“Pray specifically. Pray in faith. If you want God to answer your prayers, you need to pray the right way.”
I heard this advice in my last year of college. I got married the August before I started my final semester and was desperately applying for a job to support my little family when I graduated. I prayed specifically that God would grant me a position in my field by the time I finished college in early December. I believed God could and would do it.
But school ended, and I was still working at Cracker Barrel.
So I prayed for a job specifically by January 1. Instead, I served grits to that subset of the population that doesn’t stay up late to ring in the new year.
Perhaps it shouldn’t have surprised me that God had a different plan, but I became spiritually discouraged. I had prayed specifically in faith — why didn’t God respond?
I’ve heard others ask the same question for different circumstances. Why hasn’t God given me a mate? Why hasn’t he healed my loved one? Why hasn’t he rescued me from this financial crisis? Why hasn’t he answered my prayers?
These questions can be very frustrating for the person in the midst of unfulfilled requests. But while we can’t always figure out exactly what God is doing from our angle, we do know some reasons why God doesn’t answer prayers just how we want him to.
Jonathan Edwards is helpful on this point. Edwards was a revivalist pastor in 18th-century New England who believed that Christians should engage regularly in what the Puritans called “the duty of prayer.” Yet as a pastor, he heard a number of complaints from his parishioners about God not answering their prayers. What did he tell them?
In the midst of one epidemic, Edwards preached a sermon titled, “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God.” Jonathan Edwards, “The Most High a Prayer-Hearing God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, 313–318, vol. 2 (1834; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974). Edwards didn’t use a title himself; the title is derived from the main doctrine of the sermon: “That it is the character of the Most High, that he is a God who hears prayer” (113). All quotations in this article are from page 117 of this volume. That’s not to say the sermon isn’t long — it is! The print is just quite small in this edition, and this issue of unanswered prayer constitutes only a small segment of Edwards’ broader sermon. In it he describes three reasons why God may not answer a prayer. His insights give perspective that helps us walk through the disappointment of unanswered prayer.
“I Need This”
Sometimes God denies our requests because we ask for sinful things. Of course we don’t frame our prayers that way, but we may nonetheless ask out of selfish motives.
Edwards warns that “oftentimes when men pray for temporal good things, they desire them for no good end, but only to gratify their pride or sensuality.” But how can God answer such prayers? To do so, Edwards says, would make God his own enemy.
This presents a subtle understanding of sin. When I prayed for a new job, did I truly aim to better serve God with my time? Or did I just want to make more money or climb a career ladder?
We normally hide self-centered motives from the view of others — and even ourselves. So one thing we can do when prayers go unanswered is examine our hearts to see if the request strays from holiness (Ps. 139:23–24). As James 4:3 teaches, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” God can’t very well grant those requests.
“I Really Mean It”
Sincerity is notoriously difficult to measure. No human eye can see into the heart of another to assess his or her sincerity. But God does. And when people pray out of insincerity or without true faith in their Creator, why should the King of kings respond?Edwards says that while God is not obliged to respond to a faithless prayer, he sometimes does out of His generous mercy.
Edwards argues that God looks not only at words, but at the heart, for “if men pray only in words, and not in heart, what are their prayers good for? And why should that God who searches the heart … have any respect to them?”
People come to God feigning humility while actually believing God owes it to them. While in their words they act like “beggars,” in their hearts “they come as creditors, and look on God as their debtor. In words they seem to ask for things as the fruit of free grace; but in heart they account it would be hard, unjust, and cruel, if God should deny them.”
When I prayed believing God would grant me a job by graduation, I wanted to see if God would come through, as if he owed it to me. And when God denied my specific request, I felt that he had failed me and treated me unjustly. After all, I had prayed in faith!
But what kind of faith is that? Edwards says that God distinguishes between “real prayers and pretended ones,” prayers of faith and prayers of self-interest. Faith is not a conjured up belief that God will do what I ask. Faith is believing in the character of God so much as to entrust myself to his providential care, no matter how he answers.
A prayer of faith, Edwards explains, exhibits both a dependence on God’s power and a “trust in his sufficiency.” When we pray in faith, we throw ourselves upon God’s mercies and leave our situation in his hands, trusting the outcome to him.
But when we pray without faith, Edwards says God doesn’t answer because that isn’t a prayer at all. As Ps. 66:18 puts it, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” When God doesn’t give us what we want, we don’t often think about sin blocking our prayers, but Scripture says that’s exactly what can happen.
In my case, I sought not to believe God would act in his power and wisdom. Instead, I was manipulating God with my “faith” by charging, “If I pray in faith, you have to answer me.”
God responds by saying, “I’m not bound to formulas. I’m God. And I am more concerned in you developing true faith, not a genie mentality. I’m not here to give you what you ask for whenever you say you’re really sincere. I want you to trust me, your heavenly Father, and my good and faithful character. And I want to conform your character to mine.”
Building such trust takes time, but God is patient. He works with us — even through unanswered prayer — to form a faith that stands.
“I Know Best”
My prayer for a job was stunted also by my insistence that I knew best what I needed — and when I needed it. But Edwards says that God sometimes doesn’t respond how and when we want him to because “he exercises his own wisdom, as to the time and manner of answering prayer.”
In the midst of my prayer for a job, I saw no immediate resolution, and the stress mounted. Today, years after my spiritual low, I see the circumstances much differently, not to mention more clearly. The Lord took the opportunity to build faith and guide me to a job at the right time.
Edwards explains: “The business of prayer is not to direct God, who is infinitely wise, and needs not any of our directions; who knows what is best for us ten thousand times better than we, and knows what time and what way are best. It is fit that he should answer prayer, and, as an infinitely wise God, in the exercise of his own wisdom and not ours.”
In my case, I was hired for my first out-of-college position only three months past my original goal of graduation. That’s not very long! To me it felt as if God had ignored my specific prayer in faith, but God delayed the answer only briefly for my good.
Edwards observes that sometimes God withholds temporal goods because he “sees the things for which we pray not to be best for us.” That was true in my situation. As I look back, God’s delayed answer was an important faith-forming time in my life, teaching me that I can rest in God’s goodness and sovereignty, submitting myself to his will.
I now see that God’s hand was directing my life for his purposes, and I’m so thankful that he didn’t answer my prayer by the end of college. God intentionally used those events to develop my trust in him no matter what may come.
God Knows All
This approach to prayer doesn’t mean specific prayers are wrong. As James 4:2 teaches, sometimes “you do not have, because you do not ask.” But it does mean we should pray with perspective about God’s full knowledge, grand purposes, and faithful goodness.
Christ himself lived this out in the hour of his greatest strain. As he knelt in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before he was betrayed and crucified, he urged the Father, “if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).
He could have stopped there and, when the soldiers came, asked his Father in heaven, “Why did you let this happen? Didn’t I pray specifically in faith?” But he never questioned the events. He willingly accepted God’s plan, even before he finished praying. Kneeling there, Jesus prayed, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
Christ is our model. We may suffer great pain in order to advance the kingdom of God, but that will never change God’s good and faithful character. It’s right to pray specifically and crucial to pray in faith. But such faith entrusts oneself to the hand of God and readily submits to his will.
Unanswered prayer isn’t easy. But God is good. And being part of his eternal kingdom purposes in his way is far better than getting what I want when I think it’s best. That faith will outlast any unanswered prayer in this temporal realm.
Copyright 2009 David Barshinger. All rights reserved.