Praying is an act of faith. Sometimes it feels dangerous, leaving us vulnerable. We can fear that we won’t get what we ask for, that we’re praying wrongly, or that God is not listening. Sometimes unanswered prayers can lead people to wonder if there really is a God.
Most of us have struggled in at least one of those ways, like praying for the health or salvation of a loved one but seeing no change. For some, this can lead to a faith crisis. Others may give up on prayer altogether. I recently experienced such a crisis.
A couple of years ago I was convicted that I needed to love my enemy: my neighbor, Bolat,* a man marked by anger, meanness, and hostility. God led me to love him specifically by praying regularly for him. I knew I had an obligation to spend time on my knees lifting up a man who seemed to only wish bad things for me. It’s been difficult, but God has used that process to change my heart toward Bolat over the last couple of years.
Unexpected Answer to Prayer
When the weather is warm, I get up early to walk or bike through our neighborhood. I use that time for focused prayer. I meditate on Scripture. I pray for the nations. I pray for believers and unbelievers in my life. And I pray for my enemies, especially for my next-door neighbor, Bolat.
Over the course of a year, I prayed for Bolat more than any other individual I knew. I prayed for his salvation. I prayed for him to know joy. I prayed for opportunities to share the gospel with him. I prayed for his family, his health, and his job. And as I prayed for him, I found my heart softening toward him.
Remarkably, prayer was the avenue through which God enabled me to follow Jesus’s command to love my enemies. And yet nothing changed outwardly in our relationship. Bolat’s door remained closed. If he saw me coming, he went inside. If I rang the doorbell, no one answered.
“Prayer was the avenue through which God enabled me to follow Jesus’s command to love my enemies.”
Then last summer, my family was traveling when I received word that someone had died at my neighbor’s house. We returned home a few days later to find a crowd of mourners gathered in the courtyard of the house. Bolat had died of a stroke.
I was devastated. I was angry at God and at myself. Had I been praying in vain? The prophet Ezekiel wrote, “Suppose the watchman sees the sword coming but doesn’t blow the trumpet, so that the people aren’t warned, and the sword comes and takes away their lives . . . I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood” (Ezekiel 33:6 CSB). I wondered if I was the watchman in this passage. How could Bolat die before I had the chance to tell him that hope, joy, and forgiveness are found in Christ alone?
Several months have passed since then, giving me lots of time to think about these questions. Here are some of the things I’m learning.
“The fact is, all of our days are numbered. We must live in that reality, looking for every opportunity to point men and women to Jesus.”
- Prayer must be desperate.
All too often I flit from one thing to another in my prayers, not realizing the urgency of the day. The last time I prayed for Bolat, I didn’t realize that I would never see him again. I wonder how it would have changed my prayers had I known.
- My life must be marked by a similar sense of urgency.
I did pursue Bolat over the course of the months that I was praying for him. But I didn’t pursue him as if his days were numbered. The fact is, all of our days are numbered. We must live in that reality, looking for every opportunity to point men and women to Jesus.
- God is both merciful and just.
It is difficult to sort out how these two qualities coexist. Paul wrote in Romans 11:22, “Consider God’s kindness and severity” (CSB). While I was praying for Bolat, I was also praying for our team, which was facing strong opposition from unknown individuals who wanted to harm us and our Christian friends. We often found ourselves praying imprecatory Psalms (e.g. Psalms 5 and 10). We never knew the names of these men, but I wondered if Bolat, who was so hateful toward us, might have been involved.It’s odd. In one prayer I was asking for God to be merciful to him, but in the next I was praying, “Rise up, Lord! Confront him; bring him down. With your sword, save me from the wicked” (Ps. 17:13 CSB). I don’t know if Bolat was involved, but I do know that God is just and righteous and Bolat was, by his very nature, opposed to God. God is actively at work in this world—defending his church and opposing the wicked. While Bolat’s death was heartbreaking for me, it also gives me great hope to know that God does not sit idly by while the wicked prosper.
- God is good and trustworthy.
When I pray, I know that God is working in ways that I cannot see. Romans 9:18 says, “He has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.” This is one of the most challenging verses in all of Scripture, but at its root is an acknowledgment that God is sovereign and that his choices are right. God is the great designer of history. Although we may not understand what he is doing, we are called to trust him and know that he is working in ways we cannot see to bring glory to Jesus among the nations.
Jonathan Alexander is a church planter and strategy leader in Central Asia. He and his wife have served with the IMB for twenty years.