Women with tight clasp in prayer

Reflections on the Mystery of “Unanswered” Prayer

If you’re like most people, you are somewhat mystified with the whole topic of answered and unanswered prayer. That describes me too. When my infant daughter died (her name is Rachel), the next time I taught Sunday school I started by listing all the verses that unequivocally promise that God answers prayer. Of course, all my friends in the class jumped to God’s defense and basically tried to explain that these verses didn’t really mean what they said. At least that was my take on their response, and I understood why.

I certainly understand the need to interpret Scripture in light of Scripture, but what so often happens is that we downplay the tremendous privilege the Lord has given his children to ask of him whatever we want. As a result our prayers tend to be anemic, which means we generally don’t have to face the issue of unanswered prayer. (I also understand that theologically there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer, but that’s a topic for another article.)

I am thinking of verses such as John 15:7: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” And I am thinking of qualifications like Matthew 26:39, which is Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane: “if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

I have no answer for this dilemma, but I do have a few observations that have helped me.

How to Pray

1. Pray with boldness.

Jesus told us to ask. He wants us to ask. And he promises to hear us. That’s pretty amazing in and of itself. I know that when we experience what appears to be unanswered prayer time after time, we can give up. But re-read Matthew 7:7–11: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” These words have to mean something, and despite the Lucan parallel that says he gives the Holy Spirit (Luke 11:13), Matthew’s version is much more broad.

2. Pray expectantly.

What actually raised this topic for me was a sermon I just listened to by Alistair Begg through his ministry, Truth for Life. He said that we believe that God will answer because we know he can answer. That is a wonderful balance. We pray expectantly, as any child expects their father to answer, but the basis of our confidence is that we know beyond a shadow of doubt that God is able to answer. I really like that. I find that when I pray this way and do not get the answer I expect, I find myself being thankful that God did not answer the prayer. If a sovereign, all-powerful God who loves me understands that there is something wrong or inadequate in my prayer, I appreciate him loving me enough to not answer the way I expect. But I continue to pray expectantly.

3. Surrender to God’s Will.

Saying “If it be your will,” goes at the end of the prayer. This is where Jesus put it. When I start a prayer with this phrase, I find that I have no boldness or confidence, and my prayer feels more like a whimper. So as a child of God I come before my father with boldness and confidence, praying audacious prayers that I believe are in line with his will, and thankful when he doesn’t give me the answer I expect when I must have misunderstood his intentions.

Prayer will always be a mystery; after all, it is the language of relationship, and relationships always have an element of mystery in them. As for me, 32 years after my daughter’s death, I am finally able to be comfortable with the Lord not answering my prayer for Rachel. Little did I know what he had in store for me.

If Rachel had not died, we would not have adopted our first child, Tyler. I would not have my oldest son, and Kiersten and Hayden would not have their big brother. Five years ago Tyler married Rachel Fields. I got my Rachel back in kind of a three-for-one deal. My first Rachel is waiting for me in heaven, and here on earth I am able to enjoy Tyler and his Rachel. That’s what I call answered prayer.

Bill Mounce

By Dr. Bill Mounce
Bill is the founder and President of BiblicalTraining.org, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible) and has written numerous Greek resources including the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek. He speaks and blogs regularly on issues relating to trusting the Bible, the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus), Greek and issues of spiritual growth.

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