Recently, I had someone write me to ask a series of questions about prayer and I thought I'd share some of my response. Here was their central question: “About 80 percent of my prayer requests have not helped me at all. I do not believe I have asked for anything against Scripture or against the will of God. How can I believe in the power of prayer when so much of it seems to go unanswered? If your answer is that God doesn't owe us anything, then I say why pray at all?”
How can I believe in the power of prayer when so much of it seems to go unanswered?
Hindrances to Prayer
Well, yeah, it’s true that God doesn’t “owe” us anything per se. God’s actions are bound by His nature and, by extension, His own trustworthiness to carry out the commitments and promises He makes. Any obligation He has to respond to us in a given way is grounded in these two, not in any sort of debt He owes to us.
With that said, there are clear promises given to us in Scripture about God’s answering the prayers of Christians. I think this is really the heart of your concern. The question is why you, as a Christian, aren’t receiving answers to your prayers.
With respect to this, I’d like to throw in here that a lot of people don’t consider the conditions in Scripture for a sure response from God. For instance, Psalm 66:18, James 4:3, Isaiah 1:15, and 1 Peter 3:7 all seem to show that there are times God does not respond to our prayers because of sin. Other passages, like John 15:7, assure the believer that he may ask whatever he wants, but this is not unqualified. The believer is assured of a response from the Lord when he is abiding in Christ. So, in answering your question, taking a good long look at your relationship with Christ would be a healthy start to discerning why you feel your prayers aren’t answered.
Prayer as Worship
Also, when you start throwing out percentages like this, I have to wonder what your prayer life looks like. Prayer is a spiritual discipline that can be done correctly (e.g. Matthew 6:9-13) or incorrectly (e.g. Matthew 6:7). This is not to say that God requires a strict adherence to a formula in prayer or that God isn’t understanding when we are unsure how to go about praying. Nevertheless, there are certain marks of a vibrant and effective prayer life. One very important one is that men who pray effectively have prayers that are deeply worshipful and God-centered. If you look at the model prayer Jesus gives us, you’ll see that prayer is, first and foremost, directed toward worship. The first thing we use prayer for is to reflect on who God is and offer our heart of thanks for who He is and what He has done for us.
Those prayers will never go unanswered. They are never in vain. They will also be impactful.
My advice would be to reflect on your focus in prayer. We have the most humbling privilege to ask the Lord for our needs, but asking apart from the mindset of worship and thankfulness is nothing short of bratty.
Those prayers will never go unanswered.
If you are referring to unanswered intercessory prayer (prayer on behalf of another), I think I can say that some requests are not granted until we have really asked. There is a persistency in effective intercession (Luke 11:5-13). Moreover, intercessory prayer is more effective when coupled with fasting. So, my next suggestion would be to take some time and reorient your prayer life around worship and thankfulness, letting your requests and intercessions be an extension of worship.
Not Seeing with Spiritual Eyes
Let me say this about prayer as well—prayer, like the other spiritual disciplines, serves as a way for us to draw closer to Jesus. The more we practice the disciplines the more in-tune we are to the movement and workings of God. The Bible calls being in-touch this way seeing with “spiritual eyes.” When we are abiding in Him and practicing the disciplines more and more fervently, we are more able to discern how God is answering our requests. Someone can very well be a Christian, but because of a lack of intimacy with God, he can be callous and insensitive to the Holy Spirit. So, maybe God is answering but you don’t have the eyes to see His response?
The Bible calls being in-touch this way seeing with “spiritual eyes.”
I feel really cliché in saying this, but is it also possible that God is responding but simply not answering how you may want Him to? After all, the Lord uses these instances in our lives to sanctify us. We pursue Him and, in His perfect timing, He responds in a way that brings glory to Himself and that takes into account the complexity of the causal connections related to answering the request. Perhaps the answer, given all of the variables and the complexity of His plan, is “no” or “wait."
I don’t want to devote too much space to this because I want to devote an entire post to it later. But I can’t fully answer the question without treating this issue initially. In short, I’d say because it is privilege and a necessary part of the sanctification process. It is a privilege that God would allow us to commune with Him and we desperately need this communion. Secondly, I believe wholeheartedly that God has a dynamic sort of relationship with His creatures. He uses us as the means to carry out His plans and, accordingly, our prayers have real power and value within His sovereign plan. Finally, prayer is just as much about our learning dependency as it is about having our requests answered. We pray to worship. We pray to be thankful. We pray to reflect on God’s Word.