When God Doesn’t Answer Our Earnest Prayer
I was having a heart-to-heart with a good friend recently. We were talking about a deep and raw struggle she was having with unanswered prayer. You might already be thinking what I began to think…that maybe God was saying ‘no’ or not answering yet because He had a different plan, a better plan. But this wasn’t one of those prayer requests where I could encourage her to ‘pray a different prayer’. Her prayer was for a loved one to find life in Jesus. She had gently and genuinely shared the gospel with him on many occasions. Yet he continued to reject it. Despite her faithful sharing of the gospel and earnest prayers… in the end, it seems he rejected Jesus when he passed away.
As I’ve thought about this situation and prayed for my friend to know God’s peace. I came across an article that speaks to this issue. The writer, Garrett Kell, speaks about the anguish his wife felt when her own father didn’t believe in Christ despite her many prayers. Garrett shares four gracious truths that can guard us from despairing when the Lord says “No” to our earnest prayers. They have helped me and my friend as we have processed this difficult time. I hope they help and encourage you too.
1. Beware of Satan’s Lies
Satan is a liar and the accuser of God’s people (John 8:44; Rev. 12:10; cf. Job 1–2). When God doesn’t answer your prayers, you can be sure Satan will offer you reasons why. “God is cruel; you can’t trust him.” “You are unlovable; of course God rejected your prayer.” “Your faith is weak and your sin is shameful—God doesn’t love you.”
We must lift the shield of faith to extinguish these flaming darts. Call on friends to help you lift the shield by speaking truth to you. Immerse yourself in the Psalms and engage with the inspired prayers of suffering saints. Keep praying to the Lord, even when it seems pointless.
Satan will assure you that God isn’t listening. He’ll point to your perpetually barren womb or freshly dug tomb to prove it. This is why Peter warned the suffering churches of Asia Minor, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Flee to the Good Shepherd. The Lord may have said no to one request, but he’ll never refuse your pleas for grace (Heb. 4:14–16).
2. Trust in God’s Wisdom
When my wife’s unbelieving father died, she was deeply confused. She couldn’t understand why God would’ve burdened her to pray for him only to not save him. Knowing God was wise, she found comfort in the truths of Psalm 131. Rather than being crippled by things “too great and marvelous for [him],” David “quieted [his] soul” by casting himself on the Lord’s wisdom.
When God declines even our most genuine prayers, we must trust that, “My ways [are] higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9). His wise plan may require him to decline our pleas.
Unanswered prayer can be confusing for us, but not for him. He knows what we don’t and sees what we don’t. And on the Last Day, when we know what he knows, we’ll accuse him of nothing but being faithful.
3. Rest in God’s Goodness
Few things can drive us to question God’s character like unanswered prayers. We may echo the psalmist’s question, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:9). If I’m honest, questions like his resonate with me in the face of certain unanswered prayers. At times I can be tempted to doubt God’s goodness to me.
But Jesus’s words have brought me great comfort:
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matt. 7:9–11)
Jesus wants us to know that our heavenly Father only gives us good things (Ps. 84:11). He never gives us snakes when we ask for fish, or stones when we ask for bread. He may not give us bread or fish, but he will never withhold good from us. As John Piper once said, “[God] gives us what we ask for, or something better (not necessarily easier), if we trust him.”
4. Trust God Will Answer Soon
In Revelation 4–5, we find the risen Lord Jesus opening a scroll that contains God’s plan to deliver his people and destroy his enemies. Among many angelic beings we find a select few holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).
Those bowls are filled with the prayers of God’s people who have long cried out for God to bring his kingdom. They are prayers for the effects of the fall to be overcome. And to that point the prayers have been unanswered.
On this side of glory, we endure unanswered prayers. But one day soon, the Lord will answer his people’s prayers with a hearty yes.
On that Day, the Lord will answer our prayers for Amy and resurrect her body gloriously. On that Day, our heavenly Father will console my wife about her earthly father’s eternal destiny. On that Day, God will finally rid us of all the thorns we begged him to remove.
And until that Day, his grace will be sufficient to hold us fast.
I have been encouraging my friend to continue to pray, to seek God’s peace during this difficult time. I reminded her that God promises to draw near to us as we draw near to Him (James 4:8). If you find it difficult to pray then I encourage you to pray Scripture (e.g. Psalms), or write your prayers down, or ask someone to regularly pray with you.