If you were asked right now to write down all your answered prayer on side of a piece of paper and all your unanswered prayer on the other side in all likelihood the unanswered prayer column would be significantly longer. I know mine is. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen long standing prayer requests. I struggle to think of three answered prayers.
Without a doubt this is Satan seeking to discourage me and making me focus on the negative (unanswered prayer) rather than the positive (answered prayer). Satan has an easy job. Answers to prayer are like brief flashes of light that fill you with praise for a short while then fade away into the dark recesses of your memory. Unanswered prayer is continually with you, burdening your soul and weighing you down.
And I speak from experience when I say that it is very easy to become down hearted about it. Who here hasn’t cried along with the Psalmist?
“How long, O Lord? Will
you forget me forever?
How long will you hide
your face from me?
How long must I wrestle
with my thoughts
And every day have
sorrow in my heart?”
Psalm 13 v 1 – 2
But what should our response to unanswered prayer be? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers? What is going on?
Q: Why does prayer go unanswered?
God will never answer every single one of our prayers! Of course he won’t – imagine if, like in Bruce Almighty, God replied ‘yes’ to all our prayers. We’d all be rich, famous, attractive, lottery winners, immortal…It would be madness! So it’s a good thing that God doesn’t answer all prayer but that’s probably not that encouraging.
A: There is something wrong with your spiritual life…
I am going to be very cautious here. Unanswered prayer is a sign that something might be wrong with your spiritual life. But do not think that unanswered prayer means that there is definitely something wrong. However, if we are going through a period of unanswered prayer it is good to double check our spiritual life. There may be something we have not repented of, someone we should forgive, a sin we haven’t realised was a sin.
“Dear friends, if our heart do not condemn us we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we obey his commands and do what pleases him.”
1 John 3 v 21 - 22
The closer we walk with God the better our prayers will be. The more aligned our prayers will be with God’s wishes. The further our walk is from God the worse our prayers will become.
I must stress again that God gives generously to all regardless of spiritual state but checking our spiritual life can do no harm and a whole world of good.
A: Wrong prayer
Take the extreme example and ask yourself if God would answer your prayer that [insert figure of hate here] would die. Unlikely. In the majority of cases God will only answer prayer that are in keeping with his Holy Word. And all his answers are in keeping with his Holy and inherent wisdom.
But it’s more complicated than that because for every clear cut issue there’s a moral gray area as well. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell what would be right and what would be wrong. Unanswered prayer can be a guidance as to what is wrong.
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
James 4 v 3
Prayers made out of selfish, lustful or sinful motives will almost never be answered. If they are answered it will be to reveal to us the full extent of our folly. We forget that prayer is a two way conversation – we speak to God and God speaks to us through the Holy Spirit. You might be aware that some things you used to pray for you no longer do in all likelihood it’s because God has led you away from that prayer because it is a wrong prayer or prayer coming from wrong motives.
A: Good prayer, wrong time
Say your praying for a job, or about marriage, or about a long running sin you need help fighting – now these are not bad things. In fact these are excellent things to pray for! But why might not God be answering your prayer?
Well, it might be a good thing you are praying for but it might not be necessarily good for you at whatever point in life you’re at. Again, a fourteen year old can pray about finding a wife but it isn’t about to get answered anytime soon. I know that example is extreme but hopefully you see the point. What you are praying for may not be good in your specific case at this specific time. Trust that God will know what is good for you better than you will.
Q: But I need it…?
“And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
Philippians 4 v 19
As Christians we know that God has promised to provide our every need which means that when we think this is not having we become bitter towards God. “I needed that!” We mutter to ourselves “Why didn’t God give it to me?”
What we are doing is firstly confusing what we want with what we need. And secondly we are saying that we know what we need better than God does. This is not the case. God really does know our every need and will provide for it. We only think we know our every need. In reality what we often ‘need’ the most can be quite bad for us. We have sinful hearts after all. God exercises his goodness to us by not answering these prayers! So be careful, do not think that because you think you need something you really do.
Don’t trust in your opinion of your perceived needs. Trust in God’s opinion of your actual needs.
Q: My prayer is perfect, why isn’t it answered now?
Your prayer is good both in general and for you and your prayer is a need that needs to be supplied yet still God has yet to answer it. Why is this? Well, the main reason is to train us in perseverance and patience. We live in an age of instant gratification where every pleasure has to be experienced NOW!
But God doesn’t work like that; his time frame is always longer than ours. We need to be taught the practise of waiting on the Lord for his goodness.
“And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
Galatians 6 v 9
This verse is one among many that teach the value of patience, of waiting on the Lord for answers to pray. For how much more rewarding is an answer to a prayer you have really persevered with? Unconverted relatives converted after 40+ years of prayer – what a time for praise and thankfulness! God withholds his blessing to discipline us in our spiritual lives and teach us patience.
Therefore look forward with patience expectation for answers to prayer. And take heart the Bible promises good things for us:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
Matthew 7 v 7 – 11
God is good! And we need to constantly remind ourselves of that fact. To help remember next time you have an answer to prayer write it down somewhere (quickly before you forget) then you will build up a list of God’s continual goodness to you that you can look back at during darker times.
Should we give up praying if it hasn’t been answered?
No! Well, yes, some prayers we will turn away from praying because they are wrong in whatever sense but there are still many prayers that we need to persevere with. In particular prayer for the conversion of friends and family, prayers for revival, prayers for our churches, CU, Christian friends and for our own spiritual life.
I find unanswered prayer very difficult to cope with. Some of my lowest points in my spiritual life stem from my impatience that my prayers haven’t been answered. This impatience leads to a lack of faith in God or worse into bad thoughts about God’s goodness.
What I have had to re-learn over and over and over again is to trust in God. I need to trust God’s wisdom over my own. God’s goodness over my selfishness. I quoted from Psalm 13 at the beginning so let me end with its last few verses:
“But I will trust in your unfailing love;
My heart rejoices in your salvation
I will sing to the Lord,
for he has been good to me.”
Psalm 13 v 5 – 6
Let us pray that when it comes to unanswered prayer we might praise God with the Psalmist above for God’s love is unfailing and he has been good to us. God knows who to give good gifts to us, he knows when to give these gifts and he will give these gifts. Trust in God! Put your faith to work! Don’t trust yourself! Trust God!