Unanswered prayer

This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him. (1Jo 5:14–5)

Praying outside of God's will

We looked at this scripture in the previous study and saw that if we ask God for anything that is within his will, we will receive what we ask for. But have you ever asked God for something and have not received what you've asked for? If you have, you're in good company.

Moses asked God to allow him to enter the promised land, and God said no (Deu 3:23–7). The apostle Paul asked the Lord to take away the messenger of Satan that was tormenting him, and the Lord said no (2Co 12:7b–9a). And Jesus asked his Father to spare him from the cross, and his Father said no (Mar 14:32–42).

Praying for something that is not God's will is not wrong. We are human, we have needs and desires, and we're told to present our requests to God (Phi 4:6). But if God says no, we must be content with the knowledge that:

Many are the plans in a person's heart, but it is the Lord's purpose that prevails (Pro 19:21)

…all things work together for good to those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose. (Rom 8:28 alternative translation)

When God says no, there is a reason, and it's usually for our good; although it can be said in judgement, as it was to Moses (Num 20:2–12). So is unanswered prayer solely the result of praying outside of God's will? No, there can be other factors involved.

Praying with doubt

Our prayers may not be answered because we're praying with doubt in our mind. James tells us that the person who asks God for something, but doubts that they'll receive it, should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. They are double-minded, unstable in all they do (Jam 1:5–8).

That can be an uncomfortable truth for Christians, but one we must accept. In contrast, Jesus said:

'Have faith in God…. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mar 11:22,24).'

When we pray we should not doubt. We should pray with faith, believing we'll receive what we're asking for. If we do that, providing we are praying in God's will, we will receive it.

Mat 14:25–31 shows us what doubt does to faith. Peter said, 'Lord, if it's you, tell me to come to you on the water.' And the Lord said, 'Come.' It was our Lord's will for Peter to walk to him on the water, so he got out of the boat and began to walk.

He was walking towards him until he saw the wind, then he became afraid and began to sink. He cried out, 'Lord, save me!' Jesus reached out his hand and rescued him. And what did he say to him? 'Well done Peter, you almost walked to me?' No. He said, 'You of little faith, why did you doubt?'

That is how it can be with prayer. We can start to pray for something that is in God's will, but when the days and weeks go by, and the opposite begins to happen, we start to doubt that we'll receive it. And as soon as we doubt, the faith we need to receive the answer weakens. Doubt destroys faith.

What is faith? Faith is confidence in what we hope for (Greek expect) and assurance (Greek certainty) about what we do not (yet) see (Heb 11:1); it's the opposite of doubt. Jesus said:

'Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig-tree, but also you can say to this mountain, "Go, throw yourself into the sea," and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.' (Mat 21:21–2)

Peter was saved from drowning, but his doubt stopped him from doing what Jesus wanted him to do (to walk to him on the water). And there's a spiritual picture here. We can have faith for Jesus to save us, but not the faith to receive what he wants us to have on earth. Our salvation will not be affected, but our quality of life here will.

God is very gracious, and when we are young Christians he can answer our prayers despite our doubts; but the more we go on with him, the more he expects our faith in him to grow. When you're walking on water, don't look at the wind: keep your eyes on Jesus.

Delayed answers

Our prayers may not be answered yet because God is testing our faith to develop our perseverance. If every prayer we prayed was answered immediately, how much faith would we need? The answer is very little. But if we have to pray for weeks, months, years or even decades before receiving the answer, then our faith in God will be truly tested.

Perseverance is continuing in a course of action despite difficulty, or with little or no sign of success. In respect to prayer it's continuing to pray for something when we have no indication our prayers are being answered.

The Bible says that we cannot be mature and complete as Christians without perseverance (Jam 1:4). That is why we're told to count it pure joy whenever we face trials and difficulties in life, because it's an opportunity for us to grow in this area (Jam 1:2–3).

There was a time for Job to be healed, but not before his perseverance had been tested (Jam 5:11). The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens (Ecc 3:1); and that includes a time for our prayers to be answered.

Remember, God answers prayer not too soon, or too late: his timing is perfect. When he sees in us what he wants to see, the answer will come. God's delays are not his denials.

Another area in which delayed answers to prayer can cause us to grow spiritually, is patience. Patience is linked to perseverance in Scripture (Jam 5:7–11) and aids perseverance. Patient people are more likely to persevere in prayer until they receive the answer, whereas impatient people can give up if their prayers aren't answered quickly.

Has God promised you something and you haven't received it yet? Have faith, persevere in prayer and wait for it patiently (Heb 6:12). God promised Abraham a son, but it was many years before Isaac was born (Heb 6:15). He was born—but in God's time. Providing we live in obedience to God, he will keep all of his promises to us (Num 23:19).

If you are praying in God's will, don't think your prayers aren't being answered. They are being answered, it's just that the answer hasn't arrived yet. Keep praying!

Sin in our lives

Our prayers may not be answered because there is sin in our lives. Referring to prayer, the psalmist wrote: 'If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psa 66:18).'

Were our Lord's prayers answered? Yes. And why were they answered: because he was God's Son? No. Our Lord's prayers were answered because of his faith and his righteous life (Joh 8:29). And that same power in prayer is available to us also (1Jo 3:21–2).

If the Lord had sinned he could not have been our Saviour; God would not have overlooked his sin because he was his Son. Likewise, if he had cherished sin in his heart, his Father would not have listened to his prayers (Joh 9:30–1).

James tells us that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective (Jam 5:16). If we want power in prayer we need to live righteous lives. What is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what is right in the sight of God (1Jo 3:7).

Satanic opposition

Our prayers may not be answered yet because there is satanic opposition to overcome. This can be true with respect to personal prayer, and I believe it's the main reason for unanswered prayer in matters pertaining to the Church. Satan doesn't want God's will to be done on earth, and he will do everything he can to try to prevent it being done.

Please read Dan 10:1–14.

Daniel undertook a partial fast and prayed for twenty-one days before he received the understanding of the vision. The satanic power that resisted God's angel did not want him to receive the revelation: there was opposition to his prayers in the heavenly realms.

What would have happened if he'd stopped fasting and praying? It's quite possible he would not have received the understanding. I believe this passage has been included in Scripture to teach us about spiritual warfare. If we could see what was happening in the spirit world, I'm sure we would pray more earnestly and more persistently.

It's not that God doesn't want his Church to grow, or that it's not time for it to grow. Satanic forces must be overcome before it can grow, and that is accomplished by prayer and, if necessary, by fasting. Fasting intensifies prayer.

Michael Graham
June 2002
Revised March 2019

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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