What Are We to Make of Unanswered Prayers?
Gary Yates, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, tells the story of a chaplain’s prayer. Chaplain Max Helton prayed beside the car of racecar driver Dale Earnhardt prior to the start of the 2001 Daytona 500. Holding hands, “they prayed for wisdom and safety,” Yates said. But Earnhardt lost his life in that race — in a final lap crash. Yates asked why God did not bring wisdom and safety when He promised believers, “Ask and you will receive.”
Puzzled by such “unanswered prayers,” some believers wonder whether Jesus was being totally truthful when He said, “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14).
What are “unanswered prayers” and how do we explain them in light of Scripture?
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What Do We Mean When We Say ‘Unanswered’ Prayers?
When we think of the phrase “unanswered prayer,” many questions might come to mind. Does God hear all of our prayers? How does God respond to our requests? Do we believe that He is capable of making mistakes? Do we think we are entitled to what we ask of God? Is there something in us that causes God to withhold or delay an answer? Do we need to learn how to be better pray-ers?
Most people find prayer mysterious. We don’t always understand how it “works,” let alone how it “doesn’t work.” When we believe our prayers aren’t answered, we might wonder whether our faith is small or if there are any one of a hundred reasons why God might turn away from our prayers.
“Unanswered prayer” is intensely personal. It’s how we view God’s response to our prayers. The more theologically clever usually don’t like the phrase “unanswered prayer.” In reality, they say, there are no unanswered prayers. The sovereign God is also a good Heavenly Father, and He gives His redeemed children what they would have asked for — if they knew everything that He knows!
Does God Hear All of Our Prayers?
God hears every one of His children’s prayers, and He answers them with “good gifts” in His good time and in His way. Scriptures teach us His “ears” are tuned to the cries of the righteous.
He does not forget or forsake (abandon) His own. In fact, God knows our needs before we even ask in prayer. Satan wants us to believe our Heavenly Father doesn’t care about us, but God is attentive to His children, and He cares about our concerns.
Sometimes Christians, discouraged by seeming unanswered prayers, assume that God has forgotten them. David voiced this in Psalm 13:13, saying, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?” He cried out for God to answer him. Likewise, we want to know that God is listening and truly wants to give us the desires of our heart; but sometimes we feel He has shut up the heavens, and the silence unsettles us. Asaph asked, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he shut up his compassion?” (Psalm 77:7-9). We are not forgotten by the one who has engraved us on the palms of his hands (Isaiah 49:15-16).
God “closely attends to the prayers of God-loyal people” (Proverbs 15:29b, Msg). Believers don’t need to fear that they’re not “praying right,” because the Spirit of God helps us in our weakness, interceding for us with “wordless groans” (Romans 8:26). He knows and interprets the cries of our hearts.
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How Might God Respond to Our Prayers?
As we draw close to the throne of grace with confidence, we need to recognize that our Father God is sovereign in His replies. God appears to answer every prayer with either “yes,” “no,” or “wait.” He desires to answer believer’s prayers, and He does not withhold any good thing from those who do what is right — like every good and loving father. He delights in blessing His children and graciously giving them things.
But sometimes, God may answer believers’ requests with “no” because to answer “yes” is not good for them or is against His good will. Sometimes we get caught up in our frustration or pain, and we accuse God of disappointing us, abandoning us. But God may have something planned for us that is much better than we hoped or imagined.
God may also delay an answer. His “not yet” is, again, for His children’s good and for His glory. God’s eternal perspective is greater than ours. In His big picture view, He sometimes delays a response until the best possible time. For example, Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless and no doubt prayed for a child, but they were old in years before God gave them a son (Luke 1:5-13). God delayed until it was time for the Messiah, Jesus, to be born, because John the Baptist would be His forerunner. Often, God’s delays are a means of strengthening our spiritual muscles or to teach us to pray continually.
Sometimes things will get worse after we’ve prayed before they get better; but remember: God is never late or early. Because He is God, He is not capable of making mistakes. We must remember the character of God and trust Him — He is wise, good, faithful, trustworthy, etc. In His mysterious ways, He accomplishes “immeasurably more” than we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).
Can God, who is sovereign and omniscient, ever be persuaded to change His mind or alter His plans? Some Scriptures indicate that prayer can and does make a difference in human events. But other Scriptures show that prayers did nothing to change the course of life in certain situations. God’s answers might seem so random to us. Jesus escaped, but other innocent children were slaughtered (Matthew 2:16). Peter was freed, but James was killed (Acts 12:2, 6-11). Again, we simply cannot understand everything this side of eternity about how God responds to specific prayers.
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What Might Be Some Reasons for Unanswered Prayers?
When our prayers are not answered the way we hoped, does that mean God is ignoring us? Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s a matter of waiting for God’s timing. Perhaps God has something better for us, or there is an opportunity that He might receive greater glory. Perhaps He is protecting us from unseen danger.
Just because Christians’ prayers “aren’t answered,” that does not mean they’re doing something wrong. Christians are often targeted by Satan. What the enemy means for believers’ harm, God redeems for their good and His glory. But Stuart Briscoe wrote in Just Between Us magazine, “We need to learn to search our own hearts as we pray, because problems may lurk in our hearts that hinder our praying.” What are some possible reasons for unanswered prayers?
There may be spiritual issues. Perhaps we are not abiding — living in — close fellowship with God. We don’t have a prayer life or regular time in the Word. We may not be asking according to God’s will and Word or turning away from God’s instructions. We may be a doubter, not asking in faith — or perhaps, because of weak faith, we’re not even asking God for what we need (James 4:2b).
We may be praying hypocritically to get attention or praying in rebellion. We may be cherishing unconfessed sin. God will not be mocked. He knows us intimately and sees every “hidden” sin. We may be praying with sinful motives or out of pride or selfish desires rather than to the glory of God. Jennifer Heeren wrote, “Our whims aren’t necessarily God’s will.” The truth is — our happiness and so-called “successes” aren’t God’s highest priority. His responses are meant to shape us into the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).
There may be relationship issues too. God sees when we show enmity against fellow believers or harbor an unforgiving spirit. He knows when a husband is not treating is wife well. He notices when we close our ears to the cries of the needy.
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How Should We Respond to Unanswered Prayers?
Should we keep praying about seeming unanswered prayers? Yes, says Jon Bloom at Desiring God. The Lord “wants us to seriously press into the question, ‘What’s the problem?’” Bloom said. God wants us to persevere. He knows we struggle to pray. “We’re distractible, we’re lazy, we’re busy,” Bloom said, “we’ve had poor models, we lack a clear plan for how and when to pray, we’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people and things to pray for, our Adversary opposes our praying, and the list goes on.”
When Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours, we’re “tempted to respond sardonically, ‘Yeah, whatever,” Bloom said. He continues that Jesus knows this promise presses us “beyond our limits.” “He means it to.” Jesus’s purpose is not to shame us for our little faith. “He’s inviting us to come further up and further in.”
Christians are tempted to become discouraged by what appears to be unanswered prayer; but Jesus tells us we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). Persistent prayer reminds us that our hope is in God alone, and even though God may seem silent at times, there are always blessings in the prayers themselves — to build character and faith, and to increase hunger for the Lord.
Unanswered Prayers Are Invitations to God’s Heart
On one occasion, the disciples asked of Jesus, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). They no doubt noticed the relationship Jesus had with His Father in heaven, and craved that kind of connection. “There is much more to prayer than making requests of God,” Stuart Briscoe said. “God created mankind for fellowship and communion, to be ‘friends,’ to delight in each other and to have an ever-deepening relationship. … This relationship, as it deepens, leads to a fuller understanding of God’s purposes, desires, intentions, or what we often call His will.”
When our prayers appear to go unanswered, God may be drawing us closer; it’s time to step up our prayers in frequency and intensity. God keeps inviting us to His heart so we can learn about His will and ways.
“Prayer is a relational interaction, not merely a service transaction,” Briscoe said. “Faith is not divine currency that we pay God in order to receive whatever we ask in prayer. Faith is a relational response of trust in what God promises us. … And those who are audacious enough to really live by what God says will see mountains move that God wants moved.” Prayerfully abiding in Christ is an act that is “profoundly relational,” Briscoe said.
If “whatever you ask in prayer” has not happened yet, he said, “do not assume it can’t or won’t. Don’t give up. This promise is an invitation to come further up and further in to knowing God. And those who have taken God up on this invitation testify that the audacious promises of God are for those audacious enough to believe them.” We must persevere in prayer.
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Even Jesus Had Unanswered Prayers
Philip Yancey reminds us that even Jesus had “unanswered prayers” while He lived on earth. He spent an entire night in prayer before choosing His disciples, likely asking the Father to point out the best followers — the cream of the crop. Yet He then chose Judas. And impetuous Peter. And the “Sons of Thunder.” Did the Father answer His prayer? Were these the exact men Jesus needed to become disciples? “The Son of God himself could only work with the talent pool available,” Yancey said.
Then, when Jesus struggled in prayer, pleading in the Garden of Gethsemane, He “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death” (Hebrews 5:7). But Jesus was not delivered from death. He prayed for one thing, and got something else. “When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; instead, he got the salvation of the world,” Yancey said.
Jesus prayed another prayer that is yet unanswered. He prayed for all who would believe through the disciples’ message; he prayed they would be one, in unity. Clearly, this prayer is yet unanswered in the church.
One final prayer remains unanswered. Jesus said, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We still await the Kingdom in its fullness.
God Moves Powerfully, Even in Unanswered Prayers
Gary E. Yates — who wrote about a chaplain’s unanswered prayer for Dale Earnhardt — also wrote, “The greatest demonstrations of God’s power are often found in his answers to our unanswered prayers.” Yates noted that a man named Bob Mitchell prayed for the safety of five young missionaries who went to the jungles of South America in order to share the gospel with the Auca Indians. But Jim Elliott and his four companions were brutally murdered.
“Years later,” Yates wrote, “Mitchell attended a conference in Europe and met an evangelist who was one of the Auca Indians that had murdered Elliott and the other missionaries. Only God could orchestrate that kind of answer to an unanswered prayer.”
“Answers for Unanswered Prayer”
“Why Do My Prayers Go Unanswered?”
“Why We Should Be Thankful for Unanswered Prayers”
“Unanswered Prayers Are Invitations from God”
“From Killers to Christians: Fifty Years Ago, Five Missionaries Dared to Bring the Gospel to Ecuador’s fearsome Auca Indians and Helped Work a Miracle”
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Dawn Wilson has served in revival ministry and missions for more than 50 years. She and her husband Bob live in Southern California. They have two married sons and three granddaughters. Dawn assists author and radio host Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth with research and works with various departments at Revive Our Hearts. She is the founder and director of Heart Choices Today, publishes Upgrade with Dawn, and writes for Crosswalk.com.