IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 5, Number 31, September 1 to September 7, 2003

Thank God for Unanswered Prayer!

By Steve Hays

Much has been said and written on the so-called problem of unanswered prayer. But is this really a problem?

It is easy to fall into the trap of making something a problem by approaching it as a problem. This can happen by simply being told to treat something as a problem. First impressions are hard to shake off, and when that's the way we're introduced to an issue, it can stick. It doesn't even occur to us to think of an issue any other way. We turn it into a problem by assuming it to be a problem. As a result, we end up creating some of our own problems, and then cast about for ways of solving them.

We also invent problems when things don't turn out the way we want. When that happens to us, which is a commonplace of human experience, our natural reaction is to view this as a problem, because our expectation or desire was disappointed. This reaction is more emotional than intellectual, but it colors our viewpoint, and fosters a jaundiced association or connotation.

But let us take a step back and not assume that unanswered prayer is a problem. Let us not prejudice the issue by that gratuitous assumption. Rather, let us come to this issue with an open mind, with no negative associations or connotations. Let us pretend that we're new converts to the faith, that we have no prior expectations, that everything is fresh and mysterious and wonderful, like the way the world looks through the eyes of a young child.

Indeed, Jesus compares prayer to a child asking his father for something (Matt. 7:9-11). Now, one difference between a good father and a bad father is that a bad father gives his kids whatever they ask for. This is disastrous because a child is impetuous and shortsighted, and therefore lacks the wisdom to ask for what will do him good. For this reason, a good father is prudent in giving or withholding, because he only does what is in the best interest of his kids. For most of us, this is obvious.

But how should we apply such an obvious truth to our prayer-life? Imagine what would happen if we actually got everything we were praying for. That wouldn't be a blessing, but a curse. For you and I don't know the future. We don't foresee the long-term effect that one thing has on another. We focus on what we want, and fail to see what all accompanies that one thing in particular.

For some people, unanswered prayer is a problem because they entertain a false expectation. They've read some general promises in Scripture (e.g., Matt. 7:7-11; 18:19; 21:22; John 14:13-14). And they turn a general promise into a universal guarantee. But is this a valid inference?

First of all, we should not assume that every promise Jesus made to the Apostles is transferable to you and me. For example, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would remind them of everything he said (John 14:26). But that promise does not extend to you and me. We don't "remember" what Jesus said, because we never "heard" Jesus in the flesh. The Apostles had an unrepeatable role to play in founding the New Testament church, just as Moses had an unrepeatable role to play in founding the Old Testament theocracy.

Again, a common feature of human language is the use of generalities. Life is wrought with various patterns, and so we often speak in broad and sweeping terms, as well as indulging in hyperbole. To suppose that if I just pray in faith, I'll get whatever I ask for, ignores a number of implicit restrictions. Suppose a couple of Christians pray for opposing outcomes? Suppose a Christian prays for something contrary to the law of God or Bible prophecy?

Let us remember that there are some unanswered prayers in Scripture. David's prayer went unanswered (2 Sam. 12:16-23). Paul's prayer went unanswered (2 Cor. 12:8-9). So it is not inconsistent with the witness of Scripture that some prayers go unanswered. Therefore, we ought not to foster a false expectation.

Moreover, some prayers are best left unanswered. Hezekiah prayed for healing, and his prayer was answered. But, as a consequence, he lived long enough to betray the national security of Israel (2 Kings 20).

A lot of our misunderstandings about prayer are driven by wishful thinking. If I want something, then I naturally gravitate to the broad promises of Scripture and ignore the cases of unanswered prayer. I find what I'm looking for.

Of course, some Christians will object that I'm watering down the promise of prayer. They will say that we should take these statements at full force. Well, at one level, this argument cannot be resolved by exchanging words, for folks will often believe whatever they want to. I would only remark that those who say this are staking out a position with practical and predictable consequences. If their position is true, then it will be proven true by what happens. And, by the same token, if things don't pan out the way the say, then their interpretation is mooted on its own grounds.

When Christians don't get what they ask for, they sometimes blame themselves for not praying with enough faith or zeal. But let us go back to the father and child. Prayer is not a form of nagging or make-believe. A good father doesn't give his child something just because his child keeps asking for it, or persuades himself that his father would never refuse him. A good father has three different answers in his vocabulary. He may say "yes," he may say "no," or he may say "wait"—wait until you're a little older.

What does it mean to pray in faith? This has both a special and a general meaning. In general, it assumes belief in God (Heb. 11:6a)—and not just in any sort of god, but in the God of the fathers who spoke in times past to the prophets by the eternal Spirit (Heb. 1:1; 9:14), and has spoken once and for all by the eternal Son (Heb. 1:2; 13:8). In particular, it assumes faith in the irrevocable promises of God—especially the promises of the Gospel (Heb 11:6b; 6:13-20).

Some Christians see a tension between prayer and the plan of God. If everything happens according to God's will, then why bother to pray? The simple answer is that you don't know God's will until you try the door. What you ask for lies behind a closed door.

Prayer is like a latchkey. If the key doesn't fit, then that was not the will of God. If it was not the will of God, in this decretive sense, then it doesn't matter how many keys you have on your key-chain. None of them will unlock the door. But if the key turns the knob, then that was the will of God. You don't know the will of God by standing outside the door with your arms folded, but only from the inside, by opening the door and going on in. You have nothing to lose by giving it a try.

Then again, some people make the opposite mistake. They use prayer to validate a plan of action. But going through the door doesn't mean that something was morally upright or prudent. Prayer is not a way of knowing God's will, in the preceptive sense of the word. This is a widespread misuse of prayer. For the only way of knowing the preceptive will of God is from the Word of God.

On the one hand, prayer is not a way of finding out whether God wants you to take a certain job or marry that special someone. On the other hand, prayer does not sanctify a divorce or abortion.

God has ordained seedtime and harvest (Gen. 8:22). That doesn't mean that a farmer no longer needs to sow or reap. Seasons of seedtime and harvest don't magically put food on the table, but they supply the conditions for sowing and reaping.

And, in Scripture, the relation of promise and prayer is like that. Promise is the season of seedtime, while prayer is the sowing and reaping. A Christian on his knees is like a farmer in the field. God sends the sun and rain, but the farmer sows and reaps. Not every seed sown in the ground will germinate and flower forth, but where there was no sowing, there will be no reaping.

Some unbelievers say that prayer is a scam. If prayer is answered, then we attribute this to the will of God and thank him for it; but if prayer goes unanswered, then we attribute that to the will of God as well, and thank him for it. But such cynicism invites a number of replies.

If prayer were the only reason or primary reason we were believers, then this attitude would seem to be question-begging or viciously circular. But prayer is not an apologetic tool. It sometimes has an apologetic dimension, but that's a secondary application. The purpose of prayer is not to prove the existence of God. Usually, a Christian has other reasons or additional reasons for believing in God. We pray because we believe in God; we don't believe in God because we pray.

At the same time, something designed for one purpose can carryover to another department. The function of fingers does not imply the existence of a keyboard, but the function of a keyboard does imply the existence of fingers.

Answered and unanswered prayer is not necessarily on an evidentiary par. Some answers to prayer are so miraculous that they demand a supernatural explanation. If I'm in a poker game, and every hand my opponent plays is a royal flush, I infer that the deck is stacked. The fact that in most games the sequence is random in no way cancels out my well-founded suspicion that, in this case, the player is in collusion with the casino. Indeed, it is precisely because a royal flush is so rare that I attribute such an extraordinary run of luck to the illicit dexterity of the dealer. And if God deals me a miraculous hand, that evidence is not diluted by all the cases of unanswered prayer.

We also should not assume that if we get what we ask for, then that is necessarily an answer to prayer. God may bring something to pass irrespective of my prayer. Perhaps what he did was in answer to someone else's prayer! By the same token, we should not take every unanswered prayer as a personal reproof. Although prayer is one factor in the way the world turns, it is not the only motivating force in history. Not everything unfolds as a consequence of answered or unanswered prayer.

And yet there are times when prayer really is a scam. For example, when a faith-healer prays over a cripple, and the cripple remains uncured, and the faith-healer blames this on the cripple's lack of faith, then this is, indeed, a scam. For one thing, if the outcome really hinged on the faith of the cripple, he would hardly need the services of a faith-healer in the first place!

Prayer is like a long arm. It can grasp some things that ordinarily lie out of reach and out of sight—things future and humanly impossible. But just as a wise father will put some things out of reach and out of sight of a toddler, we would not wish to get everything we wish for, like a child reaching his hand into a snake's den. So let us thank God for answered prayer, but let us be no less thankful for unanswered prayer.