Why Does God Sometimes Not Answer Prayer?
Here is an illustration of prayer from D.A Carson’s book ‘Praying with Paul’:
If a boy asks his father for several things, all within the father’s power to give, the father may give him one of them right away, delay giving him another, decline to give him a third, set up a condition for a fourth. The child is not assured of receiving something because he has used the right incantation; that would be magic. The father may decline to give something because he knows it is not in the child’s best interests. He may delay giving something else because he knows that so many requests from his young son are temporary and whimsical. He may also withhold something that he knows the child needs until the child asks for it in an appropriate way. But above all, the wise father is more interested in a relationship with his son than in merely giving him things. Giving him things constitutes part of that relationship but certainly not all of it. The father and son may enjoy simply going out for walks together. Often the son will talk with his father not to obtain something, or even to find out something, but simply because he likes to be with him.1
This illustration shows that prayer is not magic and that our relationship with God is more important than whether or not our prayers are answered. Yet many Christians today in India think of prayer as a type of magic, and that they have a “blank cheque” with respect to prayer.
Do Christians Have A “Blank Cheque” When It Comes To Prayer?
In Mark 11:24 Jesus talks about the critical relationship between praying and faith. He says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours”. James also tells us that we are to “ask in faith, with no doubting” (Jam. 1:6). Texts like these, taken out of the context of the whole of Scripture, might convince a person that they in fact do have a blank cheque when it comes to prayer. As a child, I occasionally attended prayer meetings in Kerala where many of the people gathered would try to “work up” this kind of genuine faith by frenzied prayer and great emotional effort. My guess is that these well-meaning people were trying to make themselves believe, trying to say words they might not have thought to be true.
But if these select verses are taken in isolation, they can become the core of a theology of prayer which becomes nothing more than wishful thinking. What’s worse, when God doesn’t answer prayer, people with such a distorted theology of prayer plunge into despair and self-loathing after all, it’s their fault (their lack of faith) that God didn’t answer. Conversely, when God does answer, they might be tempted to congratulate themselves on their faith (God was so impressed with me that He had no choice but to answer!). Fortunately for us, God has in His kindness provided a treasure trove of texts that help God’s people understand not only how to pray, but also why God may not answer prayer at times.
Reasons Why God May Not Respond To Our Prayers
Prayer is an act of worship that springs from trust in a personal God who wants us to take Him at His word. It is an act of familial intimacy, and the main thing that can break our intimacy with God is sin. Disobedience is one reason why God may not respond to our prayers. Several OT texts affirm this (Ps. 66:18; Prov. 15:8; 28:9). In the NT the apostles affirm this as well, showing how God dishonouring marriages, unclean consciences, unholy lifestyles, not forgiving others, pride, etc. (1 Pet. 3:12; 1 Jn. 3:21-22; Matt. 6:12; Jam. 4:6). Sin can affect the intimacy of our relationship with God, and thereby our prayers. Wayne Grudem notes, “Since prayer is a relationship with God as a person, anything in our lives that displeases Him will be a hindrance to prayer.”2
Other factors which might be the reason God doesn’t answer could be lack of persistence in prayer (Col. 4:2), not praying earnestly (Heb. 5:7) and lack of faith (Jam. 1:6).
And finally, God may refuse to answer our prayers and we will never know the reason why. But a major reason why God doesn’t answer our prayers is because we do not ask according to God’s will, and this is what I’d like to focus on for the rest of this article.
Praying According To God’s Will
I have been speaking English as long as I can remember. However, I would be a fool to think that I always knew English. No, there was a time when I didn’t understand a word of English, but I slowly learned it because my parents would constantly speak English words to me all the time- mama, dada, milk, yes, no, etc. Not one of these words was a first word, they were all answering speech. I was spoken to before I could speak. The more words my parents spoke to me, the more English I learned to speak. We speak only to the degree that we are spoken to.3
Eugene Peterson uses this example to illustrate how prayer should arise out of our immersion in the Scriptures. This is how we are to use God’s word in prayer:
Listen/ Study – You need to read God’s word so that you can hear what God has said. By studying a passage in God’s word you will know clearly more about God, more about you and your sin, and more about God’s salvation in Christ.
Think/Reflect/Ponder – As you know what the passage you have just read meant to those who first received it, you will understand what God is speaking to you through this passage. You might reflect on a particular attribute of God that you read, and this stirs your mind and heart to praise God in adoration. You might be convicted of your own sin and cry out to God in confession and repentance. You might be stirred to thank God because your reflection about God in the passage is experientially true in your own life. Or your reflection might make you realize your own deep inadequacies to live out the truths of the passage and therefore it might stir you to seek God’s grace in a particular area of your life.
Prayer then becomes the intellectual (mind) and emotional (heart) response to God’s word. This response to God’s speech is what makes prayer biblical.
A great way to pray like this is through the Psalms. One scholar notes that the Psalms were ‘designed to be prayed’.4 They include exclamations of wonder and amazement, bitter complaints, reasoned arguments, pronouncements, appeals, and sometimes self-condemnation. Not only is there variety in the content but also in their emotional range. Tim Keller notes that there are emotions in the Psalms that an introverted person would never express on their own. Likewise, there are depths of heart insight in the Psalms that extroverted people would never discover on their own. This is another reason why praying the Scriptures is so important. If we only initiated prayer according to our own inner needs then we would never produce the full range of biblical prayer.
It is only when we are responding to who God is as revealed in the Bible that the most truly biblical prayer can be practised, with all its wonderful variety. Sometimes praying the Scriptures will feel like an intimate conversation with a friend or family member, at other times it will feel like an appeal to a great King, while others might feel like a wrestling match. The reason is because the nature of prayer in each case will be determined by the character of God, who is at once our friend, father, spouse, shepherd and king. The Bible contains this full range of discourse and emotion, and when we pray the bible, our own prayer lives will likewise be rich and varied.
The danger of disconnecting prayer from God’s Word is that you can never be sure if what you’re praying is God’s will or not. George Whitfield was a minister of God during the Great Awakening and one of the great preachers in Church History. When his first son was born, Whitfield was convinced by a strong impression that his son would be one of the great preachers of the gospel when he grew up. He even preached publicly about the glorious future in the ministry about his son. But his son died four months later. This tragedy taught him an important lesson. He learned how wrong he was to equate and interpret his own feelings as equal to God’s word and as his own feelings as God directly speaking to his own heart.
So dear Brothers and Sisters, I strongly encourage you to pray God’s Word. Pray the Psalms, indeed, pray all of Scripture. Speak back God’s word to Him in your prayers. Two excellent resources that might help you to do this are D. A. Carson’s ‘Praying with Paul’ and Donald Whitney’s ‘Pray the Bible’. Do this, and you will find yourself enriched and encouraged in ways you never have before. May God help us to be pray-ers of the word.
1 D.A. Carson, Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014).
2 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994).
3 Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).
4 Donald Whitney, Praying the Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).