Part 2 On Prayer: Dealing with Unanswered Prayer

If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read my earlier post, Part 1 On Prayer: God is not a Magician. My 4-part blog series On Prayer is my personal takeaway from Philip Yancey’s book, Prayer: Does It Make A Difference? This is not a review of his book, nor has Mr. Yancey endorsed my posts. Paraphrased examples from the book are credited to Mr. Yancey. Click here for Amazon.com ordering information; it’s a terrific read.

Can you recall a prayer that went unanswered? Were you praying for something material: a new car, a salary increase, nice weather for your weekend outing, or for a favorite sports team to win the game?

When your prayer went unanswered, how did you react? Were you angry? Were you surprised? Did you question your faith, or your own ability to pray? How did unanswered prayer affect your attitude toward people whose prayers were answered? Were you joyful or resentful toward them?

Why do some people with life-threatening situations survive (sometimes without praying for healing), yet other sufferers backed by faithful pray-ers die?

Why do some praying under a mountain of financial debt (from issues beyond their control) barely scrape by, yet others in the same situation ask for God’s help and the money pours in?

Why does one family have near-perfect kids, yet another couple prays day and night over mommy’s womb and receives a child with complications? Or their teenager goes off the deep end into drug abuse?

No doubt you have similar questions.

Philip Yancey examined true accounts of 9/11 survivors who had prayed to escape the World Trade Center towers before the collapse. Their faith in a good God must have soared as they darted past the first floor exit, leaving death behind in the dust cloud. I’m sure families of the survivors heralded, “Praise God! He heard our prayers!”

But Yancey’s orbit reaches the dark side of the moon, the prayer stories cut off from the broadcast. What of the thousands who also were praying–begging, pleading, screaming–to God as they shoved their way down flights of stairs, only to be crushed under tons of steel and concrete? How do you respond to their families, who also were praying, and watched their loved ones die over and over on CNN?

If God was holding up the building for some that prayed, why did He not hold it just 30 minutes longer for the others that prayed? We have no proof of whether God was holding up anything obviously. It could’ve been the result of simple physics; the airplane punctured the building, and because of gravity the strained infrastructure eventually gave way. Some lived, some died. As in the death of Jesus, God may have withheld intervention and chose instead to agonize with us in the midst of a divine mystery.Desiring to know “why” is human nature. We are a species that wants closure; loose ends bother us and will fester long-term if we allow them. And I don’t believe God frowns upon our wondering why.

But it’s the “why” question that produces the problem, and focusing on the problem will never answer the question. Wrestling too long with “why” will leave you flailing in frustration when your prayers go unanswered and your world seems upside down.

I’m not suggesting to avoid asking “why?” We were created with curiosity; without it, we fail to progress as individuals and as a culture. But sometimes we must shift from demanding answers from God and take a different approach. Otherwise, we risk growing bitter with disappointment.

Rather than demand that God explain Himself, I believe He already has. I’ve come away with three responses for dealing with unanswered prayer–three reminders when God seems unresponsive. Consider this…

1) More is going on behind the scenes than we realize.
For starters, I go to the one place that has proven itself time and again: the Bible. If you don’t have a clue where to begin in the Bible when it comes to prayer and you don’t know someone who can help (or you don’t attend a church), that’s where a reputable book can help.Nobody has asked me to plug Philip Yancey’s books, but if you’re not familiar with the Biblical stories of prayer, Yancey’s book Prayer: Does It Make A Difference? will guide you to those places and provide explanations. In my final post On Prayer (Part 4), I’ll leave several passages of Scripture that I find helpful.

There is a misconception that “heroes” of the Bible lived vibrant lives of answered prayer. Yes, lots of miracles occurred as a result of prayer in the Bible, but these guys and gals were considered heroes of the faith in part because of their response to unanswered prayer. Two in particular come to mind: Job and Jesus.

You can read the story in the Book of Job, but I’ll summarize. Job was a righteous man who loved and trusted God and had it all: a wife, children, self-employed (with thousands of livestock), wealth, no shortage of anything. All in one day, messengers reported to Job that most of his livestock were stolen, his sheep and shepherds were struck by lightning, his hired hands were murdered, and all ten of his children had died in a tornado. What was your most recent “bad” day like? This sounds more like the opening scene of an intense thriller.

But Job’s troubles weren’t over. He came down with severe health issues–oozing sores all over his body, and ulcers. The scabs were bad enough that Job scraped them with broken pottery. This guy was going through hell on earth, and God appeared to be out of sight.

Was Job pissed? Sure he was. Did he go to God with the “why” question? Of course he did. Did Job wish himself never born? Yes, he wished that, too.

Did he ever turn his back on God, renouncing his faith? No, he didn’t. Despite accusations from friends and even his own wife that Job must have screwed the pooch before God, Job knew he hadn’t sinned and continued to uphold his faith.

In desperation, Job tried to reason why this was happening and made himself miserable in the process. (Job’s friends tried to reason, too, which added to his misery.) Although he never turned from God, Job was angry at God’s lack of intervention.

God eventually broke the silence and laid into Job. In my own paraphrase God said, “Job! Who in the hell do you think you are to explain the mysteries of the universe? Who are you to say what should and shouldn’t be?” Check it out in Job chapters 38-40; it’s a supreme smackdown.

Who am I to demand that God reveal His work behind the scenes, in the spiritual realm that’s as real as the physical world but hidden from human eyes? Who am I to rationalize the death of one and the survival of another? Who am I to accuse, or even question God of not caring or seeing things my way, or doing my bidding?

Job’s story reminds us that more is going on than we could ever imagine, and it’s been going on long before we were pushed into the world.

2) Jesus’s most desperate request went unanswered.
The best example of unanswered prayer that I find in the Bible is Jesus’s prayer before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus knew what pain lay ahead, so he asked his Father if the “hour might pass from him,” that God might “take this cup” from him. Yet Jesus followed his desperate request with the famous words, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (See Mark 14:35-36) Jesus understood something that we tend to miss or forget.

Jesus’s own Father, who had the power to wipe out the opposition and save Jesus from the ensuing torture, instead chose to wait silently and watch His only child brutalized and nailed to wooden planks.

Why couldn’t God choose another way? He could have. Then why didn’t God choose another way? Again, He could have, but God promised a different plan for reaching His people (you and me) and God is not one to break promises.

I want to point out something very important here. Notice that, although Jesus forfeited his will unto God’s (“not what I will, but what you will”), Jesus did make his request (“take this cup”). Is any request too trivial or too great to bring to God’s attention? Keep that in mind for Part 4 On Prayer: Why Bother?

3) What if God answered every prayer?
I love this question proposed by Yancey. Ever considered it? I’d love to share Yancey’s entire section on this question, but I haven’t requested permission. Instead, I’ll share a brief excerpt that I think would be permissible:

Apart from prayers impossible to answer–those that involve a logical contradiction such as opposing sides praying for victory, or farmers and athletes praying for conflicting weather patterns–what would happen if God answered every prayer?

By answering every possible prayer, God would in effect abdicate, turning the world over to us to run. History shows how we have handled the limited power granted us: we have fought wars, committed genocide, fouled the air and water, destroyed forests, established unjust political systems, concentrated pockets of superfluous wealth and grinding poverty. What if God gave us automatic access to supernatural power? What further havoc might we wreak? (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p. 228)

Yancey goes on to the movie Bruce Almighty, where God gives an ordinary human the supernatural ability to “play God.” I won’t spoil the movie if you haven’t seen it, but Bruce finds great difficulty “managing” the world and all its inhabitants. Things get a wee-bit out of control.

The thought of God answering every prayer gets back to our investigation in Part 1 On Prayer: God is not a Magician…nor is He a genie in a bottle. The idea of all prayers answered is like the “one ring to rule them all” in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings…it’s too much for any mortal to handle, even the good guys.

In closing, and after reading this post, you may feel we have little influence with prayer, and you may be asking, “What’s the benefit? Why pray if the opposite may happen anyway? Or if nothing will happen at all? What’s the point?”

I firmly believe that prayer is not a time-waster, that our requests do matter to God, and that God does answer prayer despite the countless requests that seem gone with the wind (no pun intended). But I believe we may need a shift in our intentions for prayer, a renewed understanding of why God invented the mysterious channel of communication to begin with.

If you made it this far, thank you for staying in the vehicle (I’ll never lock you in). I’m confident we’ll discover the answer in the final two posts:

Part 3 On Prayer: How Should I Pray?
Part 4 On Prayer: Why Bother?


  Featured image courtesy of answersingenesis.org

5 thoughts on “Part 2 On Prayer: Dealing with Unanswered Prayer

  1. Bradley–yeah, and it seems many of us growing up in America were taught that prayer simply means asking God for things. I’m gonna hit on this specifically in Part 4. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. Brock – I get the same feeling as I did in your last post on prayer – That the idea of us thinking God should answer every prayer is shallow and immature. I just don’t see prayer as an “asking” exercise so much any more. God moves in us and through us, so he’s kind of working whether I believe it or not. And somehow, His will is mysteriously co-mingled with my decisions. I don’t know how it all works, but I don’t think our life with God is about asking for things to happen. We need to live our lives and let God happen.

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  3. Before I even got to the part where you mentioned Bruce Almighty in your post, I was thinking about that movie and the enormous amounts of emails “God” received for prayer requests! ha ha!

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  4. Brock, as I have gotten older I usually request from God-guidance and wisdom in making a decision or choice. I bet God sometimes just shakes his head with my decisions and choices.

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