Why Do Prayers Go Unanswered?

Matthew 7:7: Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

John 14:13: Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

John 15:16: You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit, and that your fruit would remain, so that whatever you ask of the Father in My name He may give to you.

John 16:23: In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.

Jesus evidently meant business when he said he would answer our prayers, which is really great! The problem arises when we pray for something to happen but it doesn’t happen. Every Christian has faced the dilemma of unanswered prayer at some point in their walk with God. Sadly, some folks who once believed even turn away from God because they pray for something they deem very important but it never happens.

Why would God not answer our prayers even if we pray in Jesus’ name?

Here are a few reasons that apologist and philosopher William Lane Craig gives in his book Hard Questions, Real Answers:

Contradictory prayers. One common sense reason that God cannot answer our prayers is because Christians pray contradictory things. Examples abound. Two guys praying they will marry the same girl. Thousands of people praying their favorite football team will win the game. Millions of people praying they will will the same $60 billion lottery. God couldn’t answer them all because they contradict each other.

Sin in our lives. One of the most basic reasons for unanswered prayer is unconfessed sin in our lives. Jesus’ promise of answered prayer presupposes that the Christian is living in the fullness and power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian who is living in unconfessed sin can have no confidence that his prayers will be answered.

Psalm 66:18: If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear.

1 Peter 3:7: You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

Wrong motive. Many times our prayers go unanswered because of wrong motives. Often times our motives are selfish. Even though Jesus said: Ask and it will be given to you, James, Jesus’ half-brother, elaborates:

When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:3).

Self-centered prayer does not fall under Jesus’ promise. The correct motive for prayer should be God’s glory. This should be our motive in prayer: to request things of God, not for our selfish desires, but that His name might be glorified (John 12:28).

Lack of faith.* Jesus made clear that only believing prayer can be assured of an answer. He told his disciples: Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). James, speaking of someone’s prayer for wisdom, says:

When he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does (James 1:6-8).

It would not be right, however, to suggest that in every case, a person who has doubts in their heart cannot receive the answer they desire to their prayer. Take the man with the son with the unclean spirit in Mark 9. The man acknowledges his lack of faith and yet Christ still is willing to do what the man asked him to do.

Lack of earnestness. Sometimes our prayers are not answered because, quite frankly, we don’t really care whether they are. We casually pray in our prayer meetings for a request but then shortly after we forget about it. In the end we don’t really care. Read the prayers of the many prophets and biblical figures in the Bible. Were they flippant in their prayer requests? What about Jesus? Read Jesus’ prayers in the Gospels and determine for yourself if he cared at all for his prayer requests to God.

Lack of perseverance. Our lack of persistence may be one reason our prayers are not answered. We pray once and then we give up too easily. Some Christians believe that all you have to do is pray once and you’re done. But that is not a teaching of Jesus. Remember the parable Jesus told his disciples about the friend coming at midnight to borrow some bread from his neighbor. The neighbor wouldn’t get up at first but because the friend kept pounding on the door and wouldn’t give up, the neighbor gets up and gives him the bread (Luke 11:5-8).

Or recall the parable of the widow and the judge (Luke 18:1-8). The unrighteous judge did not want to grant the woman’s request but she kept pestering him so much that he would grant his request. The point of the parable is we should always pray and not give up (18:1).

Finally, and most significantly, our request must be in accordance with God’s will if it is to be granted. The apostle John highlights this in 1 John 5:14-15:

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.

As much as we may not like this at times, a big reasons our prayers often go unanswered is because God knows better than we do what ought to be done. We may believe we know the best way forward or the best solution to a thorny problem, but we are limited in time, space, knowledge, and insight. But the transcendent God sees the end from the beginning and knows what outcomes and solutions work together best for our good and for His glory. Sometimes it is for our own good for us not to have our prayers answered.**

Notes

*Be careful not to confuse this point with the teaching of some proponents of the Prosperity Gospel which says that blessing comes in proportional measure to your faith. The bible does not teach the Prosperity Gospel. Read this excellent article titled “‘Just Have More Faith’: How Bad Theology Hurts the Suffering” for a balanced perspective regarding the connection between faith and answered prayer.

**I borrowed heavily from the book, Hard Questions, Real Answers by William Lane Craig, Chapter 2 to write this post and I recommend reading that if people want a more in depth look at this issue.

Prayer and American Football

Football season has kicked off.  Besides all the fanaticism that accompanies American football (or sports in general), there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me: the inclination of athletes to pray before, during or after their games.  What makes us think that God cares about our silly competitions?  I mean doesn’t God have more important things to concern himself with?

Well I’ve been doing some reading on prayer lately–not just because of football–but because I need some renewal there.  Often when I need revival in prayer, I will go to my books.  And the past few weeks I’ve been dabbling in a few books on prayer.  One of those is Tim Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.  In chapter three he discusses the amazing breadth of style and practice of prayer across the world.  He writes:

“Prayer presents a dizzying variety to the eye of the observer.  Just look at the religious trance of Native American shamanists; the changing in Benedictine monasteries; devotees doing yoga in Manhattan offices; the hour-long pastoral prayers of the seventeenth-century Puritan ministers; speaking in tongues in Pentecostal churches; Muslims engaging in sujud, with forehead, hands and knees on the ground toward Mecca; Hasidim swaying and bowing in prayer; and the Anglican priest reading from the Book of Common Prayer.”1

At the end of this his very broad survey of prayer he manages to find a “common thread”: prayer is a communicative response to an individual’s knowledge of God.

A couple big things strike me about his definition:

First, that it’s a response.  If prayer is a response it implies that God has somewhere spoken; that God has initiated conversation.  Prayer is a response to that.  We Christians of course believe that God has spoken in the two “books” of nature and the Bible.  Prayer is a response to God’s communication through nature and through his word.

The second thing I find very interesting about his definition of prayer is that prayer is something that grows out of a knowledge of God.  Often it seems that we make the mistake of driving a wedge between our prayer life and the life of our minds.  We tend to think of prayer as purely a spiritual thing or a heart thing.  But if Keller is right then prayer is something that depends upon our understanding.  That the manner, form, experience and quality of our prayer life hinges in a way upon what we think or know of God.

Another book I’ve been reading on prayer is John Bunyan’s book creatively titled “Prayer.”  He too addresses the role of the understanding in prayer following the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 verses 3, 4, 12, 19, 24, and 25.  Bunyan writes:

“It is expedient…that the understanding should be occupied in prayer, as well as the heart and mouth: ‘I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.’ That which is done with understanding, is done more effectually, sensibly, and heartily…than that which is done without it; which made the apostle pray for the Colossians, that God would fill them ‘with the knowledge of his will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding’ (Col. 1:9).  And for the Ephesians, that God would give unto them ‘the spirit of wisdom and revelation, in the knowledge of him’ (Eph. 1:17). And so for the Philippians, that God would make them abound ‘in knowledge, and in all judgment’ (Phil. 1:9).  A suitable understanding is good in everything a man undertakes, either civil or spiritual; and therefore it must be desired by all them that would be a praying people.” 2

Whether or not God really cares about who wins a football game is still up for debate, but one thing is for sure: we wouldn’t pray on the field if we didn’t think that God takes some kind of an interest in sports.

  1. Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 37.
  2. Bunyan, Puritan Paperbacks: Prayer (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2005), 36-37.