One of the most confusing – and sometimes the most painful – aspects of prayer can be the reality of our ‘unanswered prayers’.
Put together some of the pieces that we’ve seen already in this series of brief reflections:
- God is all-powerful – he can do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine. Nothing is too hard for him.
- God is perfectly loving, and he welcomes the prayers of his children. Through Jesus’ death for us, we have access to God and a relationship with him as Father, so we can approach with boldness and confidence.
- God is not just like a good earthly father. He is the perfect Father, and he delights to give good things to his children when they ask.
Why, then, do some of our prayer requests go unanswered? There is so much about prayer that can be understood simply by plumbing the depths of the fact that Jesus taught us to address God as ‘our Father’. And it helps us enormously with this question.
Let me explain what I mean: when I take my kids shopping, we often walk past a particular ice cream shop. Almost every time we walk past this shop, at least one of the kids will look up at me and ask, ‘Dad, can we have an ice cream?’ Almost every time, I say no. Is this because I don’t love them? Is it because I don’t want to give them good things? Is it because it’s outside my ability to give what they want? No. I say no because I decide that an ice cream is not in their best interests at that moment.
The time will soon come when they can make that decision on their own – when their wisdom and insight about the world surpasses or matches mine. But for now, part of being their dad means knowing a bit more about what’s best for them than they do. They’re free to ask. But they also need to understand that, for all their asking, sometimes the loving answer will be ‘no’. Sometimes it will be ‘not right now’ or ‘later’. And yes, sometimes, they’ll get exactly what they ask for.
But of course, none of this means that their request for an ice cream went unanswered. It doesn’t mean they lacked the necessary ‘faith’ (if they thought I couldn’t do it, they probably wouldn’t have asked). It’s just that the answer was ‘no’.
A lot of what we call ‘unanswered prayer’ is nothing of the kind. Yes, there may be other reasons that our prayers are not answered. As we saw in an earlier reflection, cherishing sin in our hearts (Psalm 66:18) or asking with wrong motives so we can spend on our passions (James 4:3) dramatically hinder our prayers. But that’s not the whole story. It’s possible for us to make reasonable, godly requests of our heavenly Father – trusting his willingness and ability to provide – and still not receive what we asked for.
This helps relieve some (if not all) of the confusion and burden of what we normally call ‘unanswered prayer’. “Does God not care? Is it beyond his control? Or maybe it’s my fault – maybe I don’t have enough faith after all. Maybe I’m like Toni Colette’s character in The Sixth Sense when she said, ‘I’ve been praying, but I must not be praying right. I guess we’re just gonna have to answer each other’s prayers.’”
We can never pray perfectly. But thanks to the death of Jesus and the work of God’s Spirit in us, we can pray genuinely. When we do that, our prayers never go unanswered. Just as my kids need to trust my judgement over their own for their nutritional needs, learning to trust our heavenly Father will sometimes means accepting that he lovingly says ‘no – but good on you for asking’. I like the way Tim Keller puts it: “God will answer your prayers as though you had asked for what you would have asked for, had you known what he knows.”
Or, as Robert Murray M’Cheyne says, “God will either give you what you asked for, or something far better.”
Gracious God, thank you that you are my perfect Father in heaven. Thank you that you know all things, and you truly know what’s best for me. Thank you that I can bring all my requests to you, and help me to keep doing this with humility and trust. Please help me to remember that you know what is best for me, and that you have a complete, eternal perspective on all things. Please strengthen my trust in you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.