The Joy of Unanswered Prayer

Prayer Mysteries

[praying hands]

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In the next life, when we at last see things clearly,
we’ll probably look back through the years
and praise God far more for unanswered prayer
than for almost all the answers to prayer we received.

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If, after interminable years, your prayers have not been answered, it puts you in league with Abraham, the man revered as the Christians’ prime example of faith (Romans 4:9, 11-13, 16-24; Galatians 3:6-9; Hebrew 11:8-19; James 2:21-23). Should, however, the answer to your prayer not merely be deferred but never come, you are like the King of Glory.

Consider this example of unanswered prayer, uttered in intense passion by the most righteous, powerful, faith-filled person ever to walk this planet:

    Hebrews 5:7 He, in the days of his flesh, having offered up prayers and petitions with strong crying and tears to him who was able to save him from death, and having been heard for his godly fear

How thoughtfully did you read that? The Holy, Eternal Son of God passionately prayed “to him who was able to save him from death” and yet, despite being “heard” he died an agonizing death in humiliation and apparent defeat.

If by answered prayer we mean being given what we want when we want it, it is a biblical fact that not every prayer will be answered, no matter how Spirit-filled and faith-filled we are.

Moses, Elijah and Job were men of superior integrity, devotion and faith. Jonah was a prophet of God. They not only wished they were dead, they asked God – some even pleaded with him – to kill them (1 Kings 19:4; Numbers 11:15; Job 6:8-9; 7:15; Jonah 4:3, 8-9). None of these prayers was answered.

In fact, the Bible keeps giving so many examples of people’s prayers not being answered, that I’m reluctant to cite many for fear of boring you. For more, see Biblical Examples of Unanswered Prayers.

Consider this Scripture:

    2 Corinthians 12:7-9  . . . that I should not be exalted excessively, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, that I should not be exalted excessively. 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 . . .”

Paul was adamant that this “thorn” was anti-God; “a messenger of Satan” that tormented him. Despite the mighty apostle’s immense faith and spiritual authority, however, God cared too much for Paul’s spiritual well-being to answer his repeated prayers for the attack to end. God’s “grace” – the spiritual empowering to endure, divinely seeded within Paul – was enough.

The Lord revealed that the quick delivery most modern-day Christians expect, could have spiritually ruined Paul because of the greater danger lurking in the shadows – pride.

Over and over Scripture tells us to rejoice in trials. This is not so that we can act macho but because trials really are something to rejoice about. Trials do us good, developing character and spiritual benefits that will last forever. They equip us for ministry. They equip us for eternity. Like Paul, however, when we’re in the midst of them we want out. There are times when God loves us too much to answer those escapist prayers. God has our long-term good at heart, not some short term high that fizzles.

Try reading this Scripture in a new light:

    1 Corinthians 10:13 No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

This is nothing remotely like a promise that God would make strong temptation melt away for his beloved. Instead, it is a promise that we would be able to “endure”. The King James Version uses the expression “able to bear it.” The point is that if the divinely-provided “way of escape,” was for the temptation to go away, there would be nothing to “bear.”

Too many Christians wrongly suppose that if temptation continues to rage after prayer, there must be something wrong. The divine game-plan has never been to prevent us from being hit repeatedly by fierce temptation but to empower us to endure it. The promise is not that God will mollycoddle us, treating us as embarrassing weaklings who would shame him the moment things get tough, but that God will secrete within us everything that we need to heroically survive the onslaught – and by so doing be acclaimed forever as spiritual champions.

Even in the Old Testament, God’s people were called to fight the enemy, keep themselves holy and in no way compromise and yet, for at least two divinely brilliant reasons, God chose not to give them quick deliverances but to keep them battling their enemies year after year:

    Exodus 23:29 I will not drive them out from before you in one year, lest the land become desolate, and the animals of the field multiply against you.

    Judges 3:1-2 Now these are the nations which the Lord left, to test Israel by them, even as many as had not known all the wars of Canaan; only that the generations of the children of Israel might know, to teach them war, at least those who knew nothing of it before

As Peter affirmed, no matter how intimate your relationship with the all-powerful Lord is, you should “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 4:12).

Consider the spiritual heroes portrayed in the faith gallery in Hebrew 11. Many of us lock on to the first half of the gallery – those who by faith received miracles – and overlook the second half, who through faith received the power to endure torment and martyrdom when God saw a better way than to grant miraculous avoidance.

    Hebrews 11:35-38  . . . [By faith] Others were tortured, not accepting their deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Others were tried by mocking and scourging, yes, moreover by bonds and imprisonment. They were stoned. They were sawn apart. They were tempted. They were slain with the sword. They went around in sheep skins and in goat skins; being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts, mountains, caves, and the holes of the earth.

Even of the first half of the faith gallery, Scripture says none received in their lifetime what had been promised (verse 39). And consider Abraham: for year after year, decade after decade, his prayer for a child went unanswered. He had no idea what was going on, but it turned out that each year his prayers went unanswered Abraham was achieving eternal glory as a man of faith, the spiritual father of all who have faith. Likewise, Job ministers so powerfully through the centuries right down to today because both his prayer for healing and his prayer for death met icy silence. There are times when unanswered prayer is the only path to such glory.

Faith, says Scripture, is more precious than gold, and yet faith can only grow by prayers going unanswered for what seems an eternity. Yes, the answer finally comes, but faith grows by stretching. It’s usually in those dreary days of unanswered prayer that faith grows best.

God knows how to give good things to his children.

    Matthew 7:7-8 Ask, and it will be given you. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and it will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives. He who seeks finds. To him who knocks it will be opened.

That sounds as if we will get anything we ask for, but read on (verses 9-11):

    Or who is there among you, who, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, who will give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

That still sounds like we will get anything we ask for, but consider the implications of Jesus’ teaching that God is the perfect Father.

If a child asks for bread, he won’t be given a stone. Nevertheless, a child will sometimes be given vegetables that to him seem as tasteless and as useless as a stone. The child might complain as bitterly as if he were actually given a stone. Nevertheless, his cries for candy and ice-cream will sometimes go unheeded because wise parents know how to give good things to their children.

Likewise, if a child asks for a fish, he will not be given a snake. If, however, a little child foolishly asks for a cobra or scorpion to play with, he will not be given one. Again the child will feel unfairly treated but no matter how much he pleads, the child will not be given anything harmful. Likewise, in order to remain the perfect Father that he is, God must refuse our request when in our ignorance we ask for things that to us seem good, but ultimately are not in our best interest.

Little children focus on their immediate pleasure, whereas wise, loving parents look out for their children’s longer term good. This is the source of many a complaint from children who mistakenly think their parents are being harsh and stingy. As we grow up we come to realize the benefits of focusing on our longer term good, and we become grateful that our parents did not let us have all the things that we now recognize as being unwise or even dangerous. Yet even as mature adults, we often focus on a ridiculously short time-frame, relative to eternity. Like the perfect Parent he is, God gives the very best to his children, even at the expense of incurring their wrath if they foolishly misjudge what is best for them.

“You don’t have, because you don’t ask,” sounds like an exciting invitation to receive whatever we desire, but before falling into the very trap James is seeking to expose, let’s look at the context:

    James 4:2  . . . You don’t have, because you don’t ask. You ask, and don’t receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures.

So they did, in fact, ask but their prayers went unanswered because they asked for the wrong things and with the wrong motives. The Holy Lord wants to nurture righteousness and selflessness in his children; not use his power to foolishly feed an addiction to lust, greed and materialism.

Near the beginning of his epistle, James said we cannot expect answered prayer if we waver in faith (James 1:5-8). He was referring, however, to asking for something highly spiritual – godly wisdom (James 1:5; 3:13,17). Trying to entice God to answer prayers to foster our selfishness, however, is such a lost cause that rather than suggest more faith, James denounces the practice.

He continues his tirade against praying for wrong things or with wrong motives:

    James 4:4 You adulterers and adulteresses, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God

The next verse initially seems strange:

    James 4:5 Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who lives in us yearns jealously”?

This is reminiscent of what Paul says:

    Romans 1:28-29 Even as they refused to have God in their knowledge, God gave them up to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil habits, secret slanderers. (Emphasis mine)

James is saying that we are all subject to an intense urge to envy. How true that is! Our natural tendency is to slide into the pit of regretting what we don’t have, rather than rejoicing in what we have. Give Joe Average a hundred million dollars and he’d be over the moon with excitement about how rich and blessed he is. Then give ten billion dollars to hundreds of people around him and it will not be long before, regardless of his millions, he is feeling deprived.

(There is an alternative interpretation of James 4:5 but it leads to the same understanding of what “resist the devil” refers to.)

Despite our natural predisposition to be driven by envy, however, James immediately continues to explain that through Christ we can live in victory over this insidious temptation:

    James 4:6-7 But he gives more grace. . . . Be subject therefore to God. But resist the devil, and he will flee from you.

Had you realized that the famous Scripture, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” though applicable to other situations, was actually referring primarily to resisting the temptation to envy (verse 5) and overcoming the temptation to pray “with wrong motives, so that you may spend it for your pleasures” (verse 3)?

Few of us pause long enough to realize that this famous quote is referring to resisting the devil’s enticement to use prayer to try to manipulate God into giving us things that end up not being in our best interests spiritually. The attraction of devilish practices such as witchcraft is that they seem to offer supernatural help in feeding selfish desires. The devil does not display our Heavenly Father’s reluctance to grant us things that end up hurting and enslaving us.

Christians are typically well aware that lack of faith often hinders Jesus’ longing to miraculously meet our physical needs:

    Matthew 13:58 He didn’t do many mighty works there because of their unbelief.

The equally serious, but seldom recognized, hindrance to God pampering us with material possessions, however, is the human tendency to push aside the true God and instead worship money, pleasure and/or ease, and ruin our lives by making them our god.

    Deuteronomy 6:10-12 It shall be, when the Lord your God brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, great and goodly cities, which you didn’t build, and houses full of all good things, which you didn’t fill, and cisterns dug out, which you didn’t dig, vineyards and olive trees, which you didn’t plant, and you shall eat and be full; then beware lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.

We see the divine dilemma exposed when Jesus fed the multitude. This was no treat to titillate the taste buds. The situation was so serious that some were in danger of fainting on the long walk home (Mark 8:3).

Moved by compassion, he who denied himself bread in the wilderness miraculously provided for these people but – as God’s longing to meet our physical needs often does – it backfired.

    John 6:26-27, 34-35, 49-51, 66 Jesus answered them, “Most certainly I tell you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves, and were filled. Don’t work for the food which perishes, but for the food which remains to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. . . . “
                They said therefore to him, “Lord, always give us this bread.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will not be hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.  . . . Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, that anyone may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread which came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. . . .”
                At this, many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him.

In contrast to some preachers, Jesus withdrew, rather than let people seek God for the wrong reasons and he ended up making it so hard for them that those with materialistic motives left him.

We, too, are in danger of degrading God by worshipping him as a Cash Cow instead of honoring him as the Holy One whose passion is righteousness and selflessness.

Too many of us break God’s heart by putting him in a no-win situation: if God lovingly refuses to indulge our greed we resent him; if he gives us what we clamor for, we destroy ourselves by becoming infatuated with the temporal rather than the eternal.

    1 John 5:14 This is the boldness which we have toward him, that, if we ask anything according to his will, he listens to us. (Emphasis mine)

And God’s will is filled with love and wisdom far beyond ours.

[* * *]

Final Thoughts

When our prayers are not answered the way we expect or within the time frame we hope, we often put ourselves through unnecessary torment by needlessly blaming either ourselves or the God who is resolutely devoted to our well-being.

In this world, unpleasant – even atrocious – things keep happening. This is inevitable, since the Almighty, in his loving mercy, tolerates evil, rather than eradicating every source of evil (which happens to be every human on this planet). Nevertheless, the good Lord has promised to turn around for good every trace of evil that impacts his children (Romans 8:28). The eternal Lord’s agenda, however, is far more extensive, and loftier than we can ever conceive. The unavoidable consequence is that we are often left scratching our heads until the unfolding of events finally reveals what God always knew.

The devil is the deceiver who delights in falsely accusing God’s forgiven ones. Tragically, we often make his day by joining him in torturing ourselves with the mistaken notion that we must somehow be at fault. The equally torturous and foolish option is to blame the good Lord, and by doing so rob ourselves of the matchless comfort of snuggling into the assurance of God’s love, wisdom and goodness.

It is good to “let your requests be made known unto God” (Philippians 4:6, KJV). The all-knowing Lord has no need to be told, but such is his astonishing love that hearing from you delights him. Even a begging, whining prayer means more to him than not hearing from you. And he knows that it is good for you to figure out precisely what you want. Moreover, he delights in granting you your request, just like delighting their children with good gifts is one of the greatest parental joys.

But God loves surprises. There must be literally millions of times that people have asked God for something and have had their request declined, only to later discover that God has prepared something even more wonderful for them.

Do we pray to a lesser god or to the one “who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20)?

The delay in God revealing his wisdom (or us being smart enough to grasp it) can sometimes drag on for years or even last an entire lifetime. Sometimes we can be so certain there could not possibly be a better alternative that in our ignorance we are tempted to bitterly resent God; thinking him cruel or stingy or guilty of favoritism when our prayers go unanswered. Delays, however, are actually precious opportunities to grow in faith. I refer, of course, not to the often-mistaken faith in our ability to guess what is best, but the faith that never lets us down: faith that God loves us with all his heart and delights in giving us the best, even when the best is beyond our ability to “ask or imagine.”

Let me finish by quoting something I have written elsewhere:

Basking In Infinite Love

Embraced by divine love, your life will be tinged with mystery but aglow with glory.

Tucked in the heart of Scripture sleeps a tiny psalm of precious truth (Psalm 131). The singer confessed that as a mother denies her baby access to her milk when it’s time for her darling to be weaned, so God sometimes denies us things we crave. Yet as a weaned infant lies warm and secure in its mother’s bosom, our soul can nestle into God, not knowing why we have been denied that which we have clamored for, but content to draw love and comfort from the Father’s heart.

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I encourage you to read Life’s Mysteries Explained. It further explains how God has our eternal welfare at heart, rather than our short term ease that is ultimately not in our best interest. It particularly explains the surprising wisdom in God often choosing not to miraculously deliver us from powerful temptation.

Related Pages:

The Surprising Prerequisites for Answered Prayer: When Faith & Prayer Do Not Work

Bible Heroes’ Never-Answered Prayers

Name it, Claim it? Bible Based Help with Prayer

The Surprising Joy of Trials (Very Relevant to this Topic)

God’s Wonderful Will

Facebook? See Let’s Help Each Other

Comments? Prayer Request?

[E-mail] The Mail Box.

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