The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

Reed JolleyCommunity News

Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
John 14:13-14


If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
John 15:7


In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.
John 16:23-24

When we consider the unblushing promises of Scripture, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, it would seem our Lord finds our prayers not too large but too small. Indeed, the promises of Jesus are over the top. Taken at face value we seem to be told that, well, that our prayers will be answered. Imagine. Yet our experience, if we are honest even for a moment, testifies otherwise. God seems present and attentive to some of our prayers and disinterested, absent, even hostile to others. A wife prays for her husband’s healing every day for seven years. Nothing. Parents pray for the spiritual well-being of their daughter continually, yet she walks away from the faith of her parents. A son prays for his father’s salvation but the father descends deeper and deeper into drug addiction. These are stories from our church family.

As Lewis put it in the grief he expressed over the death of his wife,


When you are happy. . . you will be – or so it feels – welcomed [by God] with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence. (A Grief Observed, p. 9)

What are we to do with the problem of unanswered prayer? Are the Scriptures teasing us into praying prayers that don’t work after all? Is the problem that we are praying for the wrong things with impure motives (James 4:2-3)? Is God too busy to both hear and then answer? Or worse, does God hear our heartfelt, sincere prayers and then refuse to lift a finger in response?

Prayer is a mystery. Prayer is a reflex and a delight, an obligation, a discipline. It is a joyful response to grace and the dutiful obedience of discipleship. Prayer causes us to fall in love with God and it causes us to question God’s will and benevolence. Prayer is spontaneous and orderly, pensive and exultant. Prayer is expressive and receptive. Prayer is all of these things, and ten thousand others, but what of the problem of unanswered prayer?

Jerry Sittser knows a good deal about the problem of unanswered prayer. On September 27, 1991, Sittser began the day with prayer. He prayed for the safety of his children and for God’s protection over his family. By the end of the day he had been in a car crash with a drunk driver. His mother, his wife and one of his daughters died in the accident. Where was God on September 27, 1991?

Recently Sittser has written a worthy book entitled, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer. Here the professor of religion from Whitworth College pokes and prods for an answer to one of the believer’s biggest questions: Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others? Sittser is both honest with his experience and faithful to the teachings of Scripture. And he refuses to offer a neatly packaged answer to his question. As a matter of fact his last word comes toward the beginning of the book. As I have explored the question of why God doesn’t answer my own prayers, I have wondered whether it is possible to find an answer at all. Perhaps God simply chooses, for reasons known only to him, not to answer our prayers, however worthy we think our prayers are. He may do so for reasons that are and will remain a mystery to us. (p. 29)

But while Sittser, in the end, is willing to rest in the superior knowledge and will of God, he does a fine job of probing for answers to his question. The various chapters of the book grapple with his question from different perspectives. One chapter shows that the true heart of prayer is not about asking and getting what we want or think we need. Another ponders the value of suffering in the Christian’s life.

One of my favorites is chapter 4, The Gift of Unanswered Prayer. Here the author ponders the nightmare of answered prayer. What would happen if all our prayers were answered?

When we pray, we pray not only as saints but also as sinners, very much inclined to use prayer to advance our own selfish interests, even when we pray out of desperation. (p. 67)

Answered prayer, we are reminded, reinforces our pride. If all of our prayers were answered we would become intoxicated with our own power and, like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings, make a mess of things.

God therefore shows us mercy by not answering all our prayers. If God did answer all our prayers, we would become corrupt beyond measure, praying as if prayer was like a credit card with no limits. . . we would become monsters, far worse than Hitler or Stalin. (p. 77)

Of course, the above quotation will not tie down the loose ends for the husband whose wife has just left him, even after months of praying for the restoration of his marriage. But Sittser doesn’t mean to tie down all the loose ends. His book makes an effort to understand what we will never understand this side of God’s coming kingdom. Sittser’s final answer to his question is to keep praying.

Eleven years ago I lost Diana Jane (his daughter). I prayed for her protection that day, but something went wrong. I am no closer now to understanding why she died than I was eleven years ago. It is a terrible and troubling mystery to me.

But I never stopped praying, even in those darkest days after the accident. At first I prayed because it was a habit. Sometimes I wondered why I was praying, thought I continued to pray all the same. But now I pray out of deep conviction.

Ironically, I still pray for my children’s protection, just as I did before the accident. (p. 198)

And so, in spite of all our questions, let us be among those who persist in prayer.