One morning, Timothy Jones was called out of a board meeting for an emergency phone call. A hospital employee in Santa Monica, California, contacted him with the news that his father had been readmitted. Jones’s father had experienced a heart attack just three weeks earlier, had partially recovered, and was sent home. Now his father had had a much more severe heart attack, and it looked as though he would not survive more than a few hours.
Jones quickly made flight arrangements. While on the plane, he desperately hoped his father would still be alive when he arrived. “I wanted to tell him one last time that I loved him,” he says. So, while in flight, he wrote in his journal, “Please, Lord, keep Dad alive until I get there.”
He was greeted at the airport by his mother and a family friend who told him that his father died even as he was winging his way home. His prayer was not answered in the way he had asked.
Unanswered prayers in the Bible
Timothy Jones’s experience with unanswered prayer is hardly unique. The Bible records several examples of prayers that seemingly were unanswered.
David prayed earnestly for the healing of his sick son. “He fasted and went into his house and spent the nights lying on the ground” (2 Samuel 12:16). But his son died anyway.
Jesus prayed to be spared a violent death on the cross. “ ‘My Father,’ ” He pleaded, “ ‘if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me’ ” (Matthew 26:39). But shortly after that He was arrested, tried, and executed.
Three times Paul prayed for relief from a “thorn in my flesh,” but God’s only answer was, “ ‘My grace is sufficient for you’ ” (2 Corinthians 12:7, 8). The thorn in his flesh remained.
Unanswered prayer is a perplexing spiritual issue, especially in light of several bold biblical promises for answered prayer. Speaking through the psalmist, God said, “ ‘He will call upon me, and I will answer him’ ” (Psalm 91:15). And Jesus stated simply, “ ‘Ask and it will be given to you’ ” (Luke 11:9).
Unanswered prayer creates spiritual distress and confusion. C. S. Lewis expressed this concern when he wrote, “Every war, every famine or plague, almost every death-bed, is the monument to a petition that was not granted.”
If we are deeply honest, making sense of unanswered prayer is not easy. Yet there are ways to approach this issue that can leave us with more peace and less anxiety. Following are some ways to make sense of unanswered prayer.
The right answer
Unanswered prayer can be the “right” answer. “I have lived to thank God that all my prayers have not been answered,” said poet and writer Jean Ingelow. There are times— possibly many times—when granting our prayer request would be a mistake for us and a mistake for others. In our shortsightedness, we ask for things that are not in our best interest.
Pause to consider what would happen if all our prayers were answered in just the way we ask. Steve Brown tells a humorous incident about a time when he was asked to be the president of a large seminary. “I certainly had no training in running a seminary,” he admitted to himself. “But the idea was so far out in left field that I thought it must be coming from God.” He prayed about it and “even felt I had heard God’s voice telling me to do it.”
But he received a resounding No to his prayer from a good friend who bluntly advised him, “Brown, are you crazy? Who do you think you are? You can’t run a seminary. God didn’t call you to do that. You’ll make a public fool of yourself.”
Brown did not become a seminary president, and now he says, “The folks at that seminary ought to be eternally grateful for a brother who knows the difference between the voice of God and my silly ideas.”
Unanswered prayer can be a greater gift than getting what we want. Scripture reminds us that God’s ways are not always our ways. “ ‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, / neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord. / ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, / so are my ways higher than your ways / and my thoughts than your thoughts’ ” (Isaiah 55:8, 9). So we need to beware of prayer that limits and confines God simply because we are convinced that we know what is best. God’s “unanswered” prayer may be the greater gift!
There are numerous inspirational stories about people whose lives took unexpected—even unwanted— twists and turns that resulted in their having a major impact on society. Consider Joe Weider, who in his late teens established himself as one of the top weight lifters in Canada. His goal was to make the Olympic team. Then, a shoulder injury crushed that dream.
Consequently, he expressed his passion for fitness in a different way. Beginning with a health newsletter, he eventually launched a magazine empire and created a new industry of fitness equipment and supplements. Looking back over his life, he was grateful for the shoulder injury that pushed him in an entirely different direction.
Unanswered prayer can lead to a deeper faith. Andrew Murray, a nineteenth-century spiritual writer, observed, “When the Lord wants to lead someone to great faith, he leaves his prayers unheard.”
Shortly after graduating from high school, Joni Eareckson Tada dove into the waters of Chesapeake Bay. Her head hit the bottom, leaving her instantly paralyzed from the neck down. Family and friends joined Tada in praying for her healing, but she remained paralyzed.
Her despair was so great that she begged a friend to help her commit suicide. Although Tada remains a quadriplegic, she has built a powerful life of personal faith and is a great inspiration for others. Today, millions of people worldwide know her via her books, writing, and paintings, which she does by holding a pen or brush in her mouth. Her unanswered prayer for healing resulted in a deeper personal faith and in blessings for countless people.
In her book When God Weeps, Tada states, “God uses suffering to purge sin from our lives, strengthen our commitment to Him, force us to depend on grace, bind us together with other believers, produce discernment, foster sensitivity, discipline our minds, spend our time wisely, stretch our hope, cause us to know Christ better, make us long for truth, lead us to repentance of sin, teach us to give thanks in times of sorrow, increase faith, and strengthen character.”
Unanswered prayer does not indicate a lack of faith. In their book The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer, Dale A. Matthews and Connie Clark say that “faith is important to healing, but we cannot force God to do things our way, no matter how great our faith or how fervent our prayers. It is important to remember that we cannot manipulate or control the power of God for healing.”
Similarly, Richard J. Foster, author of Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, observes, “In one sense, healing prayer is incredibly simple, like a child asking her father for help. In another sense it is incredibly complex, involving the tangled interplay between the human and the divine, between the mind and the body, between the soul and the spirit, between the demonic and the angelic.”
When prayer is unanswered, we must not demean ourselves, doubt our faith, or deny God’s goodness. Rather, we can model ourselves after Job, who experienced heart wrenching unanswered prayers. In spite of that, he declared, “ ‘Though [God] slay me, yet will I hope in him’ ” (Job 13:15). That’s faith!
Finally, even when our prayers are unanswered the way we wish, God is still present in our lives, and that in itself is a powerful answer to prayer. After learning that his father died while he was in flight, Timothy Jones wrote that his unanswered prayer “is not what I remember most about that time. While I certainly shed tears, while I regretted missing seeing my father one last time, God answered me with His presence. He held me during a dark time. The answer that matters more than any is knowing that we are not alone.”