Unanswered prayer. Unfulfilled promises. Unpunished evil.
I signed a book contract with Bold Vision Books to write a book based on the psalms of Asaph, King David’s director of music. He watched the glorious rise Israel and the building of the magnificent Temple as well as the moral collapse and complete destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In his psalms, he struggles with unanswered prayer, unfulfilled promises, and unpunished evil. Here’s a sneak preview. (Please keep in mind, this is a rough draft and not edited. And if you have a comment or question, feel free to email me.)
I. Unanswered Prayer
1. Is Unanswered Prayer God’s Fault?
2. Is Unanswered Prayer Someone Else’s Fault?
3. Is Unanswered Prayer My Fault?
II. Unfulfilled Promises
4. Are God’s “Promises” Really Promises?
5. Are the Promises Conditional?
6. Are the Promises To Be Fulfilled in the Future?
III. Unpunished Evil
7. Is God Responsible for Evil?
8. Why Doesn’t God Seem to Prevent Evil?
9. Why Is God Slow in Bringing Judgment?
10. Life is hard
11. God is good
12. There is a purpose
to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet were almost gone.
My steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant,
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
Surely in vain I have cleansed my heart,
and washed my hands in innocence,
For all day long have I been plagued,
and punished every morning.
Asaph, Psalm 73
I love the raw honesty of Aspah, the musical director for Kings David and Solomon. Have you ever felt your feet slipping as you questioned unanswered prayer, unfulfilled promises, and unpunished evil? If so, you and I are in good company! As we’ll learn, Asaph watched the glorious rise of Israel and its shameful decline. His psalms chronicle poetically—and honestly—his own dark doubts, crippling confusion, and constant questions.
I can recall three incidents—in a lifetime of baffling events—that deeply shook—and are currently shaking—my faith.
“And God, we’re trusting you to heal Dan this morning.” Fifty people from the church my wife and I attend gathered around the sixty-something man who had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer. The pastor had quoted James 5:14-15a:
Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well.
The three hundred parishioners present had agreed with hearty amens. As Dan was about to be anointed, Pastor Mark quietly asked him, “Dan, you know things don’t look good. Do you know where you’ll spend eternity?” After some hushed conversation back and forth, Dan accepted Christ, he was anointed, and the congregation promised to continue praying.
A few days later, the church’s Facebook page posted the good news: Dan had accepted Christ as his Savior and a scan revealed that Dan was cancer free! He was a personable soul who enjoyed sharing his newfound faith along with his wonder and amazement that the cancer was completely gone. Great rejoicing filled the church.
I too rejoiced, thinking, Finally, an answer to a prayer for cancer healing after watching so many of my friends die—despite the anointings and prayers! And what a great faith-builder for the many brand new Christians at the growing church. Thank you! Thank you, Jesus!
But just days after the great news, another Facebook post shared devastating news: The test was misread. Dan did indeed have a large mass on his pancreas and would need immediate surgery.
I nearly shouted at God. “This is such a cruel trick. We’re praising you for a miracle—and it’s all just a medical reporting error! This is going to destroy the fragile faith of new believers!”
Again, we gathered around Dan and prayed for a healing—either supernatural or medical. And once again, Facebook kept the congregation informed as the twelve-hour surgery dragged on throughout the day and prayers were sent heavenward for Dan.
URGENT PRAYER REQUEST: 6 pm While removing the cancerous mass from Dan’s abdomen, an artery was torn and a vascular surgeon has been called in for emergency repair. Thanks for your immediate prayers.
URGENT PRAYER REQUEST: 8 pm Dan is VERY critical. Pastor Mark returned to Indy and just had prayer over him asking that “God’s Spirit would breathe life into Dan either on this side or the other side of the Jordan.” Thanks for your prayers.
TRAGIC NEWS. TRIUMPHANT NEWS REGARDING DAN: 8:25 pm Dan died this evening around 8:25 after complications following today’s surgery for pancreatic cancer. He had recently accepted Christ as his Savior during prayer for his battle with pancreatic cancer, and is now cancer-free and safely Home.
The up-and-down roller coaster ride—Dan’s healing and salvation, the news of healing then misread test, surgery which had been going well and then his sudden death—went off the rails. And questions of why crashed upon the congregation. Why had Dan died after he and the church had followed the biblical principles and believed with faith that he would be spared the prognosis of death?! What kind of God toys with his children’s emotions?!
In the year 2000, I was hired by a Christian Internet company to serve as a writer and editor. I was paid an ungodly amount for my work, but praised him for the wonderful opportunity to support missions work. Since my wife, as a pastor, had a parsonage, car, insurance and salary provided, we lived on her income and benefits while I gave away most of my salary to missions work. I had been taught from Malachi 3:
Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test!” (3:10).
It was such a joy to be able to give generously as I was given generously.
But then the dot.com bubble burst, my wife lost her job, and we found ourselves needing a loan—for the exact amount of what we “overpaid” on our tithe. I was stunned. I had been taught, “You can’t out give God” and yet it seemed we had—down to the last penny.
What about the promise, “Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back” (Luke 6:38)?!
God, you’ve failed the test!
As a freelance journalist, I was asked by World Hope to report on their work. I have been a vocal supporter of this wonderful organization dedicated to resourcing those in need. I was given the choice of reporting on their work against child sex trafficking in Cambodia or their work with those infected and affected with HIV/AIDS in Zambia.
There was no real choice. I knew that I would see the faces of my two adult children and five grandchildren in the faces of those bought and sold for sexual exploitation. Of the nearly twenty-one million victims of human trafficking, two million are children. Each year between six-hundred- and eight-hundred-thousand victims are bought and sold.
As I explored the organization’s website detailing there work, I became more and more angry at the men—many wealthy Americans—who fulfilled their perverted urges on girls as young as four years old. But I found myself even angrier at God. How can you allow such evil to be inflicted on the most innocent and vulnerable of his creation?! Why don’t you smote these perverted predators?
So, I chose to report on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Zambia. And while I didn’t “see” my children and grandchildren in the faces of those affected by this deadly disease, I did meet a frail woman who was raising her four children, ages six, nine, fourteen, and sixteen living in an eight-by-twelve-foot mud hut with black plastic patching holes in the roof. Her husband had contract AIDS from a prostitute and had in turn infected his wife. When he learned she was HIV positive, he self-righteously left her. Again, the anger at the injustice.
And now, every morning, I am bombarded by the latest atrocities of radical Islamic terrorists bombing, beheading, torturing, raping, mutilating and burning alive innocent victims—both Christian and Islamic. My constant cry is “Jesus, come back and restore justice to this world! Why are you waiting so long!”
You have your own stories
I’m sure you have your own stories. But before we dive into these deep questions, let me warn you right up front, this is not your typical “Christian” book! (If you’ve read any of my previous books, you already know I’m not your typical author.)
I’ve served as an editor for religious publishing houses since my sophomore year in college and have had twenty books and over two thousand articles published by major publishing houses. However, I’m not sure that books are God’s ideal vehicle for growing in a relationship with him and dealing with the tough questions serving a “loving” God. The apostle John writes:
I am writing these things to warn you about those who want to lead you astray. But you have received the Holy Spirit, and he lives within you, so you don’t need anyone to teach you what is true. For the Spirit teaches you everything you need to know, and what he teaches is true—it is not a lie. So just as he has taught you, remain in fellowship with Christ (1 John 2:26-27 NLT).
I know this is going to sound heretical coming from an author/editor with a degree in theology who has taught writing at a Christian university. But, seems the ideal mode of discipleship is for Spirit-filled believers to study God’s Word for themselves and then process what they learn in small groups for accountability and loving correction when they stray from the path.
And so, I’m going to go against most publishing committees’ mandate to keep Bible references to a minimum in Christian books. In fact, I’m going to fill this book with scripture passage to provide guidance as you and I deal with these three big questions. I agree with the apostle Paul that . . .
Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).
I pray that as I write and as you read, the Holy Spirit will teach both us what is profitable and instructive as we look at unanswered prayer, unfulfilled promises, and unpunished evil. Let’s humbly explore God’s Word together. Jesus noted about his own teaching: “My message is not my own; it comes from God” (John 7:16). God’s Word is much more powerful than my weak words. So, may we diligently and properly handle “the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).
And please keep in mind, as we look at the psalms of Asaph, we’ll be looking for clues—not necessarily answers. In fact, the good news of the Bible is described as a mystery:
- As you don’t know what is the way of the wind,
nor how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child;
even so you don’t know the work of God who does all (Ecclesiastes 11:5).
The apostle Paul refers to the workings of God as a “mystery” five times in his letters (Romans 11:25; 1 Corinthians 2:7; Ephesians 5:32; 1 Timothy 3:9, 16). I’ve described trying to comprehend God’s mysterious ways as trying to teach algebra to algae.
You are not alone!
If the psalms of Asaph teach us anything, it is to be free to God and feel discouraged, despondent, depressed and even disturbed with the way he is apparently running his creation. So, be comforted that you’re in good company! Asaph writes:
Surely in vain I have cleansed my heart,
and washed my hands in innocence,
For all day long have I been plagued,
and punished every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus”;
behold, I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
When I tried to understand this,
it was too painful for me (Psalm 73:13-16).
God, why have you rejected us forever?
Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture? (Psalm 74:1).
My cry goes to God!
Indeed, I cry to God for help,
and for him to listen to me.
In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord.
My hand was stretched out in the night, and didn’t get tired.
My soul refused to be comforted.
I remember God, and I groan.
I complain, and my spirit is overwhelmed (77:1-3).
“Will the Lord reject us forever?
Will he be favorable no more?
Has his loving kindness vanished forever?
Does his promise fail for generations?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he, in anger, withheld his compassion?” (Psalm 77:7-9).
Yahweh God of Armies,
How long will you be angry against the prayer of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
and given them tears to drink in large measure.
You make us a source of contention to our neighbors.
Our enemies laugh among themselves (80:4-6).
Can you relate with any of Asaph’s questions? Again, you not alone as a full one-third of the psalms are described as “laments.” And no one laments better than the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote an entire book called Lamentations:
I am the man that has seen affliction by the rod of [God’s] wrath.
He has led me and caused me to walk in darkness, and not in light.
Surely against me he turns his hand again and again all the day.
My flesh and my skin has he made old; he has broken my bones.
He is to me as a bear lying in wait, as a lion in secret places.
He has turned aside my ways, and pulled me in pieces; he has made me desolate.
He has bent his bow, and set me as a mark for the arrow.
He has caused the shafts of his quiver to enter into my kidneys.
I am become a derision to all my people, and their song all the day (Lamentations 3:1-4, 10-14).
The questions continue into the New Testament. John the Baptist, according to Jesus, was the greatest human who ever lived: “I tell you the truth, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). He was filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth, lived a holy life, and baptized the Son of God.
John testified, saying, “I have seen the Spirit descending like a dove out of heaven, and it remained on him. I didn’t recognize him, but he who sent me to baptize in water, he said to me, ‘On whomever you will see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (John 1:32-34).
After his baptism, as Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and settling on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy” (Matthew 3:17).
And yet when John the Baptist was thrown into prison for preaching against King Herod’s affair with his sister-in-law, Herodias, whom he had then married, the baptizer doubted everything he has seen, heard and himself had taught! John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3, Luke 7:20).
More recently, William Cowper (pronounced Cooper) was a great hymn-writer of the eighteenth century. In “God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” he writes:
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy and shall break
In blessings on your head.
And yet, Cowper attempted suicide numerous times before and after becoming a Christian. In a letter to John Newton in 1784, he wrote:
Loaded as my life is with despair, I have no such comfort as would result in the supposed probability of better things to come, were it once ended. . . . You will tell me that this cold gloom will be succeeded by a cheerful spring, and endeavor to encourage me to hope for a spiritual change resembling it—but it will be lost labour. Nature revives again, but a soul once slain lives no more. . . .
Upon the death of his beloved wife, one of the greatest Christian writers of modern times, C. S. Lewis, wrote:
Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. . . . But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.
Best-selling author, Cec Murphey, writes:
I wish places of worship would provide a screaming room. Sometimes I need a place to scream at life and yell at its unfairness. It has to be a private place where I can roar at the top of my lungs, “I hate this!” “Life is a garbage pit!”
But our place of worship can’t provide screaming rooms. After all, we’re the good people, the religious people, those who meekly accept life as it comes and start every week with praise on our lips and joy in our hearts. Sometimes that truly is the way I feel.
[So I would] got inside my Honda Accord, rolled up the windows, and drove down the street. I yelled. I bellowed. They were the loudest sounds I could make. A few times I shook my fist. Usually it took only three or four minutes to finish my emotional outburst. Sometimes I verbalized my anger at the injustices in my life. One time I yelled at God for failing me. (I had to believe in God in order to get mad and confront the Creator.) Most of the time, I let out what some have called the primal scream—a total release of tension and emotion. Each time, I felt better.
Yes, I wish places of worship would provide a screaming room.
And finally, Jesus Christ, God-in-flesh:
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and severely troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here, and watch with me.” (Matthew 26:36-38, also Mark 14:34).
Being in agony he prayed more earnestly. His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground (Luke 22:44).
About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?” That is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, also Mark 15:34).
I trust you can breathe a sigh of relief and realize I have not lost my faith in my questions. I am not alone struggling with these questions that have tormented some of the greatest and godliest believers throughout history. Jesus understands!
[The Son of God] was despised,
and rejected by men;
a man of suffering,
and acquainted with disease.
He was despised as one from whom men hide their face;
and we didn’t respect him (Isaiah 53:3).
For now, this may be as far as you wish to read in this book. You may be emotionally and mentally not ready to search for answers. You may be completely exhausted from the struggle and don’t have the strength to wrestle with the questions. That’s okay! Just realize that the One who cried out, “My God! My God, why have you forsaken me?” holds you in his arms of love, comfort, and understanding.
And if you continue on at this time, realize that this book—or any other book that addresses these questions honestly—has all the answers. But I do pray this book provides enough evidence, an adequate amount of answers, and most of all encouragement as you personally struggle with Asaph’s—and your and my—three questions.
for I will remember your wonders of old.
I will also meditate on all your work,
and consider your doings.
Your way, God, is in the sanctuary.
What god is great like God?
You are the God who does wonders.
You have made your strength known among the peoples.
You have redeemed your people with your arm.
Asaph, Psalm 77
Three Questions: Unanswered Prayer, Unfulfilled Promises, Unpunished Evil should be out in time for the Christmas shopping season 2017!