I was recently asked, “Why are people who are being prayed for still getting sick and even dying?” With the COVID-19 pandemic hammering people’s sense of control of their lives, many are giving prayer a try. But what if it doesn’t work? What if I still become ill or a person I care for dies? For some, this global health crisis is putting God and prayer on trial. “If asking for the ‘Big Guy’s’ help doesn’t change anything, then I’ll just have to depend on my own abilities to protect myself and my family. And I’ll know not to count on Him.”
Unanswered prayer has been a challenge for believers for as long as there has been prayers prayed. For many, the lack of hoped-for results from their prayers indicates either God doesn’t exist, He doesn’t really care, or He just doesn’t have the ability to change anything about their problems. In many people’s minds unanswered prayer equals God is irrelevant. Yet, I believe there are other ways to understand how prayer works and what goes on in the spiritual realm.
We’re told that effective prayer requires faith (Matthew 21:22, James 5:15). We’re also told that in the spiritual realm, faith is a shield that extinguishes the fiery darts of the devil (Ephesians 6:16). Thus, I understand that faith-filled prayers can form a shield or wall that provides covering and protection in times of distress and danger. But here’s the important part: prayer is not meant to be merely an individualistic endeavor. In other words, I should not view my personal faith-filled prayer as the only thing that’s covering me. A community of shields being lifted creates a larger canopy over myself, my family, my community, my nation and the world. Our prayers are meant to intertwine and form something bigger than what I alone can produce.
In ancient warfare, soldiers typically overlapped or interlocked their shields to form a protective wall in battle. From the Greek hoplite and Roman legionary to the soldiers of Medieval armies, forming shield walls was standard practice when engaging an enemy. An individual was dependent on the overlapping shields of his fellow fighters to protect his vulnerable blind side. He in turn shielded the exposed side of the soldier next to him. I imagine such a covering could have been one of the things the Apostle Paul had in mind as he described the full armor of God in Ephesians 6.
Another image of a community finding protection together is found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. After the destruction by the Babylonian army, the city of Jerusalem was left with no surrounding wall and no protection from hostile enemies. Nehemiah organized the Jewish citizens into bands that worked on building specific sections of the wall, brick by brick. They were armed and and alert to potential attacks even as they labored at the building project. But doing it together allowed the wall to go up in a way that served the entire community. Every individual and family were dependent on their neighbors doing their part (Nehemiah 3 &4).
I have experienced the power of prayers of faith in my life over and over. But in these cases, it rarely has been just my prayers alone that were active. I’ve seen that joining my faith with the faith of others through prayer unleashes a spiritual dynamic that can be very powerful.
When I Don’t See It
But what about the prayers that don’t appear to get answered? This is a tough question because I don’t understand all that goes on in the unseen spiritual world. I know that for me, I have had to fight against the mentality that treats prayer like a formula that should produce a desired result if I carefully follow the steps or work up the right feelings. This way of thinking strips prayer of its relational quality and turns it into a mere magical incantation. Prayer is not a type of magic in which I can control a situation by saying the right words. It is, however, an act that demonstrates trust in Someone who works outside of my ability to control.
Unanswered prayer (or, answers different than I want) can also be looked at as part of the process of building that wall or interlocking the shields. There can be casualties while the shield wall is being formed. Because someone got sick or even died while I was praying for them does not necessarily mean my prayers were meaningless and ineffective. Even in that situation, I must learn to not stop praying for the sick and needy.
My problem often is that I give up too quickly. I don’t see what I want to see, so I assume this prayer stuff isn’t working. I tend to make prayer more about what I’m feeling or understanding rather than about the big picture of what God is doing. But what if my next few prayers offered in faith actually fill in some gaps, link some shields and cover other vulnerable people from fiery darts aimed at their blind side? I can’t explain why that person who got sick or passed away “took a bullet” from the enemy while the shields were being lifted. But I can keep on praying for the others and trust that a divine covering is taking shape even when I can’t see it.
Again, though I don’t understand the complexities of the spiritual realm, I have come to believe that persevering prayer is a mighty work that has far-reaching consequences. Jesus told more than one parable to teach His followers that they should pray and not give up (Luke 11:5-8, 18:1-8). He also said to ask (and keep on asking—Luke 11:9-10) and you will receive. Don’t forget the part about “keep on asking.”
Are You Doing Your Part?
Your shield of faith is needed in this battle. Regardless of your past experiences or disappointments with prayer, will you take your place at the wall we are building and offer your bricks of intercession? You can build something through prayer.
The shield wall can expand as we add people of prayer. Will you do your part?