Monday, 12 February 2018

Why Pray? Part 3: What about unanswered prayer?

If you've never had an unanswered prayer then I think it would be safe to say you've never prayed for anything. 

And I'm pretty certain that in experiencing unanswered prayer, you've had moments of wondering why you prayed anyway. Did God even hear?

From Part 1: What difference does it make? & Part 2: Does God change his mind? of our 'Why Pray?' series, I'm hoping you've come to the point of agreeing that our prayers can and do make an actual (rather than imagined) difference in how things are. But what about that time when you prayed for that thing? You had faith and you knew it was God's will, but nothing happened. What do we do with unanswered prayer?

From experience, we know that when we pray for something, it’s not an automatic guarantee that it will happen. As much as the statement is pretty self evident, I feel like a bad Christian for saying it. But we all experience unanswered prayer, even when we pray in faith and in accordance with God’s will.

But it is precisely because we assume God's will and our faith are the only two variables at play that we make life difficult. There are many more variables than only those two. (Inspired by Greg Boyd here and here.)

The reason it’s hard to say that is because we love the idea of deposits and withdrawals. In that sense we’re legalists at heart: Do this and you’ll be blessed, do that and you’ll be cursed. Simple. Easy. It's this for that and it works.

But that's not how it works.

It cheapens the relationship that God invites us into. He isn't a genie and our wish is not his command.

When things don’t go our way we generally default to one or more of the following: possibly God doesn’t want to best for us, or he doesn’t have the power to make it happen, or we don't have enough faith. But that view omits all other variables, like the fact that we have an enemy. Unanswered prayer also doesn’t negate that God is all powerful - he has all power. But this is how he chooses to govern on earth. He values free will so highly that he’s happy to let this much ride on our free will and the free will of angelic beings. That to me is an incredible gift that God has given us that we can have so much influence.

The Bible does seem to say that sometimes persistence may be required when we pray - and I struggled with that for a while. I felt like I was begging.

If I'm a daughter, why do I need to beg?

Like fasting - I always had a suspicion that fasting was like a hunger strike. If I fast for long enough, then God's just going to have to do what I want.

I was uneasy, because this view assumes that God isn't generous in bringing about the greatest good, that we care more about his will being done than he does, and we need to manipulate him for things to happen and secondly, it again assumes that God's will and our faith are the only variables at play.

Jesus nonetheless encourages persistent prayer. What’s up with that?
Sometimes we need to persist in prayer because there are forces that resist us.

We are at war. 

I would describe myself as a pacifist on the whole. But we know that 'we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and autwe are not at coming at this from a losing position, because 'He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.' (Col 2:15)
horities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places' (Eph 6:12) and

We engage in warfare from a place of victory and 'the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.' (2 Co 10:4) So why does the Bible speak of us being in a place of victory but also at war? It's part of the dual nature of Christianity that I mentioned in the last post. There are still obstacles to be overcome - our defeated enemy still attempts some last gasp skirmishes - and that forms one of the variables that affects whether our prayers are answered or not.

So, fallen angelic beings can be obstacles to prayer being answered. 

In Daniel 10 we see an account where a heavenly messenger appears to Daniel. He tells Daniel that he had been dispatched immediately when Daniel had prayed 21 days earlier, but was resisted by the [spirit] Prince of Persia and was only able to get there after all because the archangel Michael had come to his aid.

It’s not that Daniel’s faith only kicked in at 21 days, it’s not that God’s will only kicked in at 21 days.
There were forces that opposed them.

I understand that in the New Covenant we have greater authority than under the Old Covenant, but nonetheless there is still this impact. Jesus had to deal with demons during his time of ministry. He dealt with them by God's authority but he still had to deal with them, as did the early disciples.

Even now with the Holy Spirit we have forces that oppose us, that resist the kingdom of God, and aim to thwart the will of God in our lives. So if God gives us a heart for something we keep praying for that thing until it happens or until that conviction is removed, but we keep going - because we can’t see always what is happening in the heavenlies, but God can.

One other factor, among a few others, is the free will of other people. God can and does influence people, but doesn't coerce them. He values free will insanely highly. So sometimes people's free will decisions will interact with our answers to prayer.

There have been times where we've been struggling financially, and I remember thinking, 'I wonder who is not listening to God. I'm sure somewhere God is telling someone to help us out with some cash or a better job or a car or something, but they're just not exercising their free will in the right direction.'

So I’m not going to blame God for this, I’m going to blame the person who’s not listening to what God is telling them to do. Maybe that will help you when you're struggling, but maybe it will also encourage you when God is asking you to help someone - maybe he wants to use you as the vehicle for provision and blessing in someone's life!

What is tragic, is that so much of the suffering on earth is the result of people’s free will actions. It’s tempting to ask, is it really worth it God? This free will thing: It’s hurting me. It's hurting us. Is it really worth it?

His answer is a resounding YES. 

God believes it’s worth it for us to have free will, for us to have agency. Without free will, without actual choices that have actual consequences, there’s no possibility of love. Love requires free will. If I don’t choose to love God’s then it’s not love. If I act in a loving way: if I serve him and I worship him, but I never chose it, if I never had the option to do otherwise, then it’s not love. 

He values love, he values relationship so highly that he allows us free will even though we can use that free will for good or for bad. With Jesus we have an even greater capacity to use our free will for good. When we make decisions for good they have even greater impact than they could have had before the cross. He is willing to take a risk on giving us free will because he knows that even though we have a capacity for evil, it is only because we have free will that we have any capacity for goodness.

There are other reasons for unanswered prayer - some listed here -  but I think the examples above are enough to prove that our faith and God's will are not the only two variables at play. But, we can always rest in the knowledge that God works all things together for the good of those who love him. (Romans 8:29) It doesn't say that what happened is necessarily good, but God can take the worst, most seeming irredeemable situation and bring something so beautiful out of it, that one might be forgiven for assuming that he planned it that way all along. 

Going back to the idea that prayer is not magic - often we see God as an input output machine, like a bank teller. You put in your prayer and your church attendance and your tithe and your good deeds and ta da! - health, wealth, prosperity, comfort, rainbows, dolphins and sunflowers are yours forevermore. We get this idea that because we did everything right, I’m entitled to a life of comfort. When we get upset with God that’s our attitude - I did what you said and you owe me and why is it not happening like that.

He wants us to live in freedom and health. I don’t doubt that. He wants us to live in a place of more-than-enough and all of those wonderful things, but greater than any of those things is his desire for relationship.

I don’t know if any of you remember the Prayer of Jabez back in the day - coffee mugs, devotionals, bible covers, fridge magnets - you name it, it was everywhere.

It came from 1 Chronicles 4:10:
'Jabez called upon the God of Israel, saying, “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from harm so that it might not bring me pain!” And God granted what he asked.'
My theory is that someone thought this verse would make a good prayer, so they prayed it and something good happened and then all of a sudden, everyone needs to pray the Prayer of Jabez three times a day and abracadabra you'll never have pain and always be blessed. You can solve all your life problems by praying the Prayer of Jabez.

And maybe that's even true. But I feel its an impoverished view of what we are invited into. We love that kind of thing because it makes it easy. Relationships are hard. They take time and effort and vulnerability and reciprocity. If we could just pray the Prayer of Jabez 20 times, say 20 Hail Marys, 50 Lord's Prayers and get what we want, who needs all that messy relationship stuff anyway?

Then there's The Secret that’s not so secret anymore since they sold so many million copies and loads of related merchandise. It's based around the idea of the Law of Attraction (capital L and capital A) which is purported to be a 'natural law' (like gravity) in which your thoughts become feelings, which radiate from you into the universe causing the universe to vibrate at the same level, cause you to attract what you are thinking. If you think about sickness, you will attract sickness, if you think about wealth, you'll attract wealth.

Um, No.
I've seen how this idea has been attractive to many Christians - believe and you'll receive. 'Whatever you ask for in my name' and all that. I could write pages on this stuff, and I might, but essentially the Law of Attraction collapses under the weight of real evil in the world. The young child sold into a human trafficking ring - she must have attracted that to herself. Like for real?

No, I'm not taking it out of context. The Secret teaches that there is no such thing as coincidence or accident - we are always getting what we deserve, what we ourselves attracted.

Still Nope.
And if it doesn't work out how you wanted it, you obviously weren't thinking about it just right. Or maybe someone else was attracting it to themselves stronger than you were. While it has helped some people be more optimistic and feel happier with life, and dwelling on good things can be good for us, Christians are honestly doing themselves a great disservice by going anywhere near something like 'The Secret'.

While I'm at it, I detest all those emails and Facebook posts and Whatsapp chain messages telling you to share or post or like or else. It makes God into a genie and prayer into magic: light this candle, say this prayer, burn this incense and you’ll get your job back or be blessed or not die.

That’s not God. That’s superstition.

God calls us into relationship - a dynamic, living vital relationship. We’re not trying to twist God’s arm and neither are we his puppets. Prayer is not an abstract manipulation tool. He calls us to co-labour with him, to work with him to accomplish what he’s doing on earth - primarily in the context of a relationship.

So even though we can mentally acknowledge the various reasons why our prayers go unanswered, it doesn't address the real heartache that we experience when things do go wrong and real suffering is experienced. The very human response is to ask why, often so we can assign blame.

Even if we only take free will into account, we have no way of knowing the intricacies and effects of every single free will decision ever made, by humans or angels, fallen or otherwise. I don't know if it is possible for us to ever know why, not because God is vindictively mysterious, but because the answer is more complex than we could ever comprehend. Sometimes we need to live with the fact that we don't know why some are answered and some not, but we can always affirm that God is good and always loving, because that is how he revealed himself on the cross.

In conclusion,
Prayer is important.
Prayer makes a difference.
God loves you.
More than anything else he wants you in relationship with him.

That marks the end of our 'Why Pray?' series. 
Feel free to engage or ask questions by commenting below - I love hearing from you!

If this touched you or made you think, please share with 10 people within the next 5 minutes... 
Just joking. 
Rather, feel free to exercise your (uncoerced) free will to share this post with people you feel may be interested in reading it. 
Or not. 
It's your choice.
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I'm trusting you choose well. ;-)

You can listen to all three parts of the series as an audio teaching using the link below:


  1. There are definitely many reasons why a prayer might go unanswered. We tend to assume God is ignoring us, but I love all your different points about reasons why we can't hear God. Great article!

  2. These are great points as to why prayers might not be answered. We tend to be very impatient and self-conscious which leads to irrational thoughts pertaining to God. We need to stay rooted in His truth.

  3. I think the Secret is really witchcraft disguised as self help. I love your post. It really gets to the heart of prayer.

  4. Thank you for this great post! I've had many years of an unanswered prayer where I doubted God's goodness. I see now, His answer wasn't "no" but "not yet."
    He needed to grow me!