By Viki Rife
One of the greatest mysteries of my Christian life has been why God answers some prayers but not others. My doubts about prayer were heightened my first year of teaching high school. There was a girl in the class who struck me as potentially being a kindred spirit. I’ll call her Mary. It seemed like I could read her mind, and she mine. She sometimes hung around after class to chat, and I started to feel like her big sister.
There were also deep concerns, however, about the direction she was headed. Although she was at a Christian school, there seemed to be no interest in God whatsoever. She exhibited a rebellious nature in her interactions with most people, which somehow never showed up in her interactions with me.
For some reason I really can’t explain, I felt a deep need to pray for her. It only increased as she finished high school and got a job working with a close friend of mine. This friend was often frustrated and worried about her. She brought me reports: “Mary’s moved in with her boyfriend.” “The boyfriend’s dealing drugs.” “They’re breaking the law in many ways.” “Mary tells everyone at work she doesn’t believe in God.”
Each new report would drive me to my knees. Many times a day I begged God to show Himself to her. I prayed for opportunities to talk with her, hoping we could reconnect and I might have a chance to plant seeds of truth in her thinking. God never allowed it. She actually became more avoidant of me.
Finally I heard Mary was moving away—far away. I went before God that night and cried. “Please don’t let her leave,” I pleaded. “Don’t let her go someplace where she will not have people who love her and will draw her to you. If she leaves, she will not pick the right friends and there will be no one to influence her for good.”
Until the last moment on the day she was to leave, I prayed fervently that she would not go. She moved anyway. In the next few months, I asked God to change her mind and bring her back. I prayed that somehow He would bring a Christian influence into her life.
Twenty-five years passed. I couldn’t drive by the home where she had grown up without a deep pang of regret. Even seeing one of her classmates on the street would re-open the wound of disappointment in God. How could someone with so much promise, so much to offer God, turn away? And why did the sky feel like it was a sheet of steel whenever I tried to pray for her?
One day my dad was taken to the emergency room. As I sat with him his family doctor, who happened to be at the hospital at the time, stopped in to see what was up. The two of them started chatting about the missions trip the doctor had just returned from. As my dad asked questions, the doctor told the story of how he got involved with this mission. When he was in medical school in another city, he and his wife had become friends with some neighbors. Years later, those friends had gone to the mission field and had contacted him for help with some of the health needs of the people to whom they were ministering.
“What’s funny,” he added, “is that the wife, Mary, was from my hometown and graduated the same year I did. But she was at the Christian high school, so we never met.”
I had been teaching at that high school the year he indicated. Mentally I reviewed the names of the students who had graduated the year he had indicated. There was only one girl in the class with that name. I sat stunned. My mind could not even process the possibility that Mary was not only walking with the Lord, but serving Him to reach others.
I only had to ask her maiden name to confirm that, indeed, that was who he was talking about. The rest of that day, I found my heart crying out in worship to God and asking Him to forgive me for my resentment, my unbelief. Why did I assume my God couldn’t or wouldn’t do what I asked for?
There have been many other disappointments in my prayer life over the years. However, there have also been other surprises—times when God lifts the veil and allows me a glimpse of what He’s doing behind the scenes. Sometimes I find out years later, after someone turns to God, that the seeds for the change of direction were at work when I first started to pray, but took many years to become evident in the person’s life.
So what have I concluded about unanswered prayer? I guess where I land is this: keep praying. Just keep praying. Just in case.