Every Christian experiences answered prayer. Every Christian experiences unanswered prayer. It’s easy to appreciate the former and then to move on, but unanswered prayer sticks with us: the illness that persists, the job opening that doesn’t come, the ongoing difficulties we all face and may, in many cases, have prayed about fervently. We see this situation in the apostle Paul’s admission regarding a problem he prayed about unsuccessfully: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Cor. 12:8). Apparently Paul’s prayers were unanswered in this case.
So why unanswered prayer? Only God knows the answer to this question for specific cases, but the Bible gives us at least three reasons, and it’s possible to think of at least one more that we should keep in mind. First, as the Bible often states, the prayers of the unrighteous go unheard (John 9:31); but this was clearly not the situation in Paul’s case, any more than it is for many who are sincerely trying to walk according to God’s commandments.
The apostle James gives an additional warning: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Remember James was writing to believers, not to unbelievers, so perhaps we should examine our motivation whenever our prayer does goes unanswered. There are also doubtless times when God knows that it would not be good for us to answer a prayer affirmatively. Have you ever prayed something, then - because of new information or whatever - realized that what you asked for is not what you need or want? This has certainly happened to me, and as a result I try to remember that asking “Your will be done” is ultimately in our best interests!
But sometimes the problem is not with unrighteousness, or selfish motivation, or asking contrary to God’s will. There is also another situation which I believe may apply to Christians just as often as any of these last three reasons for unanswered prayer. Although it is not one for which we can cite a chapter and verse, the principle is nevertheless to be found in the Bible. But let’s illustrate it with a real-life example. Those of us who are parents know that when children have problems or needs they will often unabashedly ask for help as they think it is needed. When one of our sons was in grade school he came home complaining of being bullied by a bigger kid at his bus stop. He had every confidence that his parent would fix the situation, but thought the answer would be for dad to punish the bully and thus solve the problem. Needless to say, dad explained that that would not be the right way to fix this particular problem and simply talked to the offending child the next day. A simple request to stop the bullying was all that was needed.
Like sincere children, sometimes we just don’t understand what to ask for and may well be asking for something that is not going to be given in the way we ask. God knows our need before we ask it (Matthew 6:8); and Paul says “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit itself intercedes for us…” (Romans 8:26). But that doesn’t mean God will answer exactly according to our request if we are asking for the wrong solution to the problem. Even as adults, we can be a lot like the child who asks for his or her solution to a problem and, as a result, we may not realize it when God works out the situation in a different manner from what we ask. No matter how sincere we may be, if we try to tell God how to do His job, we may find that’s the one way it won’t happen!
This is also true in the matter of timing. When we pray urgently for help that doesn’t arrive just when we think we need it, it’s easy enough to feel that the prayer was unanswered, but that’s not necessarily the case at all. We have to remind ourselves that we pray on our schedules and God answers on His. He doubtless knows when it will be best to answer our requests, but that doesn’t mean our prayers will never be answered.
You may not have noticed it, but there is a great biblical example of asking in a way that doesn’t stipulate what or when we think help needs to be given. In 2 Chronicles 20: 1-12 Jehoshaphat, one of ancient Israel’s few good kings, was told that a vast enemy army was heading toward Jerusalem. “Alarmed, Jehoshaphat resolved to inquire of the Lord, and he proclaimed a fast for all Judah … Then Jehoshaphat stood up in the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem at the temple of the LORD and said: 'Lord, the God of our ancestors, are you not the God who is in heaven? You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations … here are men from Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir … coming to drive us out of the possession you gave us as an inheritance. Our God, will you not judge them? For we have no power to face this vast army that is attacking us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.'”
Notice that Jehoshaphat doesn’t ask for angelic armies to come to Israel’s aid; he doesn’t ask for plagues or whirlwinds to strike the enemy or any of the many ways we might imagine God could take care of the situation; and he doesn’t even ask for help now! His prayer ended with a simple “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” What kind of a prayer is that? you might ask. Jehoshaphat just mentions the situation and doesn’t even seem to ask for any specific help. Indeed, he does not. Nevertheless, Jehoshaphat ‘s prayer was answered. We are told that “The Lord set ambushes against the men of Ammon and Moab and Mount Seir who were invading Judah, and they were defeated” (2 Chron. 20:22).
Think about this. If Jehoshaphat had earnestly asked God for firestorms or floods or whatever to be unleashed upon his enemy, he might well have thought his prayer was unanswered. In this case his prayer obviously was answered, and quickly, but the point is that Jehoshaphat simply showed his faith and asked God’s help, leaving the details up to God.
Perhaps there is a lesson in this for us all. If we are living as we know we should, being right in the motivation for our requests, and letting God choose the best way to answer our needs, we can be sure that our prayers will be answered according to God’s will. We still have to accept God’s will in the matter, but we can pray “Your will be done” with confidence when we understand that God does have our ultimate happiness foremost in mind. When we remember that, and that God will answer as He knows best, we will also realize that we may actually have fewer unanswered prayers than we often think.