Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers?
Are you a praying person? Do you feel like God answers your prayers? Have some of your prayers gone unanswered? As a young teen, I experienced the most powerful sense that my prayers meant something to date. I was at Camp Aldersgate, attending Senior High Creative Arts Camp. Our director, Bobbi, was pregnant, in her first trimester. She was a bit older than a “typical” first time parent, although honestly I say that from my teenage perspective – I’m not sure how old she was really, and I’m sure she was younger than I am now. But I know she was very anxious about the pregnancy. And while we were at camp, she experienced some spotting, and she had to leave to go to the hospital and get checked out, and it was clear, she was distraught and fearful. We were a small group of Creative Arts campers that week, and we pulled together, and we prayed, and prayed, and prayed for Bobbi and her baby. And when Bobbi came back from the hospital all smiles and announcing with tears in her eyes that everything was ok, I felt so completely: God has heard our prayers and answered them. My faith was so strengthened by that experience.
But what about those who have prayed a similar prayer only to face tragedy? I’ve certainly experienced loss and grief despite praying for healing. What about the prayers we share with God that express our deepest hopes and desires, and yet what we’ve asked for doesn’t come to fruition? Sometimes it seems that God answers our prayers, and sometimes it feels like God is silent. What’s the rhyme and reason at work here when it comes to prayer? Why does it seem like God doesn’t always answer our prayers?
And doesn’t God say that God will answer our prayers if we’re faithful in our asking? The scriptures seem to point to this idea in more than one place in Jesus’ teaching. Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt … even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:21-22) That seems pretty clear, right? Whatever we ask for in faith, we’ll get, right? In our text today, in the conclusion of his response to the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus says, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” There is it again – ask, and you’ll receive! Everyone who asks receives! And yet, I know you must be able to immediately think, as I can, of prayers I’ve offered to God where what I was seeking never came to fruition, and what happened seemed to be the opposite of what I asking for.
What do we make of this then? Is the Bible wrong? Is Jesus not telling us the truth about prayer? Or, is there something wrong with us? Is there some sin in our life that is causing God to refuse to answer our prayers? Are we not praying hard enough? Often, people point to these kinds of explanations – blaming the pray-er – when prayers are unanswered. But telling a parent that their prayers for their sick child weren’t enough or weren’t right somehow seems heartless and wrong and contrary to the very nature of our God who is love. So what, then? Why doesn’t God answer our prayers, when the Bible seems to insist that God will give us what we ask for?
In his book Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will, Adam Hamilton suggests that when Jesus’ teachings in the Bible don’t match up with what we know from our life experience, perhaps what is at work is “our failure to understand what Jesus meant” by a certain teaching. So what aren’t we getting about Jesus’ teachings on prayer? Hamilton writes “One of the features of hyperbole is that what is said is not logically possible, so that the hearer knows it is a figure of speech. You can see this in our own use of hyperbole. When a person says he is ‘so hungry I could eat a horse,’ we don’t scratch our heads and say, ‘That’s terrible, you shouldn’t eat horses!’ We understand by the nature of the statement that he is saying he is hungry. And when one of my daughters in middle school said, ‘Dad, if that boy comes to talk to me, I’ll just die,’ I didn’t call the paramedics to be on standby just in case the boy tried to speak to my daughter.”
He continues, “I suggest that Jesus’ hearers understood that Jesus was speaking hyperbolically when he said, ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive’ … They did not think he was suggesting they could pray for wealth and have it, or that they could pray for the Romans to leave, and they would be gone. They did not think he was saying, ‘Pray for world peace,’ and it would instantly happen. Or that if they only prayed with faith all of their problems would magically disappear or be resolved. I think they understood that Jesus was saying, ‘Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.’” (38-39) Hear that again: “Go to God with your burdens! Be bold when you pray! Trust that God hears your prayers! And, in ways you don’t fully understand, God will see you through this situation you face.” Like Hamilton, I believe that this gives us a good sense of what Jesus is telling us about prayer. Jesus isn’t trying to tell us that prayer is like giving God our shopping list and expecting God to deliver everything on the list. Instead, Jesus wants to encourage us to be completely open and honest with God in our prayers, trusting that God is listening.
Why, though, doesn’t God just give us what we ask for? Let’s think about that together. First, think about the challenges that would arise if God wanted to say, “Sure, no problem,” to all of our prayer requests. Have you seen the 2003 Jim Carrey movie Bruce Almighty? In one scene, Carrey’s character, Bruce, who gets to take on all God’s power and responsibilities for a brief time, is answering all the prayer requests that come to God. They arrive in email form, and Bruce thinks it will be so easy to do this part of the job. He decides to simply reply “yes” to every prayer request. You’d think that would be great, right? Everyone’s requests to God answered with a “yes, sure, whatever you want!” But in the film, when everyone gets a “yes,” the results bring total chaos. For example, everyone who prays to win the lottery does – but since so many people win, everyone gets only $1 or so, and everyone is livid. Or, what if two people have applied for the same job, and are both praying that God will give them the new position? Whose prayer should God answer with a yes? I think of the sincere prayers I offered as a young person of faith, including an occasional prayer that the current boy of my dreams might in fact turn out to be “the one.” What if God had said “yes” to some of those prayers, when sixth months later, I didn’t feel the same way? And what about what those boys had wanted? Should God have made them fall for me, just because that was what I wanted? Not if we actually value the precious gift of free will that God gives us! Or what if I pray to pass my math test, even though I haven’t studied? Is it helpful for God to say “yes” to these prayers, and set a pattern where we never bother to learn these skills on our own? Sometimes, we must admit that we’re eventually thankful that God didn’t say “yes” to all of our wants. Sometimes, my new prayer is “thank goodness you didn’t force what I was asking for to take place.” Sometimes, we have to acknowledge that the only way God could answer our prayer is by taking away free will from someone else. And sometimes, we have to admit that our prayers are really requests for us to get what we want without working hard, striving toward goals, and using the gifts and tools God has already put into our hands.
I think God also works within the natural order, the rhythm and law of the universe most of the time. Hamilton writes, “When God wants something done, god typically sends people. This has led me to conclude that God’s customary way of working in our lives is through what appears to be ordinary means. Rather than suspending the law of nature that God created to do God’s work, God typically works through natural laws and through people … Can God miraculously intervene in answer to our prayers to protect us from harm? Yes, but God’s normal way of working is found within the natural laws God establish and in human beings to whom God gave responsibility for tending this planet on God’s behalf.” Most of the time, outside of miraculous occurrences that are by definition rare, God works within the patterns of the universe that God has created, which means that sometimes our prayers, which would require breaking and bending the order of the universe to fulfill, don’t get answered as we want.
What I do believe, what the scriptures show, is that God never abandons us, even when God does not answer our prayers in the ways we seek. In fact, God gets right in our despair with us, experiences heartbreak and grief with us, walks beside us in the dark valleys, even coming to us in the person of Jesus to be closer to us and our experiences. God never abandons us, ever. And God takes the pain and sorrow we experience and draws new life even from the hardest moments in our lives. We’ll think more about that together next week.
So, if God doesn’t promise to give us everything we want, and God might have many good reasons for not saying “yes” to our prayer requests, and God doesn’t often intervene in the natural order of the universe to make things happen the way we want them to, why bother praying? Why does Jesus emphasize how persistent we should be in prayer? What’s the point? This is when our thinking of God as a parent is so helpful to me. You know my mom and I are very close. She knows my heart pretty well, and knows my hopes and dreams. She can’t always make want I want take place. She can’t fulfill every wish I’ve expressed. And certainly, she wouldn’t, even if she could, if you think about all my hopes over the years and the times that she knew better than I what would be meaningful in my life. Does that mean there’s no point in me sharing my heart with her? Does that mean she doesn’t want to know about what I want? Of course not! Of course, my mom wants to know everything about me, anything I’m willing to share with her. She wants to know about my hopes and dreams because she loves me, and sharing like this is a part of building a relationship, part of building trust and compassion. And the relationship brings me comfort, strength, and encouragement. That’s what God wants with us: to be in relationship with us, to have us pour our hearts out to God, to shower us with love and encouragement, to have us get to know God deeply, and be known by God deeply, to be comforted and strengthened by the constancy of our relationship. Prayer is our way of building relationship with God.
Prayer is also about listening to God – we talked about that last week. We pray so that we signal to God and to ourselves that we’re listening and ready to hear what God has to say to us. Prayer is not so much about changing God as it is sometimes about changing us. In the words we call the Lord’s Prayer, a version of which appears in our text today, Jesus encourages the disciples to pray about forgiveness, to pray to learn to not hold things against each other, to pray for daily sustenance rather than food to store up, to pray for God’s way and God’s realm to be the way of earth rather than our own way and will. Essentially, Jesus guided the disciples to pray not that God would give them what they wanted, but that they might be transformed into the servants of God that Jesus knew they could be. Prayer changes us, because it helps us tune our hearts to God. It helps us remember that God has placed into our hands already the tools and resources and gifts and abilities to be the answers to the prayers we’re praying, to be the agents of transformation in the world we long for. Prayer changes us, and so we pray because it opens us to the work of God in our lives.
I want to encourage you to think about your discipline of prayer. I have found keeping a prayer journal to be a helpful reminder of God’s faithfulness: recording prayer requests and looking back over time to see how God has been at work. Rarely does God seem to act in the ways I expect or ask. But always, God is at work, drawing life and hope and good out of everything. And always, God is with me, and with those I have lifted up to God.
Friends, Jesus tells us to ask, search, and knock at God’s door. I don’t think he tell us this so that God can check everything off our wish list, or so that we can make fools of ourselves praying prayers that will never be answered. Rather, I think when we ask, God does give, even when what God gives is unexpected. I think when we search, we do find, even when what we find is not the original destination we were seeking. And I think when we knock, God always opens the door for us that leads to a deeper faith, a closer relationship with God, and a changed heart for us. And so we ask, with the disciples: Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.