When a Prayer Goes Unanswered

A few times every year, my parents remind me of the most disappointing moment of my childhood. It took place when I was in early grade school, I think– my memory is a little fuzzy from back then. My parents and I were on a cruise to the Bahamas and were planning on going snorkeling. Somehow I had heard that there was such a thing as scuba diving. When I asked my parents if we could do that instead, I received the utterly devastating response of “no”. I’m still surprised this did not scar me for life.

When my parents reflect on this memory they remind me how extravagant the vacation was compared to any others we went on. They find it hilarious that I was so disappointed and pouty over such a small denied request.

I learned at age 6 or 7 that life is full of disappointment (yes I realize this was such a trivial matter now but the point remains). At some time in life each of us recognizes this truth.

Disappointment from loved ones can be devastating, and the more valuable the relationship, the greater the pain. To add to this, the bigger the request, the harder getting a “no” can be.

For anyone who has prayed and failed to get the response they desired, this truth is all too apparent. Many have prayed for loved ones to be healed from fatal illnesses and yet watched as they slipped away. Too many have asked God to fix an unhealthy marriage and yet find themselves divorced. Relationships fractured beyond repair, job opportunities withheld, even defeat of beloved athletic teams all demonstrate that prayers go unanswered, or rather, receive a “no”.

Is God Really There?

At this point I might have lost a few of you. Some of you might be thinking that it’s downright silly to think that there is a divine force ordering the universe, or if there were, it would be arrogant to think that it would consider such small things as individual human lives. If you’ve ever experimented with prayer and seen no response, it’s pretty easy to conclude that either God isn’t real or he doesn’t care about you personally.

I would propose, respectfully, that this is too short-sighted of a view.

The book of Esther in the Bible is 10 chapters long and references God zero times. The whole point of the book is to show that God’s ordering of events oftentimes can’t be seen without a mile-high view. Coincidence after coincidence occurs in Esther to ensure that a people group of particular importance doesn’t suffer mass genocide. While he is unseen within each piece of the story, when the story is looked at in total, God’s divine shadow covers all.

Could it possibly be that we give too little credit to a universe-ruler when things go well? Do we blame luck, our own ability, or the kindness of others over a mysteriously hidden orchestrater of good? When things go badly, our gut reaction is to blame the powers that be. But could it be possible that God controls both the good days and the bad through the seemingly independent actions of everything in the world. Along with this, could God be present in both the good and the bad for reasons outside our immediate understanding?

Reasons Why

For those who do question why God would answer their prayers with “no”, living with that reality can be quite difficult. What possible reason could there be for a loving ruler of the cosmos to hold back his gifts from one of his creations? The Bible offers a few reasons why.

  1. It’s not the right time. The old saying goes, “all things in good time.” Timing is so crucial when it comes to anything good in our lives. A car is a great gift for your child. As long as that child is not 5 years old. Oftentimes God will hold back his gifts to his people until it is best for them (Genesis 12-21).
  2. We have wrong motivations. Good things can become terrible things if used improperly. Take social media for instance. Designed to connect people, it often does just the opposite, pitting us against one another or isolating us from real relationships completely. The same can be said for any good thing in life: money, relationships, careers, sex, education….. Sin, in a very basic sense, is simply taking a good thing and using it in a bad way– and God does not want to encourage poor use of his gifts (James 4:3).
  3. It’s not good what we are asking for. It should go without saying that if what we want is something evil, God will more than likely not give it to us. God is consistent. He doesn’t flinch on his commitment to people, nor does he waiver on his commitment to his principles. Restraining his people from getting their selfish desires met is an act of love and evidence of God’s good character (Hebrews 13:8).
  4. Our sin gets in the way. In my undergraduate days I had many friends who were studying education. One of the things they would constantly talk about is behavior management in the classroom. My friends had to figure out how to encourage helpful classroom behavior and discourage disruptive behavior. How much more-so should that be the case for the one who not only knows our actions but understands our hearts? God may put us in divine time-out to force us to consider the selfishness inside us before he can return to encouraging a growing relationship with him through his gifts (Psalm 66:8, Isaiah 59:2).
  5. It is simply a mystery. Sadly, we may never know why God chooses to answers certain prayers with “yes” and others with “no”. The Bible lays out that it does not give all the answers for everything we go through, but it gives the ones we need to go through them. God is the only one who can look at the space-time blueprints and he reveals bits and pieces to us depending on what he deems need-to-know information (see the book of Job).

There are many reasons why prayers may go unanswered– probably even more than the list above details. The Bible, however, explains that there is one thing that never factors into God declining our prayers:

It can’t be because he doesn’t love you.

Christian is unique from all other religions in many ways. One of the most glaring ways is that Christianity is the only belief system that claims that God received a “no” to his own prayer.

Matthew 26:36-39 reads,

36Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

In this passage, Jesus, God who became human, is about to meet his death. He will soon be crucified and experience hell itself. In Gethsemane, Jesus prays to God that if there is any way that he could escape this fate, let it be so. Up to this point, Jesus has healed multitudes, fed the hungry, cared for the societal outcasts, taught life-changing truths, and done so many good things. If anyone has ever warranted a prayer being answered by their own goodness, it’s Jesus. And yet, as we are reminded each Easter, his prayer was ignored.


So that our prayers could be heard.

On the cross, being torn away from the love of God, Jesus paid the necessary cost for our evil, selfish ways. He was broken so that our relationship with God could be fixed. This was Jesus’ mission in life, to give us the greatest gift, and our biggest need, God himself.

Do you see how far God would go to give you what you need most? He tears himself apart so that you would never be taken away from him. He aligned everything in the universe to ensure Jesus would be crushed on the cross and his prayer declined so that everyone who believes in him would not be crushed, would have their prayers heard, and not be cast away from God despite their evil.

Our unanswered prayers are not signs of an absent or uncaring God. If he cared so much about you 2,000 years ago that he would personally go through so much for you, do you really think he would give up on you now? Jesus shows us that God is willing to allow pain (both in himself and in us) in order to ensure future blessing.

For those who have experienced an unanswered prayer, keep praying. Answers are not guaranteed but God has not left you and he still has good things in store for you.

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