I once heard a preacher tell a joke that God has four different answers to prayer:
- Not yet.
- Are you kidding me?
But our experience tells us that prayer is usually much more complicated than this. I would add another option that Christians often wrestle with: unanswered prayer.
Is there such a thing? After all, if someone thinks that her prayer went unanswered, could it be that God just answered “No” instead?
Does God Always Answer the Phone?
Let’s think of prayer like a phone call for a moment. If I call you and you don’t pick up, then my call went unanswered. Broadly speaking, there are only a few reasons why this could have happened:
- You weren’t aware that I called.
- You were aware that I called, but couldn’t talk to me at the moment.
- You were aware that I called, but didn’t want to talk to me at that moment.
Do any of these situations apply to God and our prayers?
Option 1 doesn’t apply because God is omniscient and is always aware when we call. Option 2 doesn’t apply because nothing can hinder God from answering our call. That leaves option 3.
I believe there are two biblical principles that may fall under option 3:
- Our sin can hinder the efficacy of our prayers.
- God sometimes chooses to withdraw Himself for reasons only known to Him.
Sin Hinders Prayer
Let’s start with this first principle. Psalm 66:18-19 reads:
“If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.”
Peter also talks about our prayers being hindered:
“Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
Both passages are saying that if we have sin in our heart, then God will not listen to our prayers. This doesn’t mean that God isn’t cognizant of our prayers. Instead, it means that God isn’t going to give us the answer we are seeking because of our sin.
The application here is fairly straightforward: to keep your prayers from being hindered, do your best to please God and regularly confess your sins to Him.
Now, this isn’t saying that when we do these things then God will automatically grant our requests. God may still answer “No” because of unknown reasons. This leads us to the second principle.
The God Who Hides
How often have you prayed and felt like you were talking to yourself? You seem to do be doing well spiritually and aren’t aware of any unconfessed sin, yet it feels as if God isn’t picking up the phone.
This is the struggle of prayer. The psalmist dealt with this same struggle:
“When my prayers returned to me unanswered, I went about mourning as though for my friend or brother” (Psalm 35:13b-14 NIV).
Additionally, Scripture doesn’t shy away from saying that God hides sometimes. Here are some examples:
“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel” (Isaiah 45:15).
“Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” (Psalm 44:24).
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).
Perhaps no story communicates this truth better than Job. Here’s how God described Job to the adversary: “There is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:1). This tells us that if Job’s prayers went unanswered, it wasn’t because of his sin.
After Job lost everything, he cried to God: “Why do you hide your face and count me as your enemy?” (Job 13:24). God had the perfect opportunity to explain why He was hiding. Instead, God turned the tables back on Job:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me” (Job 38:2-3).
In other words, some things are only for God to know. Our job is to trust Him in our wrestling.
The Struggle of Unanswered Prayer
Unanswered prayer is something that we will struggle with until we see God face-to-face. This doesn’t mean, however, that prayer is a waste of time. God welcomes us to plead with him over and over again until we get an answer from Him.
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a parable that encourages believers to be persistent in prayer and never give up. In the story, a widow went to an unjust judge to beg for justice against her adversary only to be turned down. So instead of giving up, she went back with the same request over and over again. Eventually the judge finally gave in:
“Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming” (4-5).
Don’t lose heart in your prayer life. God says that it’s okay to “bother” Him whenever you want.