Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted. -C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 58
The burning question
When I was in youth group, there was a guest preacher who taught me that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, because God always answers prayer with either a “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” This makes rational sense, but it makes no emotional sense because it merely circumvents the gravity of unanswered prayer. The real question is why he says “no” to some of our prayers.
Unanswered prayer should never drive us to despair, because to do so would be a betrayal of our faith in the sovereignty of God. Conversely, we should always wrestle with unanswered prayer, because resigning ourselves to come what may would be a betrayal of our faith in the love of God. We need to ask the hard question, “Why?” After all, didn’t Jesus say:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Mt. 7:7-11)?
Five reasons for unanswered prayer can be summarized with the mnemonic A.B.C.D.E.
Alienation from God
First, as I discussed previously on my post Keys to More Effective Prayer, sin alienates us from God “so that he does not hear” (Is. 59:2). As John writes, “God does not listen to sinners” (Jn. 9:31). Sins of all stripes hinder our prayers, which is why we must pray humbly and repentantly (Lk. 18:9-14). This is why healing is sometimes predicated on the confession of sins (Jas. 5:16).
Note the emphasis on “sometimes,” because it would be cruel to tell those to whom we minister that their prayers are not being answered because they lack faith or because they have unconfessed sins. We simply cannot be sure of this. Jesus says of a blind man in John 9:2-3 that, contrary to societal assumptions, the man was born blind neither due to his sins nor his parents’ sins, but “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” If anything, we should blame ourselves for lack of faith.
Second, sin alienates us from God so that we become obtuse to his promptings. So we “ask wrongly, to spend it on [our] passions” (Jas. 4:3). With our impaired vision, we ask for things that would be detrimental to others or to ourselves. We seek to manipulate God for our purposes, rather than submitting to his purposes. Indeed, we “do not know what [we] are asking” (Mt. 20:22).
In these cases, we should actually thank God for our unanswered prayers. “If God had granted all the silly prayers I’ve made in my life, where should I be now?” (C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm, p. 28)
But what if we are, as far as we know, praying for things that would honor God, in a manner that honors God, for reasons that honor God? Why doesn’t God answer, then?
Blindness to God’s answers
Sometimes, God answers our prayers in an unexpected way and we are simply oblivious to it. God perceives the deeper intent of our prayers and answers the spirit of our requests rather than the form of our requests.
For example, we may pray for the gift of healing so that we can help those who are ailing, but God may instead give us the gift of compassion so that we can weep with them. We may pray for health and strength to do much work for God, but God may instead give us sickness and weakness so that we may do more meaningful work for him.
The hymn, “I Asked the Lord,” by John Newton describes this beautifully:
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith and love and every grace
Might more of His salvation know
And seek more earnestly His face
Twas He who taught me thus to pray
And He I trust has answered prayer
But it has been in such a way
As almost drove me to despair
I hoped that in some favored hour
At once He’d answer my request
And by His love’s constraining power
Subdue my sins and give me rest
Instead of this He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart
And let the angry powers of Hell
Assault my soul in every part
Yea more with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Cast out my feelings, laid me low
Lord why is this, I trembling cried
Wilt Thou pursue thy worm to death?
“Tis in this way” The Lord replied
“I answer prayer for grace and faith
“These inward trials I employ
From self and pride to set thee free
And break thy schemes of earthly joy
That thou mayest seek thy all in me,
That thou mayest seek thy all in me.
At other times, we simply need to recognize the means that God uses to answer our prayers. There’s a funny story where a Christian man who is drowning refuses the help offered by a rescue boat and a helicopter because of his conviction that God himself will come to his rescue. He drowns and goes to heaven, where he asks God why he did not answer his prayer. God says, “What more do you want from me? I sent you a boat and a helicopter.”
This humorous story illustrates how we may miss God’s answers to our prayers. When we pray for healing, are we neglecting the natural means of health, such as a balanced diet, regular exercise, sleep, and medicine? When we pray for humility, are we utilizing the spiritual disciplines of silence and service that cultivate the virtue? When we pray for children, are we overlooking the possibility of adoption as a means through which God may provide children?
Compassion to comfort others
God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4). The pain of unanswered prayer softens and enlarges our hearts to empathize with others who suffer similarly. We become Wounded Healers. We learn to close our mouths of platitudes and open our eyes of compassion.
Have you ever met Christians who beam with superficial triumphalism? Everything they say sounds right, but rings hollow. That is because they have not yet been “grieved by various trials.” The “genuineness of [their] faith” has not yet been “tested by fire” (1 Pt. 1:6-8). Often, God intends for us to be preserved through trials not from them, and these trials enable us to comfort those who are suffering.
Divestment of earthly dependence
In 2 Cor. 1:8-9, Apostle Paul writes of an intense affliction that drove him to “despair of life itself,” and comments that this “was to make [him] rely not on [himself] but on God who raises the dead.” Often, unanswered prayers force us to divest ourselves of earthly dependencies and set our hope solely on God.
God’s silence strips us of our dependence on external results and “signs” of success. We no longer labor for the praise and approval of men. Just as Jesus “did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:24-25).
We no longer hang on the subjective confirmations of divine favor, and turn instead to the objective reality of what Christ has accomplished on the cross on our behalf. Unanswered prayers teach us to treasure the Giver more than the gifts.
Once again, John Newton captured this well in a letter he wrote to Rev. William Rose on December 21st, 1776:
Be not discouraged; the Lord only afflicts for our good. It is necessary that our sharpest trials should sometime spring from our dearest comforts, else we should be in danger of forgetting ourselves, and setting up our rest here. In such a world, and with such hearts as we have, we shall often need something to prevent our cleaving to the dust, to quicken us to prayer, and to make us feel that our dependence for one hour’s peace is upon the Lord alone.
Effacement of the self
Finally, in our suffering, we “[carry] in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (2 Cor. 4:10). Paul rejoiced in his sufferings on behalf of the Colossians because he believed that “in [his] flesh [he was] filling up what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
This is not to suggest that we can add something to Christ’s once-and-for-all atoning sacrifice. It simply means that we can partake in the “fellowship of sharing in his sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). Unanswered prayer effaces the self and reminds us that we are nothing apart from God. “[We] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us]” (Gal. 2:20). We are radically humbled and surrendered to God’s will.
Christ at Gethsemane
Ultimately, we can cope with unanswered prayer only because Christ himself bore the burden of unanswered prayer at Gethsemane. He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Lk. 22:42) He prayed in such agony that “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:44).
Yet the Father was not willing to remove the cup, and the Son, thankfully, yielded to the Father: “not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). By laying down his life for us, Jesus expressed God’s love for us in the most certain and irrevocable terms, so that we can stand firm even when unanswered prayers threaten our confidence in God’s goodness.
Have you struggled with unanswered prayers in the past? How did God help you overcome them? You can read about how I’ve been wrestling with unanswered prayers in my posts Pressed Grapes and Grieving Infertility.
This is Part 4 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 3 of 5: Keys to More Effective Prayer.