One of the foundational practices of every Christian is prayer. It is a tool that we rely on to communicate with God, through Jesus Christ as our Mediator, to share our innermost thoughts. When prayers that we present to God, especially those which include a request, seem to go unanswered, it can be a frustrating experience. Why would God, who promises never to forsake His children, decline to answer their prayers according to their expectations? When this inevitably happens to a Christian, it is helpful to understand exactly why prayers might not be heard and otherwise seem to fail.
To begin with, God clearly instructs that prayer is one of the primary tools that should be used to communicate with Him. Jesus Christ provides some excellent instructions to follow that describe how to pray to God, resulting in being openly rewarded when performed properly (compare Matthew 6:5-13). We have also produced a free booklet, Teach Us to Pray, which describes in great detail how to succeed in our prayers. With such a great promise of being heard by God by following such a simple model, what are the reasons that prayers might seemingly not be answered? Several examples follow which describe different types of situations that can cause God not to answer our prayers according to our expectations.
While it is not the most pleasant answer, the most common cause for a failed prayer involves disobedience. When an individual refuses to listen to God and chooses to sin instead, God in turn may refuse to hear and approve of his or her prayers.
It is quite simple. When Azariah addressed Asa, he summarized the nature of our relationship with God succinctly: “…The LORD is with you while you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you” (2 Chronicles 15:2). It should be no surprise, then, that if we have sin in our lives for which we are not actively seeking repentance, God may not be willing to hear and listen to us (compare John 9:31; Zechariah 7:13).
The Bible abounds with statements that make it very clear that sin – defined as transgression of the law (1 John 3:4) – may stand in our way of being heard by God. For example: “One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, Even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9). We can see from this statement that the prayers of those who refuse to listen to God are insulting to Him. This makes sense when we think about it. Why would a request be respected by God if His laws are not respected by the one making the prayer? If we want our prayers to be answered by God, we must begin by committing our lives to obeying Him.
One example that demonstrates a situation of sin causing prayers not to be responded to occurred in Saul’s life. While he began his reign as king in an attitude of humility (compare 1 Samuel 15:17), he later began to take it upon himself to determine what was right, disregarding God’s instructions. This pride led to rebellious disobedience against God’s commandments (compare 1 Samuel 13:13-14). As a result, later in his life when he sought God’s help he could not find it: “When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. And when Saul inquired of the LORD, the LORD did not answer him, either by dreams or by Urim or by the prophets” (1 Samuel 28:5-6). Because Saul consciously and consistently refused to listen to God, God in turn refused to answer Saul’s prayers.
It is important to remember that our relationship with God requires that we begin by committing to obeying His commandments. When we demonstrate our willingness to follow God’s commandments in all that we do, God listens attentively to our prayers.
We must also understand that there is a difference between a prayer that is heard, and a prayer that is answered according to our expectations. Even in situations when an earnest effort is made to live a life committed to righteousness, in repentance of sin, prayers may not be answered by God according to our wishes. There are reasons for this—some of which are under our direct control, and some which are not.
One of the reasons our prayers may not be answered involves asking for the wrong thing. When prayers are made that have worldly gain as their object, it shows that our hearts are not in the right place. In all things we do, we should be motivated primarily to grow in spiritual strength and knowledge. As written in James 4:3: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Prayers that make a request for the passing pleasures of the world are not motivated by spiritual growth. If we know that purely worldly pleasures are enmity with God (compare James 4:4), then why would He answer a prayer that involves such a request? He will not answer these kinds of prayers. Ensuring that the intentions of our prayers are properly motivated is something we can control, which has a direct impact on our chances of having our prayers answered.
When we prepare our thoughts and analyze the intents behind our prayers, we need to make sure we are making requests that are consistent with our spiritual godly goals. When prayers asking for an outcome that brings worldly gain are offered to God, we shouldn’t expect them to be answered.
Another reason why prayers might not be answered involves the way prayer is offered. This too is under our direct control. We must remember that prayers are offerings made to God (compare Psalm 141:2; Revelation 8:3). Because of this, it is important to make the offering in a way that it pleases Him. Our booklet, Teach Us to Pray, describes this in great detail, and it should be referenced to learn the right way of praying. There are two excerpts from this booklet that help to summarize what is needed to be successful in our prayers.
First, we need to address our prayers to the correct recipient – God the Father – and in the name of Jesus Christ (compare John 14:14):
“Jesus teaches that we should address our prayers to the Father, thus pointing to the ultimate relationship that God is creating with mankind! In the account in Matthew concerning Jesus’ instruction about prayer, we read: ‘And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him’ (Matthew 6:7-8).”
When we address our prayers to anyone other than the true God, we cannot expect that He will answer them.
Also in our booklet, a set of principles is offered that helps to structure our prayers to be successful:
“In order to pray successfully, we need to: 1) ask; 2) with faith; 3) with boldness; while 4) keeping God’s commandments; 5) bearing fruit; 6) praying in Christ’s name; and 7) praying always. If we do this, we will receive from God the Father, in His due time, what we ask of Him.”
When these principles are not followed, our prayers stand a great chance of not being heard nor answered by God. The way in which we pray to God is of critical importance and has tremendous influence on whether our prayers will be answered.
In some cases, we may follow all of these principles, but still find that we do not receive the result in our prayers that we request or expect. When this happens, we can be comforted to know that God has something different in mind for us. When we are called by God, and we respond to that calling by living our life dedicated to godly obedience, we actively submit our will to God’s. When we realize that He knows better than ourselves what we need, a prayer that seems to be unanswered is actually answered in a way that allows us to receive an even better outcome. This is the aspect of prayer that is not under our direct control. Even though it might be difficult or painful to endure, God knows what is best for us. This is why we must always seek the Will of God to be done, rather than our own.
Paul prayed to God three times requesting that a painful thorn in his flesh might be removed, but God refused to do so (compare 2 Corinthians 12:7-10). Rather than getting discouraged about his situation, since God was not answering his prayers according to the outcome that he wanted, Paul realized that God’s answer was the best one. The attitude that Paul had in regard to the response from his prayers was excellent. He became reconciled with the fact that what God wanted for him was better than what he requested for himself. When we pray in obedience, following the principles of the right way to pray, we must make our requests known, but leave the actual outcome in God’s hands.
Jesus Christ offers the premier example of this kind of prayer when He pleaded with God to be spared from the need to be physically sacrificed: “And He was withdrawn from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and prayed, saying, ‘Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done’” (Luke 22:41-42). In this example, Jesus Christ made a request to God, which God refused to fulfill. However, because Jesus sought the Will of God to be done, Jesus’ prayer was successful. It is helpful to be reminded that even when our requests might not receive the outcome we are looking for, God’s Will is done for our greatest possible benefit.
When our prayers seem to go unanswered by God, we have a great deal of control in making changes so that our prayers can be more successful. We must begin by changing our behavior to live in obedience to God’s law. Without taking this first step, there is little chance that our prayers will be heard. We also need to ensure that we pray in the right way, addressing God the Father and praying in the name of Jesus Christ. And finally, if the requests we make to God through prayer seek an outcome according to God’s Will, God will answer in the way which is best for us and others.
Prayer is a powerful tool made available to Christians today. We can be strengthened and encouraged by the words of Jesus Christ in this regard: “Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them” (Mark 11:24).
Lead Writer: Eric Rank