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Just as the pandemic seems to be easing a little, here we are again in a state of anxiety, daily attending to the grim news from Ukraine, wondering what fresh horror tomorrow will bring. Meanwhile, the latest IPCC report came out this week, emphasizing yet again that the serious impacts of climate change are happening now now now and issuing yet another urgent call for action:   

“The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all. (very high confidence).” (SPM.D.5.3, SPM-35)

It’s hard to process all this. We thought American politics were a mess (they are). Many of us have been watching our denominations fracture (again). Covid is now more manageable—maybe—but who knows what’s next. And now we’re scrambling to understand the mind of a “dead-eyed zealot” pushing a stupid and morally repugnant invasion while the world falls apart around us anyway.

And so we pray. Or try to. Our prayers—well, mine anyway—seem awfully puny against the grand machinations of world events. Actually, my prayers also seem puny and ineffective against the small machinations of my own personal troubles. So I keep thinking about that line in the old hymn, “Spirit of God Descend Upon My Heart.” You know the one?

Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

I find that line comforting. Oh, I know the concept isn’t “correct.” After all, “There’s no such thing as unanswered prayer. God always answers, but sometimes the answer is no or wait.” Yeah, yeah. But it sure feels like unanswered prayer. It sure feels like prayers aren’t having much effect.

In more recent renditions of the hymn—I suppose to avoid theological incorrectness and to enhance the pious sentiments of the hymn—the line is often altered to:

Teach me the patience of unceasing prayer.

Not, I’m afraid, nearly as comforting. Nor as true to experience (sorry, I Thessalonians 5:17).

I’m all for theological correctness in our worship words, including the words we sing. I’m even on record arguing extensively that what we say and hear and sing in worship is crucial to spiritual formation and therefore must be right. Let’s purge out the sexism, ableism, racism, colonialism, creeping Gnosticism, trinitarian modalism, and various other nefarious isms. Sure.

On the other hand. And here I’m in a quandary. Because sometimes there’s a dismaying distance between what is theologically correct and what our experience feels like. And sometimes we need to talk about experience. And sometimes it definitely feels, experientially, as if God is ignoring our prayers, busy doing something else, just not paying attention. 

The Psalms fully acknowledge such experiences. How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? And so on. In fact, if we were to remove from the Psalms all the pleas to a God-who-seems-distant, there wouldn’t be much left. Even Jesus, we recall, prayed this way in desperate moments.

Many of the hymns I sang as a kid, including “Spirit of God, Descend Upon My Heart,” were written in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. That was a more sentimental time, but also a time that took for granted the inevitability of trouble and sorrow. In retrospect, I realize those hymns formed the piety of my parents’ generation, shaped by a Depression and a world war or two. The faithful in those generations came to church expecting some consolation for trouble and sorrow. Many of the faithful today do too. And you can’t receive consolation without acknowledging how trouble and sorrow feel, especially when it all comes in relentless waves and God doesn’t seem to be doing much to calm them.

I share with many people a love for the poetry of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century pastor and poet. Herbert was extremely skilled at capturing the often subtle difference between theological or pious correctness and the way things actually feel. His poem “Denial” begins in a state of desperate distance from God:

When my devotions could not pierce

            Thy silent ears:

Then was my heart broken, as was my verse:

            My breast was full of fears

                        And disorder.

The poem continues through four more stanzas of disorder and broken verse, taking God to task for ignoring the speaker. To embody the speaker’s bewilderment, the meter rhymes on lines of uneven length and leaves the last, clipped line of each stanza hanging there, unrhymed and lame.

Then the poem concludes with a final plea:

O cheer and tune my heartless breast,

            Defer no time;

That so thy favors granting my request,

            They and my mind may chime,

                        And mend my rhyme.

I love teaching this poem and prompting students to figure out in real time the trick of the last stanza. The speaker remains in a state of prayer, still pleading—nothing has changed, really. Yet the last line, at last, rhymes. Aha! God is already mending the poet’s rhyme, even while the speaker is still in the subjunctive mood, still praying for an answer. Prevenient grace embedded in metrical form.

All this to say, the true complaint is the prayer, and is also the answer to the prayer.

I still want divinely engineered results. I still want the answer to my prayers to be “Coming right up!” And I do believe God is at work in the world right now, even amid looming climate impacts and geopolitical crisis. That’s the theologically correct posture, and sometimes I can even perceive the evidence. The IPCC report, for example, also takes pains to insist that we do still have a window for significant action. I know from my own media travels that we have the tools for climate mitigation and that many, many people around the world are putting their shoulders to the wheel on this.

In the more bewildering and discouraging moments, though, the most consoling words are the ones that speak truly about experience, while simultaneously laying that experience before God. The true complaint is the prayer, and is also the answer to the prayer.

Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;

Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear;

To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;

Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Hymn text by George Croly, 1854, as edited in The Psalter Hymnal, Christian Reformed Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1959. The title of the hymn in this edition is “Spirit of God, Dwell Thou Within My Heart.” Text of “Deniall” from The English Poems of George Herbert, ed. Helen Wilcox, Cambridge UP, 2007 (although I modernized the spelling).

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you. And for the hymn and the poem. I ask myself, what should I expect God to do in answer to my prayers? Save us from the consequences of our sloth and greed and ignorance? Unharden Putin’s heart? Save us from the judgment we deserve and even require? How much should I expect God to intervene apart from our own conversion and costly discipleship? Tomorrow’s Gospel speaks to this, of course. Maybe it’s teach me the courage of unanswered prayer, teach me the conversion, the risk, the daring, the new obedience of unanswered prayer. A stimulating blog post, as usual. Thank you

  • Jim Schaap says:

    Very helpful in the madness of this Saturday morning.

  • What wonderful thoughts, feelings, and writing. It is just what we all need today.
    Thank you.

  • Jeff Admiraal says:

    Thanks for this! Yes, prayers so often feel unanswered. Let us not forget that although Psalm 13 begins with “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?” it ends with “My heart rejoices in your salvation! I will sing to the Lord for he has been good to me!”

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Thank you for the reminder of the historical context of the hymn; what we deem pious and sappy gripped the hearts and minds of folks during their apocalyptic dread during WWI, the Great Depression, and WWII. And also in our current dread, as we sang the hymn just recently with some teary eyes and quavering voices.

  • Cathy Smith says:

    Truth. I appreciated this post. Thank you for your literary and spiritual insight.

  • Mary VanderVennen says:

    Thank you, Debra. But we should list one more answer of God to unceasing prayer. In addition to “no” and “wait”, sometimes God says “Do it yourself.”

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Excellent insights Deb,
    I’ve often wanted to change the opening verse of “Spirit of God Descend upon my Heart.”
    It goes: “Wean it [my heart] from earth, in all its pulses move.”
    Jesus: I SEND you INTO the world. You are not to be removed from the world. Be light in a darkening world, so people will give glory to your Father in heaven, etc., etc.”
    Yes. My heart, God’s tool shed, where God unceasingly works to cleanse and change, for the better, for the good, for the salvation of the world, (and, to change the metaphor): the healing of the nations, grafted into God’s tree of life, from whose branches a limb was torn, upon which the Lord of Life was strung/hung, so that we, in our brokenness, might be grafted in, again, whose fruit will never end; for the healing of the nations. I like your reworking of the hymn. Praying without ceasing indeed. In the End, all will be well. All will be exceedingly WELL.
    Now, upon further reflection, I see I can affirm that first verse. Our hearts ARE to be weaned from the desires of this earth, the kingdom of worldly grasping for power, prestige and control; and brought under the love and control of the Kingdom (rule) of God (self-giving love, justice, mercy). God is moving through all the “pulsing” of our hearts, to bring about conversion and healing for the world.
    Thank you again Debra. Provocative. Energizing. Helps m refocus for Lent, now underway.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Thanks, yeah, many of the lines of the hymn have been tweaked in various ways. One version of the line you cite is “Wean it from sin, through all its pulses move.” I mean, sure. Based on your suggestion, though, how about “Wean it from explicit or tacit complicity with evil systems, through all its…” Well, doesn’t scan, but maybe we can workshop that. 🙂

  • Marie says:

    I think the problem is less with “unanswered prayer” and more with the fear of “unheard prayer.” We know that our God is a mystery to us, we know that our God hides himself from us. We know that we are blind to the ways of God, and there are so many “answers” we might not see or understand. That’s just the way of it. But if God weren’t hearing us – well, then we’d have a problem that we truly couldn’t live with.
    And while I know that praying without ceasing is a good thing, I don’t necessarily see the need to change the hymn. How often, in times of pain, do we yearn for a friend to just sit and listen as we try to put words on our suffering? That’s the God we have, a God who hears us even if he hides himself (and his answers to our prayers) from us.
    Anyway, that’s what I think today. Tomorrow I might be angry again about unanswered prayer, but today I am trying to patiently live with it!

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    I think the hymn lyrics would be better served by a different tune. Always makes me think of a Sunday evening service, low energy, dimming lights. “Through all its pulses move” is not a bad image, but the tune takes away its energy.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Debra, for expressing your thoughts and frustrations in regard to unanswered prayer. Surmising that God may be saying, “no” or “not yet” or “do it yourself” are all rationalizations and justifications for the fact that God doesn’t always or even most often answer prayer.

    There’s a neat formula that I heard more than once in Reformed churches. It’s, “pray as though it all depends on God and act as though it all depends on you.” I think we all know that whether prayers are offered or not, it’s that second part (act as though it all depends on you) that really counts and makes a difference.

  • Daniel Miller says:


  • Ron Polinder says:

    Over 30 years ago, a guest pastor preached a whole sermon just on that prayer. I have loved the song, and the tune that goes with it, ever since. I don’t need a re-translation–we can figure it out. Thanks for bringing it to our attention–I’m going to Youtube to take it in!

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