For Every Prayer That Goes Unanswered

I prayed to God every day to heal my little brother.

Like Jacob, I planned to take hold and not let him go until he blessed my brother with freedom from the captivity of autism. My knees sored. My back ached. Accidental sleep ended my prayer sessions. Days grew to weeks, and weeks to years. I pled daily, and as a result, I nearly lost faith.

Never before had I questioned whether God heard me or not. Never before had I prayed with enough detail to know how he replied. I would ask to hate my sin more vehemently. I would ask for his kingdom to come. I would ask to know more of his love. To see his glory. To serve his people. I prayed appropriate prayers, God-inspired prayers, but safer prayers. Prayers with no expiration date and no final clarity as to whether God had said no.

Until the diagnosis came. Necessity, not courage, brought me to ask specifically that my brother be healed. My request had a name, a laugh, a confused expression as we talked. God’s answer to my prayers would be observable, testable, public. God’s yes or no would be seen by more than just the eyes of faith. He would heal my brother, or he would not.

And after eighteen years, he has not.

Taking It Personally

After countless prayers, what I never anticipated happened: I started to take God’s “no” personally. Not only was he not healing a loved one — a pain that is harder to bear than enduring one’s own afflictions — but he also was not answering me. My prayers had begun with excitement, but as the rains fell and the winds blew, as my legs started shaking from exhaustion and my hands bruised from knocking, the voice of a desperate man echoing upon the doorframe was the only one heard.

My thoughts spiraled. I wasn’t doubting, mistreating a spouse, asking from impure motives — why did he prolong his refusal? Surely his sanctifying work had been accomplished in years of asking. Surely the stage had been set for him to glorify his name with a miracle. Surely he hated autism too. Somewhere along the way, I began to cringe a little as I began my prayers with “Father.” Somewhere along the way, my petitions for my brother’s healing became comingled with a cry to know that my Father heard me, wept with me, cared. What started with a childlike request soon matured into an orphan’s resentment.

And I was not alone with my thoughts. Satan sat with me. As you know, the prayer of the righteous man has great power to heal (James 5:16). You’ve prayed for years now. Are you really a righteous man? Or, Your “Father” seems to answer his other children’s prayers. Why do you think he isn’t answering you? Since “he does all that he pleases” (Psalm 115:3), do you think your brother’s healing might not please him after all?

Answers in the Silence

“But as I was wallowing in the pit, at the proper time, God healed my brother” — the sentence I wish I could end this article with. I would love to fast-forward through the struggle, doubt, and confusion to a hard-fought happily ever after. My prayers still linger in a quiet place. I still fight whispered doubts. I still am tempted to succumb to what Jesus encouraged against: losing heart and ceasing to pray (Luke 18:1–8).

But as I ask God for the hope needed to endure pleading over what he might be pleased to withhold, he has been teaching me to cling to two truths from Matthew 7 that have made all the difference. I hope they might encourage all who wander in the valleys of unanswered prayer.

1. God Answers with Good

While Satan whispers that God has failed both my brother and me — as he may whisper to you that God is indifferent to your angst for a spouse, ceaseless pleas for your son, endless cries for him to save your friend — Jesus promises that his Father is not inattentive to us, and he will give us “good things” when we ask.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7–11)

Prayer, fired from the needy hearts of his children, is an arrow shot into the air that God always returns to us with fresh blessing, somewhere. Our asking, knocking, seeking is not in vain. It is doing something — for my brother and for me. He may not have opened the front door of healing, but how many other doors and windows of grace has he opened as a result of prayer? Only heaven will tell. Our God never gives his children worse than we ask, and rarely exactly what we ask, but always, somehow, better than we ask.

2. God Answers as Father

This is crucial to hold by faith: Our God gives (and withholds) as Father.

I imagine that we could endure lifetimes of unanswered prayer if God should sustain our felt experience of his love. If he remained “Our Father, who is in heaven,” as we waited for his kingdom to fully come (Matthew 6:9–10). All disappointment would be eased (if not swallowed) by his smile and embrace.

But unanswered prayer often robs us at this very point. Hope deferred can abduct us from our Father’s house. It can persuade us that God is a stingy employer, our blessing’s warden, a puppeteer who marionettes us for sport. But with one word, Jesus fortifies his waiting people:

“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:11)

Retaining the sense that God is Father, when all other good is withheld, is one of the greatest blessings we can receive as we travail in unanswered prayer. God does not answer unanswered prayer as an annoyed waitress or unfeeling judge. God answers his people’s unanswered prayer as Father.

We Will Not Pray Much Longer

You and I are traveling — more quickly than it often seems — to the coming kingdom of answered prayer. To our Father’s kingdom, which he has been pleased to give to his Son and other sons and daughters. We are but days from home. We may not remember all that we prayed for along the way, but God does, and rest assured, he will prove his faithfulness. He will show the unseen blessing of every well-disguised answer to prayer that, while squinting in this world, we saw only as unanswered. And his wisdom, as he peels back his dealings with us layer by layer, will satisfy our questions and arouse in us a love that unbelief tells us now cannot be.

And we will sing what we could sometimes only stammer on earth: “He works all things for good for those who love him, who have been called according to his purposes” (see Romans 8:28). All things includes unanswered prayers. No prayer, like none of his lost sheep, will go unaccounted for or overlooked. For now, sore knees and aching backs cry, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). Soon enough death will end our prayer sessions, and we will wake to see our Lord face to face and find our prayers answered better than we could have asked.