What if God doesn't answer my prayers?
As I read this question, I imagine a genuine, earnest, exploring spirit in conversation with me. You have journeyed to this Web site in search of information. It may be that you will also encounter inspiration. I will do my very best with your questions. I hope your quest will lead you to more questions and deeper answers, and to the Spirit of God who will fill in the better responses between my lines. You ask: What if God does not answer my prayers?
If you are like me, “my” prayers are what I call “prescription” prayers. It is as if we expect God to be a Holy Pharmacist. I prescribe — and God is to fill it, to answer it. Sometimes, so it seems, our prescriptions do get filled as we have requested. Then, at other times, we do not receive “our” answers. My own experience is that I have tended to grow more spiritually (granted, painfully) with God's ultimate answers than with “my” answers, even if occasionally they are one and the same.
Several one-liner reflections on “my” prayers and God's answers. First, there seems to be no such things as a “professional” at prayer. There are only beginners who pray by beginning again and again and again. A second reflection: Maybe the most important thing about prayer is simply to show up. Third, prayer is more about the development of a relationship than about “my” answers. It will be that unique, sacred relationship which will calm my storms and lead me to the light, more than my receiving a quick prescription. A fourth reflection: Prayer, the kind that shows up again and again, the kind that prays through the foul weather and not just in fair weather, that prayer leads the one who prays to new awareness, new horizons, new visions of justice and peace. The great saints of yesterday and today seem to be those whose prayer life leads them to God, rather than to a response which meets their needs. Are not our deepest needs the needs of the soul? Enter, sole God.
—The Rev. Dr. Douglass M.
look first at how we ask the question. I believe that God's grace precedes our
prayers, that in a sense, God's answer is offered before we even ask. And yet,
our asking is still important, because that is the way we discover God's
presence and God's desires for us, the way we become receptive to God's
presence, the way we become open to God's guidance, malleable in the hands of
God as clay is malleable in the hands of the potter.
—The Rev. Margaret B.
When we intercede for another for example for a friend undergoing cancer surgery — we can only pray and leave it in God’s hands. If that person dies, we cannot assume that God has not answered our prayer. For one thing, what was the nature of our prayer? Did we pray that our friend would be cured and healed and made healthy? That simply may not happen. Illness, aging and death are all part of the human condition, and God does not promise that He will exempt us; God promises, rather, that if we allow Him to be present to us during such suffering, we will know the light and the strength and the peace of His sovereignty over us and all our situations. So perhaps when we intercede, we need to think about another kind of prayer, for example, one asking that our friend’s heart and spirit be trusting and open to God’s presence.
When it comes to petition, we are at the heart of the matter for many of us. What we must say here is that God answers our every petition but He often says no. There is an old saying: "Be careful what you pray for; you may get it." I will give you a personal example: One night in 1986, I was drifting into sleep when I prayed a prayer of petition; that is, I asked God for something. What I said was, "God, cut me some slack!" I was praying about finances, my personal finances and the finances of my parish, which had been "land-and-building-poor" for some 200 years.
There was plenty of space for worship and classes, even for clergy and staff housing, but not much cash with which to heat them in winter (this was in New York), cool them in summer, and provide all the other resources that would enable us as a parish to fully utilize such gifts. Personally, my wife and I had enough to get by, and we were far better off than most people in the world, as are most Americans, but we had no savings, no extra, no cushion or the wherewithal for some of the things we thought we needed and surely wanted. So, "God, cut me some slack" was my prayer that night.
few months, my life and the life of my parish had changed dramatically. My
mother in Florida had become gravely ill and had died, and as a result, I had
some slack in my income, which meant little at the time in the midst of my
grief. Plus the parish had received a bequest for several millions of dollars
and was in a civil war as to how to use it: for others or for ourselves. Dark
clouds lived over my life and the life of the parish for a long time after
—The Rev. William A. Kolb
My experience has been that God does indeed answer prayers. The trouble is I don't always like what He has to say. The majority of my prayers seem to revolve around me in one way or another. Usually, I have already figured out what I want, and I ask God to provide it. Oftentimes my plan is not His plan, and His schedule is not my schedule. Accepting His plan and truly putting Him first is very difficult, but on the rare occasions when I am able to do so, I find that I am always blessed.
I have also found that many things interfere with my prayer life. It is hard enough to find time to really talk to God, but it is seemingly impossible to find time to listen. Yet, with God all things are possible. I sometimes see a glimpse of the Light. My personal experience has been that He was serious when He said, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you" (Matthew 7:7). I just need to spend more time asking for the first things first and then listening.
One last point: Like most people, there have been times when I felt God had abandoned me.How, I wondered, could He turn His back on ME? When I have reflected upon those experiences, I realize it was I who let Him down. God was not there because I had pushed Him away. I was too busy. I was focused on the wrong things. I was allowing many other things to come before Him. I was not listening.
When my mind is clear and I allow myself to be receptive to His grace, I find that I am answered.
I don't believe many of us know the mind of God, particularly when we are asking God for something. Most of the saints are not recognized for their prayers of request, but for being able to hear the still, small voice of God in their lives. Someone has said prayer is more a matter of opening your mind than opening your mouth.
There are many kinds of prayer. Some of them do not require an answer from God at all, because they are occasions when we are simply telling God what we feel. Table graces are an example; we feel glad that God has blessed us by providing for our needs, so we tell God how grateful we are.
But there are times when we pour out our hearts to God. Sometimes we are angry at a misfortune, or hurt by another person's thoughtless words, or wracked with grief. At times like these, we sometimes don't even know what to say. According to the New Testament, when this happens, the Holy Spirit speaks to the Father for us, using a heavenly language humans cannot even know.
Prayers like these can continue literally for years. Often we are so focused on what we are feeling, we do not notice what is happening to us. But I believe that we never pray deeply without being changed. The change is not always profound; it is sometimes so small as to be imperceptible.
When I have prayed for a long time for something to happen, I sometimes feel it is senseless to pray about it any more, that surely God must be weary of hearing my requests again and again. Nevertheless, over a long period of time, these encounters of God have changed me. I have become bitter about God's failure to perform as I wish; or I stop feeling the need for the thing I was praying for; or I begin to see that the thing I wanted from God would have been bad for me, and that God was wise to withhold it.
Whatever the case, I believe that God is the Best Listener. God knows exactly where I'm coming from, and I don't have to be pretentious or summon up some holy effort. I have discovered also that God's willingness to listen to my inmost secrets never ceases. That in itself is the only answer God has ever promised to us. But as we learn to revel in its extravagant spareness, it becomes enough.
A contemporary song has a line that goes, "And I wouldn't know a burning bush if it blew up in my face." I think that's true for most of us. I believe God always answers our prayers, it just may not be the answer we want or one we're looking for.