The Bible assures us that God answers us when we pray. In many Bible stories, we find remarkable examples how the Lord God answered people’s prayers. Maybe you know examples in your own life or the lives of others as well. In Matthew 7:7-8, Jesus tells His disciples: “Ask and it will be given you […] For everyone who asks receives.” And James 5:16 says that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”
However, many have experienced times when their prayers were not answered. They asked for the healing of a loved one, but this person died. They asked for a job, but are still unemployed. They asked for financial stability, but remained poor. Their needs were seemingly ignored by God. The Bible also contains examples of this experience, for example in Psalm 22:2 where David cries out: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.” How is this possible? Why does God sometimes not answer our prayers? Let’s discuss some possible answers from the Bible.
1) We do not even ask
At first, this may seem a silly answer. However, do we really “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)? In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus told His disciples a parable “to show them that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1, NIV). Do we really do that? If not, we may find our question answered in James 4:2 (NIV), “You do not have, because you do not ask God.”
2) We ask with the wrong motives
People who do ask God for something, don’t always receive what they want. James 4:3 (NIV) mentions a possible reason for this: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” God knows what is in your heart and why you want something. If you are longing for something that is not according to God’s will, He will not answer this request. That is also expressed in Psalm 66:18, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.”
Maybe you are not even fully aware of your own motives. It is important to ask yourself whether your petition is for your own selfish interest, or whether it is really to the glory of God. Of course, this does not mean you may not ask anything that is good for yourself! But our prayers should be “according to His will”, in agreement with what God wants for us (see 1 John 5:14-15). Our requests must be in harmony with what God has revealed to be His plan for the world and for our lives.
3) We need more patience
Sometimes we think God has not heard our prayers, while our timing may not be according to His ‘schedule’. We need to trust that His timing is the best. Sometimes we may not be ready for His answer. God often delays His answer to cultivate patience and persistence and build our faith (see Romans 5:3-5). Later, we may look back and marvel about His perfect timing.
We find one example in John 11. Jesus was told that His friend Lazarus was ill. Instead of going there immediately, He delayed for two days before going to see His friends. When He finally arrived in Bethany, Lazarus had already died and been in the grave for four days. Understandably, Lazarus’ sister was very disappointed about Jesus’ delay and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:21). However, she added, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you” (John 11:22). And He did! Lazarus was raised from the dead. Jesus’ timing was perfect indeed. Lazarus’ resurrection was “for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
4) God has something greater in store for us
The example of Lazarus not only teaches us about God’s timing. It also shows that God sometimes has something better in mind for His children than what they ask for. In Lazarus’ case, it was resurrection instead of healing. God knows what is the best way to produce holiness and maturity in us, and therefore, He may give something different than we ask for. He “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Ephesians 3:20)
The apostle Paul is a great example. In his second letter to the Corinthians, he writes: “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9, compare 1 Corinthians 2:3-5). Centuries later, we can testify that Paul’s ministry was very fruitful indeed, bringing countless people to faith in Jesus Christ!
We do not always know why God does not answer our prayer requests. It’s good to search our hearts in case our motives are wrong or we don’t “pray without ceasing”. But other than that, we cannot comprehend God’s decisions and guidance in our lives. His wisdom and knowledge is greater than ours and it may be impossible for us to understand His decisions and His ways (see for example Romans 11:33).
The more important question is whether we still trust the Lord when our wishes are not granted. If we know Him as our loving Father who desires to give us what is best (Matthew 7:11), our focus can shift from ‘what I want’ to ‘what God wants for me’. For “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Do you trust God like that?