Why does God usually not answer prayers for deliverance in direct, miraculous ways? Indeed why does he almost never do so? Does it mean he does not love us, that he is not concerned with us? These are difficult questions, but here are ten points I would say in response to these questions. They are born from reflecting upon my own experience with suffering and prayer, and I wrote them out recently in an email to a dear friend.
1. The greatest gifts God can give a creature are a) the opportunity to freely become like God in character, b) the opportunity to create a real relationship of mutual love with God, and c) the confidence that one’s relationship of love with God is real and not something like a patron-client relationship where the client just serves the patron because of what the patron can do for the client or give to the client.
2. God permits us to suffer in many cases because suffering can lead to the attainment of these greater good gifts, even greatest good gifts. It also produces the greater good for God himself of knowing that our love for him is real, that we don’t just love him like a genie in a bottle.
3. God usually, even almost always, does not answer prayers for deliverance from distress in direct, miraculous ways. Rather, he usually, even almost always, seeks to answer them indirectly through the free help of other human beings, especially his servants (i.e. those who love and serve God). I say “seeks” because he inspires but does not coerce his servants to freely help.
4. God usually, even almost always, answers prayers for deliverance in this indirect way because of “1” above, i.e. because he is intent upon giving to us those greatest good gifts enumerated in “1”; and answering prayers for deliverance in this indirect way leads to the attainment of these greatest good gifts not only by the person praying but by those who work with God, or under the inspiration and leading of God, to bring aid to the person praying for deliverance.
5. In light of all this, it is no wonder that the typical experience of even the most faithful servants of God has been that God has permitted them to endure much suffering and not answered their prayers for deliverance from distress in direct, miraculous ways. This was the experience of even Jesus in Gethsemane, for example.
6. In light of all this, we ought to offer all manner of prayers to God, including prayers for deliverance from distress, but we ought not to expect God to answer in direct, miraculous ways. Rather, we ought to pray for and expect God to answer indirectly through the God-inspired, but free, help of others.
7. In light of all this, we ought not to doubt God’s love and concern for us when he does not answer our prayers, even our cries for deliverance from distress, in direct, miraculous ways. Rather, we should recognize it is because God loves us and wants to give us the greatest gifts he can that he works in this way.
8. We do not doubt that God loved Jesus even though God did not deliver Jesus from undergoing crucifixion when Jesus prayed so hard for it that he even sweat blood. Therefore, we ought not to doubt that God loves us when he does not answer our prayers for deliverance from distress in direct, miraculous ways.
9. Indeed, the example of Jesus and the crucifixion shows that God sometimes does not even seek to deliver us at all, that is, he does not even seek to deliver us indirectly through the God-inspired, free help of others. For God may be intent upon giving to us or to others through us, through our suffering, a greater, even greatest good, gift. This was true in the case of Jesus, of course. God did not seek to deliver him even indirectly because God was seeking a greater good gift through the suffering, through the crucifixion, for both Jesus and others, even us.
10. In light of all of these things, we ought to try (though it may be hard in many cases I know) to pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane, namely, to pray for deliverance but with the caveats, “Father, if it is your will . . .” and “But Father, not my will, but your will.” In other words, in all our prayers we ought to freely ask God for anything, even deliverance from distress, but we ought to condition our requests upon his will, knowing that God may have greater good gifts in mind for us and others through permitting our suffering or at least not delivering us from our suffering in a direct, miraculous manner but rather seeking to do so indirectly by inspiring others to freely work with God to help us.