Perhaps one of the greatest reasons we don’t ask God for what we want or need is because we’re afraid that he won’t do it. We fear that he’ll say no, that he won’t answer the way we asked, or that he won’t even answer at all. Unanswered prayer is perhaps one of the most perplexing parts of prayer. Why would God invite us to ask him for anything and promise us that he is listening, only to abandon us at the altar of our asking? This is no small thing—and a big reason why some people lose their faith. Any attempt to cover this dilemma with a Christian bumper sticker only does more harm than good.
So, what do we do when we come to God seeking help, and help doesn’t seem to come?
As a pastor and follower of Jesus for many years now, I’ve had a front-row seat to God’s miracles and movements. I’ve prayed for friends facing a terminal diagnosis and seen complete healing. I’ve prayed for marriages that were all but over and seen them restored and transformed by God. I’ve prayed for friends facing year after soul-crushing year of infertility only to celebrate the birth of their children. I’ve seen God answer impossible requests with his power and faithfulness. Too many to count! And . . . I’ve experienced the other side of prayer, as well. I’ve prayed for healings that never came. I’ve prayed for jobs that didn’t emerge. I’ve prayed for marriages that didn’t make it. I’ve prayed for friends to find Jesus who still haven’t. While I have a lifetime of evidence of God’s faithfulness, I also have a lifetime of experience with the mystery of God. I simply don’t know why God does what he does or why he doesn’t always do what I want him to. And any attempt to spackle the holes that lack of understanding has left in my faith with thin theology does a disservice to the deeper faith and trust that God wants to grow in me.
It is impossible for me to understand why God hasn’t answered all of my honest and earnest prayers. And it’s irresponsible for me to try to tell you why he hasn’t answered yours. It is true that sometimes God uses your asking and waiting and asking and waiting to grow a deeper faith in you. And to grow deeper desires in you. It is true that sometimes God answers your prayers in unexpected ways to lead you to something far greater than you even knew you could ask for. It is true that sometimes there is sin between us and God, sin that keeps us from intimacy with God. Unowned and unconfessed sin keeps us from experiencing the full blessing of God in our lives. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to ask for what we need and for forgiveness in the same breath when we pray.
All those things are true—and yet, I still don’t know why God answers some prayers and doesn’t answer others in ways that we hoped for or can recognize. But I do know that right after Jesus taught us how to pray, he taught us how to keep on praying. In Luke 11:5-8, Jesus tells the story of someone waking up their neighbor at midnight by banging on the door because he had an out-of-town guest and was out of bread. The scenario is absurd. Who would do such a thing? I feel bad asking our neighbor Joan if she can throw back any one of the ninety-three frisbees we’ve thrown into her yard. And that’s in the middle of the day! I can’t imagine banging on her door at midnight, expecting her to get up, come down, and head outside to snag a rogue frisbee. Jesus is making a point: When we are desperate, when we have no other options, even when we have knocked on the door of heaven for thirty minutes—at midnight—we must not give up. Because God will respond. In one way or another, he will respond. Jesus’ words tell us so:
Yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need. – Luke 11:8
Prayer is an unapologetic act of audacity. The willingness to keep on knocking, keep on asking, keep on trusting, and keep on believing, even when you don’t get what you want or the way you want it, is the alchemy of faith and persistence. It means having the faith to take God up on his invitation to ask him for whatever you need—and the tenacity to hold him to it. To reach out (faith) and to not let go (persistence). To wade in the waters of the mystery of God while standing on the very promises of God. To not lose heart and to not lose hope while holding on. Keep knocking. Keep asking. Keep believing. Even if and even after it doesn’t go your way.
You’ve been reading with Jarrett Stevens from his new book Praying Through: Overcoming the Obstacles that Keep Us from God. Keep reading with a free excerpt of chapter 1 here. You can also take the Seasons of the Soul quiz at jarrettstevens.com to find how what season of prayer you are in right now.