Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon. I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!
Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!
But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?
As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.
Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.
We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)
There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.
The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!
If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.