There are a number of biblical passages that encourage people to pray, with at least an inference, if not a definite statement, that God will answer the prayers. Among these passages are the following:
In Matthew 7:11, Jesus Christ declares: “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”
And in Luke 21:36, Jesus tells His disciples to “pray always. . . .”
Likewise, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “pray without ceasing.”
Colossians 4:2 instructs, “Continue earnestly in prayer, being vigilant in it with thanksgiving.”
1 John 5:14-15 assures, “Now this is the confidence that we have in [God], that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”
Despite these biblical admonitions to pray, many people, including Christians, often don’t seem to receive satisfactory answers to their prayers. Why is this so?
The following excerpt from an Internet article entitled Unanswered Prayer: Common Reasons Why (http://www.victorious.org/unprayer.htm) by Dr. Dale A. Robbins raises essentially the same question:
One of the greatest benefits afforded to every Christian is the privilege of answered prayers. In the Bible, Jesus made this tremendous promise, “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matt 21:22). However, despite the Lord’s willingness to answer prayer, it is obvious that some prayers have gone unanswered. Why is this?
Similarly, on page 174 of her book entitled Does God Answer Prayer?, Louise Harrison McCraw states,
Each of us has had the experience of asking and not receiving the definite gift for which we made request. We wonder why God let us go on with the asking. We wonder if anything at all was gained by such praying.
And, in his book entitled Praying with Power, Lloyd John Ogilvie says on page 76,
There are some who have never had what they would call a definite answer to prayer. Others have known the ecstacy [sic] of sweet communion with the Lord in prayer and have also found that for some strange reason, prayer has suddenly become sterile and unrewarding. . . . And then there are others of us who wrestle with the bold promises of the Bible about prayer and are frustrated by the disparity of what is offered and what we seem to experience in our prayers.
Furthermore, Herbert Lockyer states on page 110 of his book entitled How I Can Make Prayer More Effective,
The problem of unanswered prayer is acute. We all feel it. Its mystery shrouds our faith at some time or another. We pray to God, but the heavens seem as brass. Distress or rebellion become [sic] ours. Can God be indifferent? Has He forgotten us, or ceased to care?
Warren W. Wiersbe, on page 5 of his book entitled Famous Unanswered Prayers, says, “Some people will argue that God always answers prayer. He either says yes, no or wait. However, I believe this is a rather shallow way of dealing with the problem of unanswered prayer.”
We believe there are at least seven basic reasons why a Christian’s prayers may not seem to be answered satisfactorily:
- Lack of faith and/or sincerity when praying
- An impaired relationship with God
- An impaired relationship with other people
- Failure to seek God’s will
- Lack of perseverance in praying
- God’s respect for the free will of other people
- God wants to accomplish more than what is being requested
Lack of Faith and/or Sincerity when Praying
Several biblical passages, including the following, stress the importance of faith (or belief) when praying:
Mark 11:24 states, “I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.”
And James 1:6-7 instructs, “[L]et him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.”
We think it would be helpful to define the term faith as it relates to prayer. Woodrow Kroll provides the following perspective on page 68 of his book entitled When God Doesn’t Answer:
I define faith as confidence in the righteous character of God that fosters trust and hope even when our circumstances foster doubt and despair. Isn’t that what prayer is about? Our circumstances look grim, so we pray to God in faith, trusting his righteous character to do what is best for us.
Robbins, in his Internet article, provides the following additional perspective regarding faith:
We cannot please God without faith. Prayer is not merely “begging” from God. It is “believing” God and His Word! Faith will come forth and grow as we devote our attention to the Word of God (Romans 10:17). Our faith can also be “built up,” by praying in the Holy Spirit (Jude 1:20).
Many do not understand that faith is believing in the reality of things, even though we cannot see them (Heb. 11:1). Jesus said that “when” you pray, you must believe that you “receive” your answer at that moment. The word, “receive” comes from the Greek word, LAMBANO, which means “to receive now” (present tense). He then says we will “have” them. “Have” comes from, ESOMAI, which means “to possess later” (future tense). So, when we pray we must believe in the finished results of our prayer, and we will eventually experience the tangible results sometime later.
There are those who allow every “wind” of feelings or circumstances to influence or discourage their faith. They vacillate back and forth, like the waves tossed about in the sea. One day they believe, but the next, they’re ready to give up, and so forth. Such persons usually base their faith on their feelings or emotions instead of God’s Word. They who waver in their faith cannot expect to receive “anything of the Lord.” Our faith must become stable, steadfast, and consistent to receive from God.
Sometimes the problem is not specifically a lack of faith, but instead a lack of sincerity, which may include and improper attitude or a lack of earnestness.
Kroll suggests on page 137 of his book, “If prayer is not working for you, perhaps it’s because you have some attitude deficiencies when you pray.” Then, on page 138, Kroll states, “A callous attitude toward prayer is not likely to inspire God to answer our prayers.”
Subsequently, on page 141, Kroll says, “If we come to God with the attitude that he owes us an answer, we come with a deniable attitude. God can easily find just cause to refuse to answer us. Prayer is a privilege, but a humble privilege.”
And, on page 142, Kroll adds, “God wants us to pray with earnestness – an intense and serious state of mind. Too much of our praying is perfunctory, even lackadaisical. Prayer that gets answered is prayer offered with earnestness.”
An Impaired Relationship with God
A sinful lifestyle, failure to earnestly ask God for forgiveness for sins, and the lack of genuine repentance for sins are definite evidences of an impaired relationship with God. A number of scripture passages, including the following, deal with such matters:
James 5:16b: The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
1 Peter 3:12: For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers; but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.
1 John 1:8-9: If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
1 John 3:22: “[W]hatever we ask we receive from [God], because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.
With regard to 1 John 3:22, C. Thomas Wright says on page 18 of his book entitled Prayer Timer, “The requirement for answered prayer is obedience to God’s commandments. . . . Righteousness results in obedient behavior that is pleasing to God. Obedience is essential to effective prayer.” Then, on page 19, Wright states, “The believers’ effective prayer is based on repentant and humble recognition that we come to the throne as forgiven sinners. The prayer of unrepentant people is fruitless.”
Wiersbe asserts on page 7 of his book,
[One] barrier to answered prayer is known sin in our lives. Psalm 66:18 states, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” In this passage, the psalmist is not talking about possessing a sinful nature.
[W]hile we possess sinful natures, this alone does not hinder our prayers. It is regarding our sins that causes our prayers to go unanswered. The word “regard” means to know that something is present, to approve it but do nothing about it. If I’m aware of some sin in my heart and acknowledge its presence yet am unwilling to face it honestly and do something about it, then God will not hear me when I pray.
Robbins, in his Internet article, explains,
Answers to prayer come when we seek to keep [God’s] commandments and please the Lord with our life. This is not to suggest that we “earn” answered prayers, any more than we can earn salvation which comes only by faith (Eph. 2:8-9). He answers our prayers from his “grace” and “mercy” (Heb. 4:16), not merely from our good deeds. However, keeping His commandments and pleasing the Lord is [sic] a product of our obedience to His word, which is faith in action (James 2:20).
There is no doubt that sin will disrupt the flow of God’s blessings and answers to prayer. . . . All acts of rebellion and disobedience to God is [sic] considered sin. Sins of “commission,” are those overt acts which are done in disobedience. However, sins of “omission,” are those things we don’t do in obedience, but know we should (James 4:17). The remedy for all sin is to confess it to God, forsake it, and ask Him to forgive you (1 John 1:9).
Kroll states on page 32 of his book,
God has established some conditions to hearing us and answering our prayers. One is as plain as day: “If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18).
The psalmist knew that if he delighted in what was sinful, while at the same time praying to God, God would not listen to his prayer. God simply pays no attention to us when we harbor sin in our lives and act as if it weren’t there.
On page 38, Kroll goes on to say,
Look inside yourself. See what God sees there and be truthful about it. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Ask yourself, “Is it possible I am the problem? Is there something I’m trying to hide from God that’s blocking my way to him?”
Then, on page 41, Kroll adds,
[T]he damage done by sin in our vital relationship with God affects much more than just our walk with him. It also affects our talk with him. Because sin erects relational roadblocks between God and us, these roadblocks keep us from getting through to God. When we fail to treat God as he deserves, our communication with God is one of the first casualties of that failure.
Lockyer, on pages 100-101 of his book, states,
Habitual obedience to all of God’s commands is . . . bound up with effective prayer. How useless it is to pray, if we refuse to do all the Lord requires of us! Prayer can only be acceptable to Him as it ascends from an obedient heart (Prov. 1:24-31; 28:8; Zech. 7:13; 1 John 3:22).
[William Proctor says,] “Our obedience does not in itself merit an answer to our prayer, but it is a test of our fitness to receive it, and an indispensable qualification for our obtaining our petitions.”
[T]o abide in Christ means to have no known, wilfully indulged sin to break communion with Him. Power in prayer is dependent upon such unbroken fellowship with Christ. . . .
An Impaired Relationship with Other People
Having an impaired relationship with other people includes ill will toward others and not having a willingness to forgive them. It is unlikely that God will answer the prayers of a person who has such an attitude, unless that person is asking for help to change his (or her) attitude to be in accord with what God desires.
In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus Christ says, “[I]f you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you,leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 5:23-24 may pertain not only to giving alms, but also to prayer. Mathew Henry’s Complete Commentary on the Bible states,
[I]f the quarrel began on thy side, and the fault was either at first or afterwards thine, so that thy brother has a controversy with thee, go and be reconciled to him before thou offer thy gift at the altar, before thou approach solemnly to God in the gospel-services of prayer and praise, hearing the word or the sacraments.
And, Kroll declares on page 58 of his book,
When your relationships are hindered, your prayers are hindered as well. An important element in getting through to God is getting right with others. Leave your prayers on the altar. Go to that person with whom you have a bruised relationship and make it right. Confess your sinful attitudes toward him or her, ask for forgiveness, and start over. Then come back to your prayers.
Subsequently, on page 83, Kroll asserts, “[T]here is one prayer blocker that seems to possess universal potency. It has been called “the chief blockage to prayer.’ It’s an unforgiving spirit.”
Then, on page 88, Kroll states,
Given the context of Jesus’ forgiven/forgive teaching and that he immediately followed his pattern prayer with an appendix on that subject, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that failure to forgive is a strong deterrent to God hearing and answering our prayers. An unforgiving spirit deadens the soul, hardens the heart, and denies our access to God. [Note: What Kroll refers to as “the pattern prayer” is often referred to as “the Lord’s Prayer” or “the Model Prayer.”]
Robbins indicates in his Internet article that lack of love for others or bitterness towards them may likewise cause prayers to be unanswered. According to Robbins,
Jesus said we are to love our brethren as He has loved us. “This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). Lack of love, bitterness, unforgiveness is the root of many unanswered prayers, since faith works by love (Gal 5:6).
Failure to Seek God’s Will
1 John 5:14-15 declares, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”
With regard to this passage, Lockyer explains on pages 102 of his book,
John, in very simple, understandable language, assures us that all prayers which are according to God’s will are sure of being heard and answered. The sequence is clear: “Ask according to His will, and God will hear.”
The confidence John speaks of is not associated with the obtaining of specific things asked for, but the obtaining of answers in accordance with God’s perfect wisdom and infinite love.
Likewise, Wright says on page 19 of his book,
The believer’s prayer of petition must be according to God’s will. . . . Many people have become angry with God because they imposed expectations on God that were not biblical. Notice that He does not even hear prayers that are not according to His will. That is why it is important for prayer warriors to understand God’s will and boldly align themselves with it.
Similarly, Robbins asserts in his Internet article,
God will only answer those prayers that are in “His” will. When we ask anything that is in His will, we can have assurance that those “petitions” (requests) are granted to us. God’s will is revealed through His Word, the Bible. Anything promised by His Word is His will, and we can be confident that He’ll honor our prayers based on His Word.
Kroll states on page 107 of his book, “[P]raying for something that is contrary to the very nature of God is like whistling in the dark. It may make you feel better, but it doesn’t change anything. God will not answer a request that is contradictory to his divine nature.”
And, on page 119, Kroll makes the following statements:
When we disregard [God’s] will, we have no guarantee of the divine ear. When God doesn’t answer, it may be because we have prayed for what we want but have not prayed for what God wants.
God’s will is not always clear to most of us, and that can be a problem when we pray.
Certainly we know some things are God’s will – things clearly stated in his Word.
James 4:3: asserts, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
Wiersbe explains on pages 9-10 of his book,
While it is not wrong for God’s people to pray for themselves, it is wrong to put our requests so far ahead of God’s requests that we become selfish. In the Lord’s Prayer, we notice that God’s concerns come before ours: “Our Father which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done” (Matt. 6:9-10).
In his Internet article, Robbins states,
Our motives in our prayer requests are of concern to the Lord. He wishes to help us in our time of need, but is not obligated to answer prayers which will merely feed our carnal, worldly appetites and (lustful) pleasures. Our motives and desires can be corrected by humbling ourselves, and drawing near to God (James 4:8-10).
Kroll offers several comments regarding a wrong attitude or a wrong motive. On pages 98-101 of his book, he makes the following statements:
Sometimes God does not answer our prayers because of the reasons why we pray. If those reasons are unwholesome, selfish, petty, or prideful, God does not view himself under any obligation even to consider them. [page 98]
Sometimes we think our prayers are properly motivated and God still does not answer them. The reason may be that our minds deceive us. “The heart [seat of emotions] is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jer. 17:9). [page 99]
Selfish prayer is prayer that puts our interests ahead of God’s interests or the interests of others. [page 100]
Closely akin to praying selfish prayers is praying for our own pleasure. This motive leads us to pray for something we want just because we want it. [page 101]
Then, on page 121, Kroll says,
God sometimes delays his answer to allow us time to modify our requests so that they more closely conform to his will. After all, God wants to say yes to our requests. He only says no when there is reason to do so. If need be, God will delay so that we can sharpen the focus of our requests and bring them into compliance with his will.
Sometimes God delays his answer to cause us to drop an inappropriate request. He doesn’t say no; he simply says nothing.
McCraw asserts on page 101 of her book,
We must confess that there have been times when we were afraid to know God’s will. It seemed more expedient to go on praying the same thing plus “if it be Thy will” than to find out what His will in that particular instance was. We felt we could not bear to hear Him say no.
Lack of Perseverance in Praying
Lack of perseverance in praying pertains to ceasing to pray about a matter before we receive a definite response from God or before the matter about which we have been praying is otherwise resolved.
Galatians 6:9 addresses such issues, as follows: “[L]et us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.”
In his Internet article, Robbins states,
Probably the greatest reason that some prayers go unanswered is because many give-up praying and believing before they receive their answer. As long as we have the promise of God’s Word, be patient and persistent – keep believing, and don’t quit, no matter how long it takes! God has a “due season” when He will bring the answer to pass.
Kroll says on pages 122-123 of his book,
Equally important to leaving the when to God is leaving the how to him. We all have our own preconceived ideas about how God will answer our requests. Sometimes, when his answers do not correspond to our ideas, we become angry at God.
God’s will, done in God’s way and in his time, is always best for us. Never complain about God being slow. He is just being deliberate.
Subsequently, on pages 155-156, Kroll declares,
When you pray with importunity, you persistently and shamelessly request something of God. Importunity is just an old word for an old concept – don’t quit too soon.
God doesn’t tire of our shameless persistence in prayer. In fact, he encourages it. Don’t confuse importunity with imposition. Never say, “Oh, I don’t want to bother God with that again. It’s just an imposition.” An imposition is an unwanted and unwarranted forcing of yourself on someone else, but when you come to God you’re not forcing yourself on him. He has invited you to come. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). Sincere persistence in prayer is never an imposition to God.
The preceding commentary regarding perseverance in praying may raise the question of whether or not there is anything a person can do to determine if God will eventually answer their prayers.
McCraw says on pages 99-100 of her book,
Perhaps [what we want] is something we cannot bear to give up unless we are confident that God wants us to give it up. It is so desirable that we can see no reason why it would not be used in our lives for His glory, if only He would grant it. Well, we may be assured that He does not want us to give it up until He has given us a plain “No.” Still He does not make clear what He is going to do about it. If we are confident that our heart has been bared before Him, that our will is submitted and still we do not know, I believe we have a right to ask a token of Him.
God’s Respect for the Free Will of Other People
In cases where someone prays for another person to become a Christian, or for them to give up a sinful habit, or for them to have a positive change in their attitude about someone or something, God may do all that He can to help the person who is being prayed for, but ultimately the decision is up to that person.
Consider the case of the Pharaoh who was not allowing the Hebrews to leave Egypt. God brought ten plagues on Egypt before the Pharaoh finally, after the tenth plague, allowed the Hebrews to leave. Furthermore, the Pharaoh subsequently changed his mind and had his army pursue the Hebrews to bring them back to Egypt.
Another case to consider is that God, through a dream or a vision, warned Pilot’s wife that Jesus Christ was not to be harmed. Despite the fact that his wife told Pilot about her dream or vision, he gave his approval for Jesus Christ to be crucified.
In both of these situations, God nevertheless accomplished what He wanted. In the first case, God destroyed the pursuing Egyptian army, which allowed the Israelites to continue their journey to the land that God had promised to their ancestors. In the second case, Pilot’s decision to allow Jesus to be crucified resulted in the fulfillment of God’s plan for Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross to provide eternal salvation for everyone who trusts in Jesus as their Savior.
God Wants to Accomplish More than What Is Being Requested
Wiersbe states on page 6 of his book,
God sometimes delays or denies a particular request because He has a greater blessing waiting for us. Many times we are like children, who want to have some cheap little toy right now. Like a good parent, our Heavenly Father does not give us what we want at that time because He has something even better planned for us.
Kroll, on page 106 of his book, says,
When God refuses to answer our prayers, it’s not always because we are harboring sin in our lives or have an unforgiving spirit. There could be a much less sinister reason.
Sometimes it’s not our motivation that’s the problem in getting prayer answered: it’s our requests. We simply ask for the wrong things.
Then, on page 113, Kroll declares, “One of the most delightful reasons God does not answer our prayers is because he has more to give us than what we request. If he were to give us what we ask for, we would be denied the better things he has intended to give us.”
Kroll goes on to state on pages 121-122,
Character qualities such as patience, submission, endurance, understanding, and trust all require time to develop. Delayed prayer is one of God’s beautiful classrooms for character development.
God sometimes delays his answer to test our faith. . . . Waiting for God to answer proves we have faith that he will answer, in his time.
Ogilvie, on page 81 of his book, says, “A dry spell, when it seems that the Lord has departed from us, is a sure sign that we are on the edge of a new level of depth in our relationship with the Lord.” On page 82, Ogilvie adds, “[W]hen prayers seem unanswered, take it as a signal that the Lord wants to help us discover our sufficiency in Him and not what He can give us in tangible blessings.” Then, on page 84, Ogilvie asserts, ”[W]e must consider unanswered prayers for things which may not be best for us or are not in keeping with the Lord’s timing for us.”
Lockyer explains on page 106 of his book,
Some prayers appear to pass unanswered. But their answers are not denied – only delayed. We are apt to misjudge the seemingly slow movements of God. In our rash haste we want immediate answers. . . . It has been said that “when our prayers make long voyages, they come back laden with richer cargoes of blessing” and “when God keeps us waiting for an answer, He gives liberal interest for the interval.”
Then, on page 114, Lockyer says,
Are you facing the problem of unanswered prayer? As far as you know, your heart is right in God’s sight, your motives are pure, and your requests are legitimate enough, yet no answer comes. Do not cease to pray. God is silent in His love (Zeph. 3:17). Because of His inscrutable wisdom, He knows what is best for you. He has answers beyond your expected answers. When all the mysteries of life are unraveled, then you will praise Him for your unanswered prayers.
On pages 92-93 of his book, Wiersbe states,
When we are grappling with the problem of unanswered prayer, we need to remember, first of all, that we are not alone. [The Bible reveals that] some of God’s greatest servants experienced unanswered prayer at times. In each case, [there were] specific reasons for the Lord’s refusal to answer. . . . When we receive a no from God, it is usually because we have some problem in our life that is hindering our prayers. However, at times the Lord does choose not to answer our prayers because He has some greater purpose in mind.
Lockyer says on page 114 of his book,
When fuller, perfect light is ours, we will understand that “No” was an answer, as well as “Yes.” Often we hear it said, “God didn’t answer my prayer.” But He did. He may not have given what was insisted upon. . . . What we deem to be refusals are the only answers possible to His love, wisdom and truth.
What has been stated so far in this article applies primarily to Christians. For non-Christians, when God answers their prayers, it generally is the exception, rather than the rule.
On page 114 of his book, Lockyer declares, “W]hile God does answer some of the prayers of the unconverted, He has not promised to do so. All promises of answered prayer are given to the regenerated children – to those in covenant relationship with Him as their heavenly Father.”
However, the Bible indicates that when a person earnestly asks God for help in understanding how to have eternal salvation, that person can expect God to answer that prayer. [For a discussion of how a person can have eternal salvation, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Salvation?”]
Brief Comments Regarding My Personal Experiences with Praying
In recent years, I have learned that God is faithful in providing me with the answer I am seeking with regard to one type of prayer in particular. This type of prayer involves a sincere request for God to help me in dealing with difficult circumstances. I am confident that God does not want me to allow such circumstances to cause me to be anxious or to have any other negative reaction that would indicate a lack of trust in Him. Although I still ask Him to rectify the difficult circumstances, I know from various biblical teachings (e.g., the Apostle Paul’s thorn in the flesh) that God won’t always do so.
I believe it is important that I deal with difficult circumstances as God wants me to deal with them, and I believe this necessitates that I genuinely trust in Him. If I allow any circumstance to cause me to be anxious or to have any other negative reaction, I am not genuinely trusting in God. If God is allowing a difficult circumstance to continue, I believe it is because He wants to teach me to trust Him, regardless of circumstances.
It is my hope for you that in addition to praying that God will rectify the difficult circumstances you face, you also will pray that He will help you in dealing with those circumstances. I believe that your doing so will result in wonderful spiritual blessings for you.