I sense a partial clue into the mystery of unanswered prayer in what I call boomerang prayers. Often when we pray, we want God to intervene in spectacular fashion: to heal miraculously, to change evil hearts, to quash injustice. More commonly, God works through us. Like a boomerang, the prayers we toss at God come swishing back toward us, testing our response.
I think back to Jesus' unanswered prayers. The disciples? Eventually, except for Judas, the twelve submitted to a slow but steady transformation, providing a kind of long-term answer to Jesus' petition. John, a Son of Thunder, softened into "the apostle of Love." Peter, who earned Jesus' rebuke by recoiling from the idea of Messiah suffering, later urged his followers to "follow in his steps" by suffering as Christ did.
In Gethsemane, Jesus did not receive what he requested, removal of the cup of suffering. His plea for intervention looped back like a boomerang. Hebrews affirms that, though Jesus was not saved from death, nevertheless "he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered." It was God's will that Jesus had come to do, after all, and his plea resolved into these words: "Yet not what I will, but what you will." Not many hours later he would cry out, in profound summation, "It is finished."
How many times have I prayed for one thing only to receive another? I long for the sense of detachment, of trust, that I see in Gethsemane. God and God alone is qualified to answer my prayers, even if it means transmuting them from my own self-protective will into God's perfect will. When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; he got instead the salvation of the world.
The final two prayers, for unity and for seeing God's will done on earth as it is in heaven, put Jesus' followers in the spotlight. "It is for your good that I am going away," Jesus assured the disciples. "As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." He turned over the mission to us, as ill-equipped and undependable as that original band of twelve.
In Vanishing Grace I wrote about hearing the musician Bono of the band U2 describe his short-term mission to an orphanage in Ethiopia. For a month he and his wife Ali held babies, helped nurse them back to health, and then donated money to equip the orphanage. Bono said that after his return to Ireland his prayers changed, taking on an angry, defiant tone. "God, don't you care about those children in Africa? They did nothing wrong and yet because of AIDS there may soon be fifteen million parentless babies on that continent. Don't you care?!"
Gradually Bono heard in reply that, yes, God cares. Where did he think his idea of a mission trip to Africa came from? The questions he had hurled at God came sailing back to him, boomerang-like, as a prod to action. Get moving. Do something. The role of leading a global campaign against AIDS held little appeal for Bono at first—"I'm a rock star, not a social worker!"—but eventually he could not ignore what felt unmistakably like a calling.
Over the next years politicians as varied as President Bill Clinton and Senator Strom Thurmond, and then Tony Blair and Kofi Annan and George W. Bush, found a musician dressed all in black and wearing his signature sunglasses camped outside their offices waiting to see them. In a time of economic cutbacks, somehow Bono managed to persuade those leaders to ante up fifteen billion dollars to combat AIDS.
With government support assured, Bono went on a bus tour of the United States, speaking to large churches and Christian colleges because he believed that Christians were key to addressing the global problem of AIDS. He invited others to participate in what God wanted accomplished in the world, and many did.
My understanding of prayer has changed. I now see it less as trying to convince God to do what I want done and more as a way of discerning what God wants done in the world, and how I can be a part of it. Mystery endures, but a different kind of mystery: What tiny role can I play in answering Jesus' prayer for unity, and in doing God's will on earth as it is in heaven? The boomerang circles back.
Philip Yancey is the author of many books, including Soul Survivor: How Thirteen Unlikely Mentors Helped My Faith Survive the Church. This essay was posted on his blog site on October 18, 2015.