Unanswered prayer

There are, as far as I can see, only five scriptural reasons why a Christian's prayers may not be answered.

Praying outside of God's will

Our prayers may not be answered because we are praying for something which our Lord, in his wisdom, would not grant us even if we persisted in asking.

My own view, however, is that such prayers are not as common as we might think. Jesus said that everything is possible for him who believes (Mar 9:21–23). Lack of faith, in my opinion, is a far greater hindrance to prayers being answered than praying outside of God's will.

Praying without faith

Our prayers may not be answered because we are praying without faith or we are praying with doubts in our mind.

Jesus' disciples asked him why they couldn't drive a demon out of a boy, and he told them it was because they had so little faith. He said, 'If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, "Move from here to there" and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you (Mat 17:19–21).'

James tells us that the man who asks God for something, but doubts he'll receive it, will not receive anything from the Lord. He is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does (Jam 1:5–8). By contrast Jesus said, 'Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mar 11:24).'

When we pray we should not doubt. We should pray with faith, believing we'll receive what we're asking for.

Delayed answers

Our prayers may not be answered yet because God is testing our faith to develop our perseverance. If every prayer we prayed was answered immediately, how much faith would we need? The answer is very little. But if we have to pray for weeks, months, years or even decades before receiving the answer, then our faith in God will be truly tested.

Perseverance is continuing in a course of action despite difficulty, or with little or no sign of success. Put into spiritual terms, it means continuing in the faith when things don't go well for us (Job 2:7–10; Hab 3:17–18), and continuing to pray for something when we have no indication our prayers are being answered.

The Bible says that we cannot be mature and complete as Christians without perseverance (Jam 1:4). That is why we're to count it pure joy whenever we face trials and difficulties in life, because it's an opportunity for us to grow in this area (Jam 1:2–3).

There was a time for Job to be healed, but not before his perseverance had been tested (Jam 5:11). The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven (Ecc 3:1), and that includes a time for our prayers to be answered.

Remember, God answers prayer not too soon, or too late: his timing is perfect. When he sees in us what he wants to see, the answer will come. God's delays are not his denials.

Another area in which delayed answers to prayer can cause us to grow spiritually, is that of patience. The Bible says that God is patient (1Pe 3:20; 2Pe 3:9), so it's not surprising that patience is a fruit of his Spirit (Gal 5:22) and something he wants us to grow in.

If we desire to be godly people we must be patient people, and sometimes the only way we can learn patience is by having to wait.

Patience is linked to perseverance in Scripture (Jam 5:7–11) and aids perseverance. Patient people are more likely to persevere in prayer until they receive an answer, whereas impatient people tend to give up if their prayers aren't answered quickly.

Has God promised you something and it hasn't come to pass? Persevere in prayer, have faith and wait for it patiently (Heb 6:12). God promised Abraham a son, but it was many years before Isaac was born (Heb 6:15). He was born—but in God's time. Providing we live in obedience to God, he will keep all of his promises to us (Zec 6:15; Num 23:19).

If you are praying in God's will, don't think your prayers aren't being answered. They are being answered, it's just that the answer hasn't arrived yet. Keep praying (Luk 18:1–8)!

Sin in our lives

Our prayers may never be answered because there is sin in our lives. Referring to prayer, the psalmist wrote: 'If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened (Psa 66:18–19).'

Were our Lord's prayers answered? Yes. And why were they answered. Because he was the Son of God? No. Our Lord's prayers were answered because of his faith and his righteous life (Joh 8:29); and that same power in prayer is available to us too (1Jo 3:21–22).

If the Lord had sinned he could not have been our Saviour; God would not have overlooked his sin because he was his Son. Likewise, if the Lord had cherished sin in his heart, his Father would not have listened to his prayers (Joh 9:30–31).

James tells us that the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective (Jam 5:16). If we want power in prayer we need to live righteous lives. What is righteousness? Righteousness is doing what is right in the sight of God (1Jo 3:7).

Note that Achan's sin of covetousness meant that Israel could not stand against its enemies (Jos 7:1–26).

Satanic opposition

Our prayers may not be answered yet because there is satanic opposition to overcome.

This can be true with respect to personal prayer and I believe it's the main reason for unanswered prayer in matters pertaining to the Church. Satan does not want God's will to be done on earth and he will do everything he can to try to prevent it from being done.

Please read Dan 10:1–14.

Daniel fasted and prayed for twenty-one days before he received the understanding of the vision. The satanic power that resisted God's angel did not want Daniel to receive the revelation: there was opposition to his prayers in the heavenly realms.

Paul tells us that our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12). What would have happened if Daniel had stopped fasting and praying? It is quite possible he would not have received the understanding.

I believe this passage has been included in Scripture to teach us a lesson about spiritual warfare. If we could see what was going on in the spirit world, I'm sure we would pray more earnestly and more persistently.

It's not that God doesn't want his Church to grow, or that it's not time for it to grow. Satanic forces must be overcome before it can grow, and that is accomplished by prayer and, if necessary, by fasting. Fasting intensifies prayer.

Michael Graham
June 2002
Revised May 2011

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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