When I was young, somebody told me that there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer, because God always answers by saying, “Yes,”, “No,” or “Maybe.” While that might be technically true, from our perspective as finite human beings, a “no” certainly feels the same as no answer at all. And anyone who has tried to cultivate a faithful and effective prayer life knows the frustration of not receiving from God what you requested, especially if it’s something close to your heart.
One of the most common questions we ask in that situation is, “Why?” Quite often, the reasons are mysterious. We might never know why on this side of heaven. However, it might surprise you to know that the Bible does offer a few possible reasons why our prayers are not answered in the way we desire:
Several passages in Scripture tell us that when we are in open rebellion against God, He might not respond positively to our requests. For example, Isaiah 1:15:
“When you spread out your hands in prayer, I look the other way; when you offer your many prayers, I do not listen, because your hands are covered with blood. Wash! Cleanse yourselves! Remove your sinful deeds from my sight. Stop sinning! Learn to do what is right! Promote justice! Give the oppressed reason to celebrate! Take up the cause of the orphan! Defend the rights of the widow!”
In other words, when we willfully disobey God and mistreat other people, He looks less favorably on our requests. He disciplines us to bring us to repentance. A similar passage is found in 1 Peter 3:7:
“You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”
Peter indicates that God’s response to a man’s prayers at least partly hinges upon how that man treats his wife, which should be sobering for every man who reads the passage.
To be clear, of course, we can’t simply assume in every case that our sin is preventing us from getting what we ask from God. And we must be extremely careful not to say or to imply that the reason God hasn’t answered somebody else’s prayers is because of their sin. That assumption is usually false, and almost always hurtful. However, the Bible is clear that sometimes, sin is the reason. For that reason, it is important to search our own hearts and motives as we pray, asking if there is sin we need to confess before we start to make our requests.
It’s tempting to come before God with a spirit of entitlement, rather than a spirit of humility. When we do that, we’re tempted to view God as a genie who exists to give us whatever we want. We ask Him to fulfill our selfish desires, when instead we should be asking for the things we need in order to serve Him and love others well.
James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
Our motives are never perfectly pure, of course, but we ought to constantly ask God to help us make requests in keeping with His will, and not merely in keeping with our own preferences and wishes.
Lack of Persistence
Jesus told more than one parable about how important it is to persist in prayer, even when we feel like giving up. In Luke 18, he told a parable that was designed to communicate that we should pray “at all times…and not to lose heart.” The parable describes a heartless and unjust judge who finally grants the request of a poor widow, because she keeps coming back to him to ask for justice. She asks him over and over, to the point where he concedes, not because he’s a righteous judge (he isn’t), but because he’s getting worn down by her persistence.
Jesus goes on to explain that if even an unjust judge is moved by persistence, how much more is our righteous and compassionate God willing and eager to hear us when we pray with perseverance.
Jesus’s point isn’t that God just enjoys making us wait, or hearing us beg. Instead, He says that God will answer quickly, although not always immediately. God’s perspective on timing is often different from ours. Sometimes, when we persist in prayer over the long haul, we develop character and trust that we cannot develop in any other way. Instant gratification is not always what’s best for us, and God knows that. He asks us to trust Him, and to keep praying, even when the answers are not immediate.
God’s Mysterious Will
Last but not least, sometimes God’s will is mysterious, and we simply don’t know why He does not fulfill our requests. Sometimes God has a plan that is greater than what we are asking for, and we need to learn to trust Him. Many people have pointed out that Jesus Himself prayed for God to spare Him from crucifixion, and yet He still went to the Cross (Matthew 26:39). The apostle Paul prayed fervently for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, and yet God did not remove it from him (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). God allowed Paul’s pain to continue so that he could learn how to trust in God’s grace rather than in his own strength. Paul’s character was more important to God than Paul’s comfort, in other words.
There are many times in which we aren’t clear on why God answers with a “no” instead of a “yes,” but He asks us to trust Him. Because He is all-powerful and perfectly good, we know that everything will be resolved in His timing and in His way.
So we ought to keep praying, and keep drawing near to Him, even when we don’t get what we want. We trust that God does care about us deeply, and sometimes He cares about us too much to simply give us what we think we want. His way is always best, even when it seems puzzling to finite people like us.