My church has recently gone through a series on prayer. We have been walking through the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6 and among many things we have discussed how the act of prayer itself is an act of love, of faith, and of surrender.
This series has been a great challenge and renewal for me as I am attempting to revitalize my prayer life. Through various discussions with my community group and my wife, though, I have come across a question that has stirred my thoughts and I thought I would share some of those here.
The big question that has hit me during this time is this: How should we take comfort from unanswered prayers?
I’m sure we’ve all had those times when we’ve come before God and asked for something, that He would move or heal or rescue in some way, and then nothing seems to happen. We may even go to our knees for months constantly asking God to intervene in a specific way, a good way, only to never see fruit come from it. Seemingly, our prayers fall on deaf ears.
These experiences unfortunately can lead to a host of dangerous effects. Little by little, or depending on the situation, all at once, some people start believing that God is not as big as they thought he was. They think that God does not hear as well as them, care as much as them, that He is not as powerful as they thought, or even that maybe He does not exist at all. These are all gentle temptations that can slowly chip away at our faith.
The truth that we find in Scripture, though, is clear. God cares for us and the details of our lives1. He is all good2 and all powerful3. He intimately knows the desires of our hearts and the pain that we feel4. He’s aware of every sickness, every struggle, and every strife.
But the fact remains, that sometimes we don’t see the answers we want from our prayers. We still pray about things and nothing seems to happen. What do we do then in the face of unanswered prayer?
Game Plan for Unanswered Prayer
I’m no systematic theologian, but I do feel like there are a few things that we can all do in face of these circumstances.
- Realize that Every Prayer is Answered
If you have been around Christendom for any length of time, you may have heard the admonition that we cannot come to God as if he’s the Big-Vending-Machine-in-the-Sky. We give Him prayers and He rains down his blessings. Obviously, this is not how it works.
While every prayer may not be answered with a “yes,” though, every prayer is in fact answered. We believe that God is good, and, like a good parent, sometimes it is best for Him to say “no” to His children. Sometimes we ask out of wrong motivations or we ask for things that will actually harm us and God looks down, hears our prayers, and shakes his head. However, we also believe that God is sovereign. working all things to his glory and the good of those who love him. In this respect, every “no” is not a strict negative. Rather, in this monosyllabic word, we hear “wait and see.” For in the end we will be able to look back and see the harmful or simply wrong things that we prayed for and see that God’s supposed silence did in fact turn out for the best.
So the first thing we can do in the face of unanswered prayers is realize that God truly never ignores our cries. Rather he answers with a glorious “Yes!” or he knowingly whispers “wait and see.”
- Continue Praying
The next thing we can do (in obedience to 1 Thessalonians 5:17) is to simply continue praying. Today we live in a culture of instant gratification. If something does not seem to “work” then we put it aside and move on.
But as we have said in the point before, God does not work like a vending machine. Our relationship with God is just that, a relationship. If our spouse does not respond to us in a way that we expect, do we simply give up trying to communicate? Not at all!
Of course praying to God is different than communicating with our spouse or close friends, specifically when it comes to requests. When we bring something before God and ask him to come into the situation and make a change, we are in effect trusting that He has the power to make the change and that He is good enough to desire the change. Just because God may be seemingly silent, though, in some situations that does not mean that either of these things are untrue. And so we should keep praying in faith that they are true.
- Ask God for Change
The third thing we can do then in the face of unanswered prayer, is to ask God for change. Chip Henderson, who has led us through this prayer series, has mentioned many times throughout his sermons that sometimes, before God wants to do something through or around you, he wants to do something in you.
And sometimes that is just what we need. Often times we continue to pray (see point 2) over a situation and over time our prayers become directed in a completely different direction than when we started. That is because, not only does prayer have the power to change the world around us, but it also is sometimes the most powerful tool God uses to change something inside of us. And as we spend more and more time in prayer, God through his Holy Spirit can mold our hearts and minds to be more in line with what he is doing, helping us to join with him in what is doing.
So sometimes we need God to open our eyes to things that we cannot see5. It is a good thing to be fervent and persistent in our prayers, but we should also not neglect to ask God to show us what is his will and to align our hearts with his.
Comfort in Waiting
So we have talked about what we can do in the face of unanswered prayers. But as anyone who has gone through serious struggles in this life knows, action is not always a salve for the pains of the heart.
When we are praying for something we know to be genuinely good, something we are sure would glorify God and bring about a mighty good in the lives of others, and we are met with an opposite result or even silence, it is in those times that our pain can be most vivid in this fallen world. But, and this is the main reason for this post, I want to tell you that there is comfort to be found in the silence.
These comforts are echoes of the actions taken above. In the silence we must know these three things:
- God hears our prayers
Not one tear drops from your face that God does not see6. Not one hair on your head has been left uncounted7. Not one whisper has been unheard8. As our heavenly Father, God cares for his children9. When we are in pain, He invites us to seek His face. He loves us with an enduring love.
All this means that our prayers never fall on deaf ears. God always hears us. He always knows the details that we bring before him. He will never leave us nor forsake us10. He knows the pain we feel over a loved one’s death, an enduring illness or disease, and torn relationships. Take comfort in the fact that we do not have a distant God, he is oh so near11.
- God is good and sovereign
Not only is God near and does he hear our prayers, but he is good and sovereign. Even when it seems that evil prevails, God is good. Even when it seems tyrants rise to oppress, God is in control. Even when health spirals, houses burn, or relationships fall apart, God still reigns and loves. In the darkest of times, God is our refuge and strength12.
This is an immensely important point to understand. If He was good and not all sovereign, then we could have no hope of Him being able to work in our lives. If He was all sovereign but not all good, then we could not trust Him to do what was best. Since He is both, though, we can take comfort in the fact that He does have His glory and our good as His intent and He has the power to bring it about.
- God is at work
The last truth that we must be instilling in our hearts is that God is always at work. Not only does He hear our prayers. Not only is He good and sovereign. He is constantly moving and working all around us.
The danger we come to here is to start thinking of God strictly as a clean-up crew. After a major disaster, He comes in and makes everything better. He cleans up the debris, rebuilds houses, and passes out meals. I will be careful to not say that He does not act as these things, but the truth is that He is so much more than these things.
God does not merely insert goodness into a bad situation. Rather he turns bad situations into good. He does not want to only provide for you when your house burns down, He wants to use the razing of your home to build something completely new. And trust me, when He builds and constructs, it will be a glorious orchestration.
This is how we should act and find comfort in the face of unanswered prayers. Unfortunately, these are no easy things to accomplish and keep in mind, to keep faith in the storm. Part of the problem is that it is so hard to see past our own personal narrative, but even when we’re in the midst of trying times we have to understand that God is bigger than our past, our pain, and our perspective. There is a better narrative that exists out of our immediate site. And when we get to the end of all things, which will really only be the beginning, we will hopefully be able to look back on the story that was woven and only be able to say with joy in our hearts, “there could have been no better way. Praise be to God!”
- 1 Peter 5:7
- Psalms 34:8; Psalms 107:1
- Ephesians 1:11
- John 10:14-15
- 2 Kings 6:15-17
- Psalms 56:8
- Luke 12:7
- Psalms 34:17
- Matthew 6:25-34
- Deuteronomy 31:6
- Psalms 145:18
- Psalms 46:1