing, so the younger, unlicensed driver took over. However, because the headlights were facing uphill, they only had light from the taillights to guide them down. It didn’t take long before the borrowed car collided with a tree, broke a taillight and damaged the rear end.
Knowing they were going to be in trouble, the boys spent the entire night praying in earnest for a miracle. They were both “religious” at the time and had been taught the power of prayer.
They were familiar with John 15:7 which promises “…ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.”
They knew that God could pull off a miracle and completely restore the car before the owner discovered the damage.
However, after praying continuously for more than seven hours, the owner of the car discovered the damage when he showed up for work the next morning. The man was quite angry with the boys, but even angrier with the older teen for allowing an unlicensed driver to get behind the wheel.
In recalling the story, the man summed up his experience this way:
“Following what we had been taught, we stayed up all night and prayed, believing or at least hoping that God would remove or lessen our punishment, simply because of our prayer,” he explained. “But, all the hours of praying amounted to nothing. We knew better, but after having been taught about the power of prayer to ‘fix any problem,’ it seemed worth a try.”
As a result, the man never really believed in God or any of that “religious stuff.”
However, is one unanswered prayer enough justifiable proof that God doesn’t exist? No way!
Out of context
The first mistake the man made was taking a Bible passage out of context and zeroing in on the promise without the required clause to activate the promise.
The entirety of John 15:7-8 reads, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
In order for people to receive whatever they wish, two things have to occur.
First, the person doing the asking must “remain in Jesus” and his words must remain in that person.
The boys may have been walking closely to Jesus at that stage in their lives by following religious rituals and speaking spiritual language. But, was their heart truly committed to Jesus?
The man admits they were “hoping” God would answer their prayer and that it was “worth a try” to give prayer a chance.
There are dozens of Bible stories of prayer being answered because of the faith expressed by the person doing the prayer. There was no “giving it a try” or “hoping” for an answer.
In Romans 4:21, Apostle Paul writes that Abraham was “fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” That’s the type of faith needed for a woman in her 90s to conceive a child.
Concerning the storyteller’s prayer, does God’s word suggest it’s okay for an unlicensed driver to operate a car, especially for a pleasure ride? No.
Does God’s word suggest operating a car without headlights in the dark along a steep, narrow, winding road lined with trees is a wise thing to do? No.
So the boys were praying for a miracle that would override God’s multiple commands for people to exercise wisdom and discernment.
To God’s glory
The other missing component was that the prayer had to ask for something that brought glory to God.
Would it be to God’s glory for the car to be miraculously repaired? Sure, in their eyes.
But, what lesson would it teach the boys that would strengthen their wisdom and increase their discernment?
If God had completely restored the car, would the boys be more likely to avoid making stupid decisions in the future, or more likely to continue taking needless risks because God would “fix any problem” they brought on themselves?
By answering their prayer, would others be more likely to see the boys as God’s disciples? No.
Would sharing the story of miraculous repair increase the faith of others? How, if there was no evidence of damage witnessed by anyone else?
What’s the likelihood that fixing the car would create more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control – the fruit of the Holy Spirit – among the boys, or anyone who heard their story?
God did answer!
In reality, I think God did answer their prayers, but not entirely in the way they wanted.
First, the older boy did not wind up with a traffic ticket, nor did the younger teen wind up in serious trouble for operating a motor vehicle without a license.
The teens had to pay to have the damage repaired, which purchased a great deal of wisdom and discernment early in their lives.
God stopped the car with a tree before they could back into a ravine or down a cliff, kill or hurt themselves, or completely destroy the car.
The accident prevented them from driving into the river and being swept to their deaths. It also ensured they would not encounter dangerous people or animals further down the road.
The teens learned humility to admit their mistakes and accept responsibility.
I don’t know if the older teen ever let another unlicensed driver use a car for which he was responsible.
The owner of the car probably learned to ask more questions before lending his vehicle to other teens. He probably also learned to set ground rules governing its use.
As the participants recalled and shared the story to others in the years following the incident, I suspect others learned valuable lessons at their expense.
I think more fruit was produced by God in not answering their prayer for a miracle repair than he could ever produced by waving his hand and restoring the broken metal, or helping the boys avoid responsibility.
When it appears God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we hope, we need to remember there may be more going on behind the scenes than we realize. His true answer won’t be apparent until more mature in life and in our faith.