Prayer is almost as much a part of being human as the need for oxygen. It just seems hard-wired into our DNA. Add to that the expectation of Jesus that his followers would pray and the example of so many in scripture, and we just know, deep in our spirit, that talking to God should be as regular and natural as breathing.
But it isn’t.
As much as we want this open relationship with God, too often it seems that he doesn’t. Too many of our prayers seem to go unheard, and certainly seem to go unanswered. A quick Google search will identify a list of all the things you and I could be doing wrong that prevents God from hearing or prayers, but as I mentioned in a talk on this subject, it all seems a little too simplistic and prescriptive – perhaps even legalistic – and that’s just not the way I understand the Word that proclaims that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
Paul, Job, Abraham, Moses, David, and a host of others – even Jesus himself, in fact – endured the pain of unanswered prayer. As we study their experiences, I find a handful of things we can learn:
1. Trust God.
God is God and we are not. We won’t always understand his ways, but better to have him making global decisions than us. We were created and we exist to bring him glory, and we do that best by trusting him.
2. Examine Yourself.
There are, in fact, some passages in scripture that would suggest that God doesn’t deal with our prayers because there is some sin in our lives that needs to be identified or repented of. When God seems absent, he may be giving us some time to reflect and make some changes.
3. Wait Patiently.
Waiting on God is part of nearly every good story, in scripture and in everyday life. Learn to be thankful rather than resentful when God says wait.
4. Work to be an Answer to Your Own Prayers.
It’s pretty easy to sit on our butts and ask God to do something that we could well be a part of: feeding the homeless, caring for the elderly, comforting a friend, sharing our faith. Remember that God has seemingly chosen to answer a vast majority of prayers through the acts of people. Let your prayers guide you into action.
5. Be Attentive to God’s Work in Your Life.
When prayers go unanswered, God may be drawing you to himself. After all, prayer is more about the relationship than the results of the requests. How is God drawing you or growing you during this time?
6. Lean on Others.
No one fully knows what God is up to in times of unanswered prayer, but sometimes a friend or family member can be more objective and help you see things you can’t. Always have trusted people close by.
7. Be Transformed into the Likeness of Christ.
This is God’s hope and promise for each of us. You can be confident, no matter the circumstances, that God is molding you into the image of his Son. Be pliable.
8. Keep Praying.
Jesus did it. Jesus assumed it. And Jesus dealt with unanswered prayer, too (see his prayers for unity and protection of the church in John 17, or for his own deliverance from death in Matthew 26:36-42). Prayer is our constantly available line of communication to God. Keep it open at all times.
As an old teacher of mine once said, “Prayer isn’t to inform God. Prayer is to reform us.” I believe that if we keep this in mind, practice the list above, and focus more on the moment-by-moment relationship with God than the results of our requests, we will not only learn to endure times of unanswered prayer, but will actually begin to appreciate them.
Listen to the talk: The Sound-Proof Booth