The Most Important Reason for Unanswered Prayers

God often does not answer my prayers because he knows me. He knows that if he allowed me to enjoy material ease, plenty of affirmation and affection from the people around me, a good name and reputation and eased the intensity of my many imperfections, I would be satisfied. But my satisfaction would be in the good life I had rather than in God himself.

So God has often withheld good things from me, not because he doesn’t care and not because he doesn’t want them for me. Rather, it’s because none of those things are good enough for me or for him. None of them are God.

“Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you.”

I don’t think it’s God’s desire for us to live in poverty and misery. I think he wants us to enjoy the good things life has to offer. But he also knows that none of those things are permanent, they don’t bring life and they don’t redeem the world. Only God can offer that. Without first finding what we need in God, all the things this world offers are poor substitutes for the real deal.

The bible says that God is a jealous God. He doesn’t share his throne with idols. This isn’t because he’s a petty narcissist who must be the center of attention all of the time. It’s because he is the source of life, love, truth, light and every good thing. All the good things of this world are temporary at best. Without a firm foundation, they aren’t life giving, but corrupting. God does not want us to build lives on such shaky foundations. And that is why he will not share his throne with them.

Until we are satisfied in God, the abundance of this world will be an idol. Until we’ve been shaped by love, we’ll resist using abundance and excess for the benefit of others instead of for ourselves alone. Until our identity is grounded in Christ, our relationships and possessions and work and reputation will carry the weight of providing an identity for us.

And ultimately, our idols, our wealth and our false identities will require more work to sustain than they give us in return. We will live our lives serving them, rather than the other way around. And at the end of our lives, we will lose those things we invested so much in and go back to God empty handed and depleted.

It’s not God’s desire that any of us would have this experience. But as we spoke of yesterday, God is willing to allow us to make our own choices, even when it does not serve his desire for us. But some of us – a minority most likely – have offered ourselves to him to shape. We have prayed silly prayers like, “let your will and not my will be done.” We’ve sincerely offered our lives for God to do with as he will.

When we do that, all bets are off. God will never push us to our destruction. But he will relentlessly push us to grow and mature in our relationship with him. And more often than not, part of this will mean that he will allow us to be deprived of good things in life. Even when we ask for them in prayer.

I’ve certainly done my fair share of bitching and moaning around here over the last couple of years. I’ve done much more on my own. I’d be embarrassed for you to know how often I wished I wasn’t alive or hadn’t been born.

God could have eased my burdens, answered some prayers, made a way out for me. Instead I often felt like Jeremiah when he said, “He has walled me in so that I cannot go out; He has made my chain heavy. Even when I cry out and call for help, He shuts out my prayer. He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked.”

When God does not answer your prayers, it is normal and understandable to become bitter. To wonder if he is even real. If he cares. If he will live up to his promises. But the truth is that even unanswered prayers are part of his grace for you.

I’ve been bitter and angry and given up my hope. And yet, in my heart of hearts, I’ve also known that it’s all grace. All of it is grace. When I could find satisfaction in nothing else, I was driven to find it in God. And that’s grace. That I can walk as a companion with others who suffer is grace. Everything I’ve ever sought after or put my trust in has been ripped from me. And it’s grace to be freed from those unworthy things.

As unlikely as it seems, the most important reason God does not answer our prayers is because of his grace for us. It’s what we need on our way.

People Are People

This week we’ve been looking at common reasons that God doesn’t answer our prayers. Today we’ll look at the problem of people. As in other people. When people refuse to cooperate, refuse to change or follow God’s leading, prayers tend to go unanswered.

Sometimes it can be a matter of people who God would have serve as answers to your prayers not taking up the call. Other times it may well be people who are behaving in ways which are harmful and hurtful and you’re praying for God to change them. Yet they just keep doing what they are doing.

At this point, I could get into a long discussion about free will. But for the moment I’m going to leave that for another day. Instead, for the sake of this discussion, I’m going to work from the assumption that we each make our own choices. Further, let’s posit that God’s interference with each person’s free choices is generally limited to allowing the negative consequences of them to become so unbearable that they may eventually change their ways.

So, when the answers to our prayers require another person to do something or change something and they don’t do it, our prayers will go unanswered. Even when providing an answer to our prayers would be God’s desire.

This begs a question. When it would be God’s desire for our prayers to be answered, why would God allow people’s exercise of free will to interfere with that desire? Why doesn’t God just temporarily short-circuit people’s free will to obtain the desired end? Or why doesn’t he do like he did with the apostle Paul and basically hold them hostage while he gets them all straightened out?

The issue, it seems to me, is that it is God’s intention that we take care of each other. That we be looking out for each other’s needs. And that we be seeking each other’s best interests. But that requires us to have a certain level of maturity. And in order to gain that maturity, we need to grow up and decide on our own to do right by each other. It’s not something that can be done for us.

If God is always stepping in and pulling Jedi mind tricks to use people to answer prayers, humanity will never grow up. He’d be no different than the parent who picks up their kid’s messes, does their homework and otherwise enables them to remain immature and irresponsible. Yes, it creates an easier and more pleasant experience for the kids. But it’s stunting.

There is so much unneeded suffering in the world. It can be a hard pill to swallow to that God isn’t going to step in and fix it or force other people to fix it. instead, like all parents sometimes have to, he’s going to let us fall and fail until we’re finally willing to take responsibility for the mess we have made. Look at the pain we’ve caused. And get to work, with his support, in fixing the wreck we’ve created. And until we human beings get to the point of being willing to do that, there’s going to be a lot of unanswered prayers.

Which is all well and fine on a theoretical, big-picture scale. But maybe not much help when faced with our own unanswered prayers. Or someone who is causing us to suffer and refuses to change. When we’re in this position, there are two truths to hold onto.

The first is that God will not allow anything to happen which cannot be redeemed. This is quite different than saying he won’t give us more than we can handle. I’ve certainly had more than I can handle come my way in life! Rather it’s saying that if it’s happening, I can trust that eventually it will be redeemed. God will bring good out of it, even if it’s awful and not his will for you. And the good will be greater than the evil and suffering you’ve had to endure.

The second is that if we want to live in a world with fewer unanswered prayers, then we must be the sort of people who are answers to prayers ourselves. We must be more aware of and attuned to the needs of people around us. We must be more willing to make some sacrifices for other’s sake. We must be more determined to live and act out of love instead of indulging our anger, self-righteousness, selfishness and fear. The world cannot change if we do not change first.

I could probably keep this series on reasons for unanswered prayers going for several more weeks. But for now, I’m going to end it tomorrow with a post on what I think is the most important and unrecognized reason for answered prayers. It’s a good one that you may never have heard before, so be sure to check back tomorrow!

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.