Making Sense of Unanswered Prayer

"The answer that matters more than any is knowing that we are not alone.” by Victor M. Parachin
man standing in field

One morning, Timothy Jones was called out of a board meeting for an emergency call. A hospital employee in Santa Monica, CA, contacted him with the news that his father had been readmitted. Jones’ father experienced a heart attack just three weeks earlier, had partial recovery and was sent home. The second heart attack was severe, and it looked as though the father could not survive more than a few hours. Jones quickly made flight reservations. While on the plane, he desperately hoped his father would survive until he arrived. “I wanted to tell him one last time that I loved him,” he said. So while in flight, he wrote out this prayer in his journal: “Please, Lord, keep Dad alive until I come.” He was greeted at the airport terminal by his mother and a family friend. “Dad died even as I was winging my way home. My prayer was not answered.”

That incident is conveyed by minister Timothy Jones in his book “The Art of Prayer.” His experience with unanswered prayer is hardly unique. In the Bible, there are several incidents of prayers unanswered. For example:

  • David prayer for the healing of his sick son in 2 Samuel 12:16, “David pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground” (NIV). His son died.
  • Jesus prayed to be spared the violent death on the cross in Matthew 26:39, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (NIV). He was arrested and tried shortly after offering the prayer.
  • King Zedekiah sought, through prayer, help in defeating the attacking armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon in Jeremiah 21:1-2. Israel was not spared being conquered and carried into captivity.
  • Paul prayed for relief from a “thorn,” “three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me” (2 Cor. 12:8 NIV). The thorn in his flesh remained.

Unanswered prayer is a perplexing spiritual issue. And it is heightened when we read the bold biblical promises of prayers being answered. Speaking through the Psalmist, God says, “He will call upon me and I will answer him” (Psalm 91:15 LEB). Jesus stated simply, “Ask and it will be given to you” (Luke 11:9 NIV). Yet many prayers are unanswered and that creates spiritual distress and confusion. C. S. Lewis articulated this concern when he wrote, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost ever death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.” If we are deeply honest, making sense of unanswered prayer is not always easy. Yet there are ways to approach this issue which can leave us with more peace and less anxiety. Here are some ways to make sense of unanswered prayer.

Unanswered prayer can be the “right” answer. “I have lived to thank God that all my prayers have not been answered,” said poet and writer Jean Ingelow. There are times—possibly many times—when granting our prayer request would be wrong. It would be wrong for us and wrong for others. In our short-sightedness, we ask for things which are not in our best interest. Pause to consider what would happen if all our prayers were answered. Minister Steve Brown tells a humorous incident about a time when he was once asked to be president of a large seminary. “I certainly had no training in running a seminary,” he admitted to himself. “But the idea was so far out in left field that I thought it must be coming from God.” He prayed about it and “even felt I had heard God’s voice telling me to do it.” A resounding “no” to his prayer came via a good friend who bluntly advised him, “Brown, are you crazy? Who do you think you are? You can’t run a seminary. God didn’t call you to do that. You’ll make a public fool of yourself.” Brown ended up not becoming a seminary president and now says, “The folks at that seminary ought to be eternally grateful for a brother who knows the difference between the voice of God and my silly ideas.”

Unanswered prayer can be a greater gift. Scripture reminds us that God’s ways are not always our ways, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV). The lesson in those verses is this: beware of prayer which limits and confines God because we are convinced we know what is best. When a prayer desire goes unanswered, it may be a greater gift from God. There are numerous inspirational stories about people whose lives took unexpected—even unwanted—twists and turns but which resulted in their lives having a major impact on society. Consider Joe Weider who in his late teens established himself as one of the top Olympic style weightlifters in Canada. His goal was to make the Olympic team. Then a shoulder injury crushed that dream. Consequently, he expressed his passion for fitness in a different way. Beginning with a health newsletter, he eventually launched a magazine empire and created a new industry of fitness equipment and supplements. Looking back over his life, he was grateful for that shoulder injury which pushed him into an entirely different direction.

Unanswered prayer can lead to deeper faith. Andrew Murray, a nineteenth century spiritual writer, observed, “When the Lord wants to lead someone to great faith, he leaves his prayers unheard.”  Shortly after graduating from high school, Joni Eareckson Tada dove into the waters of Chesapeake Bay. Her head hit the bottom hard, leaving her instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Family and friends joined Tada in praying for her healing but she remained paralyzed. Her despair was so great that she begged a friend to help her commit suicide. Although Tada remains a quadriplegic, she has built a powerful life of personal faith and great inspiration for others. Today, millions of people world-wide know her via her books, writings and paintings, which she does by holding a pen or brush in her mouth. Her unanswered prayer for healing resulted in a deeper personal faith. In her book, “When God Weeps,” she states: “God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to Him, force us to depend on grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, spend our time wisely, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for the truth, lead us to the repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in times of sorrow, increase faith, and strengthen character.”

Finally, it is worth remembering that even when our prayers are unanswered the way we wish, God is still present in our lives, and that can be as powerful as an answer to a prayer. After learning his father died while he was in flight, Timothy Jones wrote that his unanswered prayer “is not what I remember most about that time. While I certainly shed tears, while I regretted missing seeing my father one last time, God answered me with his presence. He held me during a dark time. The answer that matters more than any is knowing that we are not alone.”     

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