This week for the Six Week Spiritual Growth Journey, we focused on prayer. I talked about different ways to pray and practical tips on how to manage prayer requests. If you missed it, you can watch on Facebook Live here.
There’s something else I wanted to cover about prayer: what it means when one isn’t answered. I will be very honest and tell you two things: 1) I struggle with this question myself sometimes and 2) I don’t think there are any easy answers. There have been times in my life where I have clearly seen God answer prayers. I know prayer can be effective. However, there have been other times when God seemed to completely ignore a prayer for what I felt was a good thing. For example, when I was about four or five my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. I prayed constantly for her and my little child heart completely believed that God would heal her. Instead, she died. I’ve had other friends and family members with cancer and other diseases that were prayed for constantly and yet there was no healing.
Why bother praying at all if it seems that sometimes God ignores the most important prayers? Doesn’t the Bible contradict itself when Jesus says in Matthew and Mark that if you believe that a prayer will be answered, it will? (Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24) I don’t know if contradict is the right word, but it definitely is something we need to think about. The first place we should look is the Bible.
What Does the Bible Say about Prayer?
There are several passages in the Bible that assure us that our prayers are heard and answered. The Matthew and Mark passages mentioned above are two such passages. If you need a refresher, those are parallel passages where Jesus curses a fig tree because it doesn’t have any fruit and then the fig tree dies. Jesus then tells his disciples they could do that and much more if they just asked. James 5:15-15 is another passage about the effectiveness of prayer. It seems to give the impression that if the church prays for a sick person, they will be healed.
There are a couple of passages in the Bible that give some caveats for answers to prayers. For example, James 4:2-3 also points out that sometimes we don’t get things we pray for because we have bad motives for our prayers. God isn’t going to answer a prayer that is purely selfish and pleasure centered. I must have missed this passage as a child. I remember testing God by praying that I would randomly get a bike to prove that God exists. I never got that random bike, probably because my motives were bad. I was trying to twist God’s arm and get something I wanted. Bad plan.
The Matthew and Mark passages also seem to suggest that God will not answer prayers if we have no faith that they are heard or that God is able to answer them. At the same time however, we shouldn’t read too much into that one because we see an example in Mark 9:24 when a man prays for more faith and that his unbelief would be overcome. There may be times where our lack of faith affects the answers to our prayers, but many times the amount of faith has nothing to do with whether we get an answer or not (as my biblical examples below will show).
Examples of Unanswered Prayers in The Bible
So what are we supposed to do with unanswered prayers? For one, we should realize that we are in good company. God has left unanswered or answered in a negative manner the prayers of many good men and women, including several famous Bible characters.
One is David. In 2 Samuel 12:13-23, after David commits adultery with Bathsheba and murders her husband, she has a baby. As punishment for David’s sins, God tells David that the child will die. The child gets sick and David immediately begins weeping, fasting, and praying on behalf of the child. He’s so distraught about it that when the child dies his servants are afraid to tell him. They’re afraid he’ll do something drastic. Though David had what seems to us to be a perfectly good prayer request, for an innocent child to live, God says no. Sure, we can say that the child’s death was part of David’s punishment, but he whole situation still seems unfair to the child. Nevertheless, David praises God after the child’s death. He accepts that God is still good and just. Even though God doesn’t answer David’s prayer, David still believes that God’s plan is best.
Jesus also had an unanswered prayer. The night he was betrayed and arrested he goes into the garden of Gethsemane and prays passionately to God that he will make another way to save humanity. He prays to avoid the cross. He prays multiple times in great distress, but God still says no. Jesus, the one who said the words about if you believe something it will be done for you, accepts God’s no answer without complaint. He accepts that God’s plan is bigger and better than his own. Had God answered Jesus prayer as he wanted, we wouldn’t be able to enter into a right relationship with God. An affirmative answer to Jesus’ prayer would have had dire long term consequences.
Lastly, Paul shares in 2 Corinthians 12 that he prayed over and over for God to take something away from him (we don’t know what it was), but God said no. This “thorn in the flesh” was being used by God to show that God could use even the weakest and worst person for his glory. Paul accepts that and even rejoices in it. Now I’m sure he wasn’t jumping for joy about it, but he was willing to accept that God’s plan was best. If God had answered Paul’s prayer, Paul could have become prideful or others might have seen Paul as a standard they could never live up to. God used Paul’s thorn for his own glory and purpose. Paul might not have been as effective of a witness if God had answered Paul’s prayer the way Paul wanted him to.
God’s Answers (or Lack Thereof) Are for Our Good
We’re in good company when we have unanswered prayer. I’m not sure that makes it any better in the moment. In fact, maybe it makes it worse. Why pray at all if God doesn’t even answer the prayers of David, Jesus, and Paul? Because prayer is effective, but God’s plan is always best. God does answers prayers, but sometimes the answer we want to our prayers isn’t what’s actually best in the long run. Plus think about it, if God answered every prayer we prayed with a yes, wouldn’t he just become a holy vending machine? Wouldn’t we cease to love and trust him for who he is and instead just love and trust him for what he did for us? Wouldn’t our lives often be less rich if God answered every prayer as we wanted.
I’ve been re-reading the Harry Potter series the last couple of weeks. I’m currently on book 4, the Goblet of Fire. I thought of an interesting way to think about this question of unanswered prayers. What if Harry Potter “prayed” to J.K. Rowling to keep him out of the Triwizard Tournament? Sure, his life would have been a lot safer and more comfortable, but his story would have been completely different. He would have missed out on growth and knowledge that he only gained through competing those tasks and going through those trials. Pieces of his story would have been missing. It would have made him a less interesting character and would have completely changed the direction of the series. There are times when unanswered prayers actually do us good in the long run.
To conclude, I don’t think we’ll ever have an explanation this side of heaven of why particular prayers weren’t answered the way we wanted them to. Sometimes, we can come up with an idea, but there are other times when there doesn’t seem to be an explanation. That’s okay. God isn’t always a great explainer. When Job asks why his world gets turned upside down and things didn’t go as he thought they should, God just asks what it is that Job actually knows. Does he know all the intimate details about creation? Has he ever run anything as complex as the world we live in? Doesn’t God know more and better than Job? While perhaps that’s not the conclusive answer we would all like, we can all reply with Job:
“I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted. …
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.”
After all, that’s what faith is all about, believing the unseen and the unexplainable. For now, that’s all we can do.