There are times when it seems like God does not hear us. There are times when it seems like God has become deaf to our prayers and unresponsive to our cries. There are times when we seek but do not find, knock but do not find the door opened. Why is it that God sometimes does not answer our prayers?
There may be any number of reasons, but before we consider a few of them, we need to acknowledge that often God actually does answer our prayers, though either in a way we cannot yet see or in a way we do not accept. He sometimes answers invisibly or imperceptibly and he sometimes answers in a way we simply fail to see or, worse, fail to acknowledge. Then there are times when God gives us not exactly what we had pleaded for but what he, in his wisdom, has determined we need. Either way, we should always take great care before we conclude “God has not answered my prayer.”
Yet there actually are times when he does not answer. This should not surprise us if we have an appropriate assessment of our own finitude, our own selfishness, our own sinfulness, our own simplicity. We know that God has power that is vast, holiness that is perfect, wisdom that is complete, and plans and purposes that encompass all of time and space. Our lives and the world around would be in woeful condition if God was beholden to each and every one of our petitions.
Our confidence, then, is not in God answering every one of our prayers just as we have prayed them, but in God hearing those prayers and determining if, when, and how to best respond. If God is truly who he says he is, if he is truly our good Father and we the children he loves, we can be certain that if he does not answer, it is only because this is better for us. He is not cruel, nor arbitrary, nor apathetic. Hence his inaction must be for our good, not for our harm.
So what are some of the ways God expresses his love and his goodness through unanswered prayer?
God may not answer our prayers when to answer them would be to rob us of a blessing. This is especially true when we pray to be relieved of suffering or delivered from a burden. The Bible and our own experience makes it clear that God often works mightily through hardships, not apart from them. This being the case, to deliver us too quickly would actually be to rob us of a blessing. It would be to take away the very circumstance through which God is conforming us to his image. There are some flowers that can be plucked only in the depths of valleys and only on the peaks of mountains, and there are some blessings that can be gotten only in adversity. God will not rob us of experiencing blessings by lifting us past the means through which they can be ours.
Then, God may not answer our prayers when they are selfish. If we pray in such a way that we account only for ourselves and not for others, God may not grant our request. God’s mind is much greater than our own and his plan much more expansive. He always accounts for all of his children and will hardly do injury to one in order to bless another. Whether our prayers are knowingly selfish or ignorantly selfish, God may not answer them if giving a blessing to us would prove a sorrow to another.
Of course God may not answer our prayers when what they request is sinful or when we ourselves are living in unrepentance. God will not grant prayers that demand what he has forbidden or that reject what delights his heart. He will not grant prayers to those who are living in unrepentant sin and are rejecting the prompting and pleading of his Spirit. God may close his ears to our pleas as a means of fatherly chastisement that is meant to awaken us to our sinfulness, soften our hearts, and steer us back to him.
Then there are times when our prayers are unanswered only because they are delayed. The God who sees the end from the beginning is not refusing to answer, but is simply waiting until the time is right. We may not yet have character that is prepared or circumstances that are appropriate to receive what we have prayed for. Just as a child cannot take advanced mathematics before he has mastered the basics, we may need divine preparation to be able to receive and appreciate some of God’s blessings. Many who plead for success would be ruined if they received it, so God lovingly delays until their hearts and lives have been made ready.
Then, it could also be that the blessings we want have not yet been fully prepared. We may plant an apple tree and immediately pray for it to bear fruit, but it will take many seasons for it to grow and mature and only then will it satisfy our hunger. And this is true of many of the blessings we long for. There may be a long time of preparation in which we need to wait patiently as those blessings are readied by his hand. God’s silence does not flow from apathy or indifference, but love. He is not refusing to grant us the blessing, but simply preparing it, nurturing it from seed to sapling to fruitfulness.
Where we so often go wrong is in failing to believe that God truly means to bless us, failing to believe that his motives are only and always love, failing to wait for his timing to be right and his answer to be perfect. Our task is to trust him—to trust him in what he will give and what he will refuse, in what he will grant in a moment and what he will grant only in time. Our task is to pray and wait, pray and trust, pray and watch for him to do exceedingly and abundantly beyond all we can ask or even imagine.
Inspired by The Hidden Life by J.R. Miller