Few attitudes are more disheartening and destructive to faith than the notion that God doesn't hear our prayers, doesn't answer or doesn't care. It is easy to come to such conclusions when God doesn't respond when or how we want.
The apostle Paul was a man who could have concluded that God doesn't listen to people. After all, he urgently pleaded with God to intervene for him in a chronic trial. But God refused to grant Paul's request.
Does this mean Paul lacked faith? Of course not. However, there is a deeper lesson for us in Paul's life of living faith.
Paul's grievous trial
Notice Paul's account of this trial: "There was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me" (2 Corinthians:12:7-8, New International Version).
What was this trial, this messenger of Satan, that tormented Paul? Comments in Paul's writings hint it may have been a problem with his eyes.
To Church members in Galatia, Paul wrote: "As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me . . . I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me" (Galatians:4:13-15, NIV). Writing about his illness, Paul said that some of the members there would have given him their own eyes if that could have helped him.
At the end of his letter to the Galatians he writes, "See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!" (Galatians:6:11, NIV).
Perhaps Paul had to write using large letters because that was the only way he could see the words he had written.
Several years later Paul wrote the Corinthians that he had pleaded with God on three occasions to have his "thorn in the flesh" removed. We shouldn't read into this that Paul simply mentioned the problem in prayer to God. The implication is that he fervently asked God to deliver him from the trial, no doubt with fasting and heartfelt prayer (2 Corinthians:11:27). He wanted this hindrance removed so he could continue to spread the gospel effectively and care for the congregations God had raised up through him.
God's answer to Paul
Paul could have concluded that God had not heard his pleas. But this is not the case. God simply gave Paul a different answer: "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians:12:9).
Whether God directly spoke these words to Paul or whether Paul gradually came to this understanding of God's will isn't clear from the Greek wording. What is clear is that Paul came to a deeper spiritual understanding that strengthened his faith and commitment.
Paul came to see that the credit belonged to God the Father and Jesus Christ rather than to himself and that his weakness drew him closer to that source of power and strength. He stated: "I am therefore happy to boast of my weaknesses, because then the power of Christ will rest upon me. So I am content with a life of weakness, insult, hardship, persecution, and distress, all for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (verses 9-10, Revised English Bible).
Paul's experience stands as an important spiritual lesson for us. Sometimes God's answer for us is "no" or "not yet." God never intended our physical bodies to last forever. In this era, He has allotted us a physical existence of about 70 years (Psalm:90:10). He is far more concerned that we develop righteous character and a trusting relationship with Him that can last for eternity. He wants to resurrect us to eternal life in a glorious, immortal spirit body not subject to weakness, illness and death (1 Corinthians:15:40-44, 50-54).
In the meantime, Paul understood that God in His love will never allow us to fall into trials greater than we can endure. "God is faithful," Paul wrote, and He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. "But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians:10:13, NIV). That is, He will give us the help and strength to endure or change circumstances so we will not have to bear the full weight of the trial or all that would happen if it were allowed to run unimpeded.
Submission to God's will
Paul was not the only one who learned that living, trusting, abiding faith is more important than physical health and longevity. Even Jesus, knowing that He faced a cruel death only hours away, prayed, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me" (Matthew:26:39). As any person would not, Jesus did not want to suffer through hours of horrible pain and agony. But He acknowledged a greater purpose for His physical life, concluding, "Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke:22:42).
Jesus Christ, the perfect example of faith, knew the importance of following the Father's will above one's own will.
God knows what is best for us in the long run, even if it may conflict with our short-term wants and desires. As Peter tells us, "[Cast] all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter:5:7).
Paul says we should be "confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Because God works within us from a broader perspective to build faith and character, He doesn't always answer our prayers in the way we desire.
Some were delivered, some not
The Bible's "faith chapter," Hebrews 11, tells us that at times "women received their dead raised to life again," but that "others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword . . .
"And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (verses 35-40).
God does not always answer our prayers to our immediate satisfaction and instantly deliver us from our trials. But He will always do what is best for us.