Why do prayers go unanswered?

One of the great promises that Jesus made to his followers was, ‘Whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.’  God is surely willing to answer prayer.  But it is obvious that some prayers have gone unanswered. Why is this?

Over the years Christians have tried to make sense of the joy, confusion, dismay or relief that they feel when particular things happen after they have prayed for something specific.  There is no absolute explanation.  However, these are some of the ways that Christians have tried to make sense of surprises or disappointments.

Firstly, it could be wrong to assume that ‘yes’ is the only acceptable answer to a prayer.  God may, for reasons that are unclear from a human perspective, answer ‘no’ or ‘not yet’.  It is possible that humans ask for the wrong thing or at the wrong time.  They can turn to God for the wrong reasons or with a bad attitude.

Jesus compared God to a wise father who will not give his children things that are not good for them.  Of course, when terrible pain does not decrease despite fervent prayers, it is natural to wonder how God can bring anything good out of such a bad situation.  But the Christian faith has always involved trust that, even in disappointments and setbacks, ‘God works for good for those who love him.’

Secondly, it may be that we are confused by God’s response to sincere prayer because he is working on a completely different timescale.  Although it seems from a human perspective that prayer has made no difference, the answer may be experienced some time later.

Often a person’s first experience of praying is occasioned by desperate circumstances.  Many people who call out to God have received help in such circumstances.  However, desperation or desire for a particular outcome can sometimes lead to prayers being more like a demand than a request.  It cannot be correct to treat God as if it is a human right to have him carry out instructions.

Thirdly, it is apparent that answers to prayer come when we are  asking for things that are part of God’s agenda, not ours.  Jesus taught his followers that prayers are answered when an individual’s desire and God’s desire are at one.  He described it like this:  ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.’

The invitation to men and women is to step into Jesus’ world and stay close to him.  The result of that is to see things as he sees them, to want the things that he wants, and to ask for things that God intends to do.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

This is the confidence that we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.  And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him.

Where to find it:

1 John 5:14-15

About these words:

Encouraging words to first century Christians in the province of what was then called Asia, now known as Turkey.

And they said…

Garth Brooks, singer-songwriter:

Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers,
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs,
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care,
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.

Frank Laubach, literacy campaigner, 1884-1970:

The trouble with nearly everybody who prays is that he says ‘Amen’ and runs away before God has a chance to reply.  Listening to God is far more important than giving him our ideas.

Sadhu Sundar Singh, Indian Christian missionary, 1889-1929:

Prayer does not mean asking God for all kinds of things we want; it is rather the desire for God himself, the only giver of life.  Prayer is not asking, but union with God.  Prayer is not a painful effort to gain from God help in the varying needs of our lives.  Prayer is the desire to possess God himself, the source of all life.  The true spirit of prayer does not consist in asking for blessings, but in receiving him who is the giver of all blessings, and in living a life of fellowship with him.