This article is part of the Help! series.
“If any of you lacks wisdom,” James 1:5 says, “let him ask God, who gives generously without reproach, and it will be given him.” According to 1 John 5:14–15, “If we know that [God] hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” And our Lord Jesus asserts, “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7). “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7). “Whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you” (John 16:23).
The testimony of Holy Scripture about prayer is clear, consistent, and bold. In theory, this should be encouraging and emboldening for prayer. But in practice, things are not always so uncomplicated and comforting. The problem of “unanswered prayers” is one we all must reckon with. What we hear in Scripture often seems to contradict what we see in everyday experience. Frequently you do not receive from the Father “whatever you ask.” You knock and knock, and the door seems never to be opened. What help might the wider biblical testimony and Christian wisdom offer in that painful circumstance?
An initial important, but also insufficient, consideration is that sin obstructs answers to prayer. When Jesus makes promises about the Father granting “whatever you ask,” he adds clear conditions. His promise in John 16:23 only concerns prayers asked “in my name”—that is, in accord with Jesus’s character and purposes, for his honor, because of his priestly mediation and representation. John 15:7 says that if we abide in Jesus, which is immediately linked to his words abiding in us, then we can confidently petition the Father. But to the degree that we hold abiding in Christ in abeyance for abiding in some sin, to the degree that we reject Jesus’s words and assert our own iniquitous will, to that degree we can hardly expect to have a smooth experience in supplication to the Father (see also 1 Pet. 3:7).
Of course, those knowingly hardened in sin are likely not wrestling with existential anxiety over unanswered prayers. But we can sometimes be, in a sense, unaware of the sin that hinders our supplications. Strangely, it’s possible to pray with zeal that God might effectively subsidize our idolatrous trysts with money or nation or success or family or health (see James 4:3–5). In such cases, to be sure, we rationalize our sin and idolatry, perhaps because everyone’s doing it and it’s “normal.” Or maybe we evade responsibility since we “aren’t directly hurting anyone.” Maybe we’re simply oblivious to our self-seeking violence and lovelessness, blind to how our pursuits functionally contribute to grinding the faces of the poor (Isa. 58:3b–4, 6–7, 10). With such rationalization, evasion, or oblivion, we may sincerely seek God daily and delight to know his ways, but wind up shocked when he takes no notice of our prayers (Isa. 58:2–3).
So it is wise practice in the life of prayer to give regular space for confession and repentance, both corporately and individually. It is just as important, by regular seasons of silence before the Word, to humbly lay ourselves open to the Spirit who exposes otherwise unnoticed areas of sin and idolatry (John 16:7–11).
But Scripture and experience tell us that we can oftentimes pray not obviously hardened in some sin or ignoring the Spirit’s convicting ministry, and God still does not answer. We can oftentimes pray in Jesus’s name for clearly good things—the conversion of unbelieving family, the health of our local church, victory over addiction or societal injustice—and still have the experience of R. S. Thomas’s man in a country church:
To one kneeling down no word came,
Only the wind’s song, saddening the lips
Of the grave saints, rigid in glass;
Or the dry whisper of unseen wings,
Bats not angels, in the high roof.
Was he balked by silence?1
We can give basically the same answer given above: our prayers might not be in Jesus’s name, in accord with his character and purposes, for his honor. But here the problem is not our iniquity but our ignorance. Our ignorance in such instances is less culpable (as with the people in Isa. 58 and James 4) and more due to our finitude and infirmity.
Perhaps we have an underdeveloped sense of God’s character and the things he is committed to, thus needing to mature in our understanding and, correspondingly, to mature in what we pray for and how. Every Christian is on the way of faith seeking understanding. Every Christian needs to learn how to pray aright (see Luke 11:1; cf. Rom 8:26).
Perhaps, while we know the general substance of God’s purposes and ways, we are ignorant about their specifics in our time and place. Abraham knew and believed in God’s promise to bless all nations through his offspring, and he prayed fervently that his firstborn son Ishmael might be the one through whom such blessing would come (Gen. 17:18). But he received an immediate “no” from God (Gen. 17:19). Eventually, God gave Abraham not the specific thing he prayed for but the general substance of what he longed for and most truly needed: the son (Isaac) through whom he, all his children, and all families of earth would be blessed.
Perhaps we’re ignorant of the timing of God’s answers to our prayers. We pray frequently and fervently, “Your kingdom come! Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven!” Opening our eyes after praying and looking around, we do not yet see much of an answer (cf. Heb. 2:8). We anguish not just at the apparent absence of the kingdom but also at the silent treatment our prayers seem to meet. But the anguish will not endure forever. According to Revelation 8:3–5, God is storing up in a bowl all “the prayers of the saints,” which on the last day he’ll pour out on earth to bring in the full kingdom justice and peace for which we long.
Ignorance is often, in these ways and more, a source of our sorrow in the life of prayer. But on the path of faith seeking understanding, we must not give up earnestly asking God for the desires of our hearts. Rather, we must be well practiced in the man’s plea from Mark 9:24: “I believe; help my unbelief!” And with humble, open hands, we must pray, as our Lord Jesus himself prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.”
It may be true that our frustration in prayer is often tied to our ignorance, but it’s probably not terribly comforting. And while we must acknowledge that iniquity can hinder our prayers, we are also too prone to try to “fix” the problem of unanswered prayers by attempting better, longer, more supposedly comprehensive confessions of our sins. Our self-reliant, self-justifying bent can rear its head even in a penitential mode. We need a third avenue of help.
Along these lines, it’s crucial to receive Scripture’s testimony that God hears our anguished pleas, all of them, even the ones he doesn’t seem to grant. “I have heard you,” God says to Abraham in his “no” to Abraham’s supplication (Gen. 17:20). God didn’t need to explicitly say such a thing, except that the express reassurance is necessary to comfort our troubled souls. When God’s response to our supplications is “no,” it is never for inattentiveness or deafness to our prayers in Christ’s name.
Every Christian is on the way of faith seeking understanding. Every Christian needs to learn how to pray aright.
It’s crucial also to know that God expects us to have seasons in the life of prayer when we’re tempted to lose heart. If this were not so, our Lord wouldn’t have told parables to fortify us for times when to our perceptions God is an unjust, unwilling judge (see Luke 18:1–8). Seasons of “dryness” in prayer, when God seems absent though our supplicatory thirst for him is great (Ps. 69:3; cf. Ps. 63:1), are not aberrations in the Christian life. They are no evidence of God’s distance from us.
And it’s crucial, finally, to hear again the good news. Specifically, we must realize its divinely inspired dramatic shape, which can easily escape our notice. At the center of the three-day gospel drama, between the Good Friday crucifixion of Christ for our forgiveness and his Easter Sunday resurrection for our life, came a holy Saturday when disciples experienced the silence of God. God’s silence, with all the confusion, uncertainty, and anguish it stirs up, is written into the heart of the story. But the silence the disciples suffered was not absolute, though they deserved it for their sin. Christ Jesus suffered the absolute silence of God, though he deserved it not. He cried out to God from the cross but received no answer. He prayed that, if possible, the cup of wrath would pass from him, only to have his prayer emphatically and absolutely denied. Christ suffered the fullness of unanswered prayer and ultimately died so that we sinners might be reconciled to the holy God. And Christ rose from the dead so that all who trust in him may receive on the final day not another “no” but the greatest “yes”—namely, resurrection with Christ unto indestructible life.
For those in Christ, God’s absolute silence and rejection is done away with, forever. We may pray long and receive back silence, but in Christ, we can know that it is not God balking at us for our sin.
He kneeled long,
And saw love in a dark crown
Of thorns blazing, and a winter tree
Golden with fruit of a man’s body.2
We may pray long without receiving any apparent answers, but it need not drive us away from the Father in doubt but always boldly further into his breast with our confused lamentations and anguished pleas and continued supplications raised in Christ’s name.
And we may find that this deepened and intensified engagement with God, this deepened intimacy with him, proves more needful and sweeter than anything else we might seek from him in prayer. For thirty-plus chapters, Job cried out to God and, in the end, God gave Job answers to none of his questions. Rather, as Christina Bieber Lake comments, “God answers Job’s queries not with explanations but with himself.”3 If wrestling with the problem of unanswered prayer leads for you to a similar discovery, then the “problem” may prove a severe, strange, and sweet mercy.
- R. S. Thomas, “In a Country Church,” in Collected Poems: 1945–1990 (London: Phoenix, 2000), 67.
- Thomas, “In a Country Church.”.
- Christina Bieber Lake, “Christ-Haunted: Theology on The Road,” European Journal of American Studies (online) 12.3 (2017), §41, https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.12277.
Daniel J. Brendsel is the author of Answering Speech: The Life of Prayer as Response to God.
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