We tend to equate unanswered prayer with failure and fault. Years ago, my wife had been told that her mother died because she hadn’t prayed with enough faith.
We are surrounded with apostles of blame. The popular mystic, Richard Foster, also lays the blame on us, when our prayers aren’t answered:
- Often we assume we are in contact [with God] when we are not…Often people will pray and pray with all the faith in the world, but nothing happens. Naturally, they are not contacting the channel. We begin praying for others by first centering down and listening to the quiet thunder of the Lord of hosts. Attuning ourselves to divine breathings is spiritual work, but without it our praying is vain repetition. Listening to the Lord is the first thing…(Celebration of Disciple, 34)
For Foster and the mystics, unanswered prayer (UP) is the result of failing to use the prescribed mystical techniques. However, the Bible often associates UP with wrong motives:
- You ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:2-3)
Other sins will also block us from receiving God’s mercy. However, “contacting the channel” is not a matter of clever techniques but of confession:
- He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)
However, often times we do not receive because what we ask for is not according to God’s plan for our lives – His will:
- I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 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. (1 John 5:13-15)
Sometimes His will might be a matter of the last thing we’d suspect – death. Jesus informed the faithful church of Smyrna that martyrdom was what God had willed for “some”:
- “I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander[a] of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” (Rev.2:9-10)
Our Lord had informed Peter that he would glorify God in this manner, and no amount of prayer would make a difference:
- “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) (John 21:8-9)
This might sound strange, but, from our present perspective, I am glad that Peter and the Apostles had suffered martyrdom. Martyrdom would serve, better than anything else, to prove that they really believed what they had preached – that Jesus died for our sins and rose again.
Paul wrote that this would also be the way that we too would have to glorify the Lord:
- All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. (2 Tim. 3:12)
This is God’s will, and it won’t be changed by prayer. Nor would He answer Paul’s prayer to remove his “thorn in the flesh.” Instead, God had revealed to him that this affliction was necessary to keep Paul humble. We want strength, but God gives us weakness through which to bless us, according to His will (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Prayer will not remove all of our afflictions!
Sometimes, God expects us to wait, even for many years, for our prayers to be answered (Psalm 27:14). Abraham had to wait 25 years to receive the promised son, Isaac. Moses had to wait 40 years for God to recall him to Egypt to fulfill the calling that He had originally put in Moses’ heart – a calling of which Moses had long since despaired. God has His own timing.
Sometimes our prayers are answered, but God strangely refuses to reveal this to us. Abraham had intervened with Yahweh on behalf of Lot and his family, then residing in wicked Sodom. He finally got Yahweh to agree to spare Sodom if there were only 10 righteous people in the city. A done-deal, right? Wrong:
- And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived. (Gen. 19:27-29)
God had answered Abraham’s prayer, but Scripture gives us no evidence that He had ever made Abraham aware of this fact. Instead, Abraham packed up his tent, left the area, and fell into sin once again in his new country of residence (Gen. 20), perhaps discouraged by his apparent UP. I wonder how many of our own UPs have been mercifully answered without our knowing it.
We have to walk by faith and not by sight! This is my hope for my two deceased parents. Neither of them had given any indication that God had heard my prayers for their salvation. Yet I continue to hope in the unseen grace of our Savior.
Sometimes, we are afraid of praying for the wrong things. However, if we are walking with the Lord, seeking His will, we need not be afraid. Instead, the Holy Spirit makes up for our deficits:
- In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27)
As long as we do not willfully and unrepentently continue in sin, we are covered. However, Scripture warns us that sin can close the prayer-channels, for example:
- Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (1 Peter 3:7)
Unrepented sin will hinder pray. Meanwhile, our Lord is determined to give us the world (Romans 8:17; 31-32; 1 Cor. 21-22), but in His time! He’s already paid the price.