I hate unanswered prayer. This is not just because I want what I pray for (although that would be nice!), but because my unbelieving heart takes unanswered prayer as an opportunity to doubt God. Here are some examples:
- I pray that my son’s only close friend (whom we’ve lost contact with) will call. He doesn’t.
- I pray that I’ll be able to find my car keys so I can get the kids to school on time. They’re late.
- I pray that my husband will get over his illness; after all, he needs to teach the Bible and care for our family. He stays sick.
- I pray that my excited, expectant three-year-old will see a kangaroo on the way home. There’s no wildlife to be seen.
- I pray that my mood will lift. I stay discouraged.
These are all trivial prayers, and I could give you much bigger examples. But, oddly, I find it easier to trust God with the bigger things. It’s the small prayers that trip me up.
When they remain unanswered, my internal monologue begins: “Don’t you want my son to have friends, Lord? Why don’t you want my morning to run smoothly? If my husband was well, he’d be able to do ministry. If you answered my prayer for my child, he’d see your power. If I was cheerful, I’d be able to serve my family more easily. Don’t you want that? Can’t you see that what I want is best? Don’t you love me? Why don’t you think I should have this when it’s clearly good for me? Aren’t you the God of the universe? I’m starting to wonder if you’re real!” I conveniently forget all the prayers God has answered over the years. I forget that God doesn’t exist for my convenience.
I was brought up short by CJ Mahaney’s comments from Mark 10:35-44 about the blessing of unanswered prayer:
I want to celebrate unanswered prayer. I want to … thank God for all the prayers I have prayed sinfully motivated, that the Saviour hasn’t answered. I want to thank God that he is sovereign, not sentimental. I want to thank God for all the times when … I have approached the Saviour demanding that he do for me whatever I ask, … that the Saviour’s response was not simply, “You don’t know what you are asking”, but that he withheld an answer to that prayer. I am grateful to God for unanswered prayers.
Here’s a question, though: how do you respond to unanswered prayer? I believe how we respond to unanswered prayer normally reveals our motive and ultimately reveals the purpose of our prayers. If I encounter someone who is bitterly declaring, “I have prayed … and the Lord hasn’t provided”, that is usually the voice of someone who wants to use God … rather than serve him for his glory. I find unanswered prayer purifies my motive, and often alters the very content of my prayer as well.1
My disappointment and doubt when my prayers are unanswered show what’s in my heart. I think that God should see things my way. I think that he exists to make my path smooth. But where in the Bible am I given such a small view of God—a God whose thoughts are, well, my thoughts (Isa 55:8-9)? Where am I promised that every stone and bump in the road will be levelled before my feet?
In his mercy, God doesn’t say “Yes” to my petulant, childish demands. Like a loving parent, he says “No”. When I respond with whining self-pity, like a spoiled child declaring, “It’s not fair!”, my wise Father doesn’t give in. He gives me what is truly good—what makes me more like Jesus, what furthers his kingdom, and what brings glory to his Son—rather than what looks and feels good to me at the time.
God sees things from a very different perspective to me. He sees things from the perspective of inconceivable wisdom, infinite goodness and immeasurable love. He sees things from the perspective of his glory. And perhaps, just perhaps, as he leaves my petty prayers unanswered, he nudges me towards bigger prayers—prayers not just for my comfort and my family’s happiness, but for our persecuted brothers and sisters, the millions who haven’t heard the gospel, and the coming of his kingdom.
Praise God for the blessing of unanswered prayer.