You’ve had it happen to you, I’m sure. You call the auto dealer and ask for the service department. “Can you hold?” the cheerful voice says. In a few seconds the “elevator music” starts. Every so often a recording assures you that your call will be answered. You wait and wait, imagining that an inane conversation about last night’s ball game or some television program is keeping you in limbo. After a while you’re ready to hang up. It would take less time to get in the car and drive over to the place!
Sometimes it seems that God has put us on hold. He may be doing some great things in our lives, but our deepest, most cherished request is not being granted. We know He’s still there, but He is simply not responding.
Hannah of the Old Testament knew what it was like to feel rejected by God (1 Sam. 1:1-18). She was one of two women married to a man named Elkanah. Peninnah, the other wife, had borne him children, but Hannah was barren in a day when childlessness was considered a sign of God’s displeasure. To make matters worse, Peninnah took cruel delight in mocking Hannah’s barrenness whenever the family made their annual trip to the house of God to offer a sacrifice.
Hannah’s distress lasted for years even though she was a devout and faithful woman. She prayed and prayed. Yet God didn’t answer. On one trip to the house of God she wept so hard and was so beside herself that the presiding priest accused her of being drunk.
But that is not the end of Hannah’s story. In God’s time, and at just the right time, God gave Hannah a son. She became the mother of Samuel (vv.19-20), who in time would become a priest and prophet who would change the course of history.
In God’s time, Hannah’s sense of spiritual rejection was changed to joy. In an overwhelming song of praise to God, Hannah showed that her deepest longing was not for a son but to know that she was accepted and approved by God (2:1-10). In time, Hannah’s bitterness was turned to joy. For every generation to come, her experience would show that what counts is not whether God immediately answers our prayers. The issue is whether we are humbly waiting on His wisdom and timing.
When Hannah’s experience is combined with the rest of Scripture, we begin to see some of the many reasons for deferring not to our emotions but to the wisdom of God.
Confidence In God’s Perspective. Our perspective is like looking through a pinhole. We can’t see the whole picture. If we could, we would see that what we long for may not be good for us or for those we love. How many times I have been thankful that God has not given me everything I’ve asked Him for. How much better off I would have been if I had tempered my prayers with the awareness that it is only when we get to heaven that we will see the whole picture. Then we “shall know just as [we] also [are] known” (1 Cor. 13:12). P. T. Forsythe wrote, “We shall come one day to a heaven when we shall gratefully see that God’s great refusals were sometimes the truest answers to our prayers.”
Confidence In God’s Wisdom. God knows our deepest need. A single mother prayed for $2,000 to bring her financial relief. God denied the request as she expressed it. Instead of giving her the money, God gave her a job that she could handle. Then He gave her a friend who helped her to learn to manage her finances. In time she was able to look back and see that God did answer her request, but in a way that reflected His wisdom. The best part is that she grew in her trust in God.
Confidence In God’s Timing. The house sells later than we wanted or the baby arrives 2 weeks sooner than we expected. God’s timing is always best because of His ability to orchestrate the circumstances of our lives.
Confidence In God’s Goodness. We may have prayed a long time for our wife or husband to treat us with more respect, but that does not happen until God leads us to stop downgrading our spouse in public.
The answer may not come because we are refusing to forgive someone, or we are controlled by an obsession, or we are seething in such anger that our holiness is corrupted. Or we “ask amiss” so that we can indulge some base desire (Jas. 4:3). We need to do the work of examination, confession, and repentance before our prayer is answered.
Oswald Chambers understood that waiting is part of prayer. About the verse, “Men always ought to pray and not lose heart” (Lk. 18:1), he wrote, “Jesus taught His disciples the prayer of patience. If you are right with God and God delays the answer to your prayer, don’t misjudge Him. Don’t think of Him as an unkind friend, or an unnatural father, or an unjust judge, but keep at it. Your prayer will certainly be answered, for ‘everyone who asks receives.’ Pray and do not cave in. Your heavenly Father will explain it all one day. He cannot just yet because He is developing your character. ‘Forget the character,’ you say. ‘I want Him to grant my request.’ And He says, ‘What I am doing far exceeds what you can see or know. Trust Me.’ ”
The psalmist Asaph learned to overcome such disillusionment when he was reminded of the wider perspective of God. In Psalm 73 he said:
Truly God is good to Israel, to such as are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the boastful, when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For there are no pangs in their death, but their strength is firm. They are not in trouble as other men . . . . Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued, and chastened every morning. If I had said, “I will speak thus,” behold, I would have been untrue to the generation of Your children. When I thought how to understand this, it was too painful for me—until I went into the sanctuary of God; then I understood their end. Surely You set them in slippery places; You cast them down to destruction. Oh, how they are brought to desolation, as in a moment! They are utterly consumed with terrors. As a dream when one awakes, so, Lord, when You awake, You shall despise their image. Thus my heart was grieved, and I was vexed in my mind. I was so foolish and ignorant; I was like a beast before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me with Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You. My flesh and my heart fail; but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Ps. 73:1-5,13-26).