Does unanswered prayer prove that God doesn’t care? This is the Deep Questions Podcast, and I’m your host, Chase Thompson, a pastor, and writer in Salinas, California. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of episodes, the church I pastor, Valley Baptist Church in sunny Salinas, California, is hosting a Reasons to Believe weekend June 24-26 with Dr. Mike Licona, author of several books on the resurrection of Jesus, and debater of atheists, agnostics and skeptics on Youtube and in colleges and universities. We’d love to have you join us for that conference, and a link to sign up is over on our website: CLICK HERE TO SIGN UP! I’m also delighted to let you know that Dr. Licona will be joining us on an episode of this podcast in the next couple of weeks, so stay tuned for that!
Before there was a Marvel Cinematic Universe, there were Marvel comic books, and – as a child of the 70s – I devoured comic books. I would buy as many as I could, but I would also ride my bicycle to our nearest grocery store – Western grocery store in Cahaba Heights Alabama – and plop myself down next to the magazine stand, and read for an hour or two. Yeah, I guess I was a weird kid. My favorite comics in the 7os were a little strange – House of Yang, a martial arts comic, and Sgt. Rock – a surprisingly mature war comic. In the 80s, my tastes ran more towards superheroes, with Spider-man, the X-Men, the Avengers, and the West Coast Avengers being my favorite. When the MCU movies came out, it was a refreshing reminder of childhood, and my kids became fans as well. Just today, we saw the new full trailer for the upcoming Thor movie called Love and Thunder, and I was struck by the villain’s appearance, which was quite chilling. His name is Gorr, and at this point in the episode, you’re probably thinking – what does a silly Thor movie have to do with unanswered prayer? Well, as it turns out, a surprising amount, so buckle your seatbelts.
Gorr is a minor villain in the Marvel comics universe, but he has a fascinating back story. In universe, he is approximately 3000 years old and was born on a distant and nameless planet in a galaxy far, far away. Gorr’s planet was very harsh, and there was little food, and when he was young, both of his parents died tragically. A few years after that, Gorr got married, and fathered several children with his partner, but the nameless planet they lived on had many dangers and toils and troubles. Gorr diligently prayed to the gods of that planet, but his prayers went unanswered, and one by one, those closest to Gorr died – all of them horribly and tragically. First, his wife died, then his children starved to death, until there was only Gorr left and, as you can imagine, he was bitter, heartbroken, grief-stricken, and, perhaps most of all, absolutely furious with the gods who never answered his prayers. As fortune would have it, one day Gorr came across two gods battling in a field. One god vanquished the other, disappearing and leaving him to die. The dying god, arrayed in splendid gold armor, and possessing a sword of incredible power, begged Gorr for some help, but Gorr – enraged at any and all gods – picked up the dark sword, and slew it’s owner, inheriting some of the power of that great sword. From there, Gorr travelled and trained, becoming one of the greatest warriors in the galaxy, and everywhere he went, Gorr the god-butcher killed as many gods as he could, because the Marvel universe. you see, is the very opposite of atheistic – it is multitheistic, even megatheistic – absolutely brimming with gods – thousands of them. (polytheistic doesn’t adequately describe the theistic view of Marvel or DC comics)
Well, that’s enough comic book talk, but it is very possible – quite likely, even – that you and bitter/longsuffering Gorr have something in common: You too have offered prayers up to God, and they have gone unanswered. Unanswered prayer is a reality addressed in the Bible, and it is a reality that most humans on earth has confronted.
Pastor John Piper, addresses unanswered prayer head-on, saying:
Unanswered prayer is a universal Christian experience. Every one of us has asked God for particular things that have been denied: we asked for help to make a B and only got a C; we asked for sleep and lay awake all night; we asked that her attitude be changed and she stayed as sour as ever; we asked that they not go ahead with the divorce and they did it anyway; we asked that he be protected in Vietnam and he was killed; we asked that she be given the job and they gave it to another; we asked that the place be full and only a few showed up; we asked that she be healed but she passed away. The experience is so common we have woven it into our hymns. One of the old Swedish hymns says,
Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,
Thanks for what Thou dost deny!
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all Thou dost supply!
Another familiar hymn says,
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear,
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh;
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
It is an agonizing thing to cry out to God for the life of a loved one and watch it ebb irrevocably away. John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1980–1989) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).
Indeed, the most well known religious scholar in the United States left his Christian faith behind at least partially because of unanswered prayer. Many of you have probably heard the name Bart Ehrman. He is a Bible scholar who has written six New York Times best-selling books, and has appeared on many documentaries and tv broadcasts including the Colbert Report, the Daily Show, Dateline: NBC, and many others. Dr. Ehrman has been called the Professor Moriarty (enemy of Sherlock Holmes) of Bible scholars because he is an avowed agnostic, well on his way to atheism. Ehrman, however, did not start out his Bible scholar career as an agnostic, but rather, as a graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton University, he was a self-described Evangelical Christian up until his mid twenties. What changed his mind? Ultimately suffering, sorrow and unanswered prayers – three topics that will be the subject of several of our upcoming episodes. In describing his departure from any sort of Christian faith, Ehrman writes:
Suffering increasingly became a problem for me and my faith. How can one explain all the pain and misery in the world if God—the creator and redeemer of all—is sovereign over it, exercising his will both on the grand scheme and in the daily workings of our lives? Why, I asked, is there such rampant starvation in the world? Why are there droughts, epidemics, hurricanes, and earthquakes? If God answers prayer, why didn’t he answer the prayers of the faithful Jews during the Holocaust? Or of the faithful Christians who also suffered torment and death at the hands of the Nazis? If God is concerned to answer my little prayers about my daily life, why didn’t he answer my and others’ big prayers when millions were being slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, when a mudslide killed 30,000 Columbians in their sleep, in a matter of minutes, when disasters of all kinds caused by humans and by nature happened in the world? (SOURCE: https://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/blogalogue/2008/04/why-suffering-is-gods-problem.html) … Similarly, on his own blog in 2017, he writes, “As a Christian – from the time I was able to think, through my teenage and early-twenties fundamentalist period, up to my more mature adult liberal phase – I had believed in some form of the traditional, biblical God. This was a God who was not some kind of remote designer of the universe who had gotten the ball rolling and then stood aloof from everything he had created. This was a God who was active in the world. He loved people and was intent on showering his love on them. He helped them when they were in need. He answered their prayers. He intervened in this world when it was necessary and important to do so. But I had come very much to doubt that any such God existed. And it was the problem of suffering that had created these doubts and that eventually led me to doubt it so much that I simply no longer believed it. If God helps his people – why doesn’t he help his people? If he answers prayer, why doesn’t he answer prayer? If he intervenes, why doesn’t he intervene? It was innocent suffering that made me think there is no such God. People who are faithful to God, who devote their lives to him, who pray to him suffer no less than those who are indifferent to God or even scornful toward his existence. When a tsunami kills 300,000 people, the believers are included along with the unbelievers. No difference. When a child starves to death, as happens every seven seconds, her prayers are never answered. When a Holocaust kills many millions of people, the Chosen people are not exempt. Just the opposite. SOURCE: https://ehrmanblog.org/leaving-the-faith/
Notice how, in just those two paragraphs, that Dr. Ehrman mentions prayers or praying NINE times. He was obviously very, very troubled about the times when God doesn’t answer prayer, and this ultimately, according to him, led him to leave the faith, “What was relevant was the very heart of the Christian claim that God loves his people, answers their prayers, and intervenes when they are in need. I came to think there was no such God, and decided that I had no choice but to abandon my faith and leave the Christian tradition.” (Ibid.)
So, unnanswered prayer is a very, very serious issue – not merely in comic books, but also in real life – in my life and your life. What does unanswered prayer say about God? Does it invalidate the Bible? Should we, like Ehrman, abandon our faith when God doesn’t do what we want Him to – or, should we abandon our faith because we see so much suffering in the world?
Obviously, I do not believe we should do that, and what we want to do in today’s episode is to examine the Bible’s teaching on prayer -specifically unanswered prayers, and see whether or not we should expect times of unanswered prayer in our own lives, OR if unanswered prayers are something that should rock our faith.
So, why do SOME prayers go unanswered?
The Bible gives us a few obvious and simple answers to that question, so we will start with the simple answers, noting that it is NOT at all these kinds of unanswered prayers that people like Bart Ehrman struggle with.
#1 Sometimes prayers are unanswered because we are praying for silly or frivolous, or indulgent things. James 4:3 notes, “3 You ask and don’t receive because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures.” A young man praying for a Lamborghini, or a young lady praying for a billionaire husband (or, vice-versa) might be examples of praying with wrong motives. James tells us that we often won’t receive from God when we pray for such things, because we are not praying for good things. Why would God not want to bless His people with Lamborghinis or Billionaire spouses? Perhaps James 4:6 gives a clue, “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble”
#2 Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayer because we are walking in repeated, deliberate and unrepentent sin. This is mentioned in several Psalms, including Psalm 66:18, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” AND , Isaiah 59:2, “But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.” AND 1 Peter 3:12, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”” The solution for this issue is to repent – turn away from our sin, and ask for forgiveness, so that times of refreshing might come from God. NOTE: not all unanswered prayer is because of sin, nor is all unanswered prayer due to a lack of faith. We will see this most conclusively at the end of today’s epiosde when we look at the most famous and significant unanswered prayer of all time – a prayer that was NOT answered by God, despite the prayer praying with full faith and absolutely zero trace of sin in His life.
#3 Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because we are not praying in the name of Jesus. Do I mean by this that God won’t answer our prayers when we don’t conclude them by saying, “In the name of Jesus, amen.” NO, I do not mean that at all, and I am pretty sure that you will not find a SINGLE prayer in all of the Bible that ends with, “In the name of Jesus, amen.” It is true that Jesus said, in John 14:14, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” but that does not appear to mean that we should simply add a rubber stamp, “in the name of Jesus, amen.” onto the end of our prayers. What does it mean, then? Well, in the 1900s, R.A. Torrey, an American preacher who worked with D.L. Moody, tells of a time when he was preaching in Melbourne, Australia, and a man handed him a note asking him to teach on unanswered prayer. According to Torrey, the note read, ”
“Dear Dr. Torrey, I am in great perplexity. I have been praying for a long time for something I am confident is according with God’s will, but I do not get it. I have been a member of my Presbyterian Church for thirty years and consistent in attendance the entire time. I’ve been superintendent in the Sunday School for twenty-five years. I’ve been an elder for twenty years. Yet, God has not answered my prayer. I cannot understand it. Can you help me?” SOURCE: Timothy J. Keller, “Confident in Prayer,” in The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive, 2016–2017 (New York: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2017).
Well, Torrey got up to the podium, and said something like – the problem that this gentleman is having is that he is coming in his OWN name – trusting in his own religiousity and good works to bend the arm of God, so to speak, and make Him answer the prayer. He should not be coming to God in His own name – trusting in His own good works, but rather coming in the name and righteousness and worth and works of JESUS. In other words, coming to God in Jesus’ name means that you approach God boldly – not because you are worthy, but because Jesus is worthy. This is what is meant by
Hebrews 4:14-16 14 Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens—Jesus the Son of God—let us hold fast to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need.
#4 Sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers the FIRST time, or the first FEW times we pray, because He desires that we learn to persevere in prayer – to pray and not give up. One of the greatest and deepest teachings of Jesus on prayer is found in His parable in Luke 18:1-8. This parable is SO important for us to understand that He tells us the meaning for the parable before He even shares the parable – and I believe this is the only parable of Jesus where He does this:
Now he told them a parable on the need for them to pray always and not give up. 2 “There was a judge in a certain town who didn’t fear God or respect people.3 And a widow in that town kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’4 “For a while he was unwilling, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or respect people,5 yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice, so that she doesn’t wear me out by her persistent coming.’” 6 Then the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.7 Will not God grant justice to his elect who cry out to him day and night? Will he delay helping them?8 I tell you that he will swiftly grant them justice. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Luke 18:1-8
Some answers to prayer only come by persistence. Why? I’m only speculating, but could it be that God is a relational God, who delights when we draw near to Him in prayer? One word the great giants of prayer in the past often used was “importunity,” which is a word that means shameless persistence, as characterized by the woman in Jesus’ parable on prayer – with importunity, she kept asking the judge for justice, and finally, he relented. Jesus uses this precious woman as an example for prayer for us.
Here are some encouraging quotes on peristance:
God loves importunate prayer so much that He will not give us much blessing without it. — Adoniram Judson
Importunate praying is the earnest, inward movement of the heart toward God. It is the throwing of the entire force of the spiritual man into the exercise of prayer. Forceless prayers have no power to overcome difficulties, no power to win marked results or to gain complete victories. He prays not at all, who does not press his plea. Cold prayers have no claim on heaven & no hearing in the courts above. Fire is the life of prayer, and heaven is reached by flaming importunity rising in an ascending scale. – E.M. Bounds
The prayers and supplications that Christ offered up were, joined with strong cries and tears, herein setting us example not only to pray, but to be fervent and importunate in prayer. How many dry prayers, how few wet ones, do we offer up to God! – Matthew Henry
Let Galatians 6:9 be a final encouragement here, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
#5 Sometimes the prayers of husbands, in particular, are hindered and unanswered because they are mistreating their wives OR cheating on their wives/being unfaithful. according to 1 Peter 3:7, “Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.” Far from the Bible teaching husbands to be bossy, overbearing leaders who are to be waited on hand and foot, the Bible teaches that men are to sacrificially love their wives like Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5) and should show great honor to them. Husbands who don’t treat their wives well in this way will find their prayers quite hindered. Along these lines, also consider the strong words of Malachi 2:13-17 “And this second thing you do. You cover the Lord‘s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. But you say, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.”
#6. Sometimes our prayers are unanswered because we are not forgiving somebody for what they’ve done to us. Yes, according to Jesus Himself, unforgiveness hinders our prayers, as He says in Mark 11:25, “And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.” If we dont’ forgive others, we ourselves will NOT be forgiven, and thus our prayers will go unheeded and unheard. Forgiveness is central to being a Christian, as C.S. Lewis points out when he writes, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”
#7. Sometimes prayers that are showy-or attention getting might not be answered. I realize this might be a rare case, but it could be a very public one: Matthew 6:5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Jesus teaches us that we should not be prayer show-offs, but rather secret-prayers. Along these lines, George Muller, caretaker of over 10000 orphans in Victorian England, never made financial needs known to the public, but secretely prayed for them, and saw God answer literally thousands of prayers for provision.
#8 Sometimes prayers are not answered because we are not helping out the poor and needy that we know about. How could such a thing hinder my prayers, you ask? Well, I don’t know the exact mechanism, but the Word of God couldn’t be any clearer in Proverbs 21:13, “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.”
#9 Sometimes prayers are not answered due to lack of faith/the presence of doubt, as James 1:6-7 notes, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord;” and Jesus also teaches in Mark 11:22-24, “And Jesus answered them, “Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” One might ask why we don’t see more mountains thrown into the sea in answer to prayer, and I would suggest that at least one of the reasons is found right in the middle of what Jesus is saying here – “does NOT DOUBT in His heart.” Praying such a prayer – for a mountain to be thrown into the sea or, perhaps, for a fig tree to never bear fruit again, requires absolute faith and zero doubt. Such perfect faith might prove difficult for us in those big, miraculous prayers situations, but Jesus would have walked in 100% faith. That said, I believe that even our own, less than 100% faith is crucial in prayer, and doubt is a great enemy of prayer, as James 1:6 indicates, “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind.” Some prayers are not answered due to doubt or lack of faith.
#10 Sometimes our prayers are not answered because we are praying for the wrong thing, or praying for a sinful outcome. One such prayer ALMOST happened when Jesus sent His disciples ahead of Him to prepare for a trip to a Samaritan village, “51 When the days were coming to a close for him to be taken up, he determined to journey to Jerusalem. 52 He sent messengers ahead of himself, and on the way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make preparations for him. 53 But they did not welcome him, because he determined to journey to Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them,” (Luke 9:51-54) While this doesn’t specifically use the word prayer, almost certainly impetuous Sons of Thunder brothers James and John would have prayed/called upon God to send down fire to consume the Samaritan village. Would God have answered such a prayer? Almost certainly not, considering the fact that Jesus rebuked the disciples after they expressed such a horrible thought. An Old Testament example is even more clear, when we see an exasparated prophet literally ask God to kill him because he was so upset and frightened: “3 Then Elijah became afraid and immediately ran for his life. When he came to Beer-sheba that belonged to Judah, he left his servant there, 4 but he went on a day’s journey into the wilderness. He sat down under a broom tree and prayed that he might die. He said, “I have had enough! Lord, take my life, for I’m no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree.” 1 Kings 19:3-5 Not only does this passage show that some of the mightiest people of God in the Bible were not invulnurable to depression and hopelessness, but this also demonstrates that mature followers of God might just pray something that is way out of line with His will. It was NOT God’s will to kill Elijah in that moment, obviously, and so God did not answer Elijah’s impulsive prayer. Maybe we haven’t prayed prayers for God to instantly kill us, or burn down an entire village, but we likely have prayed other impetuous, brash or badly motivated prayers, and it is grace and goodness that those prayers have gone unanswered.
#11 Sometimes our prayers ARE IN FACT ANSWERED, but the answer is delayed in coming from our perspective. In other words, God says yes, and sets into motion the answer to our prayers, but, from our human and temporal perspective, it will appear that our prayers are unanswered or unheard, or – that God said no. We see an excellent example of this in Daniel 9 and 10. In this book, Daniel reads the words of the prophet Jeremiah that God has said the captivity of Daniel’s people in Babylon would end in 70 years, and Daniel realizes that the 70 years are almost completely up, so he begins to pray to God, but DOES NOT GET AN ANSWER TO HIS PRAYER OF ANY KIND FOR WEEKS. Finally, an angel comes and tells him his prayer was answered affirmatively as soon as Daniel prayed it: “20 While I was speaking, praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my petition before the Lord my God concerning the holy mountain of my God— 21 while I was praying, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the first vision, reached me in my extreme weariness, about the time of the evening offering. 22 He gave me this explanation: “Daniel, I’ve come now to give you understanding. 23 At the beginning of your petitions an answer went out, and I have come to give it, for you are treasured by God. So consider the message and understand the vision:…Daniel 1012 “Don’t be afraid, Daniel,” he said to me, “for from the first day that you purposed to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your prayers were heard. I have come because of your prayers. 13 But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me after I had been left there with the kings of Persia. 14 Now I have come to help you understand what will happen to your people in the last days, for the vision refers to those days.” So, God had answered Daniel’s prayer, but the answer was delayed in coming by some sort of spiritual warfare situation. I presume this sort of thing can still happen, and Charles Spurgeon, commenting on Daniel 9, writes:
Daniel’s prayer was answered at once, while he was yet speaking, yes, and at the beginning of his supplication. It is not always so. Like Jeremiah they have cried, “You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through” (Lm 3:44). Thus have true saints continued in patient waiting for months, and there have been instances in which their prayers have even waited years without reply—not because they were not fervent, or because they were unaccepted, but because it so pleased him who is a sovereign and who gives according to his own pleasure. If it pleases him to require our patience to exercise itself, will he not do as he wills with his own? Beggars must not be choosers either as to time, place, or form. We must not take delays in prayer for denial—God’s long-dated bills will be punctually honored; we must not allow Satan to shake our confidence in the God of truth by pointing to our unanswered prayers. We are dealing with a being whose years are without end, to whom one day is as a thousand years. Far be it from us to count him slack by measuring his doings by the standard of our little hour. Unanswered petitions are not unheard. God keeps a file for our prayers. They are not blown away by the wind; they are treasured in the king’s archives.
Spurgeon, The Spurgeon Study Bible: Notes (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1168.
#12 Simiarly, sometimes our prayers aren’t answered because we don’t have the full persepective on what we are asking for. We might be doing the equivalent of asking for a venemous snake as a pet, and God will instead give us a fish, or asking for a scorpion to eat, and God is instead giving us an egg. That might not make sense until you read Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Luke 11:, which says, “11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”Luke 11:11-13 Commenting on this passage, pastor Tim Keller writes:
Think of prayer in this way: If you’re a child approaching your father, you can run in, and you can grab him by the sleeve and you can say, “You have to help me. You have to come now. You have to get me this. You have to get me that.” No appointment, no deference, no bowing and scraping, no saying, “Excuse me, Mister.” No. You say, “Daddy!” and you run in, and you grab. This kind of impertinent, irreverent, absolutely familiar behavior with a great personage is only appropriate if you are the beloved child of this person…. Parents are continually responding to children’s needs but ignoring their requests. This is where the submission comes in. Children are used to this. Parents continually respond to the need but ignore the specific request. What do I mean, as an example, You’re walking along with your child, and suddenly the child sees a little scorpion..The little child runs towards it, and the dad says, “What are you doing?” and the kid says, “I want that for a pet.” What do you do? You grab the kid. You pick him up and say, “No!” It’s an unanswered prayer. You say, “Honey, honey, listen. If you want a pet, I’ll get you a fish. I’ll get you a little chicken….” ….Let me give you another children’s example. Why? Because prayer is a family issue. Jesus Christ demands that when you pray you go to him as Father. Imagine you’re a parent and you come to see a child. The child wants to start to light some firecrackers and you say, “Hey, this is dangerous. I’ve seen children whose hands have been blown off with firecrackers. We’re not going to do it. But I understand what your problem is. You’re bored and you don’t have anything else to do. If you just forget the firecrackers, come with me and I can take you someplace that will be so great, so much more fun than the firecrackers and safe too.” What does the child say? “I want my firecrackers or I don’t want to go anywhere.” Now what’s the principle? First when the child is asking for something that is bad for him or her, a good parent will not give the item but will respond to the need. You see, when a child asks for firecrackers, you realize what the child is really saying is, “I’m bored. I’m unhappy. I want to do something. I want to have fun,” so what you say is, “No, not that, Honey, but I’m going to give you what you really are after. I will not give you the fireworks, but I will respond to the underlying need. Honey, you want a pet? Yes!, But not that snake or scorpion, this cute puppy dog. Honey, you want to eat something? Great. But don’t eat that huge jawbreaker or bag of cotton candy.” What are you doing as a parent? In every case you’re saying, “I will respond to the need because I love you, and I’m a parent, and I want to see you pleased, and I want to see you satisfied, but the particular request you are asking for – , no.” Children are used to that. Their parents are continually saying to them, “Honey, I’m going to give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything I know.” Christians are people who know that’s the way it is with prayer. When I pray to God, I will get what I asked, or I will get something I should have asked for if I knew everything He knows. He’s going to respond to my need, even if he turns down my specific request. Source: Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013). (lightly edited)
#13. Sometimes prayers are not answered by God because to answer them would deprive us of some good that God wants to give us, or to answer those prayers would bring about some evil, or sin that God wants to avoid. This is somewhat complicated to understand, but we have a wonderful example of this reason for unanswered prayer in the Bible. Consider the apostle Paul. One of the mightiest men of God to ever live, and unquestionably a man of great faith, holiness and persistence in prayer. What POSSIBLE reason could God have to say NO to a prayer of Paul? Well, it turns out that God would say “no” to a prayer of Paul when saying “yes” would have resulted in PRIDE taking over Paul’s life. Consider the amazing story of Paul’s thorn in the flesh. The Bible never tells us what that thorn was – maybe a health struggle, or weakness, or spiritual attack, but the Bible does tell us that the thorn in Paul’s flesh was there via a messenger of Satan. So, when faced with the tormenting effects of this messenger of Satan, Paul did what we should do. He prayed. And prayed. And prayed! And God DID NOT DELIVER PAUL from this thorn in the flesh. We read about it in
7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2nd Corinthians 12:7-9
And this demonstrates the incredible truth to us that a literal messenger of Satan tormenting us is somehow LESS DANGEROUS than pride. Wow – that tells you how dangerous our pride can be, as well as the importance of humility. It also demonstrates for us that God will sometimes say no to our prayers when saying yes would ultimately be bad for us, or bad for our character in the long run. Mind-blowing!
#14. Sometimes prayers are not answered in the way we want them to be answered because such an answer is simply not God’s Will. We see this reality reflected in 1 John 5:14-15, “14 This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked of him.” When we pray according to God’s will, then 1 John tells us that we will have what we asked for in prayer…but if we do NOT pray according to God’s will, then we won’t. And this is probably a good place to point out that 1 John 5 isn’t telling us to add on a little magic phrase like, “if it be thy will,” to all of our prayers. What John is telling us is that God will answer our prayers when our prayers line up with His sovereign will for our lives, and, by the same token, we can read into these verses that God will NOT answer our prayers that do not line up with His will for our lives. This is a most tricky reason for unanswered prayers, and the one that will take up most of our attention. These kinds of unanswered prayers, I suspect, are the ones that so many struggle with, including Dr. Bart Ehrman. I further suspect, but cannot prove, that this reason – placed last for a reason – represents the single most common reason for unanswered prayers. In other words, the majority of unanswered prayers – or prayers that are answered with a “no!” are answered that way because answering the prayers any differently are not in accord with God’s will – i.e. the things that God intends to do in our lives, and the lives of others. In this somewhat murky (from our perspective) reason for unanswered prayer, we can take some comfort in Romans 8:28, surely one of the ten most important truths in Scripture, which says, “28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28.
Consider Joseph in light of Romans 8:28. He was a good kid, beloved by his parents, though perhaps a bit holier than thou. His brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery, which led to his being deported – thinking he would never see his family or homeland again. While deported into a foreign land, he was falsely accused of rape, and thrown into a deep and nasty prison. How many prayers of Joseph went unanswered, or were answered negatively? Hundreds? Thousands? Imagine his journey from Israel to Egypy – likely handcuffed and walking behind a horse through arid lands. It was likely horrific the whole way, and one can imagine Joseph asking God for rescue at every spare moment – maybe even with every breath. And yet, those prayers were NOT answered – not in the least. I’m quite sure he struggled with this, right up until the point where he was confronted by his brothers, on the verge of dying of famine, and Joseph began to realize that God had caused him to be kidnapped and suffer for such a time as this. Indeed, Joseph utters one of the most profound sentences in the Bible to his formerly treachours brothers when he says, “20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” Genesis 50:20 Hard as it is to live through, and as difficult as it is to understand, sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because He is working His Romans 8:28 will for our lives, and the lives of those around us. Maybe we will see it one day, like Joseph did, and maybe we won’t. Romans 8:28 tells us that, metaphorically, God is playing chess at an above grandmaster level, and we are merely playing checkers at an absolute beginner’s level.
I recall praying a prayer many years ago that a particular church in Florida would call my wife and I to come and minister there. It was a great church, in a great location, and I prayed many times to go there, and I believe I prayed those prayers in faith. God ultimately said no, and – looking back on it many years later – I could hardly be more grateful. In hindsight, it is clear He wasn’t calling us to that church, but to a different place of ministry, but I didn’t see that at the time. These kinds of unanswered prayers, or negatively answered prayers are not difficult to understand in retrospect (looking back), but they can be remarkably difficult to understand when you are going through that particular situation.
Of greater concern – and more troubling – are unanswered/negatively answered prayers for things that are almost certainly GOOD. Prayers of a husband for his ailing wife. Prayers of a faithful mom for her suffering child. Prayers of a country being pummelled by an evil army for peace, rescue, safety and relief. Prayers of the church in a village or city being consumed by a terrible pandemic. Prayers of a son for his dying father. You get the idea, don’t you, and I suspect in listening to this, that you yourself have several unanswered prayers in mind. Things that God said “no” to that you still don’t understand, and that still bring a tear to your eye. What are we to do with such unanswered prayers?
There are no simple, or pithy answers to this question, and it would be minesterial malpractice to act like there are. When we are in desparate situations, and our prayers go unanswered, we feel absolutely abandoned, don’t we? And yet, such a feeling is not unfamiliar to the great saints of the Bible, as we see in the prayer book of the Bible, the Psalms:
Lord, why do you stand so far away?
Why do you hide in times of trouble?
2 In arrogance the wicked relentlessly pursue their victims;
let them be caught in the schemes they have devised. Psalm 10:1-2
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far from my deliverance
and from my words of groaning?
2 My God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
by night, yet I have no rest. Psalm 22:1-2
Did you catch that? I CRY BY DAY, BUT YOU DO NOT ANSWER! WHY DO YOU STAND SO FAR AWAY, GOD? Did you know such verses are in the Bible? Indeed, that is only the tiniest sampling of passages like that. Bart Ehrman is not the first to feel that God is standing far off, or that He is not answering. David, Elijah, Jeremiah, Moses, Samuel, Ezekiel, Joseph, Abraham, and many – perhaps even most – of the great and faithful saints in the Bible faced the exact same issue of unanswered prayer…and they did not abandon their hope in God.
Consider Psalm 13:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
2 How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?
3 Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
4 lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.
These are the anguish filled words of a man who has poured out his heart day by day and night by night, and is feeling absolutely ignored by God. Think about it – this is KING DAVID – writing before his great sin with Bathsheba. He is called “A man after my own heart,” by God Himself! He was a man of prayer and great worship and devotion to God. How do you think God will respond to such a man’s prayers? Will God ALWAYS answer Him quickly, and positively? Apparently not! HOW LONG O LORD. WILL YOU FORGET ME FOREVER?? Read this, and a myriad of other Psalms, and you will realize that David was exceedingly familiar with unanswered prayer. And yet, see how Psalm 13 ends:
But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
6 I will sing to the Lord,
because he has dealt bountifully with me. (Psalm 13:5-6)
Is there a resolution? Does David get to the point here where God answers his prayer? NO!! David pours out his heartbreak, doesn’t get an answers, and still his confession is this: I HAVE TRUSTED IN YOUR STEADFAST LOVE and I WILL SING TO THE LORD. What are you going to sing about, David? God hasn’t answered your prayers yet – you still feel forgotten by God in this matter that you are praying about. That may be true, says David, but I am going to sing about how God, in the past, has dealt so wonderfully with me!
You honestly can’t read through the Psalms and think that unanswered prayers, or feeling neglected by God is anything new or novel in the experience of a God-believer. I’m not sure how Ehrman missed it, but all of the emotions that we feel when going through suffering and heartbreak, and when wrestling with the frustration of unanswered prayers, are right there in the Psalms. And, lest you think that all of the Psalms come to a neat and positive conclusion where the Psalmist realizes he was probably overreacting, or something like that – consider a Psalm like Psalm 44, written by the sons of Korah:
Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
23 Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24 Why do you hide your face?
Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25 For our soul is bowed down to the dust;
our belly clings to the ground.
26 Rise up; come to our help!
Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love! Psalm 44:22-26
Neither you, nor I, nor Dr. Bart Erhman are the first persons to feel like God is snoozing while we cry out to Him. Such feelings are thousands of years old and, far from being unaddressed or supressed in the Bible, they are frequently highlighted in the Bible in various places.
And that brings us to the most famous and significant unanswered prayer in history. This prayer was prayed by the most devout, holy, faithful, righteous, wise and theologically correct being to ever walk the Earth, Jesus Himself. His prayer was prayed with the greatest intensity every attached to any prayer – a prayer prayed with such effort and wholehearted and whole-bodied devotion, that it caused literal drops of blood to fall off of the brow of Jesus. And yet – this prayer wasn’t merely unanswered, it was answered with a profound, “No!” Let’s read of this episode in Luke 22:
39 He went out and made his way as usual to the Mount of Olives, and the disciples followed him. 40 When he reached the place, he told them, “Pray that you may not fall into temptation.”41 Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and began to pray, 42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me—nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.” 43 Then an angel from heaven appeared to him, strengthening him. 44 Being in anguish, he prayed more fervently, and his sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground. 45 When he got up from prayer and came to the disciples, he found them sleeping, exhausted from their grief. 46 “Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you won’t fall into temptation.” Luke 22:39-46
Anguish. Agony. Fervently praying. Matthew tells us that Jesus was “sorrowful to the point of death,” which is a profound statement from somebody who never exaggerated. Jesus prayed this prayer with every fiber of His being, and His Father said no, and we know His Father said no because of the last words of Jesus on the cross, quoting the Psalms: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Mark 15:34)
If you’ve ever faced unanswered prayer, or heard God saying “no!” to your prayer, then know and understand that you are not alone – you are in good company, standing with Jesus Himself. God the Father said no to Jesus the son, so that you and I could be saved by the awful death that Jesus died in our place. The punishment that brought US peace was upon HIM. I am quite overwhelmingly grateful for that unanswered prayer. As pastor Tim Keller says:
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
In a nutshell, his rejection is our acceptance. He didn’t just come to be rejected as an example. He came to be rejected as a Savior. Do you see this? His rejection means our acceptance. He was rejected for our transgressions. He was our substitute. That means his rejection has led to our acceptance. God accepts us because he was rejected. Simeon says, “He will be a sign that is spoken against.” Because he’s spoken against, you can be spoken for. Because he’s rejected, you can be accepted. Because there’s no room for him, you can dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Timothy J. Keller, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive (New York City: Redeemer Presbyterian Church, 2013).
Does unanswered prayer give us evidence that God doesn’t exist? Does unanswered prayer prove atheism? We’ve seen from Scripture – Old and New Testament – that some of the greatest and godliest saints in the Bible dealt repeatedly with unanswered prayers, and thus unanswered prayer no more proves atheism, then me telling my kids “no” to one of their requests, or not immediately answering one of their requests, proves that I don’t exist.
If you are right now facing the dark and painful chill of unanswered prayer, know that you are not alone, and that God has not abandoned you. May these closing words from pastor John Piper bring God’s comfort to you as you wait and watch:
Preach to yourself that even the great apostle Paul was “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing” (2 Corinthians 4:8); that David discovered in the darkness that “[God’s] anger is but for a moment, His favor is for a lifetime; weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Preach to yourself what David learned in his battle with despair—that even when he says despairingly, “Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,” nevertheless there is a greater truth: “Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee” (Psalm 139:11–12). The final lesson of Gethsemane and Calvary and the book of the Psalms is that all the dark caves of despondency are really tunnels leading to the fields of joy—for those who don’t sit down in the dark and blow out the candle of faith in future grace. John Piper, Future Grace (Sisters, OR: Multnomah Publishers, 1995), 307–308.
That’s all for today, but we have some deep topics coming up in the very near future, Lord willing. As mentioned earlier, Dr. Mike Licona should be joining us soon, and we will also be talking about suffering and evil and why bad things happen to seemingly good people, as well as the Southern Baptist church abuse coverup and catastrophe, and we will tackle the question, “Should Christians be pro-gun?” Please subscribe and share the show with your friends. Good day to you, and Godspeed.
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