The Privilege of Prayer: Are Unanswered Prayers a Gift From God?

Pray and leave the results to God’s wisdom


In 1990, country music mega-star Garth Brooks released a song that, like many of his records in those days, quickly ascended the charts to number one, a song that, wittingly or unwittingly, riffed on a topic of practical theology: It was called “Unanswered Prayers.”

As the best country songs do, this one tells a story, one to which most Christians can relate. The narrator and his wife attend a Friday night football game at his old high school. Almost predictably, they run head-long into his old girlfriend, the narrator’s “old high school flame.”

After this awkward encounter between love lost and love found, the narrator considers how grateful he is to have married his wife and not the old flame. The man recalls how, back then, he’d talk to God about his teenage sweetheart: “She was the one, I’d wanted for all time, and each night I’d spend prayin’ that God would make her mine.” But alas, as high school flames are wont to do, the fire eventually died, and they went their separate ways.

He draws this conclusion: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers … . Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”

Granted, the song may be a little cornball and formulaic (isn’t all good country music?), but I’m convinced it resonated with listeners because it raises an oft-pondered question: How do we think about our prayers that God didn’t answer? Is God angry with me? Is there some sin that’s causing God to hold back? Is He hearing my prayers?

UNANSWERED PRAYERS IN THE BIBLE

There are what we might categorize as unanswered prayers in the Bible, two that stand out and help us with this issue.

In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul tells of a providentially-allowed “thorn” in his flesh, a “messenger of Satan,” placed to keep the apostle humble after he’d received a vision of paradise. Three times Paul prayed God would take it away (we aren’t certain what it was; some scholars have guessed it was a physical malady), but God said no. Instead, God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).

God left the thorn to show the apostle his weakness and his dependence on God’s strength. Surely, there are times when God teaches us this by not giving us what we ask for, and it is good.

Most notable among Scripture’s so-called “unanswered prayers” is that of Jesus on the eve of Calvary. Praying in Gethsemane, Jesus pled, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” This prayer is one of the most instructive in all of Scripture when it comes to the proper attitude of prayer. Jesus was horrified at the prospect of enduring the Father’s wrath for sin, and He prayed that perhaps He could avoid bearing God’s wrath for His people’s sins on Calvary’s cruel cross.

What Jesus said next should inform all our prayers: “Not my will, but yours be done.” Ultimately, this is the posture all our prayers should take, and our Lord’s words supply the answer to why our prayers seem to go unanswered: What we are asking is contrary to God’s will. God sent Jesus to the cross, and His death gave us eternal life.

WHY UNANSWERED PRAYERS? SOME THOUGHTS

There is much more we could say about this mysterious issue, but here are a few thoughts that will hopefully encourage us to pray without ceasing.

1. Unanswered prayers are only so from a human perspective.

Really, there is no such thing as unanswered prayers. God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful). From His perspective, there are no unanswered prayers. As one of my friends put it, God is merely giving us what we would’ve asked for if we knew all that He knows. His plan is better than mine. Really and truly, my knowledge of myself, my circumstances, and my future is limited. His knowledge of all that is exhaustive.

For example, when I was a boy, I prayed God would make me a Major League Baseball player. Instead, he made me a journalist and then a preacher, both of which I would today choose over playing baseball, as great (and lucrative) as that would’ve been. I love baseball, but I’m happier giving my life proclaiming the gospel.

2. We don’t know what is best for us.

We think we know what’s best for us, but God is infinitely wise, and we are not. At Gethsemane, Jesus sought relief from bearing God’s wrath, but, as Isaiah 53:10 pointedly puts it: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.”

As one dearly departed friend put it, God is not a novice. God’s plan for His people’s lives is perfect. He is never late, and He never gets the wrong address. We become truly wise when we learn to rest in that and in the truth that our knowledge and wisdom are severely limited.

An elder I served with a few years ago always said, “If you don’t have it, then you don’t need it.” Indeed. God knows what we need even before we ask, and He supplies what we really need, not necessarily what we want. Often, what we want, unbeknownst to us, would not be good for us. You thought you wanted to marry your high school sweetheart, but God had someone better for you (and perhaps for them). When I left home for college, I had a wonderful plan for my life; almost none of it materialized, but God’s plan was infinitely better. Godly wisdom always prays as Jesus did: “Not my will, but yours be done.”

3. God wants us to persevere in prayer and trust Him.

Luke reports two parables to this effect in chapters 11 and 18. In the first, a friend arrives on another friend’s doorstep at midnight, asking to borrow three loaves for emergency company vittles. Because of his persistence, the friend rises from his slumber and gives him bread. In Luke 18, a pagan judge gives a widow justice because she persists in demanding it. Jesus’s point is that good things happen to believers who persist in prayer. He is neither a sleepy friend nor a surly judge. He is the God of the universe, infinitely loving and benevolent.

George Mueller, founder of the great Christian orphanage work in England in the 19th century, prayed for 60 years that two lost friends would come to Christ. One man was converted shortly before Mueller’s death and the other trusted effectually in Christ a few months after Mueller died. His persistent prayer echoed into eternity.

Maybe you’ve been praying for that lost son or daughter or friend for decades. Keep praying. The Lord is listening and working.

4. We ask with the wrong motives.

James 4:3 makes this plain: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” I have prayed for a new car in the past because mine desperately needed to be replaced. I did not, however, pray for a brand-new Porsche, which, frankly, would’ve made me pretty proud before my friends — not exactly the right motive. God gave me a Chevy. I love Chevys. I didn’t need a new Porsche, and I’m grateful for my Chevy. We’ve all prayed out of less than pure motives and are later thankful God withheld our selfish requests.

Some of us treat God like a celestial ATM: We put our request in the slot to withdraw what we want. There are televangelists who affirm that. But that’s not the God of sacred Scripture. We must pray according to God’s will and seek things that will increase our faith, our maturity, our holiness, things that won’t draw our hearts away from Him and lead us to idolatry.

5. We lack faith.

In encouraging believers to ask God for wisdom, James writes, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8).

It’s easy for us to think that, when we don’t get what we ask from God, the problem is with us — we lack faith. That’s certainly not always true, but it can be true. We are double-minded when we partially trust God, and we partially mistrust God. We’re suffering from spiritual schizophrenia with split personalities — part Christian, part practical atheist. God won’t bless that.

YOU’RE PRAYING TO A PERFECT FATHER

In Matthew 7, Jesus draws His Sermon on the Mount to a close with a beautiful promise. After telling us to “ask, seek, knock,” promising that the one who asks receives, the one who seeks finds, the one who knocks will have the door opened. Then He tells how sinful, earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, concluding with these sacred words: “How much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Good fathers know how and when to give good gifts to their children. Good fathers know when to say no. We have a perfect Father in heaven to whom we can go on the spur of the moment with our needs, our anxieties, our intercessions. Be encouraged to pray and leave the results to His perfect wisdom. He knows better than you what’s best for you. And yes, thank Him for those gifts we call unanswered prayers.