There are few things that feel better than answered prayer. A crisis arises. An illness flares. A conflict erupts. You go to prayer, asking God to intervene, to heal, to restore. And in due course, the crisis is averted, the patient recovers, the conflict is resolved. You go to prayer once again, thanking God for hearing your concerns and providing a healthy and fitting resolution to the problem.
But if answered prayer feels good, what are we to make of what seems for all the world like unanswered prayer? When we pray and the patient dies. When we ask and the job goes to someone else. When we intercede and the divorce happens anyway.
To make matters more confusing, we find in Scripture a cluster of promises related to answered prayer. Here is a sampling: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7). “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you” (Luke 17:6). “Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22). “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” (John 15:14). “So I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).
More than one sensitive soul through the years has asked me, “Was my prayer not answered because I’m not righteous enough?” “Did I not pray with enough faith?” I too, have been perplexed by unanswered prayers, especially when hundreds of people have prayed for the healing of a good person or the life transformation of an unbelieving family member, to no avail.
Let me offer several responses. First, I don’t believe that any of the verses quoted above invite us to expect God to sign a blank check for anything and everything we pray for. God is not a vending machine and we are not entitled customers.
Second, as many of you have reminded me over the years, God can answer our prayers by saying “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait.” Often, the most growing we do is when we persevere through a season of God’s “Wait.”
Third, the premise underlying the verses above is that God is a loving and caring Father and that we are his beloved children. But as any parent can tell you, just because you love your kids, doesn’t mean you give them everything they ask you for. A wise parent may foresee many things that a child cannot.
Fourth, God sometimes does allow the suffering of those he loves. I don’t believe God causes the horrible suffering we see in the world; but I do see how God can work through suffering to form us into the grace-filled and compassionate people God desires us to be.
Fifth, we need to be more stubborn in our faith, both in terms of praying persistently and in terms of humbly trusting that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Jesus invited us to be persistent in prayer, perhaps most memorably through the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-8).
Sixth, remember that Jesus prayed all night before choosing the Twelve and still got Judas. He also prayed that the cup of suffering might pass from him, before submitting himself to the will of the father. Prayer isn’t primarily about getting what we desire, but about aligning our desires with God’s desires. May we stubbornly ask, seek, and knock at God’s door, while always recognizing that God is God and we are not!