Anybody There? The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

One of the biggest challenges to the faith of the average disciple is unanswered prayer.   Why didn’t God answer my prayer?  Why didn’t God heal my loved one who was suffering from cancer?  Why didn’t God help my addicted child in the manner I asked him?  Why am I still jobless (or single, or childless, or depressed, etc.), despite having sought God in prayer? The wavering faith of many has been dashed to pieces against the shoals of questions such as these.   I know this is true, because I’ve often been asked these things.

The Bible has lots to say about it.  In fact, the issue is too big for one blog post.  However, if you want to eat an elephant, you must do so one bite at a time (as the old saw goes).  We’ll size up the job here (survey the elephant before taking that first bite).

We might want to start by turning the question on its head a bit.  If I want to know why God doesn’t answer a prayer, I should probably ask a different  question: To what kind of prayers does God respond?  Here are three elements of an answered prayer:

God is a Father who responds to the prayers of his children.  God responds to the prayers of his people.  He is a Father who is attuned to the requests of his children.  God doesn’t respond to the prayers of everyone everywhere in the same way he responds to the prayers of his children.  How do you become a child of God?  Not by being born, but by being born again:

12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (Jn. 1:12-13 ESV)

Many people will respond viscerally to this with a hearty, “Hey, that’s no fair!”  Well, that’s how it is.  Do you treat everyone else’s kid the same way you treat your own?  If an unknown child skins their knee, do you go running, pick them up, hug them, apply Band-Aids, etc.? Probably not.  But for your own child you do.  You don’t celebrate the graduations, weddings, birthdays, etc. of all the children of the world the same way you do your own.  Why?  Because they are your children and you have a special relationship with them.

God has a special relationship with his children.  He hears and answers their petitions in ways he doesn’t for those who aren’t in this relationship with him. The first step to having God hear and answer your prayers then is to know him by faith in his Son Jesus Christ.

God responds to prayers prayed according to his will.  Not all prayer requests are treated equally.  Sometimes our own selfish desires motivate our prayers.  Perhaps it is more accurate to say our own selfish desires usually motivate our prayers.  Even prayers for others are often thinly veiled prayers for ourselves.

But Jesus teaches us to pray:

…your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:10 ESV)

Not only does Jesus teach this, he also models it with a life of faith in which he himself pushes aside the temptation to pursue selfish desires in order to do the Lord’s will (See Gethsemane!).

God’s not a genie, and he doesn’t want us to think of prayer as rubbing a magic lamp.  Instead, he wants us to learn to desire the things that he desires us to desire.  To be like him, to image him, by seeking his will rather than our own.

God responds to prayers that are prayed in faith.  I wouldn’t include this one, if I could get away with it.  It is so easily misunderstood.  But, it is so clearly and repeatedly taught that it can’t be ignored.  Consider Jesus’ teaching here:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. (Mk. 11: 24 ESV)

Belief is an essential ingredient in prayer.  Faith is a sine qua non to a prayer that is answered by God.  If we don’t pray in faith, we shouldn’t expect God to show up and do anything.  Now, there is much more to say about this.  We need to have a good, biblical understanding of the nature of this faith (hint: it isn’t so much something we have a bunch of – it is something more like “trust” – in what God has and gives).

Much more to this than this.  I hesitate to write a post like this because it raises so many, “Yea, but…” type responses.  Included in the yea buts are plenty of genuine selfless prayers offered by believers in faith which have gone unanswered.  My goal is certainly not to beat down anyone who finds themselves in this situation.  The Bible has more to say on these matters as well and I’ll address these concerns in a future post.