Q&A: Unanswered Prayers

Unanswered Prayers

Question

I know a number of Christians whose loved ones have died prematurely. These Christians say that they don't pray any more. They figure that if prayer didn't keep their loved ones alive, why should they bother with it? How do you explain that any prayer matters if the divine course is already set?

Answer

Losing a loved one is a very difficult time of life, as is seeing friends and family members suffer. It can be especially painful when we feel that God has ignored or abandoned us during these times. I have buried many family members, some far younger than others, and I understand and sympathize with the hurt and frustration people often feel at these times, as I think most Christians do. Most of us have been angry with God at times, or have at least been frustrated by God's responses to our prayers.

However, I think that if we rightly understand the Bible's teaching on prayer and other matters, we will see that part of our anger and frustration may be based on improper expectations we have of God. Some of these teachings that bear on this issue include that God is omniscient, perfectly good, and perfectly just, and that he is working all things for good for the sake of those who love him.

God is sovereignly controlling all of creation at every moment for the eternal benefit of all believers (Rom. 8:28). But that doesn't guarantee that we won't suffer here and now. In fact, the truth is the contrary. The Bible ensures us that we will not be free of the effects of sin until we die, and that the world will not be free of the effects of sin until Jesus returns. Death and suffering are effects of sin, and therefore we must all endure them until Jesus returns.

It is also important to remember that because we are not omniscient, we can't see the ways that these harmful things work for our good. We have to trust that because God is good and because he loves us, he does what he says and has our best interests at heart.

We also must trust that because God is good and just, everything he does is fair. He does not find unjust ways of doing good things for us, even if his ways look unjust to us. This is the message of Job 38-42.

But this only solves part of the problem you raise. We know that God is good and that what he does his right, but that does not assure us that he listens to our prayers. Fortunately, the Bible itself assures us that God listens to our prayers -- but it does not assure us that God will give us what we want.

There are a couple common but mistaken teachings on prayer that I think set people up for disappointment in their prayer lives. The first is that God has promised to give us whatever we ask for, if only we ask rightly and/or have enough faith. This is often based on passages such as Mark 11:22-24 and John 14:13-14. John states:
Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.
This assurance was given specifically to the apostles and only to the apostles, and it was given on the night of Jesus' arrest. It was an assurance of their apostolic gifting and authority, meant to strengthen and encourage them when Jesus was taken away from them. "In my name" does not mean appending the words "in Jesus' name" to our prayers, nor does it mean praying according to Jesus' will. Rather, it means "as my authoritative representative," much as a modern police officer might say, "Stop, in the name of the law!"

Only the apostles were vested with Christ's authority in that manner, so that only the apostles could rightly appropriate this assurance. This teaching is included in the Bible to defend the uniqueness and authority of the apostolic witness, no to encourage us to expect positive answers to our prayers.

The passage from Mark is similar. It comes merely days before the crucifixion and is addressed only to the apostles, and it is followed by a passage on Christ's authority. I think it means essentially the same thing that the passage in John means. I have addressed this issue in more depth here: Did Christ Deny Paul's Prayer?. Television preachers are notorious for claiming that these passages speak directly of our prayers and faith, but they are wrong (cf. Televangelism and Prayer).

There are no more apostles. That means that for all of us who pray, our prayers are petitions, and that we are not guaranteed positive answers. Not to sound callous, but it is worth remembering that "no" is an answer; God does not ignore us when he says "no." He listens, he considers, he decides, and he answers.

But just because he says "no" to one thing does not mean that he will always say "no" in the future. God interacts with us, he loves us, and he is moved by our prayers (cf. Predestination vs. Prayer). Because this is true, we should not be discouraged that God will always say "no."

Consider the example of human parents and children. We tell our kids "no" all the time, but we also tell them "yes" all the time. Our kids don't stop asking us for things when we say "no." On the contrary, they tend to ask all the more. And in fact, that's what Jesus encouraged us to do (Luke 18:1-8).

The fact is, righteous believers whom God favored were often let down by God's answers. David and others wrote many psalms begging God to rescue them, and their words indicate that their prayers had long gone without positive answers. God did not take away Paul's thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12), nor did he take away the cup that Jesus had to drink (Luke 22:42). But God also answered many of their prayers, both before and after these events. That he said "no" once does not mean that he will always say "no."

To give up on prayer because we do not like what God allows in this fallen world hurts us more than it hurts God. Sure, it disappoints him and even grieves him because he loves us. But it does worse to us. Prayer is a means of grace. God uses it to bless us in many ways. When we hold a grudge against God and refuse to pray because we don't like some of his decisions, we are like a child who hurts himself because he is angry with his parents. And even if we stop praying because we think it does no good rather than out of resentment, we still hurt ourselves. Whatever reason we think we have for depriving ourselves of the means of grace, the result is the same: less grace.

Besides this, it is important to remember that God is not heartless when he lets our family members suffer and die. It hurts him, too. He cries for them just as we do (Matt. 23:37; John 11:33-37). And he has endured far worse. The Father sent us his Son for the specific purpose of crushing him relentlessly and mercilessly under his wrath. The Son endured that unspeakable horror in our place. God has been on both sides: he has been the victim, and he has been the one left behind. He did not exempt himself from this kind of suffering.

Our sufferings are much smaller, but they still hurt. He knows this, and he cares, and he sympathizes. But he also has a plan, and he is working our suffering for our good. We can recognize some of these ways in this life, if we learn what God would have us learn (cf. Rom. 5:1-5; Jam. 1:2-4). Other ways we will not discover until we receive our eternal inheritance. But always, he works for our good. And our response to the hard times should not be to turn our backs on him, but to cling to him all the more, and to pray for the quick return of Christ to end our suffering for all time.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.