Unanswered prayer may be the biggest reason why so many of us lose the will to pray. We grow discouraged by God’s silence, and we quit. I once had someone come up to me after a sermon I preached on the topic of prayer. He confessed that he had given up on prayer precisely because God didn’t answer his pleas to spare the life of his wife. He had poured his heart out begging the Lord to heal her, but to no avail. She died, and his life had been a wreck ever since.
What do we say in response to such things? Well, this is what I said at the time, although not in so many words (what follows is taken directly from my book Persistent Prayer):
Prayer works, but it doesn’t always work in the exact way that we envision. God is a perfect Father. He knows what we need better than we do. And while he answers our prayers, he doesn’t always answer them by giving us precisely what we ask for. This is what Jesus has in mind in Luke 11, when he follows his rather surprising comment about how “everyone who asks receives” with an analogy describing how our heavenly Father provides for the needs of his children (vv. 11–12): “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?”
Notice what Jesus doesn’t say here. He doesn’t say, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will always give him a fish; or if he asks for an egg, will always give him an egg?” Jesus doesn’t say that, because he knows every good father and mother will occasionally deny their children what they ask for. We may allow our children candy on occasion, for example, but we—who are older and wiser—know they cannot have candy all the time. We know they need a well-balanced diet, and sweets are a special treat not a substitute for proper food. No good parent will always give their children exactly what they ask for every time they ask for it. And God is the same way.
But what Jesus does say in these verses is that when our children ask for fish, we won’t give them serpents, and when they ask for eggs, we won’t give them scorpions. We may not always give them fish or eggs, but we won’t give them harmful things. And even though Jesus doesn’t explicitly say so, his point certainly seems to be that this also applies to God in all his dealings with his children. He may not always give us exactly what we ask for, but he will never give us things that will harm us.
This, in and of itself, is a tremendous encouragement for us to pray. We know that however God chooses to answer our prayers, he will always do so in a way that is for our good. He may not give us a fish when we ask for a fish, but he will never give us a serpent or a scorpion instead.
But Jesus says more than this. He says that God will give us the “Holy Spirit” in answer to our prayers. This is not what we would expect him to say. Given the way he started his analogy, we would expect him to say that God will give “good gifts” to his children in the same way that earthly parents do to their children. That is what Jesus says in the parallel passage in Matthew 7:11, but in Luke 11 he says that the Father will give us the “Holy Spirit.”
Because we believe that the Bible cannot contradict itself, and because both Gospels are recording Jesus’s words, and Jesus cannot contradict himself, we must take these two passages together. Matthew’s “good things” must be understood in a way that is in keeping with Luke’s “Holy Spirit” and vice versa. This means that the best understanding of what Jesus is saying in these two passages is something like “the Spirit and the good things of the Spirit” or, perhaps better, “Spiritual good things.” In other words, Jesus is not merely saying that the Father will give us good things in answer to our prayers—although that is true—but he is defining the kind of good things that the Father will give us. He will give us spiritual, or, perhaps better, Spiritual, good things.
About twenty years ago, I attended a conference at which Joni Eareckson Tada was speaking. She talked about diving into the Chesapeake when she was seventeen years old and breaking her neck. She described what happened when she was lying in the hospital room afterward and how she poured out her heart to the Lord for healing. She talked about singing through tears the words of Fanny Crosby’s hymn “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” as a plea to the Lord to intervene:
Pass me not, O gentle Savior,
Hear my humble cry;
While on others Thou art calling,
Do not pass me by.
Joni went on to say that for years she believed God had not answered her prayer, because she was never healed. For years, she thought that God really had passed her by, consigning her to live in a wheelchair as a quadriplegic. But then she relayed how, decades after her time in the hospital, she went on a trip to Israel with her husband and, as a result, saw her prayer for healing in a completely different light. It was while she was visiting the pool of Bethesda—the place where the man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years had been healed by the Lord (John 5). Joni recounted how as she sat in her wheelchair at the pool, the words of the prayer she had made in the hospital came flooding back to her. I’ll never forget what she said next. She said that she realized then and there that a no answer to her prayer for physical healing had actually been a yes answer to her prayer. She realized that the Lord hadn’t passed her by after all.
The Lord answered Joni’s prayers for healing, but he didn’t answer them in the way she envisioned. In the language of Luke 11:13, he answered her prayers Spiritually. Whatever else God may have done in and through Joni’s prayers, he certainly blessed her with incredible spiritual maturity and beauty and gave her a ministry and an influence that would never have been possible had he healed her physically all those years ago. The Lord answered Joni’s prayer, but he didn’t answer it in the way she expected or even wanted at the moment.
God is far more interested in spiritual healing and spiritual blessing than he is in physical healing and physical blessing. Sometimes, to be sure, he answers our prayers for physical healing and physical blessing by giving us exactly what we ask for. But we cannot expect him to do so every time we pray. But we can expect that God will always give us Spiritual good things every time we pray, even if we don’t specifically ask for them.
One reply on “Obstacles to Prayer: Unanswered prayer”
I absolutely enjoyed this reading! I actually had the opportunity to share with some friends that I believe God always answers our prayers, but we may not always like the answer. Many blessings to you!