After nearly two years of battling lymphoma, my friend asked to return home from the hospital and died two days later. I had prayed countless times for God to grant remission of the cancer. My family had prayed. Gary’s wife and family prayed. Our church family prayed. We all believed that God would be most glorified by allowing Gary to continue his life and witness here on earth. But our prayers were not answered.
Many people have wondered why our all-powerful and loving God doesn’t answer the prayers of His people. Of course some people view prayer as a potential way to get things, manipulate people, avoid unpleasant consequences, and maintain a certain level of happiness. And when God does not seem to produce the desired outcomes, they are disappointed and disillusioned. The main problem here is that such people have an inadequate view of prayer.
Prayer is a means of communicating with God, expressing our love through adoration, confession and thanksgiving. Yes, petition has its place in prayer. But the great prayers in the Bible focus more on the development of spiritual qualities rather than personal, material gain (Eph. 1:15-23, 3:14-21, Col. 1:9-12).
Yet I certainly believe that God can and does answer prayer. During my life as a Christian, I have seen God answer many of my petitions in ways that evidence His supernatural intervention. But if God is able to answer all of our prayers, why doesn’t He do so? Since Gary’s death I have been thinking about some reasons why our prayers sometimes seem to fail.
- Sometimes God does not answer our prayers because of the littleness of our faith. When the disciples asked why they were unable to deliver a boy from demonic bondage, Jesus explained, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you shall say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it shall move; and nothing shall be impossible to you” (Matt. 17:20).
- Sometimes God does not answer our prayers because of sin in our lives. The psalmist wrote, “If I regard wickedness in my heart, Yahweh will not hear me” (Ps. 66:18). There is no point in seeking God’s help if there is known sin in our lives that we are unwilling to acknowledge.
- A third reason God may not answer our prayers is because of unreconciled relationships. The apostle Peter instructed believers to live with their wives in an understanding way, granting them honor as fellow-heirs of the grace of live “so that your prayers will not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7).
- A fourth reason why our prayers don’t seem to be answered is that God has delayed the answer for a more appropriate time. Solomon wrote, “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven” (Ecc. 3:1). In some cases it is not that God won’t answer our prayer, but that the answer will be forthcoming according to God’s timing.
- A fifth explanation for why our prayers are sometimes not answered is that God’s greater purposes are sometimes accomplished through unanswered prayer. Paul prayed three times that God would deliver him from “a thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-8). But God didn’t answer Paul’s prayer. Instead, God taught him an important lesson, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Unanswered prayer may help us learn of the sufficiency of Christ in a troubling situation.
At times there is no apparent reason why God would not answer our prayer. We firmly believe that the answer would bring about His glory and our good. But no answer is forthcoming. These are opportunities for us to demonstrate patience, persistence, and persevering faith–to the glory of God.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).