I am a great believer in the power of prayer. I have seen some wonderful answers to prayer, including seeing people being healed. And every time a prayer is answered, it builds up faith and gives great encouragement. And in the Bible we are given some wonderful encouragements about prayer, for example in John 14:13-14 Jesus declares "I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." And in Matthew 18:19 Jesus says "I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven."
But for all the prayers that are answered, I can think of many that don't appear to have been answered. I think about all the people I've prayed for to be healed but who haven't – for example my friend Pete who died from cancer in July at the age of 45. Pete was chaplain in the Royal Air Force, passionate about Jesus and doing wonderful work – why wasn't our prayers for healing answered?
And then I hear people talk about how God helps them to find a car parking space when they go shopping, and I'm left wondering is God more concerned about finding parking spaces, than he is in healing people who are desperately ill. Or when someone survives a plane crash and they say it was an answer to prayer, I think about all the other people who were on that plane and praying just as hard but didn't survive.
The question of unanswered prayer is a really big issue for many people, as Philip Yancey in his book on prayer writes: "What kind of companion who has the power to save a life or heal a disease would 'sit on his hands' despite urgent pleas for help?" (page 208 'Prayer: Does it make any difference?')
The Inconsistency Problem
The question for me isn't 'Does God answer prayer', because I believe passionately that He does. The problem is about the inconsistency of the answers to prayer. Why are some prayers answered and others apparently not?
Blockages to Prayer
There are a number of reasons why God may not answer our prayers as we wish.
Some prayers go unanswered because they are frivolous, for example we might have sympathy for the student that comes out of an exam and prays "Dear Lord please make Paris the capital of Turkey", but that prayer is not going to be answered. More seriously if someone is a chain smoker they don't have the right to pray "Protect me from lung cancer."
Another reason prayers may go unanswered is if we have some unconfessed sin in our lives. A while ago I had problems with the toilets at home which weren't flushing properly, eventually I discovered that what was causing the problem was that the drains were completely blocked, and we had to get someone in to unblock them. Sin in our lives can do something similar in our relationship with God.
The psalmist writes "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened." (Ps 66:18) And in Isaiah, the prophet records these words from God. "When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow." (Is 1:15-16)
So it is not only our private spiritual state but also our social concern (or lack of it), for the poor and marginalised, that has a direct bearing on how our prayers are received. How I treat God's creation and God's people will determine in part how God receives my prayers and my worship.
Then there are contradictory prayers, which simply can't be granted. If a dozen people pray to get the same job, eleven must ultimately come to terms with unanswered prayer. Or while we might be praying for a nice hot sunny day, a farmer may be praying for rain.
The Blessing of Unanswered Prayers
There are of course times when we should be grateful that God doesn't always answer our prayers. Imagine what it would be like if God answered every prayer – and not just the good requests, but prayers for vengeance, or retaliation, or the prayers of people waging war against other nations.
When Jesus wasn't welcomed by the Samaritan villages James and John asked "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" But Jesus turned and rebuked them, imagine what would have happened if that prayer had been answered.
How can we be certain that we pray always with the best motives at heart?
If God always answered our prayers then He would in effect turn the world over to us, and what would the consequences of that be?
The country singer Garth Brooks had a hit song, 'Thank God for Unanswered Prayers', in which he has the line 'Just because he doesn't answer, doesn't mean he don't care. Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.'
Jesus' Unanswered Prayers
As we think about the question of unanswered prayer, it is helpful to realise that Jesus too knows what it is like not to have prayers answered. For example, in John 17 Jesus prayed for the unity of his followers, 'that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.' (John 17:21) But you only have to look at the church today to realise how far that prayer remains from being answered.
Think too about when Jesus went out on a mountainside and prayed all night before calling his disciples and choosing twelve of them to be apostles, this included Judas Iscariot. I wonder whether Jesus ever questioned the Father's guidance, as Jesus had to put up with their petty concerns, and lack of faith, especially when they all abandoned him at his greatest point of need.
But Jesus' greatest unanswered prayer was his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed to his Father to 'take this cup from me.'
What would the consequence have been if Jesus' prayer had been answered, and he did not go to Golgotha?
For me knowing that even Jesus had some unanswered prayers doesn't solve the problem of unanswered prayer, but it does bring some comfort to know he has experienced what we experience.
If we are hoping to find an easy answer to this question about prayer, then we will be disappointed, because I don't think there is one. Instead we are called to live with the mystery that is prayer. In the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18), Jesus encourages us to keep on praying. Whilst I live with the tension of unanswered prayers, I have seen enough answered prayers to know that prayer does make a difference, and to keep on praying.
I can look back on my life and I can now understand why God didn't answer some of my prayers the way I wanted. But there are also other prayers which I'll never understand the reason why they weren't answered the way I would have hoped for, and in those situations I have to trust that there was a reason for God to act the way he did. For 'my ways [are] higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts' (Is 55:9), reminds God.
If you read the Psalms, which are often full of groans and laments often over God's lack of response, they always come back to the theme of God's faithfulness. And so no matter how circumstances appear at any given moment, we can trust the fact that God is the one that rules the universe, and that we have a divine promise that one day all shall be well.
How God answers prayer
Maybe a big part of the reason why we feel God doesn't always answer prayer is because God is answering our prayers in ways we fail to recognise.
I came across the following quote as I was preparing this talk, "A theist believes in a God in heaven whereas a Christian believes in a God who is also physically present on this earth inside of human beings… God is still present, as physical and as real today, as God was in the historical Jesus. God still has skin, human skin, and physically walks on this earth just as Jesus did." God calls us to work in partnership with Him, and as we inform God what we think should be done in the world, He reminds us of our own role in doing it.
The way God is at work in the world, the way in which He answers our prayers, is often different to how we expect Him to act, and because of that maybe we fail to recognise God at work.
The following checklist can be helpful for us to make sure our prayers are on target:
- What do I really want? Am I being specific, or am I just rambling about nothing in particular?
- Can God grant this request? Or is it against God's nature to do so?
- Have I done my part? Or am I praying to lose weight when I haven't dieted?
- How is my relationship with God? Are we on speaking terms?
- Who will get the credit if my request is granted? Do I have God's interest in mind?
- Do I really want my prayer answered? What would the consequences be if the prayer was answered?
Teach me, O God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin. Let me use disappointment as material for patience. Let me use success as material for thankfulness. Let me use trouble as material for perseverance. Let me use danger as material for courage. Let me use reproach as material for long suffering. Let me use praise as material for humility. Let me use pleasures as material for temperance. Let me use pain as material for endurance.
Finally, it is important to remember that prayer is not just about our requests and petitions, it is about companionship, walking with God day by day, when times are good and also when times are hard. And it is therefore important that we do not neglect prayer. And whilst we have to live with the mystery of times when prayer isn't answered, the more we do pray, the more we will discover God does answer prayer.