Habakkuk 1:1-4, 13

Unanswered Prayer

Dr. Mickey Anders


About a month ago, I received an e-mail from a friend named Greg who wrote:

“What happened to Mike Turner, an Presbyterian minister from Idaho, in 1998, surpasses even Job and Paul. I have been unable to identify any divine purpose that could be served by what he endured. Perhaps you, or some other strong brother or sister in my e-mail address book, can find something I can’t. And if you do, please respond to me, because since I first read about this six weeks ago, I haven’t been able to shake the challenge that this presents to my faith.”

Curious, I went to the Backpacker magazine website and learned the incredible, disturbing story about Mike Turner as written by Jeff Rennicke in the June 2002 issue:

For 10 years, Mike Turner had been the pastor at Boone Memorial Presbyterian Church in Caldwell, Idaho. At 6’6″, the 48-year-old Turner loved to hike in the high country out West. So in the summer of 1998, when he wanted to cap off a 3-month sabbatical with something that would challenge both his body and his spirit, he decided to take a 9-day hike in western Wyoming. He wanted to do it solo. Hiking alone would let him travel at his own pace, linger over his photography, and enjoy some quiet retreat time with God. It was to be the trip of a lifetime. In big letters across the top of his itinerary, he called it his “Wander in Wonder.”

On the morning of July 30, 1998, Turner loaded his gear and his dog Andy into his blue Honda Civic. As the hike progressed, he wound his way to Island Lake, and wrote in his journal of its “amazing beauty that fills my soul.” Then on the fourth day, he took a detour to a nameless lake that sits at 11,400 feet in Wyoming’s Fitzpatrick Wilderness, tight up against a ridge known as the Brown Cliffs.

At 1 o’clock in the afternoon on August 2, he stepped onto a large boulder that shifted precariously under his weight. Instinctively, he leapt. The rock ahead was solid but tilted up at an awkward angle. His boots hit, and slid. The boulder behind kept coming, closing the gap. Just as his legs slipped off the edge, the boulders slammed together, catching him above the knees, pinning him as if in the jaws of a trap.

Turner checked himself for injuries. Miraculously, his legs were trapped but not broken. With his bare hands and then using his tripod as a lever, he heaved against the tremendous weight of rocks, trying to pull himself free. At first, the boulder moved enough to ease the pain, though not enough to free him. A flicker of hope rose in him like a flame. He tried again, the tripod nearly snapping under the strain. Nothing.

For more than an hour, he pried and shoved. But caught facing away from the boulder that pinned him, legs dangling in midair, even a big man like Turner could not gain enough leverage to move a piece of granite the size of a small car. The flicker of hope began to fade.

He began to write in his journal: “About 2 hours ago a large rock rolled upon me and trapped my legs. I was very careful, be sure of that, but I hurt… I am in your hands Lord…I don’t know what I face.”

So began an incredible experience that would challenge the faith of Mike Turner and others of us who have learned of his story. I guess Mike Turner’s story grips me because of my own journey’s alone on the Ohio River. He, like me, was a pastor who loved to be out in God’s creation where there is always a risk. And for Mike Turner circumstances turned tragic.

Mike Turner’s intimate journal chronicles the faith journey of a man up against the ultimate realities of life and death. His journal shows his prayers to God for help, his frustration, his anger with God, and his struggle with unanswered prayer.

I chose this story for today’s sermon because it is not unlike the stories of the thousands of people trapped in the World Trade Center Buildings one year ago. This week the world will remember the tragic events of September 11. Millions of people of faith will ask questions all too similar to those of my friend Greg. What about the prayers of the 3,000 people trapped in the World Trade Centers that day? How could so many of them die such tragic and awful deaths? Why weren’t their prayers answered? Why do things like this happen? What sense can we make of it?

Harry Emerson Fosdick dealt with the difficult subject of unanswered prayer in his classic work, The Meaning of Prayer. In the chapter on unanswered prayer, he offers several explanations.

He first points out the impossibility of God answering all our prayers. While baseball players pray for clear weather for their game, the farmer is praying for rain for his crops. The world would be pure chaos if God really did answer all our prayers. In such a situation, humans would run the world instead of God and what a mess that would be.

Other times God answers our prayers in ways that we do not expect and do not like. Just as some prayers are answered with a “Yes;” some are answered with a “No.” Perhaps many of our prayers are merely answered in ways that we do not recognize. Our ways are not God’s ways.

At other times, God expects us to answer our own requests. God will not do for us what we can do for ourselves. We sometimes try to substitute prayer for intelligence and work. No parent would do a child’s homework for them just because they asked. We, like children, need to learn to do some things on our own.


“Thanks for being so helpful to me and my family. Your superb exegetical work did not only give me great insights into the Scripture, it gave me so much freedom to spend time with my family.”

In Mike Turner’s journal, we find him putting his best intelligence and work in the effort to survive his dilemma. “I am concerned about first losing my legs, second running out of snow to melt for water, and fuel, third hypothermia. My biggest concern is water. I have only 2 quarts left. The irony is that the lake is only 30 feet away… I am drinking 1 quart today, saving a quart for tomorrow.”

Emptying his pack, Turner set up a makeshift “camp” around him. He had his stove, sleeping bag, and food for a week or more. Careful not to let anything slip out of reach, he took stock of each piece of gear, pondering how it could be used to free him or signal for help. His camera became a wedge to pry the rock.

At first, Turner melted snow, but the few pockets he could reach soon ran out. Once, he tied a length of cord to the lid of his water bottle and tried tossing it into the lake. It jammed in the rocks just a few feet short.

“I had dreamed of a special time alone with God,” he wrote, “facing the elements, the passes, thinking about my life, the direction of the church, about my family. Indeed this has been all of those things only magnified 100 times. Thoughts about life, God, people, risk, filling my time. When I think about it this way, I believe I will survive, smarter or wiser, more thoughtful, more aware of my limits… I do feel confident in my Christian hope. God will make a way either earthly or heavenly. My only dread is not seeing my family and being present with them in body. That’s what I think about.”

Sometimes our prayers do not seem to be answered because in our impatience we simply do not give God time. We are like little boys who ring doorbells on Halloween and run. In our prayer life, we need to linger long enough for God to answer.

“I feel so foolish taking this longer pass,” Turner wrote on Wednesday. “So lonely, more than I imagined…Who would have guessed that 4 days would have gone by and no one has come this way?”

“God is with me but I am angry with him. Why this terrible injustice, or is it the product of pride? This sense of wrestling against God or the angel of God is distressing. What can I do against God? …I don’t want to be fighting against God’s will. How am I failing him or what does he need me to teach? What is the purpose of this ordeal? Will I ever know, or continue to be puzzled, angered, and feel quite abandoned by the one I serve?”

Mike Turner’s feelings of abandonment are not uncommon to people of faith. Some Christians would counsel us never to admit those feelings of abandonment. They would find a way to twist and turn every tragedy into a Pollyanna event. But the Bible is not afraid to admit that some prayers are not answered. And the writers of the Bible understood exactly what Mike Turner was feeling.

The Psalmist writes, “My God, I cry in the daytime, but you don’t answer; in the night season, and am not silent” (Psalm 22:2).

Job cries out, “I cry to you, and you do not answer me.

I stand up, and you gaze at me” (Job 30:20).

Then there is that wonderful passage in Habakkuk where he asks:

“Yahweh, how long will I cry, and you will not hear? I cry out to you “Violence!” and will you not save? Why do you show me iniquity, and look at perversity? For destruction and violence are before me. There is strife, and contention rises up. Therefore the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth; for the wicked surround the righteous; therefore justice goes forth perverted…. Why do you tolerate those who deal treacherously, and keep silent when the wicked swallows up the man who is more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:1-4, 13).

Mike Turner’s journal continues, “Last evening I was getting my bedding set around my feet, my bedding can’t get down there normally, when I noticed something like a cast on the front of my leg. It was my leg without feeling. I felt like I had to get out and began working from 9 p.m. to 12, slowly levering the rock. Now it is tighter. I cried out and cried out to God who doesn’t seem to care about my suffering, struggling, and pain, and the loss of my left leg. I begged and prayed for some help in moving the rock but none seemed to come.”

Such unanswered prayers can be a tremendous crisis of faith. When confronted with unsatisfactory results from sincere petitions made to God, many people swear off prayer altogether. They gravitate to the meaninglessness of life, the emptiness of faith and the uselessness of prayer.

My friend Greg struggles to find some “greater good” in these tragic events. If only he can find the “greater good” then he can make sense of it all. Personally, I have trouble with the “greater good” kind of theology. I am an Ecclesiastes kind of guy. The preacher in Ecclesiastes 9:11 says, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all.”

Because of the freedom God built into the world, “time and chance happen.” Some things just happen. Other things like the World Trade Center tragedy happen because of the choices of evil people.

When Harry Emerson Fosdick deals with these the most difficult kinds of answered prayers, he finally concludes, “Even when God cannot answer affirmatively the man’s petition he can answer the man… For either he changes the circumstances or he supplies sufficient power to overcome them; he answers either the petition or the man.”

Paul experienced just this kind of puzzling answer to his prayer about his “thorn in the flesh.” He wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10:

“By reason of the exceeding greatness of the revelations, that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me. Therefore I take pleasure in weaknesses, in injuries, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then am I strong.”

As Mike Turner passed a week trapped in the rocks, he wrote, “Shutting down. Getting low. Thought I would be found yesterday… Many thoughts, most of church, future for kids, some friends… I love you Diane, terribly sorry for stupid [unreadable word].”

The Backpacker magazine article described the end this way, “Then as his final hours approached, Turner’s body was shutting down; but it was as though his spirit was opening up. All the questions, all the doubt and anger seemed to dissolve like so much morning mist on that unnamed lake. What remained was the unbreakable bedrock of belief. A boulder could crush his legs; it could not crush his faith.”

Turner wrote, “Fill me with peace, Lord. May the conditions not deny my love for you… I am ready to die, though missing my family. To live is Christ. To die is gain…I will trust in God though he will slay me, yet will I trust him, he is the way, the truth, the light.”

And then, 10 days after he was pinned, Mike Turner’s journal goes silent.

On August 31, Jeff Stewart, a hiker from San Diego, was making his way along the edge of the unnamed lake near the Brown Cliffs. Intent on his footing in the loose rocks, Stewart glanced up and, 50 yards away, saw what appeared to be a man sitting up in the rocks. “I had seen the posters at the trailhead and knew they were looking for someone,” he says. “So I called out, ‘Hey, are you all right?’ There was no answer. I knew there wouldn’t be.” Stewart already knew who it was.

And on September 11 last year, in spite of the prayers of millions, the World Trade Centers collapsed and 3,000 people lost their lives. Sometimes we pray for health and the word comes back, “Cancer.” We must face the fact that sometimes our petitions are unanswered, but God will never let us be unanswered.

At the end of his life, the famous early missionary Adonirum Judson proclaimed that God had never failed him and that his prayers had always been answered. But when we examine his life, we find that he had prayed earnestly to be able to go to India, but had to go to Burma instead. He had prayed earnestly for his family, but had to bury his wife and two of his children on the mission field. His petitions had not been answered the way he hoped, but he had the kind of faith that could confidently proclaim that God had never left HIM unanswered.

In times like these, we need just that kind of faith.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2002, Mickey Anders. Used by permission.