Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©

Chapter 10 Answered and unanswered prayer

"In my distress I called upon the Lord;
to my God I cried for help.
From his temple he heard my voice,
and my cry to him reached his ears."
"More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of"
(Alfred Lord Tennyson)

Much can be learned from the Scriptures about the principles of prayer, but, because God's ways are higher than our ways and God's thoughts than our thoughts, there is a mystery about both answered prayer and about unanswered prayer. Why do some of our prayers appear to be unanswered? We must say 'appear' because often we simply fail to recognise what God is doing in response to our prayers. Yet, as we will see, there may be very specific reasons why prayers that we bring to God receive no answer. There is also a problem about answered prayers, or at least there is a problem about assurance that what happens is truly an answer from God to our praying. People, especially unbelievers, can argue that things that happen are not truly answers to prayer but just coincidences. At least the person who believes that God hears and responds to our prayers reckons that coincidences would have to be innumerable if all the alleged answers to prayer were to be explained in such a way. Yet clearly there is need to be open to God and discerning in order to recognise what may truly be an answer to prayer and what may not be. Vincent Brummer puts it that 'By praying for things to happen, the believer becomes able to recognize the providential action of God.' (1)

1. Discerning answers to prayer

The person of faith believes that answers to prayer are given in an endless variety of ways. Scripture illustrates this from beginning to end. So does Christian history. So does our experience today. Archbishop Michael Ramsey says, 'The promises of Jesus about the results of prayer are corroborated by recurring empirical evidence.' Sometimes they are answers to prayer for ourselves, sometimes for other people. Sometimes the prayer is for people to be brought to the Lord in repentance and faith. (2) Often it is for the help and strengthening of our fellow-Christians. Those who seek to live the life of faith have abundant examples of ways in which they have prayed and circumstances have eventuated in such a way that they feel confident that God has answered their prayer. If this happened just occasionally, it could easily be said that it was coincidence. It is the repeated nature of the experience which assures a person that it is truly the work of a prayer-answering God (2).

Those who are involved in difficult and demanding Christian service are often specially conscious of God's answering the prayers of others for them. Such is expressed in the little poem,

'Because you prayed -
   God touched our eager fingers with His skill,
   Enabling us to do His blessed will,
   With scalpel, suture, bandage; better still,
   He healed the sick, the wounded, cured the ill.

Because you prayed -
   God touched our weary bodies with His power,
   And gave us strength for many a trying hour,
   In which we might have faltered had not you
   Our intercessors - faithful been and true.

Because you prayed -
   God touched our lips with coal from altar fire,
   Gave Spirit fullness, and did so inspire
   That, when we spoke, sin-blinded souls could see,
   And captives, held in Satan's power, were set free.' (3)

Especially in the light of the results of our study of the most important subjects of prayer, as we learn them from the Bible, we should seek evidence of answers to prayer not so much in dramatic interventions as in inner and spiritual blessings. One of the results of prayer is peace, inner peace, as Philippians 4:6-7 indicates, saying that that when prayer is used as antidote for anxiety, "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." 'Prayer is vital' says E.M. Blaiklock, 'It is the pathway to tranquillity and strength of soul. ----- Calm in life's strife, poise, devotion, self-control, all depend upon its exercise. A man's prayers are the measure of his Christianity. To fail in prayer is to fail in all else.' (4) With peace we may link inner joy. Jesus said to the disciples (Jn.16:24), "Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete." Another of the results of prayer is inner strength. A simple notice on the wall of an African pastor's house put it, 'More prayer -more power. Less prayer - less power. No prayer - no power.'

As we have seen earlier in our study the consequences of prayer are by no means to be limited to the effect of praying on the one who prays. Nevertheless we can indeed say that there is a transformation of life and character as people turn to God in prayer, and spend time communing with him. A unique example of this is the transfiguration of Jesus himself, "while he was praying" as Luke 9:29 puts it. We have in the Old Testament the example of Moses who reflected something of the glory of the Lord as he came from communing with him (Ex.34:29). This in turn is seen in the New Testament as typifying the greater transformation that is experienced by the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit in the lives of those who truly turn to Christ. They "with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit" (2 Cor.3:18).

2. The perplexity of unanswered prayer

Of more significance to most people than discerning answers to prayer is the problem of unanswered prayer. It was a problem in biblical times as well as in our own. There are many instances in the Bible of unanswered prayers, and the protests of those who pray that God does not answer them. Job (30:20) protests, "I cry to you and you do not answer me; I stand, and you merely look at me." The psalmist (in Psalm 22:1-2) cries out in anguish, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest." The deep grief expressed in Lamentations 3:44 was so poignant because it was felt that God had wrapped himself with a cloud "so that no prayer can pass through." "O Lord," pleaded Habakkuk (1:2), "how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you, 'Violence!' and you will not save?"

The Bible gives four reasons why prayer may go unanswered.

1. The reason for unanswered prayer that is given the greatest and clearest emphasis in the Bible is in relation to the situation where sin, of which one refuses to repent, prevents prayer from finding a response from God. Isaiah 59:1-2 is most specific: "the Lord's hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear." Often the psalmists and the prophets speak of the face of the Lord being hidden, and his being "silent" in spite of the prayers made to him. But they know the reason. The psalmist (in Psalm 66:18) says, "If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened." The prophet (in Isa.64:6) says, "our iniquities, like the wind, take us away." Saul had to face the unwillingness of God to answer his prayer because of sin from which he had been unwilling to turn (1 Sam.28:6 and 15-19). In Isaiah 1:15 the Lord's word through the prophet was, "When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood." Jeremiah is told that prayer for his people will be vain since they have turned away from the Lord and refused to turn back (Jer.7:16, 11:14, 14:11). Zechariah (7:13) puts the word of the Lord to his people, "Just as when I called, they would not hear, so, when they called, I would not hear, says the Lord of hosts." (Cf. Prov.1:28, Hos. 5:4-7, Micah 3:4, 7.)

In every such situation the word of the Lord is "Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts" (Mal.3:7). Those who feel that their prayers are not 'getting through to God' should, therefore, examine themselves to see if some secret sin has been allowed to come between them and God, and so in penitence and confession seek him humbly. This counsel is as appropriate in the New Testament as in the Old. The apostle Paul says to the Corinthian Christians, "Examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith. Test yourselves. ... we pray to God that you may not do anything wrong" (2 Cor.13:5-9).

2. There are times when there may not be a barrier of sin between God and the one who prays, but the prayer may be half-hearted, representing a partial desire for what God might be moved to do and a partial desire for one's own will to be fulfilled. Such is the situation that James 1:5-8 describes, "If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord." Where there is such double-mindedness God seeks to bring a person into a fuller and deeper dependence on him in sincere prayer.

3. Sometimes it is clear that one is asking for what has been declared to be contrary to God's expressed will and purpose. So it was with Moses' prayer to be able to go over the Jordan into the promised land (Deut.3:24-28). Sometimes people may have to learn from their mistaken requests and acknowledge them before the Lord can answer their prayers (as in 1 Sam.8:18 in relation to the people's request for a king). There is also the wrong kind of prayer when a person asks the Lord to correct another, as with Mary and Martha in Luke 10:40, or to tell how he is dealing with another, as with Peter in John 21:20-22. Such also was the prayer of the man who came and asked Jesus, "tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me" (Lk.12:13). There is also a wrong kind of prayer when people ask for signs of the kind they would like to satisfy them (Matt.12:38, 16:1,4, Mk.8:11-13, Lk. 11:29). Prayer can be selfish, such as the request merely to get out of a difficulty, or to have what we simply want for ourselves. Such was the prayer of Esau when through his own fault he had missed his father's blessing (Heb.12:17). The prayer for the sons of Zebedee to have chief places in the Lord's kingdom was similarly a misguided prayer (Matt.20:21). James 4:3 has both the rebuke of prayerlessness and also of asking wrongly " in order to spend what you get on your pleasures". There are also prayers that are really complaints against God (e.g. Num.11:4-6), and they are not true prayers because they are forgetful of the many, many blessings that have been received from God. We may also pray selfishly without thought for what it would mean to others if the prayer was granted, as when we pray selfishly for a fine day when many stand in great need of rain.

It is possible also for us to ask, with good motivation, what it is not God's will to grant, as in the case of St. Paul asking for the removal of his "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor.12:8-9). God answered Paul's prayer, but not in the way he expected or hoped. As J.I. Packer puts it, 'it was the promise of something better than the healing he had sought. We too may ask God to change situations, and find that what he does instead is give us strength to bear them unchanged. But this is not a bare "no"; it is a very positive answer to our prayer' (5).

4. What may seem to be a failure on God's part to answer our request may in fact be his entrusting us to receive an answer that is wiser than our request. Anthony Bloom makes the comment, 'God withholds an answer to our prayers not only when they are unworthy but when he finds in us such greatness, such depth - depth and power of faith - that he can rely on us to remain faithful even in the face of his silence.' (6). The man (in Luke 8:26-39) who had been freed from demon possession asked the Lord if he might come with him, but he was given a more significant task telling the people throughout his home area what the Lord had done for him. In other cases the reason for God's not answering the prayer is not plain. It may become clear at a later time, as in the case we have cited already of Monica, mother of Augustine, praying that her son might not go to Rome. At other times we may not understand as long as we live, and we have to accept that there is mystery involved and the limits of our understanding since, as the word of the Lord puts it in Isaiah 55:8-9, "my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways ---. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts."

We are called to trust the wisdom of the ways of God and God's times for acting in answer to our prayers. When tempted to be downcast because of God's apparent inaction, the psalmist had to say to himself, "Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Saviour and my God" (Ps.42:5 and 11 and 43:5).