When Prayers Go Unanswered
In fall 2021, I was bombarding heaven with prayers for my daughter, who was starting her senior year of high school. She had received a scholarship to play basketball at an elite high school, but she had spent most of her sophomore year sidelined with shin-splints and her junior year sitting on the sidelines with a sprained MCL. For two years, there had been a lot of doctor appointments, a lot of my daughter’s tears shed, and a lot of time watching the games and waiting. My daughter’s hope was to play basketball in college, but that was dependent on her having a strong senior year of play.
So, going into her last year of high school, I was doing everything I could spiritually—saying prayers, mailing petitions to shrines, offering Mass intentions—in hopes that my daughter could finally stay injury-free and enjoy her last year of high school basketball and go on to play in college.
In November, she started complaining of serious foot pain and swelling. Every time she walked, her foot throbbed. Though an x-ray initially did not detect an injury, a subsequent MRI showed she had a stress fracture that would require her to sit out for at least a month. My daughter, husband, and I were all crushed with the prognosis. It was incredibly hard to watch her want something so badly just for it to keep slipping out of her reach. Basketball was her passion—she had spent years training, practicing, and being a part of a team. Now, due to circumstances out of her control, she was unable to do what she loved. . . again.
As for me, I especially felt angry that all my prayers had gone unanswered. How hard would it really be for God to have just let her fully participate in one season? All the promises in the New Testament that God answers prayers if people just have enough faith rang hollow.
Despite our disappointment that my daughter missed a large part of preseason, she was able to start playing when the regular season of her senior year started. I was thankful to God that she had recovered from the stress fracture, and resumed my prayers, pleading with heaven to just let her stay healthy the rest of the season.
For a few games, my daughter started on her team and played some of the best basketball I had ever seen her play. But then in February, she was practicing and heard her knee pop. It swelled slightly and she had to sit out for almost two weeks for more doctors’ appointments and another MRI. It turned out that the injury wasn’t serious, but the crucial time she had spent away derailed her season and playing time. She lost her starting spot and barely played the last two games of the season.
My daughter’s hopes and dreams since middle school vanished before her eyes. The disappointments of her high school seasons meant she’d have a very slim chance of playing in college. It broke my heart, and I suffered with her through her bitter disappointment.
In March, I tweeted: “Prayers go unanswered. Miracles don’t always happen. God can be silent. Lent is a season when we acknowledge all of those truths but also remember that in spite of the desert times, Easter still comes.” My faith had been tested beyond measure. To pray so hard for something that didn’t come to pass—my daughter to stay well and be able to play—felt insurmountable. Faith is believing that God can answer prayers and work miracles, while also understanding God doesn’t always choose to do either.
Looking for consolation, I turned to a familiar story in the Book of Daniel. Three Hebrew boys, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, refuse to bow down to King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden statue and are threatened with being thrown into a fiery furnace because of their disobedience.1 The boys tell the king:
“If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18).
The boys are thrown into the fire, but they are miraculously untouched and come out alive. That’s the faith that I needed and wanted to model for my daughter and three sons: the “but if not” faith that would help me believe in God’s goodness in the face of disappointment. The faith that says even when we suffer, God is still on his throne. We serve a God that does not turn his face to us in our hardship, but rather weeps with us.
Heartened by God’s promise in Daniel, but still struggling to make sense of God’s silence in the face of my petitions, I turned to Twitter. I asked what people would say to someone who felt God wasn’t answering their prayers, and I heard the same refrain from a number of people. God has three answers to prayers: yes, not right now, and I have something better for you. Those answers gave me hope. It reminded me of the prophet Isaiah saying, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). I didn’t know what God’s plans were for my daughter, but my faith led me to believe they were good plans.
A month after the basketball season ended, my daughter received an acceptance letter to the local Jesuit university and a very generous academic scholarship offer. She had applied to the school as a last-minute backup plan, hoping to play basketball at a college anywhere but fifteen minutes away from our house. But the offer turned out too good to turn down, and she started her freshman year in the fall of 2022. Though she is still disappointed about not playing basketball in college, her college is a true blessing. With her history of injuries, I felt very thankful she could attend a good university and not have to always worry about whether another one would once again sideline her dreams.
As a mother, it was painful to see my daughter suffer, and I wanted nothing more than for her to be healthy and happy. And the reality is that, for reasons only God knows, my daughter’s path to health and happiness did not include basketball. However, I’ve learned that it’s not my job to play God and control the outcomes of my children’s futures. I do not have the power to keep them from suffering or experiencing disappointments. It’s my job to walk with them through whatever may come and keep my faith in the process.
- The use of the Judean names (Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah) rather than the Babylonian names given in exile (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego) is intentional. Check out this article from the Journal of Ancient Judaism to learn more.
Alessandra Harris is a writer, author, wife, and mother of four. She earned degrees in comparative religious studies and Middle East studies. Her fourth book, In the Shadow of Freedom: An Enduring Call for Racial Justice, is forthcoming from Orbis Books in spring 2024.
This week’s sponsor of Mothering Spirit is Ellie Roscher, author of Remarkable Rose and The Embodied Path. Remarkable Rose is a picture book that tells the true and inspiring story of a girl who was determined to play soccer in Kibera when girls weren’t yet allowed to play. The Embodied Path explores how claiming and sharing our body stories can lead to deeper embodiment, healing, and wholeness. Ellie is a former athlete and coach, a mother of young athletes, and a woman who believes our bodies are a gift from God who writes stories about the wisdom and power of our bodies. Visit ellieroscher.com for more on Ellie’s work!