Unanswered Prayer: Many Biblical Examples

Bible Heroes’ Never-Answered Prayers

Grantley Morris

This is just a draft being regularly improved.
Last updated October 9, 2018

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This might be one of the most peculiar webpages you will ever read. Part of me is confident about plunging into the thorny but well-attested biblical fact of never-answered prayer. What almost paralyses me, however, is being acutely aware that some of us are writhing in pain over prayer for divine intervention going unanswered. The result can be, as it were, such an open wound that even the tenderest touch sends these dear people reeling in intolerable agony or exploding in unsuppressible fury.

Although I tackle the bigger picture in such webpages as Why I Hate the Myth of a Cruel Christian God, and I will touch on it below, my main focus in this discussion is narrower: to comfort those who mistakenly fear that a failure to secure answered prayer might mean they are second class in God’s eyes. The truth – affirmed over and over in Scripture – is that virtually everyone that heaven honors has suffered unanswered prayer.

Further harrowing dilemmas await anyone with the nerve to embrace an uncompromisingly honest investigation of the prayers of the righteous that, even in the Bible, remained unanswered. It would grieve me if anyone mistakenly imagines that grappling with this matter will undermine faith in answered prayer. On the contrary, my goal is to build you up by ensuring your faith is solidly Bible-based.

Regretfully, the result will shock the many of us who are unaware that their ‘faith’ has, in part, been founded on misinterpretation of God’s precious Word. But truth puts muscle on our faith. Even if it momentarily stuns us, truth empowers us and fires us to new heights in God, the prayer-answering Lord of the universe. It will also rescue us from lies that will not only end in disappointment but too often cruelly dupe spiritual champions into mistakenly thinking they have failed.

Superficially, never-answered prayer seems such a negative subject that even among studious Bible readers, very few have stopped to realize how many incidents of unanswered prayer are secreted in God’s Word. Since, however, not just favorite verses, but “Every Scripture is God-breathed and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work,” (2 Timothy 3:16-17) it is foolhardy to disregard any part of God’s Word. Any Bible truth, no matter how glorious, can end up causing more harm than we dare imagine when divorced from the checks and balances of the rest of the Bible’s teaching.

Like all of us, I’m sure to have areas of ignorance and vulnerability that I don’t even realize. Even on the topic in hand, I have no delusion of having exhausted the inexhaustible riches in a fraction of God’s Word. The Bible’s treasury on unanswered prayer is simply a realm I have explored more than many of us, and I seek to serve you by sharing my discoveries.

For those whose heart isn’t crushed by personal tragedy or aren’t desperate for satisfactory answers to perplexing questions, I have a highly shortened version. If you are content with a brief overview of relevant, rarely compiled Scriptures, see Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayers. In the following, however, we will add significantly more Scriptures and unpack them, extracting treasure that will empower us.

The next section below delves into the Bible; uncovering numerous incidents of Bible saints reeling because of prayers that were never answered. Right now, however, I will provide a valuable perspective from which to view this surprising information.

A shallow or selective reading of Scripture might lead some to imagine that the Bible teaches that our Lord always gives passionate, faith-filled Christians whatever they pray for. A more careful reading, however, proves over and over and over that whilst the prayers of hypocrites or the ungodly are not even heard (Very Many Scriptures) God answers all the prayers of his children but, like any loving father, the answer is sometimes, “No,” or “Later.” (Actually, with our loving Lord, “No” means, “I have a better plan.”) As with any child, this infuriates the immature, often causing them to imagine God is unfair, plays favorites, or is even cruel. As children grow, however, they commence the long and unsettling discovery that life is far more complex than they had dared dream. Slowly, they begin seeing wisdom in perplexing parental decisions, and their frustration or even hostility, slowly turns to gratitude and even an exquisite feeling of security.

On earth, however, we grow only in the limited sense of learning to trust God’s love and wisdom, and gaining a little insight into a mere fraction of the agonizing complexities our Lord faces in dealing with a world that refuses to do things his loving, wise way. None of us can truly imagine the anguish of a holy Lord who is so mind-bogglingly compassionate that his heart breaks not just the for the ‘innocent’ (we crucified the only true Innocent) but the guilty. Nor can we imagine the burden of being a God whose intellect is so powerful as to comprehend the full extent to almost every ‘tiny,’ ‘easy’ decision triggers chain reactions that, whilst perhaps immensely helping some people in the short term, end up harming others further along the bewildering maze of time.

If you were already in heaven, you wouldn’t suffer things that happen in this sin-stricken world –being spurned or misunderstood, losing a loved one, enduring physical pain, and so one – but you wouldn’t be able to help rescue anyone from hell, not support anyone who does. To loosely paraphrase a passage of Scripture:

    Foster the resolve of Jesus, who for God’s sake willingly relinquished his right to heaven’s ease and pleasures to suffer horrifically with and for humanity to do all he could to rescue them from the eternal consequences of their sin. And just as he is eternally honored and empowered for doing this, so will you (Philippians 2:5-9).

Certain pagan philosophers, sadly deprived of revelation about God’s love, have even feared prayer. They had the intelligence to realize that human inability to perceive every eventuality means that even what to us seems essential or undeniably good, could astonish us by turning out disastrously and prove to be the very thing we should never have asked for. A cruel or robotic god might give us whatever we pray for, but a wise, loving Father would protect us from the consequences of our finite intelligence and will sometimes risk our wrath by wisely declining our requests.

Unanswered prayer is such an important topic and so easily confused by fuzzy thinking or misinterpretation of the Bible, that I have devoted several webpages to the topic; each approaching the subject from a different angle. At the end of this webpage is a link to one of them: The Joy of Unanswered Prayer. In it, I address the personal bewilderment and anguish we face when our own deepest prayers go unanswered. I explain from Scripture why having our top prayer requests never answered does not mean we have somehow failed. Astonishingly, in fact, our heart-felt prayers going unanswered is actually something to celebrate, and it proves God’s love, wisdom and goodness.

This webpage differs from that one in that, rather than focusing on our own unanswered prayers, it examines the surprisingly many prayers of leading Bible characters that went unanswered, and why these, too, prove God’s goodness, and confirm that many of us have been mistaken in interpreting some Scriptures as saying that every prayer of the righteous will be answered with a yes.

bible puzzle

Bible Heroes’ Never-Answered Prayers

I wanted to start here with all the times Moses, David, Elijah, Job, Jonah and all of Jesus’ hand-picked disciples, including Peter, James and John suffered unanswered prayer. I don’t mean delayed answers to prayer, but every time these faith giants, despite all the Bible’s promises about answered prayer, made requests of God – sometimes very passionately – that were never granted. Added to that are the times God even says in his Word there are prayer requests he would refuse to answer even if Noah, Samuel, Jeremiah and Daniel pleaded for them.

The details would scuttle the mistaken notion that God mindlessly answers every sincere prayer, no matter how misguided. This fascinating Bible tour would be convincing and highly informative, even if some of the declined requests turned out to be more foolish or ungodly than the person realized, or the matter was less than deadly serious, or one might argue that the situation was somewhat tainted by sin (despite, by then, the person being genuinely repentant).

So my head said to start with these clear-cut, undeniable Bible facts. But my heart will not let me. I feel too deeply for the many of us for whom unanswered prayer costs horrifically; bringing us to the brink of despair and fueling deep resentment. When, later in this webpage, I flesh out the just-mentioned list of the unanswered prayers of the righteous, the fact of Bible-attested unanswered prayer will be irrefutable. No matter how definitive, however, several of these biblical proofs could seem too trivial or not sufficiently bewildering to galvanize the attention of those reeling under particularly bitter consequences of prayers not being answered. So I won’t start there.

[praying hands]

To craft this webpage, I have racked my mind searching for every biblical example of godly people having their requests of God not merely put on hold but never granted. Have I found every instance? Possibly not. I have certainly uncovered many that do not appear in Bible dictionaries, topical Bibles or cross references. Despite very many times reading the entire Bible from cover to cover, I have not done so specifically for this purpose. That makes me dependent upon a less than perfect memory. Moreover, some examples of unanswered prayer, though fairly obvious when pointed out, hide from anyone who has yet to put in the prayer and hard thinking (what the Bible sometimes calls meditation) required to pry beneath the surface.

For instance, an indirect biblical indicator that Spirit-filled Christians can expect some of their prayers to be unanswered is found by delving into New Testament teaching about persecution and trials, such as:

    2 Timothy 3:12  . . . all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.

A little thought reveals what makes this so significant to our topic. Many of us can tolerate and/or understand several types of unanswered prayer but it turns very different when personal tragedy strikes.

    Sidenote: I worry that starting here will seem too vague for readers for whom prayer is more an academic curiosity than a devastatingly personal issue that cuts them to the core. Even this section will soon edge towards more definitive examples of unanswered prayer but those anxious to plunge in at the deep end can jump to the next major section if they prefer.

Consider Paul’s agonizingly long list of incarcerations, torture, stonings, and so on (2 Corinthians 11:24-29). Does anyone seriously think that this bloodied saint never prayed for protection? How likely is it that in the midst of the at least five times Paul received 39 lashes (an appalling total of 195) he never once prayed that his torturers stop before reaching that number?

If you suppose Paul never prayed for his suffering to end, consider that this is the man who showed no hesitation in using his Roman citizenship to reduce his suffering (Scriptures). In fact, carefully read what flowed from his pen:

    1 Timothy 2:1-2 I exhort therefore, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and givings of thanks, be made for all men: for kings and all who are in high places; that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and reverence. (Emphasis mine.)

And what about the imprisonments that kept Paul from preaching to the lost and from strengthening Christians in their fragile spiritual infancy? During all those empty hours, did he never find time to pray that he be released earlier than he was?

After writing 2 Corinthians Paul suffered at least one more shipwreck, (Acts 27:42-28:3) making a total of four. To draw upon what I have written elsewhere about the implications:

    Persecution is one thing, but natural disasters are in a different league. Surely none of Paul’s shipwrecks were due to anyone opposing the Gospel, and at least one, perhaps all, was the result of a storm. In the light of Jesus calming the sea (Luke 8:24), plus the biblical affirmation that the Almighty ‘has his way in the whirlwind and in the storm’ (Nahum 1:3 – note also Psalm 107:23-29) and that the Almighty used a storm to prevent Jonah from sailing away from God’s calling, it would be so easy to fall into despair by mistakenly interpreting storm-induced shipwrecks as signs of divine disapproval, or at least indifference. But this mighty man of God drudged on, convinced that despite it all, the good, all-powerful Lord loved him and was with him.

    Great faith does not mean an end to dark times when everything and everyone in hell, heaven and earth seems to be against you. Great faith means slogging on regardless; stubbornly holding on to the conviction that nothing – not “oppression, or anguish, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword . . . nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing” (Romans 8:35-39) nor unanswered prayer – can mean that God has stopped loving you or has given up on you.

You might accuse me of speculation in supposing that some of Paul’s prayers for protection went unanswered, but if Paul had the almost superhuman iron will it would take never to pray for an end to his torture, the question screams: Why? I am well aware that from early in his calling the Lord showed Paul what he would suffer (Acts 9:16). Peculiarly, that’s relevant and yet changes nothing. It still means the man who received more revelation than virtually anyone ever to walk this planet was absolutely certain that Jesus preaching, “Ask anything,” should not be understood as a divine invitation to literally ask for anything you ache for that is not sin, even if you were in the midst of being tortured, with every fiber of your being crying out for it to end. And if prayer means we can get anything we earnestly desire that is not sin, why didn’t Paul and other martyrs successfully pray for God to change his plan? This issue engulfs far more Christians than just Paul:

    Philippians 1:29-30  . . . to you has been graciously granted on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer on behalf of him, having the same struggle which you saw in me and now hear about in me. (Lexham English Bible)

The apostle, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, did not say pray and it will go away but that suffering has been “graciously granted” to them.

Instead of graciously granted, a number of English Bible versions simply say granted or given. I confess that for most of my life such a bare boned translation led me to misinterpret this as implying being reluctantly given something unpleasant, rather than realize the astonishingly true meaning: for a Christian to suffer is to be generously honored with a precious gift.

What finally altered me to the correct interpretation is discovering that Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines the word as meaning, “to do something pleasant or agreeable (to one), to do a favor to”. This inspired a deeper study of the what Greek word means in the context of this verse Details. The result left me filled with awe at the sacred privilege granted to Christians who suffer.

I found particularly moving these quotes for Bible commentaries following on this passage:

    The revered New Testament scholar J. B. Lightfoot says the portion of the Scripture we are examining means, “God has granted you the high privilege of suffering for Christ; this is the surest sign, that He looks upon you with favour (sic).”

    Gerald F. Hawthorne, in his highly regarded work comments, “To use the apostle’s own words, in that the Philippians, as he himself, are suffering, they actually are filling up ‘what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s sufferings’ (Col 1:24-25). They, by having joined the “fellowship of his sufferings (Phil 3:10), have chosen to be Christ’s replacements on earth in order to suffer in his place in his absence. It is not that anyone dares put himself on the same level with Christ in this respect. Yet there apparently is a very real sense in which Christ needs people who are willing to take upon themselves the burden of his suffering in history that still remains to be borne. Paul on the one hand, wishes to be such a person (Col 1:24-25)—to suffer in Christ’s stead that others may be consoled (2 Cor 1:4-6), to die that others might live (2 Cor 4:12), to endure hardships that others might be saved (1 Cor 4:13 . . .) The Philippians, on the other hand, can also share in this privilege. They, too, may “suffer in Christ’s place” . . . Thus it is that Paul dares say that suffering . . . ‘in Christ’s stead’ is a divine gift offered to them in love.”

    H. A. A. Kennedy wrote, “The prospect of suffering was apt to terrify them. But when they view suffering in its true light they will discover that it is a gift of God’s grace . . . instead of an evil. . . . To emphasize the real value of suffering for Christ’s sake, he compares it with that which they all acknowledge as the crowning blessing of their lives, their faith in Him.”

I will help unpack this enigma shortly. For the moment, let’s note that the notion of God allowing Christians to suffer is somehow within the permissive will of God is much bigger than Paul. Another apostle, writing under the Spirit’s anointing to a different audience, said the same thing:

    1 Peter 4:12 Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you, as though a strange thing happened to you.

    1 Peter 3:17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, that you suffer for doing well than for doing evil.

    (Emphasis mine.)

Care must be taken in interpreting the reference here to God’s will. This is not, of course, referring to heaven. There, God’s will is done perfectly and exclusively because the divine Judge has reluctantly banished to eternal judgment everyone breaking his heart and hurting each other by acting contrary to his perfect ways.

Instead, this verse is speaking of the will of a God who hates sin but loves the sinner – a God who reels in anguish when sinners directly or indirectly inflict suffering on the innocent, and yet a God who loves the guilty so much as to want them to have yet another chance to repent before it is too late.

It is God’s will in the sense that it was God’s will for Christ to suffer, even though his suffering inflicted as much pain on the Father as it did the Son. God recoils from seeing pain or being in pain. Christ’s suffering was God’s will, solely because we sinners desperately needed him to endure it. Likewise, what we suffer through not yet being in heaven is because, as much as it hurts the good Lord, we are currently needed on a planet where evil abounds.

We are beginning to see that the Bible regards it as a privilege for the righteous to suffer. Of course, what makes this relevant to our discussion is that, like Jesus in the garden, this involves having prayers for deliverance from suffering going unanswered. Such suffering certainly includes persecution (“Blessed are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake”) but it is wider than that. When Christians suffer, it is because, rather than taking it easy in heaven, they have been divinely assigned to this spiritual war zone we call earth. As challenging as it is, this is our opportunity for glory. Let’s not waste this by paying the price of being in this evil world without doing all we can to achieve the most for our Lord.

The divine dilemma is that what is best for those who have not yet surrendered to God is a delay in God’s judgment on this planet, and for committed Christians to be around to lead them to Christ before God’s patience ends. This is so very different from what, in the short term, is best for those who are already in Christ and so already safe from divine judgment.

My longing is to stick solely to the Bible in this page but for those writhing in pain and bewilderment, permit me to stray into sheer logic for a moment. We can easily get too intoxicated to think straight over the notion that nothing is impossible for an almighty God; so blinded by rage at such a God that we cannot see any of the dilemmas a God of love faces.

For example, a man wrote to me, angry that God had not answered his prayers to stop his wife from leaving him. I replied, asking why he hadn’t used his superior strength to kidnap his wife and keep her imprisoned in his house so that he could have her forever. If he were too moral to commit this atrocity, why did he expect a holy God to be more depraved than him? If this man were not satisfied with a wife who stayed only because she was forced, why would he be satisfied with a wife who stayed only because she was conned or drugged or hypnotized, or whatever? A God who could get her to stay when she really wanted to leave would have to resort to manipulation and underhand tactics of that order.

A God of love wants people to love, and love cannot be forced or manipulated. Not even an all-powerful God can do the logically absurd, such a make a square circle. An object that is a square is not a circle. Likewise, something that is forced or conned is not real love. There are things not even an omnipotent God can do, such as making an immoral act moral.

Put another way: God has dignifies us with the ability to be morally accountable, and anyone placed in some sort of divinely induced stupor is not morally praiseworthy but a mindless automaton – something no longer in the image of God but less than human.

Looked at yet another way: if it were legitimate for our Lord to force salvation (which involves a change of heart) upon people, it would be an act of cruelty on his part not to force it on everyone.

Moreover, as this dear man shared the details of his wife’s tragic fall from righteousness into drug addiction and depravity, it takes no genius to realize that she had broken God’s heart, just as much (I believe more, given the infinity of God’s love) as her husband’s heart. And even without this, our loving Lord was heart-broken for this dear man. God, however, remains a person of impeccable integrity and will resort to nothing underhand, even to spare his own pain. In situations where God sees the need to exercise his astonishing patience by delaying judgment on sinners who will be affected by that decision, “God’s will” is more like a necessary compromise than something that thrills him.

Speaking of delayed judgment: like Christ, his true followers would rather suffer severe heartache and/or physical pain, and remain in a sin-ravished world where than can still help those who have not yet surrendered to Christ. And like him, and through him, they will be honored and eternally compensated for any suffering they endure in order to be in a depraved world that is opposed to them but desperately needs them. In the words of one who suffered horrifically:

    2 Corinthians 4:17-18 For our light affliction, which is for the moment, works for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory; while we don’t look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.

    Philippians 1:21-25 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will bring fruit from my work; yet I don’t know what I will choose. But I am in a dilemma between the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Yet, to remain in the flesh is more needful for your sake. Having this confidence, I know that I will remain, yes, and remain with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith

Note also:

    Philippians 3:10 My aim is . . . to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death (NET Bible).

At least eight other Bible versions use the expression “share in his sufferings”. “I want to suffer with him,” says the New Living Translation (Contemporary English Version is almost identical). “I want to join him in his sufferings” (New International Reader’s Version). “I long to share his sufferings” says the JB Phillips version. Other renderings include “I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could . . . be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself.” (Message Bible) and “I want to . . . join in His suffering” (The Voice).

In our era, crammed as it is with “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God,” (2 Timothy 3:4) this is a startling statement. It was divinely prophesied that the time would come when people would be “lovers of self” (2 Timothy 3:1-2). Surely this describes our era. In such a self-serving, pleasure-seeking world, to willingly – even eagerly – share someone’s suffering is an alien concept. It’s a common New Testament theme, however.

How do you feel about suffering in order to share in the anguish of the one who suffered for you, and who still agonizes over sinners and would do – in fact has already done – everything possible to be there for them and bring them back to God? The notion of embracing such suffering, though well understood in New Testament times, is so foreign to our sin-sick, self-infatuated era that many of us slip over Scriptures about sharing Christ’s suffering as if they don’t exist. If you care enough, consult the tiny list of relevant Scriptures, prayerfully looking to God to read them with fresh eyes, unclouded by worldly thinking.

I will move on, but to help shed light on the difference between the good that God would do in a world that let him, and the good he wrings out of anti-God situations, here’s a quote of mine:

    As an oyster, instead of ejecting a detested irritant, transforms it into an exquisite pearl, the infinitely good Lord takes acts he despises and, in staggering patience and breath-taking genius, fashions them into love-filled masterpieces of divine beauty. We can end up so awestruck by the finished masterpiece that it is hard to realize that the initial elements were not acts of God but satanically-inspired manifestations of ugliness that crushed God’s heart and repulsed him. We must recognize the process, lest in our confusion we defame our Lord by supposing he instigated things that were utterly contrary to the perfection of his love and goodness. On the other extreme, evil is so obvious early on, that one can mistakenly suppose the good Lord is nowhere to be found. Faith in God’s goodness is the one thing that will save us from the danger of seeing only the obvious and being thrown by circumstances.

In citing biblical insights into Christian suffering, let’s not forget John, who described himself as “your brother and partner with you in oppression, [other versions say suffering, affliction, sorrows, or tribulation] . . . and perseverance in Christ Jesus” (Revelation 1:9). He penned Revelation while having been banished (perhaps with hard labor) to Patmos. While “in the Spirit” (Revelation 1:10) he heard the Risen Lord tell Christians such things as:

    Revelation 2:9-10 I know your works, oppression, and your poverty . . . Don’t be afraid of the things which you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested; and you will have oppression for ten days [presumably a figurative expression of the duration]. Be faithful to death, and I will give you the crown of life.

Three times John spoke of “the prayers of saints” (Revelation 5:8; 8:3, 8:4) and yet he wrote:

    Revelation 13:6-7 He opened his mouth for blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name . . . It was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them. . . .

Whatever the implications of being “overcome” by this ungodly power, it is sure to be physical, not spiritual, but sufficiently unpleasant for those suffering it to want it to stop. Despite the prayers of “the saints” reaching the throne of God and being so treasured by heaven that their prayers are mixed with incense, (Revelation 5:6-8; 8:3-4 God’s Word is emphatic that the oppression will still occur.

So, however one looks at it, Paul’s experience – and that of every other spiritually powerful woman or man who has suffered for Christ – rocks many people’s shallow understanding of the Bible’s teaching about prayer. God’s promise is unshakable. The only thing that could crumble is our interpretation of those promises.

Moreover, the following makes it undeniable that Paul suffered unanswered prayer:

    2 Corinthians 12:7-9  . . . there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me . . . Concerning this thing, I begged the Lord three times that it might depart from me. He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” . . .

Not once, not twice, but three times, this mighty apostle earnestly prayed (“begged,” “pleaded,” “implored” is how various translations put it) for deliverance, and God declined. Did Paul sulk or get angry or resentful? On the contrary, the above quote ends, “Most gladly therefore I will rather glory in my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest on me.” This was the response of a true man of God; a faith giant who could say, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 11:1, NIV).

All of this begs the question, however, Why doesn’t God keep Christians who are needed on earth in some sort of protective bubble? That way they could still help the lost, without suffering. I would love to explore this with you but to adequately do so would be straying too far from the topic in hand. For answers, see Why Christians Suffer.

[praying hands]

As much as we might wish it, prayer is the not the coward’s way out, nor a ticket to an easy life. If anything drives this home, it is our exalted Role Model praying with blood-like sweat pouring from him, an hour before his arrest. If anyone inspires us to believe in the power of prayer, it is the one whose own prayers did not save him from the cross; the one who said:

    Matthew 6:34  . . . don’t be anxious for tomorrow . . . Each day’s own evil is sufficient.

    Matthew 10:21-25 Brother will deliver up brother to death . . . You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake . . . when they persecute you in this city, flee into the next . . . A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher, and the servant like his lord. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more those of his household!

    Matthew 6:24  . . . You can’t serve both God and Mammon.

    Luke 12:15  . . . Beware! Keep yourselves from covetousness, for a man’s life doesn’t consist of the abundance of the things which he possesses.

    Luke 14:26-27 If anyone comes to me, and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother, wife, children, brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he can’t be my disciple. Whoever doesn’t bear his own cross, and come after me, can’t be my disciple.

It is noteworthy that, technically, Jesus’ agonized prayers in the garden were not denied. He asked for it only “if it is possible” (Matthew 26:39, 42). At first thought, it seems bizarre that our Lord would use this expression. Not only was Jesus conscious that, theoretically, nothing is impossible with God, he taught this very thing (Matthew 19:26). Jesus was wrestling, however, with a dilemma that our prayers often hit: there are things that even for the Almighty are impossible and it be the greatest good.

For example, Scripture is emphatic that, in practice, it is impossible for God to lie (Hebrews 6:18) or to deny his very nature (2 Timothy 2:13). That’s because it is not possible for God to do such things and it be good and/or wise. Likewise, despite the infinite Mind being able to devise things that to us are inconceivable, it is apparently impossible, even for someone of unlimited intelligence and power, to invent a way for the Son of God to avoid the cross, while permitting a just God to forever treat any of us as if we had never sinned. Similarly, for complex reasons that are often beyond us, it is sometimes impossible for God to answer our prayers and it be the best (righteous, most loving, most effective) course of action.

If you were the only person in the universe the Almighty had to consider and if he had only to concern himself with this moment in time and not consider your future, there would be much less reason for this webpage.

Furthermore, I have often found that the Lord pays more attention to the spirit of my prayers than my ‘helpful’ (‘narrow-minded’ is another word) advice as to how he should bring it about. For instance, if I am concerned about someone, I often think something would most help them, and so pray for it, but my amazing sometimes Lord thrills and astonishes me by ignoring what to me seems the only course of action, and responds to my wishes by blessing the person by what, in the long term, turns out to be far more effective way.

For those angry with God for not answering their prayers, I suggest reading Is it Mad to be Mad at God? and the links it leads to.

In this webpage, however, we will proceed both with uncovering many biblical examples of unanswered prayer and with discovering that these incidents are far more positive than most of us would have guessed.

bible interpretation

More Unanswered Prayers of Bible Saints

Moses had such a favored position with God that the Lord states in his Word:

    Exodus 33:11 The Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend. . . .

    Numbers 12:6-8  . . . “Now hear my words. If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, will make myself known to him in a vision. I will speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so. He is faithful in all my house. With him, I will speak mouth to mouth, even plainly, and not in riddles; and he shall see the Lord’s form. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?”

When this special man of God stood before the burning bush, he pleaded with God, “Oh, Lord, please send someone else.” The Lord not only refused, his “anger burned against Moses” for even asking (Exodus 4:13-14).

Will you join me in leaping for joy that we serve such a prayer unanswering God? Rather than answering prayers that let us settle for mediocrity or worse, our gracious Lord honors us by expecting us to break free from cowardice and rise to the heights he knows a life yielded to him is capable of.

Proof that unanswered prayer is not just the result of spiritual immaturity surfaced later. Even after forty more years of revelation, spiritual growth, and faithful service, Moses passionately uttered a prayer that God refused to answer:

    Deuteronomy 3:23-26 I begged the Lord at that time, saying, “ . . . Please let me go over and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that fine mountain, and Lebanon.” But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and didn’t listen to me. The Lord said to me, “. . . Speak no more to me of this matter. . . .”

He was not allowed to set foot on the land and permitted only to see it from a distance.

Had this prayer or the next one we will mention or similar ones been answered, we might fall into the lie of thinking that what we do does not really matter. The principle is expressed here:

    1 Corinthians 10:11-12 Now all these things happened to them by way of example, and they were written for our admonition, on whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands be careful that he doesn’t fall.

Though not always associated with unanswered prayer, the principle of unavoidable judgment achieving good extends beyond Old Testament incidents. Consider the death of Ananias and Sapphira, after which “Great fear came on all who heard” of it (Acts 5:5). Another example is the seven sons of Sceva trying to cast demons out in the name of “Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Precisely because it turned out badly, it “became known to all, both Jews and Greeks, who lived at Ephesus. Fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified. Many also of those who had believed came, confessing, and declaring their deeds. Many of those who practiced magical arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. . . . So [or “in this way,” NIV] the word of the Lord was growing and becoming mighty” (Acts 19:17-20).

“One of the illusions of life,” said Emerson, “is that the present hour is not the critical, decisive hour.” There are times when unanswered prayer rams home this truth like nothing else can.

[praying hands]

David was so close to God that the Lord said he was “a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14; Acts 13:22). Like Moses, (Deuteronomy 9:13-14, 18-19) he had such sway with God that his intercession halted God’s judgment on the entire nation (2 Samuel 24:25). Nevertheless, we read:

    2 Samuel 12:16-18 David therefore begged God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house arose beside him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, and he didn’t eat bread with them. On the seventh day, the child died. . . .

King David yearned to build the temple (2 Chronicles 6:7). It was such a godly idea (1 Kings 8:17) that even the prophet Nathan gave his initial approval (2 Samuel 7:2-3). Nevertheless, despite the purity of his motives, this is yet another time when the Lord denied David’s heart’s desire (1 Chronicles 17:1-4; 1 Chronicles 28:2-3).

[praying hands]

Elijah, hailed by James as the ultimate proof that “The insistent prayer of a righteous person is powerfully effective,” (James 5:16-18) prayed that he would die. The Lord refused to grant his request (1 Kings 19:4).

Likewise Job, the man of whom the Lord said, “There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil,” (Job 1:8) prayed, “Oh that I might have my request, that God would grant the thing that I long for, even that it would please God to crush me; that he would . . . cut me off!” (Job 6:8-9). His prayer, too, went unanswered. Instead of the relief he craved, his torment dragged on and on. Many chapters later he lamented in his agonized prayer, “I cry to you, and you do not answer me” (Job 30:20).

There are still more Bible indications of great men of God whose lives might have been tragically cut short if our Lord had answered such prayers. “If you treat me this way, please kill me right now . . . ” prayed Moses. In this instance, he gave God an alternative (Numbers 11:14-15). There was no such loophole in the prophet Jonah’s prayer, however: “. . . Lord, take, I beg you, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3, 8-9).

Had such prayers been answered, we would have a thinner and/or different Bible. The full implications, however, are far more profound. Lest our discovery tour begin to seem like a dry collection of Bible trivia, let’s pause to ponder some of the practical ways this divine principle benefits you and me.

Try imagining living in a world where people who preferred death were divinely granted their wish. Who can even conceive of all the accumulative good achieved by everyone who, at one time or another before achieving their maximum, has had at least a brief, but serious, downer. Consider, for example, how vastly more primitive this world would be if many of humanity’s inventors or agents of change had had their lives snuffed out, simply because death were only a prayer away. In fact, in such a world, incalculably vast numbers of even highly positive people would not even have been born, merely because somewhere in their immensely long family tree someone had had a moment of despair.

This alone is enough to give us more reasons than we could even grasp for falling in joyous wonder before a God who refuses to surrender his sovereignty by mindlessly granting every prayer request.

You might not think this is directly applicable to your unanswered prayer because, unlike those who wanted to die, you prayed for something that is undeniably best. The problem with such thinking is that all the people who have seriously prayed for death and ended up grateful they did not die, were also utterly convinced at the time that what they were praying for was best.

If only we could get past the deluded arrogance of thinking we are smarter or more righteous or more loving than the Perfect One, we would discover that even if our prayers differ from temporarily suicidal people, we have as much reason for rejoicing in unanswered prayer as them. In fact, God’s loving wisdom is such that when our Lord decides to leave a prayer unanswered, it is as much reason for rejoicing as all the times he answers prayer.

[praying hands]

Despite his nation being in dire need, the Lord specifically told Jeremiah that he would refuse to answer his prayers:

    Jeremiah 7:16 Therefore don’t pray for this people, neither lift up a cry nor prayer for them, neither make intercession to me; for I will not hear you. (Emphasis mine – Jeremiah 11:14 and 14:11-12 are similar.)

The Lord also said that the prayers of Moses and Samuel would likewise go unheeded:

    Jeremiah 15:1  . . . Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my mind would not be toward this people . . .

This principle is reiterated in Ezekiel:

    Ezekiel 14:13-16 Son of man, when a land sins against me by committing a trespass, and I stretch out my hand on it, and break the staff of its bread, and send famine on it, and cut off from it man and animal; though these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, says the Lord. If I cause evil animals to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it is made desolate, so that no man may pass through because of the animals; though these three men were in it, as I live, says the Lord, they should deliver neither sons nor daughters . . . (Emphasis mine.)

Why are some such prayers not answered? To quote yet another prophet, “when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness,” but if “favor be shown to the wicked . . . he will not learn righteousness . . . he will deal wrongfully, and will not see the Lord’s majesty” (Isaiah 26:9-10).

God warns and warns and delays and delays but if people refuse to repent, judgment must eventually come.

[praying hands]

In my quest to provide an adequate overview of the Bible’s extensive collection of the unanswered prayers of the righteous, I should not move on to the New Testament without mentioning instances that are so close to unanswered prayer as to be virtually indistinguishable from it. A number of people featured in the Bible were on the verge of specifically asking something of God, and the Lord cut them short so that they knew there was no point in asking because they knew their request would be denied. For example, twice in the same chapter we see Jeremiah edging exceedingly close to asking God to spare his nation from the divine judgment it thoroughly deserved. Both times, the Lord preempted him by saying he will not grant such a request (for the relevant Scriptures, see Told No Before he Asked).

Note, too, what the Lord told Jeremiah to tell, his friend and private secretary Baruch:

    Jeremiah 45:2-5  . . . the God of Israel, says to you, Baruch: You said, Woe is me now! for the Lord has added sorrow to my pain; I am weary with my groaning, and I find no rest. You shall tell him, the Lord says: . . . Do you seek great things for yourself? Don’t seek them . . .

[praying hands]

We are examining instances when fervent prayer could not change God’s mind. To demonstrate how unpredictable (from a human perspective) the results can be, however, it would be remiss not to give at least a brief reminder of all highly encouraging times that prayer has seemingly changed God’s mind. I say “seemingly” because we should understand that even on these occasions, God did not relinquish his sovereignty. Neither is God fickle, nor able to be bribed or emotionally manipulated. He is always compassionate and merciful and yearns for us to have a heart like his.

    1 Timothy 2:3-4  . . God our Savior; who desires all people to be saved and come to full knowledge of the truth.

    2 Peter 3:9 The Lord . . is patient with us, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.

    Ezekiel 33:11  . . As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn, turn from your evil ways; for why will you die, house of Israel?

Intercession is never about fighting a God who is reluctant to bless, but about the Lord giving us priceless opportunities to grow in becoming more like him.

Our Lord’s eagerness for an intercessor to ‘change God’s mind’ is displayed here:

    Ezekiel 22:30 I sought for a man among them, who should build up the wall, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one.

The very next verse in this passage shows the tragic consequences of there being no intercessor:

    Ezekiel 22:31 Therefore have I poured out my indignation on them; I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath: their own way have I brought on their heads, says the Lord God.

Consider these examples of prayer moving God to reverse his pronouncement:

    Isaiah 38:1-5 In those days was Hezekiah sick and near death. Isaiah the prophet, the son of Amoz, came to him, and said to him, “The Lord says, ‘Set your house in order, for you will die, and not live.’ ”

    Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord . . .

    Then The Lord’s word came to Isaiah, saying, “Go, and tell Hezekiah, ‘The Lord says . . . “I have heard your prayer. I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. . . .

    Numbers 14:11-20 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? . . . I will strike them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”

    Moses said to the Lord, “. . .   if you killed this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of you will speak, saying, ‘Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he swore to them, therefore he has slain them in the wilderness.’ Now please let the power of the Lord be great, according as you have spoken, saying, ‘The Lord is slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving iniquity and disobedience . . .’ Please pardon the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your loving kindness, and according as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”

    The Lord said, “I have pardoned according to your word [Exodus 32:14 words the same incident this way: The Lord repented of the evil which he said he would do to his people.]

    Jonah 3:4-5, 10 Jonah . . . cried out . . . “In forty days, Nineveh will be overthrown!”

    The people of Nineveh believed God; and they proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from their greatest even to their least. . . . God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way. God relented of the disaster which he said he would do to them, and he didn’t do it.

Note from the last example how, to be effective, prayer must be not just be earnest but accompanied by a godly attitude to sin.

If you are interested here are a couple more examples of prayer changing God’s pronouncements: “Changing God’s Mind”.

[praying hands]

King David certainly tried to change God’s mind. Let’s revisit David praying for his dying baby.

I’m as appalled as you at the despicable way David conceived the baby whose life he pleaded for. In praying for the baby, however, I honor him for three things:

    1. He had the humility to realize he did not know whether he could persuade God to relent.

      2 Samuel 12:22  . . . Who knows whether the Lord will not be gracious to me, that the child may live? (Emphasis mine.)

      As much as finite, fallible beings might crave a fantasy world in which we have fooled ourselves into thinking we have figured out the one “who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think,” (Ephesians 3:20) it is not spiritual reality.

      No matter how spiritually attuned someone might be, we all have times when we simply don’t know how God will respond until after prolonged prayer. There will always be times when prayer takes us on an adventure, not to a forgone conclusion; times when the most faith-filled of us can only pray in hope, rather than in certainty as to what God will do. It might be humbling – some might even find it frustration – but pondering the implications of Scriptures like the following can lead to no other conclusion.

      Exodus 32:30  . . . Moses said to the people, “You have sinned a great sin. Now I will go up to the Lord. Perhaps I shall make atonement for your sin.”

      2 Kings 19:4 It may be the Lord your God will . . . rebuke the words which the Lord your God has heard. Therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.

      Joel 2:13-14 Tear your heart, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord, your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abundant in loving kindness, and relents from sending calamity. Who knows? He may turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him . . .

      Zephaniah 2:3 Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, who have kept his ordinances. Seek righteousness. Seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger.

      2 Timothy 2:25 in gentleness correcting those who oppose him: perhaps God may give them repentance . . .

      (Emphasis mine.)

    Four other examples.

    If you want a dry, predictable prayer life where you always know the outcome before fervently asking, I have nothing to offer. It isn’t on God’s agenda.

    Let’s see what else is praiseworthy – even inspirational – in how David responded to this situation.

    2. He gave it his best shot.

      Despite the anointed prophet Nathan declaring that the baby would die (2 Samuel 12:14):

      2 Samuel 12:16-17 David . . . begged God for the child; and David fasted, and went in, and lay all night on the ground. The elders of his house arose beside him, to raise him up from the earth: but he would not, and he didn’t eat bread with them.

      Despite sinning atrociously, David repented whole-heartedly (e.g. Psalm 51) and instead of wallowing in defeat, he fully embraced God’s forgiveness and prayed as earnestly as if his sin no longer hindered his relationship with God, which is what divine forgiveness is all about. By doing so, David embodied the truth expounded in such scriptures as:

      Isaiah 43:25 I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake; and I will not remember your sins.

      Micah 7:8 Don’t rejoice against me, my enemy. When I fall, I will arise. When I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me.

      Proverbs 24:16 for a righteous man falls seven times, and rises up again . . .

      Isaiah 55:7 Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts. Let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy on him; and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

      Psalm 103:12 As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

      Micah 7:18-19 Who is a God like you, who pardons iniquity . . . ? He doesn’t retain his anger forever, because he delights in loving kindness. He will again have compassion on us. He will tread our iniquities under foot; and you will cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.

    3. David humbly accepted God’s decision.

      2 Samuel 12:19-20  . . . David said to his servants, “Is the child dead?”

      They said, “He is dead.”

      Then David arose from the earth, and washed, and anointed himself, and changed his clothing; and he came into the Lord’s house, and worshiped. Then he came to his own house . . . and he ate.

[praying hands]

We noted that despite the Lord already pronouncing that David’s baby would die, he kept praying. Doing so was not impertinent (we stressed his humility). He understood that prayer can sometimes succeed in reversing of a divine pronouncement and we have already cited biblical examples of this happening. Perhaps the Bible’s greatest example of a battle of wills ending in the Lord seeming to change his mind is the Canaanite woman.

The Gospels are crammed with moving stories of people who overcame serious obstacles to receive their request from God. There’s the man who, being paralyzed, had no way of getting to Jesus. Instead of surrendering to the impossibility, he persuaded friends to carry him. He reached the house only to find it so ridiculously crowded (probably with people peering through windows and spilling out everywhere) that entry was impossible. Somehow, he cajoled his long-suffering friends to push through people on the outside to climb the roof, hoist him up, break through the roof – the owner must have been delighted – and lower him into the room crammed with people. (Mark 2:4; Luke 5:19)

There’s the two bind men who stifled any embarrassment and cried out to Jesus from the midst of the crowd. Virtually the entire crowd turned against them, telling them to shut up. They cried out even louder (Matthew 20:30-33).

There’s the man who, like this Canaanite woman, had a demonized child. He managed to secure the help of Jesus’ chosen disciples. They failed utterly. Instead of accepting that this case was obviously too hard, he sought out the busy Jesus. (Matthew 17:14-18)

On and on we could go, citing people who got their miracle because they refused to be deterred by oppressive circumstances or Jesus’ peculiar instructions (e.g. John 9:6-7) or the fact that it was Sabbath or that they were unclean or seen as the dregs of society. But the Canaanite woman’s predicament was far more dire: she was personally rejected by Jesus:

    Matthew 15:22-27 Behold, a Canaanite woman . . . cried, saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord, you son of David! My daughter is severely possessed by a demon!”

    But he answered her not a word.

    His disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away; for she cries after us.”

    But he answered, “I wasn’t sent to anyone but the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

    But she came and worshiped him, saying, “Lord, help me.”

    But he answered, “It is not appropriate [“is not right” is how most versions put it] to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

    But she said, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus not only deliberately ignored her, his disciples even got into the act. Then, because she persisted, he gave her his important reason: to do as she requested would be contrary to his divine calling. Finally, in response to still more pleas, he added that granting her request was not right, plus he referred to her as a dog – an unclean animal.

But note the outcome of Jesus having to reverse his decision and act contrary to what he had publically stated to be his divine mission:

    Matthew 15:28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Be it done to you even as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour.

Instead of being disappointed, Christ was delighted. Rather than downplaying the incident – lest others be emboldened to act like her in having the audacity to refuse to take no for an answer – he highlighted it, thus ensuring it was recorded in the Gospels for all subsequent generations. He publically praised her, and hailed her as a role model.


[praying hands]

We have, of course, been finding more and more biblical examples where God was resolute in declining a request – and even requests that earned a divine rebuke. And as we move into the New Testament we will find even more. Nevertheless, there are a vast number of seemingly similar instances when requests were granted. It would be fraudulent, and treating God’s holy Word with distain, to bury or dismiss one set of biblical examples of God’s response to prayer, whilst showcasing another set we find more encouraging or intelligible.

The upshot is clear: when exercised in submission to God, faith-filled prayer can achieve astonishing things. Nevertheless, there remain certain prayer requests where, no matter how righteous and high in faith one is, we find ourselves in a position like David: we can only give prayer our best shot and humbly leave the result in God’s capable hands, knowing that only he is truly good, infinitely wise, and flawlessly selfless in his devotion to humanity. ‘Faith’ that we know the best outcome can sometimes be an act of vanity. In contrast, faith that our perfect Lord will respond to our request in the perfect way, is never misdirected.

When I wrote earlier that we all have times when we simply don’t know how God will respond until after prolonged prayer, I was very deliberate in my choice of the word prolonged. Consider Elijah on Mount Carmel straight after his stupendous victory over all of the prophets of Baal.

Elijah had been outnumbered four hundred and fifty to one. All of Baal’s prophets prayed for hours and hours; shouting and even slashing themselves with swords and spears. After their miserable failure, Elijah went to the extreme of saturating the wood and the sacrifice over and over until the water even filled the trench. Elijah prayed. Suddenly, out of a clear sky, a bolt of fire consumed not only the sacrifice but all the water in the trench and even the stones and soil. (1 Kings 18:22-38)

Then he prayed for rain. His faith at that moment must have so astonishing high as to soar all the way to heaven. With not a cloud in sight, this faith champion put his face between his knees and prayed intensely. When it seemed he had prayed enough, he sent his servant to climb higher and scan the horizon for the slightest sign of rain. The man returned to say there was nothing.

Elijah prayed yet again, this time, most likely, praying even harder and longer. Again the servant checked. Still nothing. There is not a hint in the account that there had been the slightest delay when Elijah had called down fire. What was going on?

He prayed again, pouring out his heart to God. Again his servant climbed up and searched the sky. Again he returned. Absolutely nothing. Again, his head between his knees in what some claim to be the Israeli birthing position, Elijah agonized in prayer. Again, the servant, who by now was probably tiring and losing patience, climbed to the best vantage point and returned with the same devastating news. Again Elijah prayed. Again nothing happened. Yet again Elijah prayed. Again nothing.

Six times he had prayed. Six times the heavens remained like iron. Having prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and failed all those times, it was clear to Elijah what was wrong: he hadn’t prayed enough. He prayed still more. The long-suffering servant returned yet again. He had spied a tiny cloud in the sky. (1 Kings 18:42-45)

What if Elijah had given up after the sixth time; convinced that God had obviously said “No”? I wonder how many of us will get to heaven with a question burning on our lips, “Lord, why didn’t you answer my prayer?” only to be greeting with, “I was about do so but then you stopped praying.”

[praying hands]

When “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) is taken with reverent seriousness, we are forced to conclude there are times when differences to God’s response to prayer cannot be explained away in terms of the thing prayed for, or the way it was prayed for, or the person doing the praying. Nothing screams this more emphatically than this incident carefully persevered in God’s Word:

    Amos 7:1-9 Thus the Lord God showed me: and behold, he formed locusts . . . When they finished eating the grass of the land, then I said, “Lord God, forgive, I beg you! How could Jacob stand? For he is small.”

    The Lord relented concerning this. “It shall not be,” says the Lord.

    Thus the Lord showed me and behold, the Lord God called for judgment by fire; and it dried up the great deep, and would have devoured the land. Then I said, “Lord God, stop, I beg you! How could Jacob stand? For he is small.”

    The Lord relented concerning this. “This also shall not be,” says the Lord God.

    Thus he showed me and behold, the Lord stood beside a wall made by a plumb line, with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?”

    I said, “A plumb line.”

    Then the Lord said, “Behold, I will set a plumb line in the middle of my people Israel. I will not again pass by them anymore. The high places of Isaac will be desolate, the sanctuaries of Israel will be laid waste; and I will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Just when Amos seemed to be on a roll and that he had the Almighty figured out, everything crashed. Suddenly, unpredictably the same God gave the opposite response. In effect, the Lord was saying, “Amos, asking me to relent worked twice, but there’s no point in asking anymore.”

This was the same anointed prophet, on the same occasion, interceding for the same nation and the inspired account introduces the situation the same way (“Thus he showed me and behold . . .”). Moreover, because the Almighty acts before Amos even gets a chance to pray, there is no possibility of the slightest difference in the prophet’s attitude – such as overconfidence – to come into play. Between the first two instances and the last, there is no difference in godliness, and, if anything, Amos’s faith would have been higher than ever by the third time. We cannot even grasp at straws by trying to argue that one set of divine responses was under the Old Covenant and the other was under the New.

A god of our own creation might always be predictable. No matter how familiar we get with the real God, however, he remains infinitely superior to us. Whilst, of course, there is nothing erratic about him, if he never responds to your prayers in a way you find unfathomable, I question the breadth of your experience. We must either learn to tolerate mystery, or swap the real God from an imaginary one.

bible study

Unanswered Prayer: New Testament Revelation

We have already cited the New Testament extensively. It is hard to resist when it dovetails so perfectly with various matters we have been discovering. In fact, when it comes to unanswered prayer, I have found no differences between New and Old Testament revelation. This is hardly surprising, since both feature the same God who changes not (Malachi 3:6; Psalm 102:27), and the New Testament keeps citing the Old with divine authority.

Yes, the New Covenant is better, but salvation has always been by faith, not works. Consider this:

    Galatians 3:6-21  . . . Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him for righteousness.” Know therefore that those who are of faith, the same are children of Abraham.

     . . . that no man is justified by the law before God is evident, for, “The righteous will live by faith.” . . .

    For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no more of promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by promise.  . . .

    Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not!

Romans 4:2-6 emphatically restates the key truth that Abraham was saved by faith, not works, and declares that this not only applied to Abraham but that “David says the same thing” in his psalm (Romans 4:6, NIV).

The Spirit’s anointing is now available to all, declared Peter, while quoting the Old Testament as proof (Acts 2:16-18). Previously, only a select few received this empowering, such as prophets (e.g. Micah 3:8), certain leaders (e.g. Judges 14:6; 1 Samuel 10:6, 11-12), the seventy elders in Moses’ time (Numbers 11:25) , and so on. The number of people with this special anointing prior to Actsmight not have been huge, but much of the Old Testament is about them.

For just a few more words, see The New Covenant Versus the Old. The point, however, is that no one should be shocked that when James was searching for an example of the power of prayer (James 5:16-18), and Hebrews 11 wanted to stress the power of faith, both cited the Old Testament. Our careful examination of the New Testament will confirm that what it reveals about unanswered prayer is identical to our Old Testament discoveries.

[praying hands]

Jesus, who came to show us the Father, frequently refused to give people what they asked of him.

    Matthew 8:21 Another disciple said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

Despite Scripture calling him a disciple, his request was denied.

People repeatedly asked Jesus for a sign and received only a rebuke (Matthew 12:38-39; 16:1, 4; John 6:30). But let’s move beyond the masses to Jesus’ apostles; the ones of whom he said, “To you it is given to know the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but it is not given to them” (Matthew 13:11).

“Lord, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us,” pleaded Philip. He, too, was rebuked instead of receiving what he had hoped for (John 14:8-9).

Even after Jesus’ resurrection, the apostles asked for something as seemingly harmless as revelation and they were denied:

    Acts 1:6-7 “Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority.

A Canaanite woman kept badgering Jesus. “His disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away; for she cries after us.” (Matthew 15:23). All of Jesus’ chosen had banded together to make this plea. What an astonishingly beautiful story resulted from Jesus’ refusal to do as they had asked!

When a Samaritan village discovered that Jesus and his disciples were heading for Jerusalem, the villagers refused to accommodate them. James and John sought Jesus’ power to “call fire down from heaven to destroy them” (Luke 9:54). They were asking the one who not only said, “Ask and it will be given to you,” “I will do whatever you ask in my name,” and so on, but the one who had very specifically and prayerfully (Luke 6:12-13) selected them to be his chosen apostles. Nevertheless, the one in whose name we are asked to pray not only refused to grant them their request/prayer, he rebuked them for even asking. This rebuke came despite them having the sense and reverence to frame their request virtually in the form of ‘if it be your will’; specifically: “Lord, do you want us to . . .”

I don’t know about you, but this, by itself, is enough to make me want to celebrate for all eternity that my Lord refuses to answer all the prayers of his devoted servants. Besides longing to serve a God who is loving, patient and merciful, who would want to be in a church where if you happened to annoy someone, he/she could literally incinerate you with a single prayer?

If you think I have chosen an extreme example; think again. Consider who was wanting to burn to crisp the inhabitants of an entire village for being slow to recognize their anointing. Not only were James and John one sixth of the chosen twelve (or, if you include treacherous Judas, among the one fourth of them who were terrifyingly willing to kill) they were two-thirds of the select inner circle, who were especially close to Jesus (Scriptures). “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved” (John 13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:7,20), who reclined closest to Jesus’ heart during the last supper (John 13:23) is almost universally believed to be John. Moreover, they were not only asking Jesus to annihilate many people (perhaps including children) but seeking the power to do it themselves. If even those so close to Jesus could ask of him such dangerously foolish things, we should all heave a sigh of relief and praise God that Christians’ prayers can go unanswered.

We desperately need a God whose goodness cannot be corrupted by Bible-thumping bigots; cannot be manipulated by conniving self-seekers; cannot be defiled by human greed, and whose wisdom will not be thwarted by pray-ers with idiotic delusions of grandeur. The entire cosmos needs a God who alone is worthy to receive glory and honor and power, (Revelation 4:11) and has not signed away his right to rule.

[praying hands]

On another occasion, James and John asked Jesus for special favor, introducing their request with, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we will ask” (Mark 10:35-41). He, and his brother James, asked Jesus for a special place of privilege and power in the age to come. Perhaps hoping to further pressure Jesus, their mother even added her voice to the request (Matthew 20:20-21). This, too, was denied and they received a lecture on “Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all” (Mark 10:44).

“You don’t know what you are asking,” said Jesus told James and John Mark 10:38). They were among several respected Bible characters mentioned in this webpage, such as Moses, Philip and Peter whose request was so far off that it was not only denied but they were rebuked for even thinking it was acceptable to ask for such a thing. Getting prayer requests completely wrong is so common that Romans 8:26 (NIV) says, “We do not know what we ought to pray for . . .”

We need to lose some of our arrogance if we presume we can rival God in having the infallibility and infinite intelligence to always know how to bring about the best long-term outcome, and therefore the best thing for which to pray. If ever we fail to select the perfect thing to pray for, it is not a disaster, unless we add to our mistake by resenting the good Lord for declining what we are not ingenious enough to know is a less than ideal request.

[praying hands]

Yet another of the inner three apostles not only had a request denied but was chastised by the Son of God for even asking. In this case, it was Peter and, unlike the others wanting to annihilate people, his plea was motived by love. Nevertheless, it provides even more reason for rejoicing in God not answering every request. In fact, I cannot conceive of anything greater to rejoice in than Peter’s prayer not being answered.

If anyone could ever expect to have Jesus’ ear, it must surely be Peter.

    Matthew 16:17-19 Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. . . . you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.”

Immediately after those words, Scripture records Peter making a request of Jesus; pleading/insisting that Jesus not go the way of the cross. This passionate request was not merely refused but was met with a stinging rebuke (Matthew 16:22-23). And why does that make me want to turn cartwheels? Had Jesus answered Peter’s love-motivated plea, no-one on this planet could have been spared the horrific and eternal consequences of our sin!

If someone so close to Jesus’ heart and so receptive to divine revelation could get things so horribly wrong, do you really think any of us are incapable of ever asking God for things he should not grant?

Even after Jesus’ resurrection, Peter made a request that Jesus refused to answer, even though for Jesus to grant him his request would not have been catastrophic. This time, Peter was asking about the future of “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (John 21:20-22).

bible study

What does all this mean?

We have been investigating a subject strongly attested to in the Word of God and yet rarely mentioned. It seems some preachers and scholars even find it an embarrassment. If so, it screams a less than perfect understanding of the Supreme One’s ways. With Scripture insisting that “we see through a glass, darkly” and that God’s ways soar as far above us as the heavens, who of us dare claim full understanding? (1 Corinthians 13:12, King James Version; Isaiah 55:9)

I am so conscious of my own limitations in this regard that I have not only devoted an entire webpage to it, I have linked to it at the end of almost all my webpages and I done my utmost to entice people to read it by calling the link My Shame. Nevertheless, “the secret things belong to the Lord our God; but the things that are revealed belong to us,” This obligates each of us to obey God’s directive to keep reading, studying and pondering the Word of God, praying “Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things out of your law,” and, to paraphrase two Scriptures, grow in the knowledge of our Lord; repeating the Apostle Paul’s prayer that God grant us “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” (Scriptures for this paragraph).

In addition, we can all humbly and in awe fall at the Almighty’s feet, gasping in adoration:

    Romans 3:4 . . . let God be found true, but every man a liar. . . .

    Romans 11:33-5 Oh the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past tracing out!

      “For who has known the mind of the Lord?
      Or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has first given to him,
      and it will be repaid to him again?”

We have begun to discover that God not giving us everything we crave is actually one of the most comforting and precious things about our beautiful Lord.

We have found biblical examples of never-answered prayers in the lives of so many people. Moreover, Scripture specifically states there are prayer requests that would be not be granted even if Noah, Moses, Samuel, Job, Jeremiah and Daniel selflessly pleaded for them.

The Joy of Unanswered Prayer begins with explaining that the Apostle Paul, and even Christ himself, endured the agony of repeatedly praying prayers that were never answered. The webpage then proceeds to examine from a biblical perspective the personal implications for our own unanswered prayers. If you have yet read it, the link appears below.

God’s Word provides abundant proof that no matter how godly and wise someone might normally be, no one is immune from a rare slip-up. This proves how foolhardy and terrifyingly dangerous it would be for Father God to ever hand over his right to veto his children’s prayer requests. It begs the question, however: isn’t this precisely what God has promised in certain Scriptures? This important matter is addressed in some of my other webpages about prayer, such as Prerequisites for Answered Prayer: When Faith & Prayer Do Not Work.

Link

The Joy of Unanswered Prayer

Why Christians Suffer

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