Let’s Talk About Unanswered Prayer

A while ago I shared a story about a woman who needed potatoes.  To make potato salad.  And apparently she needed a lot of potatoes.  I probably wasn’t listening very attentively, because I have no idea why she needed to make potato salad – church picnic, family reunion, Paula Dean was coming for a cook-out, I don’t know.  But the woman needed potatoes and had no money for potatoes which was causing her a good deal of stress.  People were depending on her potato salad.  So she asked God to provide for her needs. Soon, she got a phone call from a friend who worked at the weigh-station outside of town: “there’s truck here that’s 150 lbs overweight.  It’s full of potatoes – do you know anyone who might need 150 lbs of potatoes?”  Why, yes, yes she did.  And potatoes fell down from the heavens like manna.

When I heard this story, other people in the room began telling their own stories about answered prayers and how God always makes provisions for us. Meanwhile my husband had left me (since returned) and I was washing clothes for 5 kids in the bathtub because my washer broke two months earlier and I couldn’t find a job and I’d never, ever had potatoes miraculously fall out of the sky for me. It was tempting to think that either I was doing something wrong or God didn’t like me very much.

A lot of us have had this experience. Someone tells a story of prayers miraculously answered and we are left wondering why their prayers get answered while ours do not. Are they more faithful? More beloved? Is the devil giving them what they want to make the rest of us feel bad? Why does God not answer our prayers? Didn’t Jesus say that whatever we asked for in his name would be given to us? What’s the flipping deal?

There are probably as many reasons for unanswered prayers are there are unanswered prayers. But over a couple of decades of dealing with more seemingly unanswered prayers than I care to think of, I have found a few pretty common reasons which I’d like to share with y’all this week.

But before I get into that, I want to make something clear. When God doesn’t answer our prayers, it’s rarely because we are doing something wrong and never because he doesn’t care about us. The thing is that he gives us what we need in our faith walk. Some people need more to keep going in their faith walk than others.

Those people whose prayers seem to be answered like regularly scheduled miracles? It could be that they are spiritually young and like small children. They need the occasional (or regular) treat to keep them going.

Or it could be that there’s something coming their way which they are being prepared and provisioned for. The day may come when they will need every bit of faith and devotion they gain from these answered prayers to endure. It’s not that God likes them better than you or that their faith or prayers are better than yours. It’s that for whatever reason, they need it.

It can be incredibly discouraging and disheartening deal with unanswered prayer. However, if your experience is one of consistently unanswered prayer, you can take it on faith that this is God inviting you to greater maturity. He’s saying that you don’t need a steady stream of treats to keep you going. You’re growing up and although growing up can be hard and demanding, it’s a good thing.

It could also be that your life path is just steadier than some other people’s life path. So God’s not going to provide a bulwark of answered prayers to carry you through crisis. Instead, he’s just going to quietly and faithfully lead you forward on a slow and steady path. You may not get as many mountains on the way, but you’re also being spared some pretty dark valleys. Different people need different things.

So what about Jesus’ promise that whatever we ask for in his name will be given? Over the next few days, we’ll be looking at that. Today what I need to share with you is a reality which too many Christian teachers are loathe to teach and too many Christians are unwilling to face. Faith and the Christian walk doesn’t work according to formulas.

Life is complicated and cannot be reduced to “if you do this, then that will happen”. No matter how much we want it to work like that. There are always many, many more variables at play than we realize. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazon and a typhoon is born in the Pacific and all that.

Please don’t fall for those who claim you’re just this formula or that practice away from getting what you want from God. If it works for them, it’s because God knows that’s what they need. If it doesn’t work for you, it’s because you need something different. Like all of God’s creation it’s both elegantly simple and maddeningly complex.

So, was Jesus lying? No. But it’s complicated. And beautiful. And, believe it or not, it’s all working itself out perfectly. Just for you.

4 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Unanswered Prayer

  1. I read this from James’ reblogging. Great post.

    A few thoughts: I, too, have wrestled with unanswered prayer. Once it was from the opposite side; I’d prayed for two things, one huge (a missing child I heard about on the radio) and one smaller (for an appointment time to be available with my psychiatrist, because I was severely depressed). It seemed that it would take a miracle for either to be answered; the stats aren’t encouraging on kidnapped children, and my doctor is often booked up for weeks in advance.

    One prayer was answered. The doctor saw me the next morning. But the child’s body was discovered several days later; she had been kidnapped and murdered. Why? I screamed at God, with tears rolling down my face, why did you give me my piddly little miracle and not bring that little girl home to her mama? I would gladly have given up my doctor’s appointment if it meant she would be alive. It didn’t make sense.

    Second thought, on a much less serious note. Potatoes raining down like manna? That sounds downright dangerous, doesn’t it?!


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