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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

How the Saints Dealt with Unanswered Prayer

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, whose feast day is on November 8, had a landlord for whom she prayed and fasted, begging God for his conversion for years. In many ways, those who prayed and fasted for the elections earlier this week would probably appreciate her experience. For just as many had hoped that America would choose to be a little more open to God and to life, she too had cause for disappointment when M. Chapuit died without ever having shown any sign of returning to the faith. When our intercession for those we love and for difficult situations seems unheeded, this is never because God does not hear our prayer. In His abundant love, He stands ready to give always what is most needed in each situation. However, what He knows is really needed and what we think we are asking for do not always coincide. This means that sometimes we must come to terms with disappointed expectations in our prayer. For some, this disappointment is so great, they determine to give up prayer altogether. They walk away from their faith and assume that somehow it just does not work, at least not for them. When this happens, they have allowed their disappointment to become despair. There is another way. Instead of succumbing to disappointment, Blessed Elisabeth learned from St. Paul that God's power is sufficient. St. Paul asked the Lord three times to remove a thorn from his flesh, an allusion to some sort of spiritual trial (2 Cor. 12:7). Despite the Apostles devotion and long perseverance in prayer, God would not remove the thorn. Instead, the Lord answered Paul by explaining that His power was brought to perfection in our weakness. St. Paul wanted God to deliver him from difficulty by making it magically go away. He wanted a fairytale - but instead the Lord was leading him on an epic journey. What he did not fully grasp was the deeper things God desires to address when we present Him our concerns. He learned that the most powerful way God works is not despite but through our weaknesses. It seems that to accomplish the great wonders He yearns for us to know, the Lord does not need our clever solutions, only our faithfulness in prayer. St. Paul's mentality toward prayer displays the transforming encounter that took place in his conversation with God. And because he did not succumb to disappointment, he is a powerful witness to the remarkable ways God works in the world. Rather than boast of his apostolic and spiritual achievements, St. Paul loved to boast about his weakness and helplessness so as to affirm that all things are possible with God who strengthens us. What St. Paul is teaching us is that the providence of God is more manifest when we have been brought past the brink of our own limited resourcefulness. The marvels of God begin at the breaking point where the natural capacity to cope has been completely exhausted. This always takes us beyond our expectations. In fact, as long as when try to limit God to the narrow scope of our expectations, we have little occasion to be filled with wonder over His surpassing greatness. God loves to surpass all expectation because His love is unsurpassable. For our part, radical openness to God and humility before the astonishing ways He chooses to answer our prayers allows us to give Him all the glory. When all the glory goes to the Lord, we find even deeper and better reasons for gratitude than we would have had had our prayers been answered the way we thought they should. Those who seek God in intercessory prayer open themselves to this very same mystery - it is a mystery that provides us the opportunity to more radically avail ourselves to the hidden power by which God makes all things work for the good of those who love Him.

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