In recent weeks I have traded some messages with a young man who has walked away from his Christian faith. I asked if he was willing to discuss the reasons behind it all, and he was very open to the idea. As we communicated and shared, I replied with what I thought were the three main reasons he no longer believes in God.
- Unanswered prayer
- Suffering in the world
- Lack of evidence
He then wanted me to add a 4th.
- Injustices from a just God
I plan to respond to each of his objections, so I wanted to start with my thoughts to unanswered prayer and share it as a blog post with some editing for clarity after he responded to what I originally wrote him. He also pointed out this piece touches on suffering in the world so there is some overlap between the two objections.
I shared with him I was going to keep my responses relatively brief. I know many have written volumes on each of the four we have listed above, but writing him a wall of texts, evidence, explanations, reasons, etc., I think would subtract from my efforts to give him something to consider.
Unanswered prayer is a hard one for me personally, and as I have looked into answers for this objection, I am left wanting. I can’t count the times I have had prayers unanswered or felt they were ignored. One potential solution would be to follow Wayne Dyer’s advice: an American author and motivational speaker.
“I start every day by wanting more for others than I do for myself. I think that is how God works, and that is how I think we have to work.”
Yet, we all have prayed earnestly for others’ healing and safety only to be disappointed, sometimes painfully, so this objection is not limited to prayers concerning our own personal wants and desires.
Furthermore, don’t think the Bible characters walked about experiencing answered prayers and miracles left and right. Unanswered prayer is not limited to our modern world experiences. Many characters suffered amid unanswered prayer. In 2 Samuel 12:15-18, David lost his child despite his earnest prayers, and Paul’s repeated request in 2 Corinthians 12:6-10 for healing are just two examples.
In 1960 Joy Davidman, the wife of C.S. Lewis died from cancer. He had only four years with this love of his and Lewis described those years as the most beautiful of his life. 1 Author of When Faith Fails, Dominic Done wrote concerning this, “However, the depth of his affection for Joy while she lived meant a depth of sorrow unlike any he had ever experienced when she died. A year later, he published the book ‘A Grief Observed.’ This short book is powerful, raw, elegant, and heartbreaking. In it, Lewis pours out all his emotion in real-time. There are no simple answers in this book, only ferocious questions.” 2
As Christians, we may see some reasons prayers go unanswered, which I will touch on below. But keep in mind, when someone is suffering, that is NOT the time to give them a list of reasons why God may not have answered their deep and heartfelt prayers. That is the time to encourage them, love them, support them, and be present in their lives. An intellectual answer will never comfort a broken heart.
If we are honest, sometimes God cannot answer our prayers. An explicit but straightforward example is when two Christians are praying for contradictory things. What if two Christian men were in love with the same girl? Ya, you get the idea. Or if two Christians were competing against each other in a sport for the championship title? Could two Christians have ever wanted the same job? We can come up with lots of examples.
Some might say that if God is all-powerful (omnipotent), He should be able to do the logically impossible. But the words almighty or omnipotent do not mean God can do anything; instead, they reference his ‘power’, and power indicates change. More specifically, changing what is possible to change. In other words, God can change what is possible to change, but He cannot do something ‘impossible.’ He can’t create a stone so heavy He can’t lift it. He can’t make a married bachelor. He can’t make a square hole, and he can’t grant the prayers of contradictory desires. What is impossible does not become possible by adding more power to change, even God’s unlimited power.
Personally, when I think of unanswered prayer, I often think of my own failed marriage and the depth of my prayers echoing from my very soul. Will I ever see a good ‘enough’ reason for Him to allow it and not intervene in some way? Maybe I already have. Has there been good from it? Oh yes! I know I have ministered to others who struggled in their marriages and those that have also experienced broken marriages. The feelings of failure, abandonment, defeat, guilt run rampant in those who go through a long-term marriage dissolution. Those individuals often hit rock bottom and need someone who understands. I know for a fact that I have helped some navigate this kind of heartbreak.
When prayer is unanswered and they experience anguish, is anything gained in a person’s character in the suffering? Confidence, compassion, endurance, forgiveness, contentment in all circumstances, discernment, and inspiring others are a few traits that can be developed and applied. Romans 5:3-5
I think it is a mistake to look at the ending of a long relationship as a failure. Did any good come from it? Were there any lessons learned? Did you gain some understanding or experience that has value to you or others? I have heard it said that success has many fathers, but failure is often an orphan. There is something to gained embracing your failures in life: owning up to them and not blaming others. Proverbs 28:13 For nearly 25 years I believe we provided an excellent home to four beautiful children, and I see no defeat in that. So much more could be said, but I am sure you get my gist.
When thinking about or discussing unanswered prayer, Christians commonly use three lines of arguments. William Lane Craig these in his book Hard Questions Real Answers. You may have used one yourself or have heard someone suggest such a reason.
- They deny the prayer was unanswered. Name it and claim it. The cancer is gone, but no proof is provided.
- They say God’s answer will vary between yes, no, and not yet. Unanswered prayer is really a no from God, or a not yet. But is ‘no’ an answer? Can an answer to prayer be negative? I think that can be intellectually dishonest.
- They rationalize the answer. I heard one example of a group praying for someone’s healing. The next day he died, and the pastor explained that he was now healed entirely and residing in heaven. This was obviously being disingenuous with the prayer’s intent. 3
John 16:23 says that whatever we ask for in Jesus’ name, we will receive. So how could that be true? It has not been my experience because I have asked for plenty in Jesus’ name.
Craig goes on to explain the promise must be qualified. We have models of this in scripture. For example, in Mark 10:4-12, Jesus says anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. Then in Matthew 19:7-11, he adds the exception of marital unfaithfulness. Another example is found in Matthew 7:7. Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. Wow, I have asked for a lot of things that I was not given, that I did not find, or the door was not opened. What is up with that? Matthew 7:7 is pretty clear.
Let me give you some qualifications or reasons I believe prayers are not answered.
Wrong motives – James 4:3 gives a reason why Matthew 7:7 might not be answered. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Lack of faith – James 1:6-8 But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.
Sin – Psalm 66:18 If I had cherished sin in my heart the Lord would not have listened.
Lack of perseverance – Luke 11:5-8 Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.’ And suppose the one inside answers, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I can’t get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity, he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.” 4
I know some of these can raise all kinds of other questions, but they touch on why I think prayers are sometimes unanswered. I think it is obvious prayers must be conditional.
Stepping back and away from a personal view of unanswered prayer, let me ask a rhetorical question that drives home a point I want to make. Did your dad give you everything you asked for? When you asked for a new toy, a new bike, a new game, did you get them every time? How about what you wanted for dinner or dessert? Did you get to spend the night at a friend’s house every time you asked? Were you allowed to have friends over every time you wanted? How about stopping at McDonald’s or TacoBell every time you asked, or even just a candy bar when you were at the store?
No, of course not. Often the answer was no and for a myriad of reasons. Maybe he did not have the money for something you wanted. Maybe he did not want to deal with you having friends over. Maybe he did not want to spoil you and give you everything you asked for. Maybe he felt you had enough toys. Maybe your grades were not what they should have been. You get the idea. He may have had good reasons that you would not have agreed with or understood at that time. Yes, not receiving a toy is on a completely different level from not being healed from cancer, I get that. Yet, is it possible we lack depth and understanding for His answer to our prayer requests? Of course, our knowledge is limited, and His can is described as all-knowing (omniscient).
Some of you may remember the movie Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey. He was granted God’s powers, and at one point, he had downloaded all the prayers, millions of them. He decided to choose ‘yes to all’ to save time. That did not work out so well. One of the very rare times Hollywood got something theologically correct.
Amy Hall with str.org pointed out that God has two main goals as he works through our lives. One to display His glory, and two is to impart goodness to us. And the two also go hand in hand; our seeing His glory is good for us. 5 She wrote concerning His glory, “Sometimes He reveals His glory by His answering prayer the way we hoped, but sometimes He reveals His glory by our learning to depend on Him and seeing His faithfulness and trustworthiness (see 2 Cor. 8–9, for example). He uses our life situations to make Himself known to us and the world, to draw others to Himself…” 5
If there is a creator of the universe, a God who not only created the reality as we know it and desires for us to know him, could He have reasons for unanswered prayer? Reasons that our finite minds can’t grasp, understand, or appreciate? I believe that is a distinct possibility.
Romans 8:28 states that God is working all things for our good, and Romans 8:29 points out that good is to make us like His son Jesus Christ.
As I finished this piece, I realized it would fall short for those who don’t believe in God. For atheists or skeptics who embrace materialism, this will do little or nothing to satisfy their questions. In their view, prayers are nothing but wasted thoughts unless they include them in the realm of ‘positive thinking.’ Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and anyone who has a spiritual belief will have to respond to this question. Will they be satisfied with the reasons?
C.S. Lewis wrote concerning our purpose in life and how we are to become Christ-like in all we do, “It is the only thing we were made for. And there are strange, exciting things in the Bible that when we are drawn in, a great many other things in Nature will begin to come right. That bad dream will be over: it will be morning.” 6
Unanswered Prayer by James W Glazier is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.Sources:
- Lettie Ransley, “A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis – Review,” The Guardian, August 11, 2013
- Done, Dominic. “When the Sun Goes Dark.” When Faith Fails, Nelson Books, 2019, p.44
- Craig, William L. “Unanswered Prayer.” Hard Questions Real Answers. Crossway, 2003, pgs. 43-46
- Craig, William L. “Unanswered Prayer.” Hard Questions Real Answers. Crossway, 2003, pgs. 47-50
- Hall, Amy. “Unanswered Prayer” Message to Amy Hall. 25 February 2021. E-mail
- Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. Harper One, 1952. Print.