Making Sense of Unanswered Prayer

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 05/27/2021

I was recently asked, “Why do you think some prayers are unanswered despite their heartfelt, sincere, and unselfish motives?” (Greg and I responded to this on the #STRask podcast here.)

I don’t think we can know why God answers some particular prayers the way we want and not others, though we can know the two main goals God is working towards in and through our lives regardless of how he answers:

His glory: Sometimes God reveals his glory by answering our prayers the way we hoped, but sometimes he reveals his glory through our learning to depend on him as we experience his faithfulness and trustworthiness through an unchanging trial (see 2 Cor. 1:8–9, for example). He uses our life situations to make himself known to us and to the world, to draw others to himself, etc. No matter how he responds to our prayer, we can be confident he is working to reveal his glory more fully to us. As Ephesians says, his goal is to show us the riches of his grace for eternity (2:4–7), to the praise of his glory (1:6).

Our good: Romans 8:28 makes it clear God is working all things for our good, but 8:29 defines exactly what that good is: becoming like Christ. (And of course, our seeing more of his glory also works for our good!)

Since we know he has promised to reveal himself in such a way that we will enjoy the riches of his grace for eternity, and he has also promised to work everything for our good (i.e., to fulfill his purpose for us, which is to make us like Christ), we know that every answer to every prayer is working towards those two goals, even if we can’t see how his answer is accomplishing those things.

In light of those promised goals, I can think of two reasons why his responses to our prayers might seem perplexing to us at times:

First, we might not have enough knowledge to evaluate his response to our prayer. Since he’s omniscient, he knows much better than we do how to accomplish his two great goals, so his answers to our prayers could look very different from our expectations (which we developed with very limited knowledge).

Second, we might have different, lesser goals in mind when we pray (for example, our comfort, or even the easing of our distress, when such things are requested in situations where they will not actually serve God’s two great goals for us). If we evaluate God’s answers in light of our own, lesser goals, his answers won’t make sense because he has different, greater goals for us than we have for ourselves.

The above is an intellectual response to the question, but of course, an intellectual understanding of unanswered prayer and comfort in the midst of it are two different things. Sometimes grief just has to be gone through, and the best we can do is try to bear up under it in a way that brings us closer to God rather than pushes us away from him. When it comes to unanswered prayer, the only thing that can sustain us is trust in God’s sovereignty, goodness, and specific love for each of us:

God’s sovereignty: We need to trust in his sovereignty so we can rest in the knowledge that he has a reason for not giving us what we’ve asked for. We can only know there’s a reason for our suffering if we also know he could change our situation but isn’t—that our lives are not out of his control, filled with meaningless pain. (This is why God answers Job’s distress with a statement of his sovereignty.)

God’s goodness and specific love: We need to trust in his goodness and his love for each of us as his specific son or daughter so that we know there is not only a purpose, but a good purpose behind our situation—that he hasn’t forgotten us, that he truly loves us and wants the best for us, and that we’re not merely pawns in his plans.

That kind of trust in both his sovereignty and love for us as specific individuals (not just the world in general) is difficult to maintain in the midst of grief…so difficult. The only way to build up that trust is to think as much and as well as we can about who God is and what Christ has done for each of us. And we can do that by reading both the Bible and other good books that will help us comprehend the reality of God’s love as taught in the Bible. Here are three that have made a difference to me:

  • Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers – This was my favorite book I read last year. The chapters are short and very readable, but it took me a while to get through the whole thing because there was so much to think about and absorb.
  • Delighting in the Trinity – This is also very readable. The first time I read this, the intensity of the truth of God’s love would actually cause me to turn away from the book at times because it was too much even to take in.
  • Rejoicing in Christ – This is by the same author as the previous book and does a wonderful job of revealing Christ to the reader.

This is the only path to comfort that I see when prayers go seemingly unanswered—an increased trust in God’s good sovereignty and love. All the books above are about his love since I think that’s the more difficult truth for our hearts to comprehend. In terms of God’s sovereignty over suffering, the book I would recommend is If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil by Randy Alcorn, a book that helped me grasp—in my heart as well as my mind—the truth that evil and suffering are not stronger than God, no matter how much it might feel otherwise to us. The sheer number of stories in that book where God worked through suffering—not just in spite of it, but through it—is a testimony to the truth of God’s sovereignty over evil, and it changed me.

I honestly think the two paragraphs below are the most important I’ve ever written (see the full post here: What Easter Says to Those Who Are Suffering), and they contain the ideas I finally grasped after reading Alcorn’s book:

With the cross and resurrection at its core, Christianity need never deny the reality of evil and suffering because Jesus has proven Himself to be greater than all of it. He didn’t just overcome it, He overcame through it. The cross was the very means by which He secured joy: “[F]or the joy set before Him [He] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Hebrews 12:2). In this same way, all evil will be swallowed up. We will, in our resurrection, see that what we suffered was the means by which we gained joy, and the “eternal weight of glory” produced by our affliction will turn the suffering we experienced into a drop of dye lost in an ocean.

Sometimes we’re tempted to think evil is stronger than God, but when we understand that every attempt evil makes to harm us is working for our good, we’ll see that all of evil’s weapons have been removed from it; there is nothing left it can use against us. [Emphasis added.]

We have been chosen and called by God so that he can shower each of us with the “surpassing riches of his grace” for eternity, all to his glory. Not one of his children is forgotten or passed over. He governs each of our lives carefully and lovingly as our Father. Since we can’t always see the specifics of what he’s doing, we have to live by faith—that is, trust in the things we can’t yet see, a trust that’s based on everything we know to be true about him.

And how can we know what’s true about him? We must learn. And here we come to the bottom line: To persevere through unanswered prayer, study and pray in order to gain the kind of deep knowledge of God’s reality and character that will lead to an unassailable trust in his sovereignty and love for you. This is the only way forward through perplexing pain and seemingly-unanswered prayers.