The Answer to Unanswered Prayer
More than 40 percent of Americans say that their prayers are "answered often," according to a U.S. News & World Report poll released in December 2004. Just 1.5 percent say that their prayers are "never" answered. Nearly two-thirds—64 percent—say that they pray at least once per day.
Are your prayers often answered? If not, why not? Is there something you can do to make it likely—or even certain—that God will answer your prayers? Your Bible reveals the answer to this vital question.
First, we should ask: is God capable of answering even the most unlikely prayer? Here is what the Apostle Paul wrote: "Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen" (Ephesians 3:20). Do you believe that? God's power to answer prayer is far beyond your ability to ask.
God has told us to come to Him in prayer. In His famous "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus Christ taught: "Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he 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!" (Matthew 7:7–11).
Can you imagine? God—our Father—wants to give us good things! He wants us to rely on Him, to depend on Him and to trust Him! But sometimes, we pray and we do not seem to receive an answer. How, then, can we depend on Him and trust Him? Why does it seem that sometimes our prayers are not answered?
We can recognize several ways in which God may respond to our prayers. Sometimes, His response will be a quick and simple "yes." Sometimes He will say "yes," but only after we have waited patiently for a while. Other times, His response will be positive, though not the "yes" we expected—perhaps an unusual circumstance or event that affects the subject of our prayers. Sometimes He will answer a prayer but show that His answer is "no." Finally—and this is usually the most challenging answer to receive—He will sometimes say, "not until you repent; until then, you must endure some trials and learn some lessons."
Understandably, we all prefer a simple "yes" answer to our prayers. Sometimes we feel that we need God's help or deliverance quickly. King David of ancient Israel certainly felt that way. When you read many of the Psalms of David, you can understand his heartfelt approach to communicating with God. You can learn from that, and apply it in your own prayers. Once, when David asked to be delivered from his enemies, he called out to God: "Make haste, O God, to deliver me! Make haste to help me, O Lord! Let them be ashamed and confounded who seek my life; Let them be turned back and confused who desire my hurt… O Lord, do not delay" (Psalm 70:1–2, 5).
David did not hesitate to ask God to hurry up and help him! Again and again, God heard David's prayers, and delivered him from his enemies. You can read about David's life, and his overall closeness to God, in the books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Chronicles.
In the New Testament, we see many examples of answered prayer. When the Apostles were on a boat in the Sea of Galilee, on a stormy night, they were afraid until they saw Jesus approaching them, walking on the water. Jesus comforted them, and at His command Peter began to walk toward Him, on the water. Then, however, Peter lost faith. "But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, 'Lord, save me!'" (Matthew 14:30).
What was Jesus' answer? Did He say, "No, Peter, I'm going to let you drown"? No! Rather, "immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, 'O you of little faith, why did you doubt?'" (v. 31).
When someone deeply cries out to God for help, God may intervene immediately—even if, like Peter, he has little faith. God may use such intervention to help increase our faith. Notice: "And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, 'Truly You are the Son of God'" (vv. 32–33).
Jesus can intervene for us because He is the Son of God. Christians have the authority and the privilege to come before God's throne in prayer. Jesus taught His disciples: "And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you" (John 16:23). To ask in Jesus' name means to ask by His authority. When we come before God's throne, we are not coming on our own authority. We must come with humility, on the authority of our Savior. Just how important is humility? Remember, it was the publican (the tax collector), who prayed: "God, be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Comparing this humility to the arrogance of the Pharisees, Jesus said, "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 14).
How, exactly, should we pray? In Matthew 6:6, Jesus described going to your "closet" (KJV) or "room"—actually, any private place will do. Perhaps you will kneel by your bed, to pray after you rise and before you go to sleep. Find a private place, and just begin talking to God. Share your thanks. Share your hopes. Share your fears and concerns. Just talk to God as you would talk to a friend, with deep respect, honesty and openness. You do not need fancy words, or archaic King James language full of "thee" and "thou."
It is good to have your Bible with you when you pray. When you share your words with God, it is good to remember the words that He has given to you in Scripture. Sometimes, you may be inspired in your prayer by reading one of the Psalms. Read how David cried out to God. He wanted God's guidance—not just an answer, but the right and godly answer—when he prayed. David wanted to submit to God's will. Is that what you want? Read the Psalms and appreciate David's example.
We must pray with humility, seeking God's will. But Christians who follow God's instructions can also pray with confidence. The book of Hebrews describes the divine power of Christ as our intercessor—our great High Priest who, on our behalf, sits at God's right hand—beside Him—on His throne. Because He is on His throne, Christians can say, as recounted in Hebrews: "Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4:16).
Are you in a time of need? We are all in a time of need—always! We always need God's guidance, blessings and care. And God has promised to extend mercy and grace in our time of need.
We have seen that God will sometimes say a simple "yes" in answer to our prayers, just as Christ saved Peter from drowning in the Sea of Galilee. Sometimes, however, God may give us a positive answer, but not the answer we expected. He may arrange an unusual development of events, or an unforeseen circumstance. The ancient Israelites experienced this while in slavery in Egypt. They wanted freedom, and God secured their freedom by a series of miracles. When the Israelites were trapped between the Red Sea and the mountains, with Pharaoh's chariots fast closing in on them, no escape seemed possible. But God did the unexpected, and parted the Red Sea so that they could cross to safety, as we read in Exodus 14.
The Apostle Paul marveled at God's wisdom and power to intervene in such ways. He wrote: "Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!" (Romans 11:33).
At the Red Sea, God gave the Israelites a sudden and unexpected answer to prayer. However, they had waited for many years for their deliverance from Egypt. Sometimes, God answers a prayer and grants us what we ask, but asks us to wait for a while before He grants it. We need to be patient. Years ago, I deeply desired to travel to Israel and to visit Jerusalem. I claimed the promise of Psalm 37:4, "Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart." God did answer my prayer—17 years after I prayed it! God eventually fulfilled my request, but His answer along the way was, "Be patient!" Eventually, my wife and I had the wonderful blessing of participating in an archaeological excavation in the City of David, in Jerusalem. But I had to wait for God's will, and accept His timing.
When God's answer appears to be "wait, and be patient," are you persistent in your prayers? Nowadays, in our time of microwave ovens, instant coffee, fast food and entertainment on demand, we often want instant gratification. The Bible, however, counsels patience: "For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise" (Hebrews 10:36). Do not give up on your prayers, if they are in line with God's will. Be patient, and be persistent, until you know that God has answered.
Sometimes, though, God answers "no" to our prayers. How can this happen, if we are striving to do God's will—if we are striving to be humble and obedient, and to live by faith? And if our will is in line with God's will, what does a "no" answer mean?
When Jesus prayed in agony on the night before His crucifixion, He asked that the cup of suffering be passed from Him—if it were God's will! Jesus prayed: "'Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.' Then an angel appeared to Him from heaven, strengthening Him. And being in agony, He prayed more earnestly. Then His sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground" (Luke 22:42–44).
Jesus asked that the cup of suffering pass from Him, but only if that were God's will. Jesus' prayer was to do God's will. He submitted His will to His Father's will. God answered Jesus' prayer, and strengthened Him to endure His trial.
The Apostle Paul also asked God to remove an affliction from him: "And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me" (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).
As He did with Jesus, and with Paul, God may sometimes give us a "no" answer—but when He does, He always gives us the power, strength and grace through which we can accept His answer as His will—as what is best for our lives. We need to have faith that our Creator knows what is best for us, and knows how to bless us.
Perhaps our greatest challenge in prayer comes when the answer is: "You need to repent and change before your prayer will be answered; until then, you must endure some trials and learn some lessons. Once you make the appropriate changes, God will then reconsider your petition!"
Many people think they can demand anything of God, even if it is clearly against His will and against His law. But God's purpose is not to fulfill any carnal request we may have. The Apostle James warns about those who pray with wrong motivations, and his words are certainly an accurate commentary on our worldly society today: "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures" (James 4:3). The KJV says "lusts" rather than "pleasures."
If we pray with a selfish attitude, seeking to gain all we can without regard for God's will, God will not grant our requests. James goes on to describe the approach appropriate for one who seeks answered prayer: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you doubleminded. Lament and mourn and weep! Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up" (vv. 8–10).
If we repent—if we change and humble ourselves before God—He will lift us up. He will begin to answer our prayers when we are truly seeking to understand and carry out His will—as exemplified by the life and the teachings of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Peter wrote: "Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps" (1 Peter 2:21).
As you seek the will of God—as you pray "Thy will be done" and as you practice and obey the instructions of your Lord and Savior—you will receive answers to your prayers. Notice this very important principle: "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight" (1 John 3:22). The whole Bible tells us what is pleasing in God's sight. We must be surrendered to God—willing to obey Him always and to keep His commandments.
Many today think of religion as just an emotional life-style, without the need for obedience. But Jesus asked: "Why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46). We need an attitude of obedience, and of understanding the commandments of Christ and the law of God.
Scripture also emphasizes our need to believe God and to trust in His promises. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6). Yes, God will bless or reward those who diligently seek Him, who pray to Him every day, who read the Bible every day—because they desire to learn what God wants them to do with their lives.
Hebrews 11—the "faith chapter"—mentions men and women of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab the harlot, David and many others. How does faith come? Notice: "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). The Bible is the Word of God. Read it every day! Understand what the Creator God has done in history, and what He promises for you today! As you come to appreciate that God's ability to help you is limitless, you will grow in faith.
So, with faith, pray every day! Pray for others around the world. Pray for the victims of tragedy and for their families. Pray for the Kingdom to come! Pray for the gospel to be preached in all the world! Thank God every day for all the blessings you enjoy! Read your Bible every day to understand the great future God has in store for you. And rejoice in the loving relationship you can have with our Father in heaven and our Savior Jesus Christ. Your life will be changed dramatically—and you will experience in your life the answer to unanswered prayer!
The Barna Research Group recently reported: "The proportion of adults who read the Bible in a typical week, outside of church services, has remained flat [over the past several years] at about one out of every three adults..." It is no wonder that society seems to be breaking down. It is no wonder that so many turn to violence. Not only do many reject (or ignore) the Bible's instructions—most of us are not even reading the Bible!
There was a time when most Americans had at least some appreciation for the Bible. Daniel Webster, the famous 19th century American statesman, said: "If there is anything in my thoughts or style to commend, the credit is due to my parents for instilling in me an early love of the Scriptures. If we abide by the principles taught in the Bible, our country will go on prospering and to prosper; but if we and our posterity neglect its instructions and authority, no man can tell how sudden a catastrophe may overwhelm us and bury all our glory in profound obscurity."
How true and how prophetic those words are! That is what will happen to Bible-rejecting people in the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. But you and I do not need to go along with a society that rejects the first Commandment. God said: "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). We need to acknowledge the God of the Bible, the true Creator God and His Son, Jesus Christ—and we must do that every day! We need to read the Bible every day with an attitude of submissiveness and teachability. We need to get down on our knees every day without fail. Do not leave your home in the morning without praying, and thanking God for your life and His love for you. Ask God to bless you, your family, your country, your work and all your activities in a way that will honor Him! Remember, Jesus said: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness" (Matthew 6:33, KJV). Our prayers will be answered if we do that!