One of the great obstacles to a thriving prayer life is unanswered prayer. I’ve known many believers discouraged from and despairing over their prayer lives because of the belief that God isn’t listening, hearing, or able to answer. What has led them to such a conclusion? The perception of unanswered prayer.
Perception is the key word. When we consider the character and power of God, we should conclude that he answers all prayers. He is able to do anything he desires (Ephesians 3:20), and he desires to give us every good gift (Luke 11:11-13). He never ignores his children, either through indifference or inability. If it seems like he isn’t answering a prayer, even a prayer offered faithfully and persistently for years, the reality is that he is answering – but in a way that is unexpected.
God never ignores his children, either through indifference or inability.
What does answered prayer look like? I see at least four kinds of answers to prayer.
1. Yes. Occasionally, a saint will pray and God will respond – positively, even quickly. The Lord delights to do this. To paraphrase Jesus, If we, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to our children, how much more will our Father in heaven give us good things when we ask him (Matthew 7:11).
2. No. Perhaps more often, a saint will pray and God will respond – negatively, but in love. If my children ask to eat cake for dinner, it isn’t loving of me to say yes. (At least, not every time.) I know better than they do what is good for their bodies, and as their dad, it is my job to give them what is best. In the same way, sometimes our heavenly Father says no – because he knows better than we do what is right and good and best. If we knew everything that God knows, we would only ever pray, Your will be done! Because we don’t know everything God knows, sometimes we ask for things – even good things, holy things – that he doesn’t give us because he is up to something better than we realize.
3. Not yet. For a variety of reasons, God often delays his answer. It might ultimately be yes, and it might ultimately be no; right now, it is not yet. Again, God knows better than we do – not only what we need but when we need it. Sometimes we need to bring a request to him faithfully for years before he grants it. Imagine how the Lord might work in your own heart, increasing your desire for him and your dependence upon him, if he waited a year or a decade or more to give you the deepest desires of your heart! In his infinite wisdom, he knows – not only the best thing for us, but the best time to give it to us. Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! (Romans 11:33).
In his infinite wisdom, God knows not only the best thing for us, but the best time to give it to us.
4. Yes – but its going to feel like no. In my own life, this has been the hardest answer to “take.” At the same time, it is the answer that has most enlarged my faith and my dependence upon God through prayer.
I remember, as a young pastor, praying fervently for “success” in ministry. In my own mind, I had a clear picture of what that would look like – people coming to faith, rapid numerical growth, etc. I pleaded with God, earnestly praying for the results I longed to see. Did he answer?
At the time, it felt like he said no. We didn’t see rapid numerical growth. I did see people coming to faith in Christ, but I also saw just as many people leave our ministry for greener pastures elsewhere. The result was a wash. Or so it seemed.
It was not until years later that I was able to see the fruit the Lord brought through that season. In truth, it was remarkable. The number of young church leaders who emerged during that time was stunning. Many of these people are now leading – vocationally or as key lay leaders – in local church settings around the globe. Moreover, the depth and maturity that developed in our Body was wonderfully sweet. People grew in holiness and devotion to Christ. The saints were encouraged and sanctified. We grew in love for the gospel and one another. At the time, I was blind to most of that. It seemed like God was not giving me the answer I longed for. In reality, he was doing exactly what I prayed he would do – he was growing our church, our ministry, just not in the way I expected.
Most significantly, he was doing a work in me. He was teaching me new ways to depend on him. He was pressing into my heart a keener grasp of his sovereign power, his infinite wisdom, and his matchless grace. Then, his answer to my prayers felt like no. Now I see that it was a resounding yes.
For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:34, 36).