What I’m Learning From Unanswered Prayer

For 62 years, prayer has been an indispensable part of my life. Admittedly, it has often been either formal or hurried, weak or stumbling. I’m no model of a praying Christian. But like many believers I’ve often pondered the mystery of unanswered prayer.

After all, Jesus said, “Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” (John 16:24). But Lord, why didn’t you answer my plea for X’s salvation or my healing? Oh, I know the standard answer; “God always answers, either yes, no, or wait awhile.” I believe there is at least another reason.

Let me give you some personal background that has led me to this conclusion. Five or six months ago the date was set for my knee surgery. We immediately began to pray for results that did not include complications, as surgery on the other knee had been accompanied by problems. The surgery took place. The surgeon was pleased. Everything seemed good. But shortly we realized that it was infected. Dealing with the infection delayed healing for some time. Why Lord did this happen? Was the answer to our prayers a simple, no? And why did you not answer our plea?

In the months that followed, prayer for ability to sleep at night was also put on the unanswered prayer pile. What’s going on Lord? Do you not want my joy to be full?

Let me be clear. As a couple, Mary Helen and I have no right to complain to God. He has blessed us in abundant and unusual ways. And my quibble about pain and sleeplessness is minor compared to those who suffer with cancer or debilitating diseases or deal with a tragedy. I’m just trying to understand the many invitations in Scripture to bring our requests to our heavenly Father with the assurance of an answer. So what am I learning?

PATIENCE: God has laid bare my impatience. Why do I have to keep relearning lessons about patience? Have I taken my supposed maturity for granted? Unfortunately, for most of us, patience is something we have to keep relearning. And we can’t develop it without going through trying situations. “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials. Knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience” (James 1:3).

EMPATHY: I’m also learning empathy for others, especially those who suffer. This will be a hard lesson. I’m not a very empathetic person. I don’t like hospitals. I don’t even want to go near them. But many in my age group have to visit doctors and hospitals often. And each of us need encouragement, comfort and love. I’ve got a lot to learn about compassion and without it I’m not much use in the kingdom. Paul reminds us of a related reason God sends tribulations into our lives. “The Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:3). We face troubles so we can understand and empathize with the troubles of others.

WHERE TO GO FOR HELP: I’m also trying to remember that I should lean on God for help more than on my own grit, experience, gifts, and abilities. During my missionary and pastoral career, I often faced tasks beyond my ability. During those years several key verses encouraged me to believe that the very unlikely could happen. One was, “I can do all things through Christ who strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). Another pointed me to the source of help. “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). God has worked in wonderful ways down through the years. But I wonder today, how much was His work and how much was me trying to accentuate my own efforts and abilities. I’m realizing more clearly, that when Jesus says, “you can do nothing,” He really means it. We may be able to build a chicken coop or send a man to the moon, but we cannot accomplish anything positive for the Kingdom without His help. And before we realize that we have face to situations where nothing we do works.

FAITH: Christians know that faith is foundational. In the case of a leper and a centurion (in Matthew 8) who came to Jesus, their faith led them to trust him for healing. But faith, as in the case of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, does not always lead to healing. Abraham and the other patriarchs trusted God’s promises of a glorious future—not for them but their descendants. I wonder if for many of us today, faith requires us to trust God in the dark. Trusting God even when our requests are not met. Walking with God in apparent darkness, sure of our ultimate destination. We are to, “walk by faith not by sight.” We need to be able to say, “though He slay me, [doesn’t answer my prayer] yet will I trust him.”

Trusting God during periods when He seems distant or silent is not something unusual. Think of slaves trusting God in their misery. Think of Christians wallowing in foxholes during wartime. Think of Christians waiting for healing in cancer wards.

Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers? Often it is because He knows that we will learn more about Christian living and walking by faith if He doesn’t respond to our every request. When He seems silent, He is probably working to make us more Christ-like in patience, faith, compassion, and a host of other godly characteristics. Lord, help me to learn more and grumble less. Help me to accept these tough but necessary lessons in discipleship.

How do you respond to this blog? Do you agree or disagree? Do you have something to add to this meditation?


11 responses to “What I’m Learning From Unanswered Prayer

  1. I really appreciate your honesty and thoughtfulness in this piece, Eric. I’m sure many Christ followers, like myself, struggle with the very same issue and this response is encouraging and provokes reflection. I know that for me sometimes I lose sight of my purpose here on Earth: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. It’s never all about us; it’s always about Him. Some of that may well involve personal suffering so that through my weakness, his strength is evident. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom and experience with us.

    • Thanks MJ for your encouragement and for adding the very important reminder about serving to glorify God. It’s so easy to forget that purpose in our focus on our enjoyment first. We are such earth-bound creatures!

  2. Thank you Eric for this very honest blog. Most of us can relate to the ambiguity. Perhaps also understanding prayer as an ongoing attitude/relationship rather than a lever to pull when in desperate need we might be more reticent in some of the requests we make. Cooperating with Him in times of pain, suffering, weakness, disappointments, grief, we just might learn to “cast all our cares on Him.” I’m still learning!

  3. Thanks Bettie, love your comment; “understanding prayer as an ongoing attitude/relationship rather than a lever to pull…cooperating with Him…”

  4. Hi Eric, I have had many of the same thoughts about prayer as you do. My problems, as I get older, is that God is a God of reconciliation and restoration of relationships and is vitally interested in everyone coming to salvation but prayers that ask for these very things in our friends’ and family’s life are often the ones that go unanswered for years and years. Other prayers about more “trivial” things are sometimes answered very quickly but the ones I consider most important are not. Always a mystery.

  5. Sandra, I share your concerns for unanswered prayer concerned the salvation of friends and others. This to me is also a great mystery. Do you think we may live in a very dry spiritual time? A time like Jeremiah’s apparently fruitful ministry. Why do we not see more conversions? Is it our approach or lack of it, or the hardness generally of people in NA today?

  6. I could write pages about why we are not seeing more conversions in NA but probably would not come up with anything new.
    God calls us to be persistent in praying so I shall persevere but I admit there are times I am not happy about it! 🙂

  7. Do you have one reason more than another?

    • Well, in NA, people really do not see a need for God. We pretty much have all our needs met in one way or another. We have plenty of food, decent medical care, shelter and material goods. We are kept very busy with technical devices, sports, all kinds of entertainment. So, we have no time for God and no “place” in which to put Him in our lives.

  8. Sandra, you’re right. It’s as if the devil has thrown a blanket of false contentment over everyone…or infected us all with some kind of gas that takes away our curiosity about spiritual things. So much easier to talk about God in a place like Pakistan.

  9. The mystery of unanswered prayer is one of the hard questions of faith. In some of my most difficult moments I’ve found comfort in the words of scripture, “My grace is sufficient for you: for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12:9).

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