For most people, the honest struggle with skepticism finds its fuel in the disappointment of prayers not answered—messages sent to God with something like faith, hope. If prayer really worked all the time, we’d know about it. There’d be no need to encourage people to pray because we’d get everything we asked for.
That’s quite a thing to imagine. Some Christian groups would answer that if it’s not like that for you, it’s only because you don’t have enough faith.
Is this true? Why aren’t some prayers answered? Let’s look at two unanswered prayers from Scripture.
Ezekiel was an Israelite in captivity in Babylon who was called to prophesy. This passage appears in the section of the book of Ezekiel that concentrates on prophesies against Israel.
God clearly tells the elders of Israel, “I will not let you inquire of me.” Why? These Israelites hadn’t chosen to reject God, but to be inclusive of other gods in their worship.
Note in verse 31 the practice of giving live children as burnt sacrifices—frequently condemned by God. The fact that He allowed this practice to continue was part of His judgment. Sometimes God’s judgment comes as a hardened conscience and feeling of freedom from His constraints.
Result in this story? God refuses to hear them.
One clear reason for unanswered prayers is disobedience to God, a reason that is cited often in Scripture. Old Testament examples are found in:
–Proverbs: the Lord is far from the wicked;
–Isaiah: God refuses not out of His own ignorance of the prayers or inability to grant them but because of their sins;
–Zechariah: when I called they did not listen so when they call I will not listen.
However, this message isn’t exclusive to the Old Testament. Jesus Himself teaches it, for example, in the parable of the vine and the branches. Jesus teaches that regular, persistent, continued disobedience leads to unanswered prayer.
So is all unanswered prayer a result of our disobedience? Look at Paul’s example.
2 Corinthians 12
Paul has just been reminding the Corinthians of what God had done, and following some sarcastic boasting (11:16-12:6), Paul tells them that he has been given a “thorn.” People have speculated inconclusively on what this was, but we do know that it was a trial, severely negative, and continuous.
What did Paul do? He pleaded with and begged God to take it away from him a total of three times. But God said His grace was sufficient.
Would heaven spurn Paul’s request? Why was Paul’s prayer unanswered? Sin, disobedience?
We know Paul was imperfect, but his life wasn’t characterized by unrepentant sin. That answer is as helpful as Job’s friends’ counseling him to repent.
God gives another reason: Paul and others he ministered to would know God better through Paul’s weakness. Paul received even better than he asked (v.9-10). This isn’t just positive thinking. So you could say Paul’s prayer didn’t work, but it wasn’t because of his sin, but because of the sovereign will of God. The will of the same One who gave His only Son for those who hated Him.
What about you?
These two aren’t the only ones who have prayed unanswered prayers. We have, too. The only biblical advice in this situation is to keep praying and trust God. Through prayer we come to know God. Prayers of thanksgiving always “work”. Prayers of confession always “work.” It is in our prayers of petition that we’ve all faced this.
It could be because we don’t really know the one we’re talking to–if we’re living in open disobedience to His commands. But if we’re God’s own children, who are called by His name, we’re taught that persevering, sincere prayer will work.
What is the purpose of prayer?
What is the ultimate purpose of prayer? Ultimately, it is for God to make Himself known in this world. In the Ezekiel passage He repeats “for my name’s sake,” to make it clear. The purpose of prayer is for you to know God yourself and to make Him known to others.
Prayer is a close fellowship with God. If the only relationship you have with God in prayer is to particularly ask Him for things, then you’ve missed out on what a large part of prayer should be. In Paul’s situation, what changed was what Paul prayed. Paul came to see the real torment in the larger picture.
God’s purpose in all prayer, answered and unanswered, is to make Himself known. Does this mean that our prayers are useless? No, as with evangelism, God has chosen to work through our prayers to accomplish His sovereign purposes.
Did Paul’s prayer work? His torment didn’t end.
Did the prayer of the elders of Israel work?
In both cases, God refused their requests, but through both God made Himself known. This wasn’t at all what the elders wanted, but it was what Paul really wanted.
In your own heart, truly, what do you really want more than anything else in the world? Answer that, and you’ll know if your prayers are working.