How to Deal with Unanswered Prayer

Pastor Craig Carter 

In our current series we are learning how to pray based on a prayer Jesus taught us called the Lord’s Prayer. 

Last week Pastor Terry addressed how we need to ask in prayer. He said that in our prayers of petition and intercession we should give God a chance, be bold and specific in our requests, and ask in faith. Since we have a loving Father who wants to give good gifts to His children, in our asking we receive, in our seeking we find, and in our knocking doors are opened. And we all know the incredible benefits of prayer and the blessings that are showered down upon as a result. 

But the truth is, prayer isn’t always wonderful. Sometimes it disappoints us deeply. For example, some of you reading this have lost loved ones in combat after fervently praying for their safe return home.  

I can recount story after story where God has answered the prayers of His people. But I can also tell you about plenty of times when the opposite is true. I know all of us have similar stories to tell. 

So how do we deal with unanswered prayer?

Well, first of all, that’s the wrong question to ask, because in reality there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. God always answers. 

I learned that in a book by Charles Stanley called Handle with Prayer. God hears and answers every prayer with “yes, no, or wait.”

I’ll confess it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between “no” and “wait.” Think of it in terms of being stopped at a red light that seems to stay red for too long. We expect the light to turn green any second, but as several minutes go by, we start to wonder if the light will ever change. Meanwhile, there are no cars coming in the other direction, and we start to think that we might as well just run the red light.  

Similarly, when answers to prayer don’t come immediately, we’re not sure if God is saying “no” or just saying “wait.”

Not to take the stoplight analogy too far … but normally we don’t just jump out of the car. We either take matters into our hands and run the light (my normal course of action) or we wait patiently for the light to change to green (my wife Lee’s approach). 

Hers is the right perspective on prayer. We don’t like to wait but we are called and even commanded to persevere in prayer until the answer comes (or until Jesus comes). That’s what the Bible calls faith and it’s what God wants from us. And, if all of our prayers were answered “yes” immediately, faith wouldn’t be needed and it definitely wouldn’t have a chance to grow. 

So technically speaking, we don’t have to deal with unanswered prayer. But why don’t our prayers always get answered how and when we’d like them to be? 

I’m indebted to Pete Greig for helping me understand this conundrum. Here are three reasons he shares in his book, How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People

1) God’s World

Some prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be answered for an obvious reason: It would disappoint and frustrate someone else who is praying for a different outcome (e.g. parents praying for their kids to excel in sports while other parents are praying for their kids in the same way). 

If every bride had her prayers answered for a sunny, rain-free wedding day, we’d be in a worldwide global famine as there’d be no rain for the farmlands. 

God has hard-wired certain governing principles into the world that make things work best for the most people in most places most of the time. 

The majority of humanity does not experience Cat-5 hurricanes. 

Most babies are born healthy. 

Eat well and you’ll stay relatively healthy. 

God isn’t like some mad scientist tinkering in the lab or a helicopter parent hovering over us and clearing every obstacle that may impede our progress. He has set up certain principles that guide our universe and He doesn’t try to micro-manage it. 

But don’t forget, we’re theists who believe in a personal God, not deists who view God as setting the world in motion and then letting its inhabitants fend for themselves. From time to time, the Lord chooses to intervene and go off script. 

When Jesus turned water into wine, He broke the laws of chemistry. 

When He walked on water, He defied the laws of physics. 

When He rose from the dead, He violated the 2nd law of thermodynamics. 

Those are called miracles, and by definition, they are the exception, not the rule. When God chooses not to get involved and let nature run its course, our prayers may seem to be unanswered but in actuality, He is saying “no.”

2) God’s War

Are you aware that we are in a constant state of war as God’s people? In the words of the Apostle Paul, “We are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world … evil spirits in the heavenly places.” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT)

And Peter tells us that we are in battle with the forces of Satan, the one who “prowls around … looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8 NLT) The devil and his minions are constantly attacking and opposing the work of God. We are not immune from collateral damage and oftentimes are the targets. 

Jesus taught us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” because it is neither a current reality or guaranteed outcome. God has given Satan free reign for a time and has given human beings free will. As a result, God doesn’t always get His way even though He is still God. 

Believe me, it’s not His will for His children to be abused, trafficked, or killed by drunk drivers. One day the war will be over and God and His goodness will prevail, but until then we are stuck on the front lines of the battle and bear the consequences. 

It’s not a reason not to pray, but a reason to pray all the more as we’ll discuss in a few weeks on how to pray with power and authority. 

3) God’s Will 

Some of our prayers go unanswered simply because they are opposed by God Himself. Our requests may not simply not be in His will. 

But didn’t Jesus say, “Yes, ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it!”? (John 14:14 NLT)

We add “in Jesus’ name” to our prayers and expect God to dispense what we’re asking for, as if God was some kind of cosmic vending machine. 

When Jesus talked about asking in His name, He meant according to His character, purposes, and will. But in our current state, we don’t have perfect knowledge of God’s will. According to Paul, in this world, we see through a “mirror dimly” (or “glass darkly”). 

We must learn to be okay with that. 

I don’t have to understand everything, otherwise I wouldn’t need God. I’m okay with mystery and willing to accept God’s will, even when I don’t get it or when I don’t like it. 

Even Jesus had to contend with seemingly unanswered prayers. Remember when He prayed for a blind man who was only half healed and then Jesus had to pray some more? Or when He prayed for unity among believers? (John 17) That request still hasn’t yet been fully realized 2,000 years later!

Surely His greatest disappointment in prayer came on the night before His death when He pleaded with His Heavenly Father, “Please take this cup of suffering away from me” (Mark 14:36b NLT), but God didn’t. 

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus suffered pain in every conceivable way – physical, mental, and spiritual. [Jesus] became deeply troubled and distressed. He said, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death.” (Mark 14:33-34 NLT) He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood. (Luke 22:44 NLT)

So if we struggle with disappointment in prayer, Jesus truly understands. He also shows us what to do … keep on praying.

When our prayers seem to fall on deaf ears or we don’t get the results we want, our tendency is to quit praying and pull away from God. But Jesus didn’t give up on God, He pressed in even more deeply and intimately. 

His prayer gives us a model to follow … “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36 NIV)

How to Pray in Difficult Times

1) Hold on to God’s Love (“Abba, Father…”)

Jesus anchored Himself in His Heavenly Father’s love. He didn’t say, “If you really loved me, you wouldn’t make me go through this.”  Instead, He entrusted Himself into the care of a loving God. 

When our prayers go unanswered and we’re hurting and suffering, we may wonder why God doesn’t just snap His fingers and make the pain go away. This is when we need to know and trust God’s love more than ever. 

Picture a child who is hurting from an earache and clings to his mother crying. Like that child, we may not understand what’s going on or even like it, but we can still choose to trust in the love of our Abba Father. 

Always remember, God’s silence does not equal His absence. 

One of the ways we can hold on to God’s love is by holding on to others and letting them uphold us in prayer. That’s what Jesus did. He took Peter, James, and John with him, and told them, “Stay here and keep watch with me.” (Mark 14:33-34 NLT)

When our souls are overwhelmed with grief and disappointment, our natural tendency is to isolate ourselves from God and others. But Jesus did the opposite – He grabbed hold of His friends and asked for their support and He held on even more tightly to His Father’s love in prayer. 

2) Hold out for God’s Power

Next, Jesus made an affirmation of faith: “Everything is possible for you.”

If the first temptation when we suffer is to question God’s love, the second is to doubt His power. But Jesus didn’t succumb to these temptations in His darkest hour. Instead, He clung to His faith in God’s omnipotence. 

In actuality, our disillusionment with God is a sign of our faith in Him. If we didn’t believe He had the power to heal, deliver, and save, we wouldn’t be disappointed when He doesn’t. It is in these times that we need to claim His power all the more and call upon it. 

To do otherwise is beyond foolish. Eliminating God from the equation isn’t the answer. That just leaves us on our own. Holding onto Him no matter what provides us the possibility of rescue and gives us hope even in the most desperate of situations. 

Even though God hasn’t come through yet, we know He can – in this life or in the life to come, as He proved in Jesus’ case. God didn’t spare Jesus from suffering or rescue Him from the cross, but He did raise Him from the dead and seated Him in the heavenlies. 

That’s the hope we have so we hold out for God’s power in prayer.

3) Be Honest with God

Having affirmed God’s love and his power, Jesus then prayed five of the most surprising words in the Bible: “Take this cup from me.”

On the surface, Jesus appeared to be praying in an unbiblical way (i.e. contrary to God’s plan and purposes). Didn’t Jesus know that He had to suffer and even die to bring salvation to the world? Sure He did. He even predicted it on numerous occasions. 

It’s fascinating how Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane lines up with the Lord’s Prayer  …

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done

on earth as it is in heaven

Matthew 6:9-10 NIV

Abba, Father,

everything is possible for you.

Take this cup from me.

Yet not what I will,

but what you will.

Mark 14:36 NIV

The first and second lines mirrored the Lord’s Prayer almost exactly but then Jesus went off script in the third line. He swapped “your kingdom come” for what seems to be the opposite, “take this cup from me.”

Yet Jesus was well aware that the coming of God’s kingdom required drinking from the cup of suffering and tasting death itself. Christ knew what He was supposed to say but He actually said something much different. That’s what makes His words so startling. 

Surely the angels gasped and tears filled the Father’s eyes as they watched and listened from heaven. In essence, Jesus was saying, “Dad, I’m scared. Help me! I don’t want to suffer anymore!”

Wow, that honesty speaks volumes doesn’t it? When we’re hurting and suffering we usually try to put on a brave face, don’t we? We act like everything is okay even when we’re terrified and falling apart. We may even play religious games and get all spiritual, saying the things we think “good Christians” say to God or what we believe He wants to hear. Ever try to strike a deal with God? 

The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to “keep it real.” There is no right or wrong language in prayer. That principle especially holds true when we’re suffering or feel discouraged. Through His own honesty, Jesus gives us permission to let God know what’s on our heart, even if it means praying imperfectly. 

So where does that leave us? “Yet not what I will, but what you will.” Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is not a prayer of resignation … “Alright God, I guess I’m stuck with whatever you decide to do.” Nor is it a means by which we try to cover our bases and avoid further disappointment … “If it be thy will, God, please heal so and so.” In that sort of prayer, submitting to God’s will becomes a crutch we can lean on when things don’t turn out as we hope. 

Instead, saying “your will be done” is the ultimate act of trust. It is relinquishing control to a loving and powerful God. It is an act of surrender … not because it makes sense to do so, but precisely because it doesn’t. 

Isn’t that what faith is all about?

Of course, we read Jesus’ prayer in the Garden with the benefit in hindsight? We know the rest of the story and why His prayer had to be left unanswered…so He could die a sacrificial death for our sins and then be raised on the third day.

We too will one day understand why some of our most heartfelt prayers weren’t answered. 

As  P.T. Forsyth, a 19th century Scottish theologian, said, “We shall come one day to a heaven where we shall gratefully know that God’s great refusals were sometimes the true answers to our truest prayer.”

Until then, we hold on to God’s love, hold out for God’s power, and are honest with God in prayer … trusting in Him and surrendering our lives to His will. 

So, how do we deal with unanswered prayer or prayers that aren’t answered like we want them to be answered? We pray as Jesus taught us to pray: “Thy will be done.” 

“It’s not what I want and it makes no sense to me, but I’m trusting in you, Lord. Not what I will, but what you will. Your will be done. Amen.”