Unanswered prayer: the bogeyman of Christian faith

I often remember this particular moment in a small group I was once a part of. We were talking about prayer, and the joy of answered prayers, and people were listing off various things they’d prayed for that had been answered by God. After a while, there was a pause, and I asked quietly, “Do you think we sometimes avoid praying for things we don’t believe will really happen?”

For a few moments, the room went dead quiet. Then after a while, people started to nod. The group then began to acknowledge and talk about that scary problem of unanswered prayer — one of those things that as Christians we don’t like to talk about or think about, to the extent that we might even not pray about certain things to avoid having to deal with the issue.

It’s one of those things that for Christians can be a real challenge to our faith. It’s a problem that we don’t really have a pat explanation for. There’s plenty of attempts at explaining, but none of them seem to be completely adequate for those times when God just… seems… silent.

Why are our prayers sometimes unanswered?

So why do some of our prayers seem to go “no higher than the ceiling”? Maybe you’ve heard some of the following explanations put forward for unanswered prayer. While I don’t think any of them are adequate for all circumstances, they can certainly be true in some instances. There are plenty of times when I’ve found one or more of these explanations to be helpful to my own situation.

  • Sometimes the answer is there, we just haven’t recognised it, because it’s in a form we don’t expect.
  • Sometimes the answer is “not yet”. Maybe it’s about learning patience; maybe it’s about growth of some other kind: being formed, being prepared. It might be about other factors that we can’t see; other people involved who need to go through their own process of growth.
  • We might be asking for something that’s not in God’s plan for us. Guess what: that’s ok, and it doesn’t mean your prayer was “wrong”. God’s not going to hold it against you. We don’t have a perfect knowledge of God’s will, and we don’t need to pretend that we do. The truth is, sometimes we do want things that aren’t what’s best for us. Healthy, honest prayer involves bringing those desires out in the open, so God can work with them.
  • Sometimes the prayer has been answered, but we didn’t like the answer all that much. So we pretend we didn’t hear, hoping for a different response. Does this sound familiar to you? I know I’ve been guilty of this. And I know, too, that God remains frustratingly silent until I deal with whatever it is God has already asked me to deal with, whether it’s giving up something that’s not good for me, or taking a leap of faith that scares me.

Trust God in the unknowing

Any of those explanations might be true for your particular situation. Or maybe they’re not. Sometimes, the uncomfortable truth is that we just can’t know the reason for our unanswered prayer. Maybe you’ve asked God why, over and over, and still, He just… seems… silent.

And that’s the hardest thing, isn’t it? That’s the part that gets painful, that can sometimes even tempt us to pack it all in and give up on prayer altogether.

Sometimes the reason for our unanswered prayer is simply that we live in a broken, messed up world. Romans 8 describes all of creation as groaning as in the pains of childbirth. Creation has been “subjected to frustration,” it says, in the hope that one day we will be liberated from all this frustration, and “brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God”.1

God’s will is being worked out, but even so: not everything is going to be as it should be in this lifetime.

That doesn’t mean we give up on praying, though. We pray in spite of the brokenness — and we pray because of the brokenness. We pray because God is right there with us in the grieving and the hurting.

I don’t have all the answers about how prayer works, and why sometimes it feels like it doesn’t. But I will say this: Don’t let it stop you talking to God.

Trust God in the midst of the unknowing. Remember that prayer changes us, too, and that even in those periods of “no answer”, there is change happening in us and around us that we might not even be aware of.

Prayers of lament

There is a place in prayer for crying out and expressing our frustration — for lamenting. Many of the Psalms are psalms of lament. Look at this passage from Psalm 44:

You have made us a reproach to our neighbors,
    the scorn and derision of those around us.
You have made us a byword among the nations;
    the peoples shake their heads at us.
I live in disgrace all day long,
    and my face is covered with shame
at the taunts of those who reproach and revile me,
    because of the enemy, who is bent on revenge.
All this came upon us,
    though we had not forgotten you;
    we had not been false to your covenant.

Psalm 44:13-17

Wow… this psalmist certainly isn’t afraid to be upfront with God about their disappointment! What a great reminder that God doesn’t need our prayers to sound perfect, or for us to pretend our uglier feelings aren’t there. He just wants us to be honest; to give him our hurts and our grievances. He can take it.

God is with us

Even if we can’t see any change at all, even if it seems we’re still in that foggy, in-between place of unanswered prayer, remember that God is still listening. He never stops listening. He hears what we have to say, and he keeps on loving us, no matter how we express it, or how angry or hurt we get, or how many times we repeat ourselves.

God is with us. He’s with us in the dark places, as well as in the light. He’s with us even when he seems silent; even in the times when he feels most distant. He’s with us even when we’re not sure where we are ourselves, or where we’re going. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to carry us through.

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