What Happens When God doesn’t Answer Our Prayers?

Late last night, a friend send me a text message. “Have you seen, #wakeupolive on instagram?” it read. I jumped on over and saw every mothers nightmare. A beautiful little girl name Olive, 2 years old, full of life, had suddenly stopped breathing and died. She was taken to hospital and declared dead on arrival. She was not on life support. Olive was gone. My heart sunk to my shoes. I wanted to wake my sweet 2 year old girl and cuddle her forever. Because no parent should lose a child. But little Olive’s case was different. Her mother is a worship leader at Bethel and the last five days have been filled with worship sessions, worldwide prayer and fervent beseechings for God to raise this little girl to life.Now read me right, I’d be thrilled if the best were to happen. I’d pull a Tom Cruise and jump  up and down on the couch with my kids.

But we are heading into day six now and so this story will have a lot of people asking “What if she doesn’t get raised from the dead?” Well that, my friend, is a very good question.

I want to start by saying I believe in miracles, in that I have been the very reluctant recipient of two of them. (I.e. It wasn’t mind over matter because I was sure that I was not going to be healed from these conditions. I’d even been in big arguments about it. There were witnesses to that.) Long story…

But miracle healings do happen. In the science world, they are called spontaneous remissions. There are thousands of documented instances of sudden and inexplicable recoveries in both Christian and secular settings. When you look at people like Dr Joe Dispenza, Dr Gregg Braden and even illusionist Derren Brown,  you actually do get some pretty fascinating explanations for how these healings might take place. I’mma blog more on that another day because it’s complicated. But for the sake of today I want to say this:

I believe that God, or whatever you choose to call the force that animates the universe, can use various mechanisms to heal us. Science and metaphysical philosophers of various streams may be able to explain some aspects of it. Great. I’m not offended by that. I believe that God can do whatever He wants to do. I also believe know it can be profoundly disappointing when it doesn’t pan out the way we’d have liked.

Real talk: God has been profoundly disappointing to me at times. I remember sobbing in the shower after my fourth miscarriage and telling God some things I really hated and was furious about. Then I hated myself for hating God. And then I realised God has big shoulders. He can handle my anger and my questions.

When these questions become deep questioning, that can be called deconstruction. It’s the moment we start to grapple with whether or not our faith and worldview holds up to scrutiny. The issue with deconstruction is not whether God can handle it. Its whether we can. When I look at the Bethel movement, I can see some pretty big red flags. One is the doctrine that complete healing is guaranteed as part of atonement at the point of salvation.

Bill Johnson believes and teaches that [1]:

God never causes sickness.
God always chooses to heal.
Paul’s thorn in the flesh was definitely not a physical ailment.
If you do not believe in healing on demand, you are preaching another gospel

Johnson has said “I refuse to create a theology that allows for sickness.”

Well! Bill isn’t God. He doesn’t get to decide that, but…

The first point I don’t have an issue with per se. Although, as we age, the body is subject to entropy and atrophy. That, to me, seems to be just part of life after Eden.

The second is rubbish. God doesn’t always choose to heal. Jacob walked with a limp. God didn’t choose to heal him. The argument that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was “definitely not a physical ailment” is laughable. There is no way we can tell. I know plenty of people of great faith, who walked closely with God, who were constantly bringing their sin and failures before him who did not receive their miracles. I wouldn’t dare question their salvation. I wouldn’t dare question anyone listed in Hebrews 11 who didn’t receive their healing or the thing they were praying for.

The moment we create a theology that portrays God as a genie in a bottle who grants our healing wishes, we deny the sovereignty of God. If we believe that God is God, we have to believe He is sovereign over the timing of healing (i.e. here or eternity). We have to believe the choice is ultimately His. If not, we are demoting Him to genie, and promoting ourselves to deity.

And hey – the scripture tells us that if we share in his sufferings, we share in his glory. Why would that be dropped into scripture if salvation meant life would be a painless walk in the park?

The idea that healing is guaranteed on demand is a bad doctrine that has the potential to knock someone right out of the church door if tragedy strikes. It’s bad theology. And bad theology is dangerous.

I used to come at faith from a position of, I don’t know, superiority maybe? I had some bad theology of my own. Now, having lost the blessed naivety of my youth, I know that Christianity isn’t a magic wand, a silver spoon or a genie in a bottle. It is a comfort and a guide. It is a set of ethics and morals. It is a way of seeing the world. It’s a reverence and a reference point, and so much more.

I believe it should constantly be something I wrestle with and think about in terms of how best to live it out. But it doesn’t change the amount of struggles I will face in my life (spoiler: there have been a few!). 

I doesn’t change the amount of struggles anyone faces. The Bible never said it would. It said though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will *fear* no evil for you are with me. It said thy rod and staff comfort me. It said all things would work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose. But that never meant we would be immune to pain.

Hey. I’ve got unanswered prayers. I have significant health challenges. I don’t for one minute blame God, and I don’t for one minute blame myself. Those challenges mean I can sit with people who have invisible illnesses, support them and understand them. I grieve my angel babies. But I’ve been able to hold the hands of people walking the road of infertility. Sharing those deeply personal struggles is an honour I don’t take lightly. I might not be healed, but I am bloody resilient. I thank God for that gift.

(I’m not suggesting that poor Olive’s mum looks for any such silver lining right now. I am hurting for that woman! Let’s make that clear.)

The case of young Olive is a tragedy. I hope it doesn’t become a dual tragedy that causes her mother to lose faith, or causes other people to ask God why He didn’t be a good genie and bring her back when we demanded it. If it did, I wouldn’t blame the parents. I wouldn’t blame the people who are praying for these precious souls because of the compassion and empathy and faith they have right now. Thank God for them!

I’d blame the people who trot out bad theology and raise expectations above the Biblical bar.

God isn’t our genie. He is our father in heaven. He is the author and finisher of our faith. He is sovereign. He is not able to be fully understood and I cringe at even using male pronouns for him right now. God is too big for our petty labels. God is too big to push around.

And hey side note: I read this fabulous quote on instagram (I’m looking at you, Jess Hugenberg): Types of witchcraft: 1) incantation: magic spells, a series of words or phrases believed to be uttered to achieve a desired result. 2) Divination: seeking knowledge by supernatural means, such as necromancy, which is summoning spirits or raising the dead.

Proclaiming “resurrection power” with poor understanding is heresy. Resurrection power is NOT the power to raise anyone from the dead. Resurrection power is the power that fuelled and accompanied Jesus’ resurrection which defeated sin and death. That doesn’t mean we will never die but that our souls will have eternal life in Jesus.

Look, I don’t know about you, but I like to stand well clear of the line that tells God what to do. The rationale above is pretty good reasoning as to why. My witch friend (yes! She’s fab) has shown me there is far more to witchcraft that what I wrote above. Her practice is quite different. But I’ve put that quote up there for thought provocation. We need to be careful which lines we cross. In my mind here, Bethel is crossing some dangerous lines.

If God didn’t answer your prayer, 
If he didn’t heal your child, or your sibling, your friend or partner, if He didn’t grant your wish on demand, that doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist. Look for him in comfort you receive. In the medical treatment you can access. In the faces of the friends who support you, and hopefully even in the blogs that try and help you to grapple with the questions that fall out of that disappointment.

But when we subscribe to the genie in a bottle doctrine of complete and guaranteed healing as part of atonement, then we not only question God but our very salvation. There is no biblical case for us to think we get to demand God heal us and have him scramble to snap his cosmic fingers.

Now, for my atheist readers, Hi! Good to have you along. I’m sure there are a million thoughts you have here, including the power of the mind and the placebo effect in healings. I’ll get to that another day! But for everyone else who believes there is something out there, for those of us who believe that something out there is called God, hang tight.

Unattained healing, ungranted wishes, unrequited desires – these are not evidence of an absent God. I like what a friend of mine says “Lack of evidence is not evidence of lack.” She was saying it about the world of research, indicating that there is much yet to be discovered in terms of the power of the body, the mind and the forces that animate and impact upon it.

I think it applies to God, too. I look at world history, at world religions, at the different denominations that exist around the world and I know that we are all striving to find meaning on this planet and to try to understand and explain the uncontainable Divine.

If God hasn’t answered your prayer. I’m sorry. I hope in time, He does. But if tragedy has struck, I hope that you can find comfort in the knowledge of a loving God who will carry you through the aftermath. When we subject ourselves to bad theology that treats God like a genie and denigrates His sovereignty, we can’t find comfort in God when we go through hard times. We can only be angry that our genie didn’t perform, or we can think that somehow we weren’t good enough.

Don’t do that. Life is hard enough. My heart is with the Bethel Church and the Heiligenthal family. I’m praying for them right now in this horrendous time of grief. I’m also grieved that this has played out in such a public and desperate fashion. Gosh. Imagine.

That’s all I got. I’m going to go hug my daughter real tight.

Over and out


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mick Mc says:

    Some great food for thought there darrrling niece. (As always with your reflections)
    As I was reading I was amused by the thought that there is so much in this article that could and probably will be taken out of context. It’s a good thing to rattle peoples trees occasionally
    For myself, your article made me think that one of the reasons I have been able to sustain and grow my Christian faith over the years, is because I have never been afraid to allow myself the luxury of doubting when it was appropriate to do so. Not only that, but I have on occasion allowed myself to extrapolate that doubt to wherever it might take me.
    It’s better than just blindly denying that there are outcomes I wanted and prayed for, that just didn’t happen.
    In all of my questioning I have never been able to get around the character/teaching/deity of Jesus.
    Oh and every time I attempt to distort and contort God into a shape and meaning that is more suited to my needs, I remember those 5 words…
    I am who I am
    Thanks St Kit


    1. Kit K says:

      Ha! St Kit! I’m sure that’s a title I will never earn. It’s interesting what you say about things taken out of context. That’s the thing that concerns me most about Christendom – the cherry picking of the bible that results in things taken out of context and bad theology resulting. Now I know it takes more than good biblical scholarship to get it right. In fact I don’t think any human would get everything right! But if we can’t wrestle and question anything, and if the big loves of today (like bethel) are beyond reproach because people won’t question it, then it’s a dangerous thing.

      I know you know what I mean with unanswered prayers and illness! We still ask for our miracles, right? But we do so humbly, not demanding God subject Himself to our will. Ya feel?

      I’m truly sorry we never finished our conversation about your book, and about modern worship last year. Hope to see you Boxing Day and have a do-over


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