We get a steady stream of emails from listeners asking about unanswered prayers, like this one from a podcast listener named Luis. “Hello, Pastor John. In Philippians 4:19, I read this promise: ‘God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.’ But I don’t see God providing as his word says he would. My prayers go up, but it seems like God is silent, or he constantly answers me with an implied ‘no.’ This causes me to feel discouraged and ignored. How do I respond to this ‘no’ from God when I pray for good things?”
“No” Often Hurts
I think few things have caused me to search my soul and search the Scriptures more than the fact that I have called upon the Lord to do things — which I think are in perfect accord with his will, according to Scripture — and yet he has not, or not yet, seen fit to grant, or at least grant in the way that I asked or hoped for. I don’t look upon the problem of unanswered prayer in a theoretical way, but in a very personal and sometimes gut-wrenching way.
“I don’t look upon the problem of unanswered prayer in a theoretical way, but in a very personal and sometimes gut-wrenching way.”
I don’t claim to have a final answer. I hope someday to understand this better and to have gone deeper with God in prayer so that I understand both from Scripture and from experience how he deals with his children.
He has taught me some things, and it might be helpful if I give two Bible passages for you to think about and see whether or not they take you deeper than I’ve gone into the mind and heart of God with regard to the way he answers his children when they ask him for things.
One of the texts is Matthew 7:7–11. I saw it years and years ago, and so it’s had a wonderful effect over the years. The other one is a brand-new insight from Genesis 17, and it’s right off my devotional front burner. So let me take this one at a time.
Fish and Serpents
Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 7:7–11: “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.” Then he uses this analogy, which helps me so much: “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!”
That’s an amazing analogy that draws us in to thinking about how we treat our children, and how God treats his children. What’s striking here is that God promises to give good things to his children when they ask. It’s striking, because it doesn’t say he gives them precisely what they ask for.
Since he’s comparing himself to our own parenting, we know that’s the case. We don’t give our children, especially when they’re two or three years old, everything they ask for. They don’t know all that is good for them.
I remember once my son Benjamin asked me for a cracker. I’m totally eager to give him a cracker at snack time. I reached for the box, and I noticed they have mold on them. I tell him I can’t give him a cracker because it has fuzz on it. He says, “I’ll eat the fuzz.” I wouldn’t give it to him, because I knew better than he did. I knew that mold was not good for him. That day, he got something he didn’t ask for and didn’t want as much as he wanted a cracker. But deep down he would have wanted it more if he knew what was good for him.
I think the words of Jesus point us in this direction when dealing with unanswered prayer. Now, that may sound like a nice solution, but I know what some people are thinking — just like what I’m thinking. We ask glorious things of God, like the conversion of our family, and we can’t imagine how it could be bad for us. How could it be moldy to have God save our family?
I don’t presume to say this is a quick fix, and yet I do think the principle laid there should be embraced even if the application of it to all situations is a little harder for us to grasp. That’s the first help that God has given me in regard to how prayers are sometimes answered differently than we would ask.
Here’s the other one. In a sense, this passage from Genesis 17 is an application in one way of what we’ve just seen in Matthew 7. Here’s the text:
“Even when God says no to our prayer, it doesn’t mean there’s no blessing in response to the prayer.”
And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” (Genesis 17:15–18)
In other words, Abraham prayed, “God, let Ishmael be the chosen seed.” The text continues:
God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation.” (Genesis 17:19–20)
Now, Abraham had asked God in prayer that Ishmael would be the son of promise. God says explicitly, “No.” Now, God might have just left it at that, gone on, and done to Ishmael whatever he was going to do to Ishmael. Instead, he takes pains to say, “I have heard you. That’s what makes me do what I’m going to do to Ishmael. I have heard you, and that’s why I’m going to bless Ishmael the way I’m going to bless him. You have asked me to bless Ishmael, and I’m not going to do it the way you ask, but I am going to do it, and I’m doing it because I heard you.”
God Never Does Nothing
Now, what should we learn from this about God’s no to our prayers? Here’s the least I think we can learn. Even when God says no to the specific intention of our prayer, it does not mean there’s no blessing in response to the prayer. In fact, I would go so far as to say (bringing in other texts, especially Matthew 7) that when we pray with a right heart, we never, never pray in vain.
“The blessings we receive may not be in the form of the things we ask for, but they are owing to our prayers.”
My colleague Tom Steller used to say, “God never does nothing in answer to prayer.” These two passages — Matthew 7, Genesis 17 — along with numerous others, have kept me for sixty years crying out to God even when it seems that the specific thing I’m asking for is not granted. I really believe that God always gives good things to his children precisely because we ask him, and always because we ask him.
The blessings we receive may not be in the form of the things we ask for, but they are owing to our prayers. They’re owing to our prayers, and they’re good.
I think a day is coming, according to Revelation 8:1–5, when all the prayers that have ever been prayed by God’s faithful people, which over thousands of years served as a pleasing incense and aroma before the throne of God, will be poured out on the earth in the consummation of history. They will bring about the consummation of history, and it will be plain that not one expression of “hallowed be thy name” or “thy kingdom come” or “thy will be done on earth” will have been prayed in vain.