What If My Prayers Aren’t Answered?

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…

Linking with: Inspire Me Monday, Tell His Story, InstaEncouragements, Let’s Have Coffee, Recharge Wednesday, Tune In Thursday, Grace & Truth

23 thoughts on “What If My Prayers Aren’t Answered?

  1. Prayer is a mystery 🙂 As the years have passed, I have learned God always knows what is best for us. While I may not always like the response to prayer, I try to quickly state aloud, “I will trust and follow You still.” It helps me to keep my relationship with God in perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a good study, Lesley. It’s so important to be in the Word regularly so we don’t get a skewed idea from verses taken out of context. I’m very glad some of my prayers weren’t answered the way I wanted at the time.

    Prayer is such a mystery. It’s hard to know why one pastor’s six-year-old grandson died of leukemia and another former pastor died of pancreatic cancer in his prime despite massive prayer all over the world. Yet both incidents were reminders that we’re not guaranteed 80+ years here on earth and we’re just to be faithful with the time we do have. Those incidents remind us as well that this world is not all there is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Barbara! Yes, it is a mystery why some prayers are not answered as we hope. My friend’s husband died last year despite hundreds of people praying for him but it is very comforting to know that this life is not the end.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve been doing more reading and studying about prayer in recent months. The more I pray, the more I feel drawn closer to God. When God feels distant, it’s not because He’s moved. I have. Prayer brings me back to Him. I’ve grappled with the heartache of prayers not being answered my way, but I just need to keep trusting God and know He has a greater plan in store.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I appreciated Philip Yancey’s book too on prayer. I’m sure it will always remain somewhat of a mystery to us because who can understand God? But nonetheless we know we can pray and that God will listen and will often use us as answers to prayer sometimes too.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When my a nodule was detected in my husband’s lung before he had a heart valve replacement, he never asked God for it not to be cancer. I was stunned – and when I asked why, he said, “I believe God is taking care of it – and I don’t want to put him in a box.” I’m learning to not put God in a box for how I want my prayers answered. So I pray – and leave the details up to Him. Some days are easier than others, but He talks me through them!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. i’m so glad He knows and understands … not only our requests, but all the emotions that come and go concerning them. i can only rest knowing that He knows. and that will be enough. even if i don’t have a clue.

    He’s got this all.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Lesley, this wonderful discussion reminds me of Psalm 37:4–“Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” When we were dealing with infertility, I realized (over time) that it is God who puts the right desires in our hearts—that if we delight in him, His desires become our desires. It’s so hard to hold our own desires loosely, though. Can’t wait to read the second part of your talk!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lois! I agree, it can be hard to surrender our desires to God and accept his way, but learning to delight in him makes all the difference.

      Like

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