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The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

Most of us have repeatedly heard that “God answers prayer” and “Prayer changes things.” We print little signs and plaques to this effect and mount them on the walls of our homes and Sunday school rooms, and we put bumper stickers with the same message on our cars. This is all well and good, because those statements are basically true.

But as wonderful and powerful as prayer is, and as much as God delights in answering the prayers of His children, the fact remains that there are times when our prayers seem to be unanswered. That can be very troubling, especially in light of what we know about God’s pleasure in answering.

So we need to look at some of the reasons why prayers don’t get answered. It is important that we be aware of those things that block our prayers. Then we can do something about them: We can remove the obstacles and begin to see the power of prayer flowing in our lives again.

Lack of a Close Relationship with God

We need to realize first that effective prayer grows out of a close relationship with God through Jesus Christ. God is always available to speak with us, and we need to develop the habit of meeting with Him regularly to discuss the concerns of our hearts and His. We need to commune with Him often, not just when we have a problem. Then, when we have a specific request or need for guidance, we are comfortable in His presence and attuned to hearing His voice when He answers.

Developing a relationship with God involves the reading and study of the Bible as well as prayer, of course, but prayer is simple and always available—you can pray at any time, in any place, and God is there to speak with you. Many people, however—even, amazingly, professing believers—simply do not pray at all. They may neglect prayer out of laziness or lack of love for the Lord or lack of appreciation for prayer’s power. These are serious problems. But many do it simply on the false assumption that “God knows what my needs are, and He will just give me what I need. Since He’s going to give me what I need anyway, there’s no need for me to pray.”

There are others who say, “Well, I’m just a housewife (or janitor or whatever), and I don’t think God’s too interested in a little nobody like me. He’s busy with important people like Billy Graham. So I don’t pray much.”

Both of those attitudes are wrong. It is true that God knows what we need, but as our loving heavenly Father, He wants us to talk with Him and express our needs. First Peter 5:7 tells us to be constantly “casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.”

The reason for this is our own good; we need to express our concerns to someone who cares. And God not only cares, but He is able to meet our needs. Thus we are told in Philippians 4:6, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.”

When we obey this instruction and discuss our concerns with the Father, what will be the result? “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).

In the second case, shyness or feelings of inferiority are not viable reasons for anyone’s failure to pray, because God is no respecter of persons—He doesn’t play favorites. He will answer the prayer of a housewife or a queen, a mechanic or a king, a farmer or a sales clerk, a preacher or a business person. He wants to hear from you just as much as He wants to hear from Billy Graham, and He will listen as closely and lovingly to you as to anyone else.

There is another reason why an intimate relationship with God is crucial to seeing prayers answered. One of the conditions of prayer that God has given us in the Bible is that prayers He will answer must be prayers in line with His plans. First John 5:14 tells us, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us.”

How do we discern the will of God so that we can be increasingly confident, as time goes by, that our prayers are in accord with His will? The answer, again, is to spend time with Him in His Word and in prayer so that our knowledge of and intimacy with Him deepen. As we come to better know our God and His ways, we will find that our prayers are answered more often because they reflect His desires more often.

We need to catch a vision of the majesty, the glory, the holiness and righteousness of God. We need to realize that whereas our view of a situation is limited to our terribly imperfect, mortal ability to understand, the Lord says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, / So are My ways higher than your ways, / And My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9). We cannot hope to have the Father’s perfect knowledge of a given situation and we need to appreciate His superiority. As we grow in our knowledge of and love for Him, however, we will also grow in our ability to discern His will and to pray in accord with it.

Given our imperfect understanding, it is easy to make a request we think is all for the good but God knows is not the best plan. For example, suppose you are concerned about a neighbor who is an unemployed accountant. You may hear about a job opening with Company A that sounds perfect for your neighbor, so you tell him about it and then ask God to give him that job. However, God may know that there are circumstances at Company A that would make it very difficult for your neighbor to be happy or productive there, and He may want to direct him to an opening you know nothing about at Company B.

My point is simply that God’s knowledge is complete and His ways are wonderful, whereas we are very limited in our understanding. Thus, on many occasions when our prayers seem not to be answered, the problem may be that we have not asked according to His will. But as we come to know God and His will better, we will find that our prayers are increasingly effective.

Wrong Attitude or Motives

Wrong motives will certainly prevent one’s receiving answers to his prayers. For instance, to petition God for things merely to satisfy one’s selfish desires is wrong, and God will not honor that kind of prayer. James spoke to that point in his epistle: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (4:3).

One’s goals should glorify God. “Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (l Cor. 10:31). If you live by the philosophy of those words, you will see your prayers answered. But if you are selfish, self-centered, or self-indulgent, your prayers will not be answered.

John Knox, the great Scottish Presbyterian preacher, gave us a fine example of praying selflessly. “Lord, give me Scotland, or I die,” he said. His burning desire was to see his entire nation come to saving faith in Jesus. And Mary, Queen of Scots, testified to the efficacy of Knox’s praying when she said, “I fear that man’s prayers more than I fear all the armies of England and France.”

Pride is another wrong motive that will cause a person’s prayers not to be answered. Jesus told a story of two men who went to the temple in Jerusalem to pray: “One a Pharisee and the other a tax collector” (Luke 18:10). In today’s terminology, the Pharisee could be compared to a very proper, morally upright believer who is very zealous to see God’s law obeyed. He believed in the Torah, the written Word of God, and he lived by the Law and the Prophets.

The other man might be compared to an unchurched man, one who lived in violation of the laws and rules of the church. He probably had cheated the people from whom he collected taxes, demanding more than was necessary and pocketing the difference.

So they both came to the temple to pray. We know why the Pharisee came; it was his habit to do so, and he did so three times every day. We don’t know why the tax collector came to pray. Perhaps he was having personal or health difficulties. At any rate, he came to the temple too. Jesus said:

“The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Luke 18:11-13).

Which of these two men do you think was justified? Which one had his prayer answered? Jesus gave us the answer. The Pharisee, who exalted himself, would “be humbled” (v.14),

or, in this case, not get through to God. But of the tax collector, who had humbled himself before God, Jesus said, “This man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.14). The Pharisee prayed wrongly, with the wrong attitude. His prayer was denied. The tax collector prayed rightly. His prayer was answered. He went home a changed man, a new creature, by the power of almighty God.

Yes, there are some prayers that cannot be answered. They are prayed by the wrong people, with a wrong attitude, at the wrong time.

A person who is not fully committed to God and who prays with mixed motives will likewise see few prayers answered. An example here is the rich young ruler who came to Jesus seeking eternal life. Jesus saw the man’s heart and knew that he loved his riches, his home, and his fast, carefree life more than he loved God. Jesus told him to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor, “And come, follow Me” (Luke 18:22).

But, because of his riches, his security, and his selfishness, the man said, “I can’t do it. I don’t want to follow you to that extent.” And the Bible tells us that the young man sorrowfully walked away from eternal life, because he was unwilling to free his heart of the sin of selfishness.

His love for money separated him from God.

A man doesn’t have to be wealthy to hold back from God. Even a little money can hinder a man’s serving God. And when money stands between a man and God, he cannot get his prayers answered.

I have had friends tell me that God said to them, “Give a thousand dollars to Lester Sumrall’s ministry,” but even though they had it, they refused to give. Later God spoke to them and said, “Make that two thousand.” Again, though they had the two thousand, they refused to give. Later God upped the amount and told them, “Make it three thousand.”

The principle involved has nothing to do with my particular ministry, whether they were to give a thousand or even three thousand dollars to the work I am doing. Instead, the principle has to do with the matter of a man’s releasing the money that has him so bound up that it is keeping him from serving God. It is only when a man opens his heart and his bank account—the totality of all that he is and possesses—that God can open the windows of heaven to him and pour out true riches upon him.

Other Hindrances to Answered Prayer

There are other hindrances to prayer, such as unconfessed sin. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, / The Lord will not hear [me]” (Ps. 66:18). If I see sin in my own heart and ignore it, God will not hear me, David said, thus stating an unequivocal biblical principle. Likewise, if God sees sin in my heart, my prayers will not be answered. “Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, / That it cannot save; / Nor his ear heavy, / That it cannot hear. / But your iniquities have separated you from your God; / And your sins have hidden His face from you, / So that He will not hear” (Isa. 59:1-2).

If there is strife between a husband and wife, the husband’s prayers will not be answered. “Likewise, you husbands, dwell with them [wives] with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7). The same principle applies to the women. If they mistreat their husbands, their prayers will not be answered either. Where there is domestic tranquility, answers to prayer abound. But strife, bickering, cynicism, sarcasm, and general lack of peace in a home guarantee that prayers will not be answered.

Idolatry of any kind is also a hindrance to prayer. “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts, and put before them that which causes them to stumble into iniquity. Should I let Myself be inquired of at all by them?” (Ezek. 14:3). And the implied answer is an emphatic no!

Notice, though, God’s placement of idols: “in their hearts” and “before them.” What we think about and what we love to feast our eyes upon become idols. And idols prevent God’s hearing our prayers.

An unforgiving spirit also prevents answered prayer. If anyone has slandered or spoken evil of you, disappointed you, or if he has actually done you physical or financial harm, you must forgive him, because if you do not forgive, you will actually prevent your own prayers from being heard. A bad spirit renders prayer completely ineffective. “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses”(Mark 11:25).

Being inconsiderate of the poor hinders prayers. “Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor / Will also cry himself and not be heard” (Prov. 21:13). Generosity and Christian victory go hand in hand. Much prayer is unnoticed and unanswered for the simple reason that we are deaf to the cries of human need. Hardness of our hearts stops God’s giving to us.

Delay Is Not Denial

Finally, we need to bear in mind that dealing with delayed answers to prayer is one of the greatest problems concerning prayer. We have all experienced delayed answers to prayer. If you are impatient and expect or demand an immediate answer to your prayer, a delay might seem a denial, when an hour, a day, or a month later will prove you wrong. God answered your prayer, though not at the exact moment you uttered the petition.

An example of this is to be found in John’s writings. Mary and Martha’s brother was very ill, and the sisters prayed that their brother’s health would be restored. Despite their prayers, Lazarus died and was placed in a tomb. Certainly, to the sisters and friends of Lazarus, it appeared that their prayers had been to no avail. Days later, when Jesus spoke the words of resurrection power, they realized that their prayers had not been denied; the answer was merely postponed.

If you have been praying for a situation and the answer has not come immediately, please don’t give up in discouragement. If you have been living right and praying right, your prayers will be answered. You can count on it.

Ten lepers came to Jesus, begging, praying to be healed. Though He spoke words of encouragement to them, they were not immediately healed. But as they obeyed Him they were healed. Again, delay was not a denial. Their earnest prayer was answered. Read the account in Luke 17.

There is another example. “And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed’” (Matt. 15:22). A worried mother wept and prayed that Jesus would heal her daughter. But Jesus seemed not to hear her. Undaunted, the woman worshiped Him and sought Him again. The disciples, wearied with her entreaties, wanted to send her away. But the woman persisted, and her request was granted—not a denial, only a delay.

My friend, if your earnest prayer seems not to have been answered, if your healing is not complete, if your need is not completely met, don’t become discouraged. Don’t give up. If you are living right and praying right, you are experiencing only a delay, not a denial!

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