What if my prayers aren’t answered?
I think it’s a question we all wrestle with at times. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, I’m pretty sure you will have had prayers that weren’t answered as you hoped, and it can be incredibly painful.
At the end of January, I had the opportunity to give a talk on this subject to a group of young people. Actually, the person who was meant to be doing it pulled out last minute for COVID reasons, and I ended up having to pull it together in two days! However, once I got started I realised I had a lot to say, and I thought I’d share some of it here, splitting it over two posts as it’s definitely too much for one!
No matter how long we have been a Christian, I think prayer is one of those topics we’ll never completely understand. Sometimes we wish prayer had a formula, that it was predictable, but it’s not, and that can make it tricky. Sometimes we pray and see an instant answer to that prayer. Other times we pray and pray and pray and nothing seems to change, or the outcome is not what we wanted, and we wonder why. And the fact that we have seen God answer certain prayers somehow only makes the fact that he doesn’t answer certain other ones seem more difficult.
After all, the Bible encourages us to have big expectations when we pray.
Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, anyone who believes in me will do the same works I have done, and even greater works, because I am going to be with the Father. You can ask for anything in my name, and I will do it, so that the Son can bring glory to the Father. Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!” (John 14:12-14 NLT)
It almost conjures up a picture of Aladdin’s genie – your wish is my command; ask for anything and I will give you it, but is that really how prayer works?
Or maybe it’s about persistence:
“Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8 NLT)
We’ll come back to those verses in a minute, but first, take a moment to think: what would it be like if God answered yes to all your prayers? Would it be a good thing? It might sound like a good thing initially, but often we don’t actually know what is good for us.
Aladdin uses his wish to become a prince because he wants to impress Princess Jasmine, but actually that just causes trouble and he would have got on a lot better just being himself.
Or, maybe you’ve seen the film Bruce Almighty. Jim Carrey plays a guy called Bruce who complains that God is not doing his job properly, so God says Bruce can be God for a week to see if he can do better. One of Bruce’s first moves is to answer yes to every prayer, which works out well for some people (like the woman who loses 47 lbs eating Krispy Kremes) but actually causes chaos – for example, people are rioting in the streets because so many people had prayed to win the lottery that the prize has to be shared among them all and it ends up being a few dollars. In the course of the film Bruce learns that being God is more complicated than he might think.
So, although if you take verses like those I quoted above by themselves, it might seem like God is meant to do everything we ask, that’s not really the overall picture the Bible gives about prayer, and I’m sure it has not been your experience.
So, why might God say no to our prayers?
Here are a few thoughts from the Bible.
“You don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.” (James 4:2-3 NLT)
These verses highlight two possible errors we could fall into. Either we could not actually bother to pray. Maybe we think it won’t make any difference or we doubt whether God really cares, so we don’t even ask.
The second error is asking with wrong motives. God does not exist to magically make our lives easier. For example, if we don’t bother to study at all for a test, we can’t expect that if we pray to God to get an A that’s what’s going to happen.
Looking back to John 14, Jesus talks about doing anything his disciples ask in his name “so that the Son can bring glory to the Father”. It’s about God being glorified, not about us demanding to get everything we want.
If we reduce prayer to a transaction – we ask and God gives – we’re missing out on so much of what prayer actually is.
Philip Yancey writes in his book “Prayer: does it make any difference?”:
“The main purpose of prayer is not to make life easier, nor to gain magical powers, but to know God.”
He also says:
“Prayer is the act of seeing reality from God’s point of view.”
Prayer is about relationship with God. It’s getting to know him and seeing his perspective so that when we make our requests we are asking for the things that bring him glory.
However, sometimes we do ask, and we do ask with good motives for something we genuinely believe is good, and still God’s answer is no.
We can read more about that in Matthew 7:
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” (Matthew 7:9-11 NLT)
If you think about the relationship between a small child and their parent, parent probably says no quite a lot. A 5 year-old might genuinely think it’s a good idea to eat a massive bar of chocolate before their dinner or to have a shot at driving the car, but any good parent is going to say no to those requests, not because they want to make their child miserable, but because they want what’s best for their child. It might not seem like that to the child. It might seem like the parent is just being mean, but the parent is doing what’s right by saying no, even if it upsets the child.
These verses liken God to a parent – the best parent of all, the perfect Heavenly Father – and talk about how if we ask for something good, like bread, he’s not going to give us a stone, or if we ask for fish he’s not going to give us a snake. He is a good Father who loves us and wants to give us what is good for us, even if it’s not exactly what we ask for or what we think we need.
However, maybe there are times when it feels like we’ve asked for bread and God has given us a stone. We can all understand to a point why God doesn’t fulfil certain requests we make to him. There are times when we can accept that we’re probably not asking with the right motives or making the best requests. There are times when we can’t quite understand but we can probably accept that God knows what he’s doing and he has his reasons.
And then there are the times when we can’t understand at all – when we ask for something that we know is a good thing that really matters to us – for healing, for restoration in a broken relationship, for a loved one’s salvation – and the answer is not what we hope.
How do we deal with disappointment in those circumstances?
That’s the topic I’ll be tackling in the follow-up post…