It’s a question many of us have asked. Maybe it was after we became followers of Jesus. Maybe it was even before that. Some deep desire or some terrible pain drove us to cry out to God. We asked, maybe tentatively, maybe with many tears, maybe even with anger born of the pain, but it seemed we were not heard. It might have been for something we really wanted. It might have been for relief from some kind of suffering. It might have been on behalf of someone we love. Does it matter? Why does He remain silent? How can we believe that He loves us in the face of such apparent indifference? If He’s really God, why are we suffering in the first place? What follows is in part the result of my own efforts to answer these questions.
The truth is I cannot answer them fully. I can’t even answer the one in the title with any degree of finality. In part that is because the answer will depend on your own relationship with God. I’m not attempting to give you a comprehensive list of the reasons why God may not be answering your prayer. It is necessary to provide some, but the objective is not to give you a list of things you can try to check off so that you can get your answer. It is not to provide a source of condemnation or make you feel that you can just fix something and then God will come through for you. If I am able to help you uncover something that you need to address, by all means do so, but there are no formulas here that will guarantee you success.
Instead, I want to help you see the question differently. What prayers can you know that He will answer? What can interfere with communication between you and your lord? We will look at a number of passages from the Bible. (All quotations from New American Standard Version.) Some of us will know them quite well. They seem to mock us. We can’t see how they can even be true. If they are, then it must be something wrong with us. Words that should encourage and empower become words of confusion and condemnation. This should never be. What if we are misreading them? What if we are taking them out of the context in which they were written? In many cases, I believe we are. I hope that by providing the context I can help you change the way you think about prayer and God’s answers to it. I hope to encourage you to come to a place where you and God are in full agreement. Then you will see answers to your prayers. They may not be the answers you’re imagining now. They might not even be answers you like, but as we learn to walk in harmony with His Holy Spirit, we will find that in those cases we can still trust Him. He is the sovereign Lord, and He is good!
The first thing we must address is that thing no one likes to talk about. It covers a lot of territory, because it involves anything that falls short of pleasing God. We call it sin. It should go without saying that we must confront willful sin. If we are in open rebellion against God, how can we expect that He would answer our prayer? When you were a child, did you think it would be a good time to ask for something when you had done something wrong and you knew your parents knew about it? Guilt severs communication both ways. God’s holiness means you can’t be in His presence that way. Your conscience will make it unlikely that you try to come. The bad news for us is that we cannot be perfect enough. The good news is He made a way through His sacrifice so that we come to Him by His blood. When we come to Him in repentance and submission, He will show us those things we still need to address.
Now we come to the matter of faith. This is where so many of us struggle. Much has been said on the subject, so I first want to narrow the scope of the discussion a little. I am not tackling the subject as it relates to salvation. Faith is what it is, but in this context we will address it as it relates to belief that God will do what it is we ask Him to do. Given that, you might find the first reference strange since it is in the context of salvation, but there’s a reason for that. It will become clear as you read on.
So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)
Rather than address ways in which you may have seen this interpreted before, I want to draw your attention to one thing. “Word” in the verse above is translated from the Greek “rhema.” Whenever this word is found in the Bible, it refers to the spoken word. You’ll find it translated into various English words that all have to do with speech. Another Greek word that you will find translated into the English “word” is logos. It can refer to the written word, or in the case of Jesus, the incarnate Word of God. For this study we’ll focus on rhema.
This is important to us here because it helps us understand the origin of all faith. That is, the spoken word of Christ to our hearts. I am not saying that we have to have heard actual verbalized words, but we have a knowing in our hearts that God has spoken to us. If we have not heard from Him, it means we are not of Him (John 8:47.) Now we have the foundation for understanding one of the popular passages about asking and receiving from God.
“If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever * you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)
“Words” here is rhema. When we are living in submission to Him and hearing from Him, we are then able to ask and receive. By His words we ask, and by His words we receive. His word living in us provides the faith and the power. We are asking for what we wish, but our wishes have been conformed to His!
We do have the words that He spoke in the Bible, and it remains our source for evaluating the words we hear. The Bible helps you determine whether you heard the Holy Spirit giving you a rhema, or some other spirit giving you a lame-ah. Always test what you think you have heard by checking it against the written word. They will never contradict each other.
Over the years, I’ve heard some teachers speak of faith and doubt as if they watched too much Star Wars. Faith and doubt are not opposite sides of some mystical force that we can master. We are instructed in no uncertain terms not to doubt, but what is it that we are not to doubt? Some things we do well to doubt, at least until god has given us understanding. Let’s look at another passage that might seem a little hard to swallow. Jesus makes this statement after his disciples take note of a withered fig tree that Jesus cursed on the previous day.
23 “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. 24 “Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you. (Mark 11:23-24)
Keep in mind now the context and wording of the text we read before. From where does this kind of faith come? It comes from hearing the “rhema”, the spoken word, of God. This mountain moving faith comes from a certainty given to us by the Holy Spirit that He want’s that mountain to move! Faith is not a force that exists to serve us. Faith is a gift from God that is given to us to serve Him!
I may doubt my understanding of what I read in the Bible. I may not doubt that it is true. I may doubt what I’ve been told that God has said. I may even question whether I have truly heard from Him in a particular matter. But if I have come to know that He has spoken to me, I dare not doubt His word! This is the doubt that He condemns. And yes, I have been guilty. I pray that it will not ever happen again.
There is something else we are told we should never doubt.
5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8 being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways. (James 1:5-8)
This is another one that often becomes a flail in the hands of the irresponsible to wound and discourage God’s people when they are already struggling. That is a sad thing, because it should serve the opposite purpose, to strengthen resolve in the face of adversity. Consider the context. James has given us the tools by which we overcome adversity. First he tells us to face it joyfully, then gives us the key. We ask for God’s wisdom, not doubting that He will generously provide. There’s no promise of prosperity or even of relief here. There is promise of the supernatural wisdom we will need when trials come our way. This we cannot doubt if we want to endure.
Later on in his letter, James addresses another problem that can prevent us from getting the answers we seek. We often hear part of this quoted, but not the rest of it. It hardly seems this could be written to a church at all, but I think he is speaking as much to the condition of our hearts as to the actual crimes he describes. Is murder so harsh a charge when we consider 58 million abortions? How many of the guilty fill our pews on Sunday? How many more guilty by association and inaction?
1 What is the source of quarrels and conflicts among you? Is not the source your pleasures that wage war in your members? 2 You lust and do not have; so you commit murder. You are envious and cannot obtain; so you fight and quarrel. You do not have because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
This hit me a few years ago. I have prayed for my healing all of my life. I wanted desperately to see as others see. The question finally occurred to me, “Why?” I didn’t like the answer. I came to the realization that all of my real motivations were selfish. I might have talked to God about all the things I could do better for Him if I could see better. But when I considered how I thought about it at other times, it was all about me. I lusted for the freedom available to those who can drive themselves. I railed against the inconveniences imposed upon me by blindness. I imagined all these wonderful things that would be possible if only I could see. I wasn’t fantasizing about going on mission trips, just road trips. I didn’t imagine delivering food to the hungry. I imagined speeding around town in a fancy car. I wanted to see for me!
James addresses this in the context of disunity within the church. We would do well to consider it as we address issues of conflict. The other message that comes through quite clearly here is that God isn’t into granting our selfish desires. Healing may be considered a good thing, but he is under no obligation to grant it just because we want it. What if we’re praying for someone else? Doesn’t that change things? What if it is because we love them? Still the question has to be asked. Is it their suffering we’re most concerned about or our own?
Please understand that I would not dare to say to anyone that his or her heartfelt prayer for a loved one is really a selfish prayer and that’s why the answer isn’t coming unless I got that word directly and clearly from the Holy Spirit, and I’d have to really, really be sure. Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because He knows better than we do. In those times we have to trust Him. Nevertheless, we should examine our motivations. Now, let’s look at one more passage about asking.
12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. 15 “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. (John 14:12-15)
We like verse 14, but look at the context. It’s right after he has said that we will be doing His works. When we’re doing His works, then we can expect that He’ll grant what we ask. The end of the passage goes with the rest of it. We show our love for Him by keeping His commandments. Then we can look for answers.
But wait; there’s something else here! He says these requests are to be made in His name. That doesn’t mean that all we need to do is append “in Jesus’ Name,” or “in Your name we pray” to whatever we want and expect Jesus to perform like a genie. It means that when we are operating under the authority of His name, then He will do whatever we ask. When we appropriate His name for our own purposes, however noble we may think them to be, we take His name in vain.
21 “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. 22 Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'” (Matthew 7:21-23)
Jesus gives us the reason why He does what we ask. It is not for our glory. It is not for our comfort. It certainly is not for our prosperity. It is for the Father’s glory. What that means is material for another study, but you get the point. It’s not about us. He loves and cares for us. He knows what we need even before we ask. We’re even told to ask. We just need to remember who it is we’re asking. Doing His work, submitted to His authority, obeying His commands, walking in love, we will see our prayers answered.
Again, I’m not going to give you a formula that will result in God always answering Your prayer, but there are things you can do to clear the way. Deal with the obvious sin. It separates you from God and He is not going to listen to you. That said, it is interesting that Jesus did not address repentance as the first item of business in the prayer that He taught His disciples. I am conjecturing here, but I think that’s because repentance was not at issue. His disciples asked Him how to pray. It is reasonable to posit that rebellion is not present in someone who genuinely desires to connect with God. But forgiveness does come up. As you spend time in prayer, the Holy Spirit within you will begin to draw your attention to the sin you are not even aware of. It’s the stuff that’s down deep and hard to get out. He especially makes a point of unforgiveness. In Matthew’s gospel it’s right after the prayer (Ch. 6.) I’ve chosen another one because of our subject and because it adds context to the verses we looked at earlier. It all goes together.
“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.” (Mark 11:25)
Now pray. Keep praying. Pray from your heart. There’s no harm in reciting “The Lord’s Prayer,” but this is just a model to follow. Pray until you hear from Him. Ask Him for your heart’s desire. Keep asking. But then try something else. Try asking Him for what He wants. It sounds strange, but the objective is to bring those two things together. When our hearts line up with God’s heart, things happen!
This is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It will take time and discipline. We say we don’t have time, but if it is truly important to us, we make time. Is our answer really important to us? Should it be? I’m not so sure. What we really should be seeking is the source of all answers. I don’t want to be the petulant child constantly demanding his own way. I want to be the devoted child, constantly seeking to please my Heavenly Father.
In the end, what we have to do is trust and obey like the old hymn says. Our will must bow to His. Jesus Himself demonstrated that for us in the garden when He said, “not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) He got His answer. The Father’s will was done. His name is Yahweh. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is the sovereign creator of all existence. He may not be questioned or second-guessed. He is also good. He defines what good is. There is no other standard. Thus we can trust Him always to act in accordance with His good nature, even when what we see and experience is not good.
God never promised to give you everything you want. Most of us come to understand at some point in our lives that this is a good thing. He never promised you would be free from trouble. In fact He said the opposite. He did promise that He would always be with us. He did promise us life eternally.
27 “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; 28 and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish; and no one will snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)
Sometimes the answers don’t come. Sometimes they aren’t the ones we wanted. Sometimes they take a long time. Sometimes they come in ways we never could have imagined. I’ve had all of the above. So what do we do? We keep praying, keep serving, and keep trusting.