I sat across the dining room table from Neal, a brilliant teacher of the Christian faith. He’d jeopardized his job over a matter of conscience and been fired. He asked God to help him find another job in his specialized field, confident of His aid. Although he’d sent his résumé all over the nation, nothing came of it. Month after month he’d prayed and waited with no response.
Now he was telling me he was about to take a job that might compromise his faith. I’ll never forget his words: “If God is my Father, as I’ve always believed, then why didn’t He answer me? I would never treat my children like that. I’m no longer sure there’s a God.”
King David testified that unanswered prayers were as traumatic for him as the death of a close friend or relative (Psalm 35:13, 14). Unanswered prayers are devastating because of the high expectations Bible promises enforce. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24). While other Bible passages put qualifiers around apparent blank checks like this one, generally we’re encouraged to expect answers to prayer.
The secret is out
Unanswered prayers may be a closet secret for the church, but they’re no secret in the Bible. Most of the book of Job is the story of unanswered prayer for God’s intervention (Job 30:20–23). Paul prayed three times for relief from a serious affliction, but God never removed it (2 Corinthians 12:7–9). In Psalm 88, Heman the Ezrahite poured out his bewilderment to God over his unanswered prayers. He apparently had an ailment from his childhood that made him a social outcast. Taught to believe in prayer, he petitioned God for healing, but deliverance never came. Heman asked “O Lord, why do you cast me off?” (verse 14, NRSV).2
And Psalm 91 promises, “If you make the Most High your dwelling—even the Lord, who is my refuge—then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent” (verses 9, 10). But Hebrews 11 speaks of a group who made God their refuge, and yet some “were stoned, . . . sawn in two, . . . killed with the sword; . . . and all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised” (verses 35–40, RSV).3
How do we cope?
What are we to make of these unanswered prayers? And more important, what are we to make of our own? Following are a few practical steps that may help.
1. Talk to God openly about your disillusionment God Himself has brought this issue into the open. The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible verses that accuse God of not answering prayers and not keeping His promises. What might God possibly have had in mind by allowing such prayers to be included in the Bible? I believe it was His way of saying, “I understand how much it hurts when you feel I’ve let you down. When that happens, I want you to talk to Me about it.”
Grief therapists tell us that an important step in recovering from a devastating loss is to acknowledge the hurt we’re feeling and to talk to someone about it. Denying the hurt and refusing to discuss it delays, and can prevent, a healthy recovery. When God’s silence has hurt us, it isn’t only permissible but healthy to tell Him what we’re feeling. Repressed feelings of hurt and disillusionment develop into bitterness and a callousness that refuses to pray lest we get hurt again. I know of no other way of reconciling with God from the hurt and estrangement caused by unanswered prayer than by talking it through with Him.
That’s what Job did. He felt that God had treated him unfairly and told Him so (Job 6:8, 9). God said Job had
“spoken of me what is right” (Job 42:7). God applauded Job for understanding that He was the kind of Being who wanted to hear the truth about how Job felt rather than to receive insincere, sugar-sweet language that masked his grief.
2. Seize the opportunity to grow Job sensed no evidence of God’s presence, yet he was able to say, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him” (Job 13:15, NKJV).4 God had protected him in his hour of trial. As far as we know, it wasn’t that way for Heman the Ezrahite, yet he still sought God daily. And while God didn’t give Paul relief, He enabled him to grow in faith and honor God through it (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).
In fact, 1 Corinthians 10:13 indicates that whenever God allows a trial to come to us He also supplies the faith to endure it.
Richard Foster in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home wrote, “We may not see the end from the beginning, but we keep on doing what we know to do. We pray, we listen, we worship, we carry out the duty of the present moment. What we learned to do in the light of God’s love, we also do in the dark of God’s absence. We ask and continue to ask even though there is no answer. We seek and continue to seek even though we do not find. We knock and continue to knock even though the door remains shut.”
3. Recognize that an unanswered prayer might be a blessing in disguise Some things we ask God for could harm us if God were to grant them. God is too wise and loves us too much to make such mistakes. As Ellen G. White, a wise writer on spiritual matters who lived a century ago, put it, “We are so erring and short-sighted that we sometimes ask for things that would not be a blessing to us, and our heavenly Father in love answers our prayers by giving us that which will be for our highest good— that which we ourselves would desire if with vision divinely enlightened we could see all things as they really are.”
“In all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28). God will not allow anything that won’t contribute toward some higher good to touch the lives of His children—not even an unanswered prayer. He never leads His children otherwise than they would choose to be led if they could see the end from the beginning.
4. Realize that your unanswered prayer might benefit someone else Undoubtedly, during World War II many sincere German Christians prayed for a speedy end to the war—in favor of the Nazis! Their unanswered prayers benefited the world. When would-be picnickers pray for a sunny, dry day and that same day farmers pray for relief from drought, someone will be disappointed!
5. Consult past evidence When Jesus hung on the cross, He felt completely abandoned. He was aware of the promise that He would be resurrected, but it still seemed to Him that His heavenly Father had forsaken Him (Matthew 27:46). Likewise, someone experiencing the devastation of unanswered prayer finds little comfort in the suggestion that there’s no such thing as unanswered prayer.
If we’ll review our lives, all of us can find experiences and blessings that are unmistakable indications of God’s love and care. And when it seems as though God isn’t responding, we, like Asaph, can draw strength from recalling them.
If we understood all God’s promises as God meant them, we could better affirm that His promises will be fulfilled. They’ve never failed; they never can fail. That doesn’t mean that we’ll never experience legitimate feelings of disappointment and anger.
Ironically, when we accuse God of breaking His promises, He responds with even more promises. On the superficial level, that doesn’t make sense. But it works for some of us.
Isaiah prophesied of a time when God’s people would say, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14, RSV). That’s how it feels when we conclude that an important prayer has gone unanswered. But Isaiah wrote that when God heard His people talking like that, He responded: “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” (verse 15, RSV).
Sometimes God asks us to hold on until the Great Day when everything will make sense. Ellen G. White penned these reassuring words more than a century ago: “The things hard to be understood will then find explanation. . . . Where our finite minds discovered only confusion and broken promises, we shall see the most perfect and beautiful harmony.” In the world to come, “we shall see that our . . . disappointed hopes have been among our greatest blessings.”
1. Adapted from Skip MacCarty’s book Things We Don’t Talk About, Review & Herald®, 1997. Used by permission.
2. Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
3. Bible texts quoted from RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright © 1946, 1952, 1971 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
4. Bible texts taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.