I heard from someone last week who asked “How long am I supposed to pray if God continues to ignore me?”
It might feel like God is ignoring you when He doesn’t answer your prayers the way you’re hoping. But Scripture offers us insights as to why God might appear to be silent. One verse that I’ve found most helpful in my own life – when it comes to unanswered prayer – is Psalm 84:11, in which the Psalmist said “No good thing will [God] withhold from those who walk uprightly.” I find three principles (and loads of encouragement) in this verse for why God might not be answering my prayer or yours.
God’s idea of a “good thing” might be different than yours.
You might be praying for a husband, a job you’ve been hoping for, or to win the lottery. Why would God not give you any or all of the three? Because even though you might feel it’s good for you to be married, or to be working in a job you like, or to have more money, God’s opinion might differ. Just because something makes us happy doesn’t mean it’s good for us, eternally. And God has our eternal best in mind.
In Matthew 7:11 Jesus said, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him.”
We want our children to be happy, but not at the expense of their health, and therefore we don’t give them candy at every meal. We want them to hold down a good job, but we won’t do that job for them because learning responsibility and the consequences of a bad decision are more healthy and good for them in the long run. Trust that God, your Heavenly Father, knows what is best for you. And while you may be heartbroken at His “no,” He may very well be sparing you a bigger heartache down the road.
God is waiting for you to be obedient.
Scripture exhorts husbands to be considerate of their wives and treat them with respect so that their prayers aren’t hindered (1 Peter 3:7). And Psalm 84:11 says “no good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly.” Are you walking uprightly? Is your life not only obedient, but surrendered to Him? If not, God may be withholding or refusing to acknowledge your prayers to get you back into line with His will and purposes.
It isn’t the right time.
God has three answers. Yes, no, and wait. Because He can see what’s eternally best for us, and He can also see what’s coming down the road (and we can’t), trust His judgment. Don’t second-guess Him. His timing is always better than yours. If you are walking uprightly and what you’re asking for is truly a good thing then, according to Psalm 84:11, God is not withholding after all. It just isn’t time.
You aren’t asking in faith.
How we pray is just as important as what we pray for. In James 1:5-8 we are told:
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do.”
Furthermore, Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” So ask in faith and without hesitation or doubting. God may be waiting for you to truly believe He can do what you are asking for.
God has something better for you than what you are asking for.
This is my favorite reason for why God says “no” but we so often forget to consider it. Because He is good and knows what’s eternally best for us, and doesn’t want us to settle, God sometimes says no or closes a door because He has something better for us that we haven’t even thought to ask for. He is One who can do “immeasurably more” than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). Trust His timing. Trust His “no.” And trust His idea of what is eternally best for you. He really is a good father.
Billy Graham’s Thoughts
So often we are inclined to think that the only answer God can give our prayers is “yes.” We need to remember that “no” is an answer also. “No” is certainly an answer of love on the part of our Heavenly Father when we ask Him for things which are not really for our good or for His glory. God does not always give us what we want; He gives us what we need. Just as a good parent does not grant all the requests of his child, God does not answer every request in the way we desire.
When we think of “unanswered” prayer, it may be that we do not understand the way in which God responds to our requests. He may not grant an immediate answer, and sometimes our prayers are answered in a way that we fail to recognize. We pray for prosperity, and sometimes financial stress is given. But our souls are made stronger for the test. We pray for health, and affliction is given, and we are better able to sympathize with those in affliction. God makes no mistakes, though at times we may question His wisdom.
Our motive for making a request to God must be pure. If your prayer is self-centered, concerned with the gratification of your own desires, God cannot, in faithfulness, grant your requests. James 4:3 says, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”
Perhaps you are praying for a person close to you, and you have not seen any changes. God can work through your prayers to soften a heart or to bring about circumstances to draw those for whom you are praying closer to Him. However, God has given man a free will. If your prayers are not always answered as you expect, it is not because God is not working in the situation. It may be that the person for whom you are praying has not yet responded to God’s call. You must not permit yourself to give in to despair. You should, however, continue in prayer, knowing that the Lord is more concerned for them than you are and that it is His will to help them; read 1 Timothy 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9, and 1 John 5:14-15.
David Jeremiah’s Thoughts
Why don’t my prayers get answered? I’ve had a lot of people ask me that question. There once was a pastor who had a 5-year-old daughter and the girl noticed that every time her dad stood behind the pulpit and was getting ready to preach, he would bow his head for a moment before he began to preach. And the little girl noticed that he did this every single time. So one day after the service, the little girl went to her dad and she said, “Dad, why do you bow your head right before you preach your sermon”? “Well, honey,” the preacher said, “I’m asking the Lord to help me preach a good sermon”. And the little girl looked up at her father and asked, “Then how come he doesn’t do it”? Unanswered prayer. Everybody who knows anything about prayer and praise has a little different take on it and here’s a young lady who’s a teenager. Here’s where her thoughts are on prayer. She said, “God answers prayer four ways: “Yes,” “No,” “Wait a while,” and “You’ve got to be kidding”. Which tells you some of the things she asked for that she didn’t get.
I remember years ago I read a story about a man who was being pursued by a roaring hungry lion. Feeling the beast’s hot breath on his neck and knowing his time was short, he began to pray as he ran. He cried out in desperation, “Oh Lord, please make that lion a Christian”. Within seconds, the frightened man became aware that the lion had stopped the chase. When he looked behind him, he found the lion kneeling, his lips moving in obvious prayer. Greatly relieved at this turn of events, the young man went to join the lion in his meditation and, as he approached the king of the jungle, when he was near enough, he heard the lion praying, “And bless, Oh Lord, this food which I am exciting grateful for”.
There’s always something with a little humor in it but, let’s be honest, there’s nothing really funny about praying and not feeling like you’re getting answered. The problem of unanswered prayer is not something that started with our generation. In the Old Testament, Habakkuk struggled with his unanswered prayer. He cried out, “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and you will not hear”? Job struggled with unanswered prayer. In Job 31:35 we have his words, “Oh, that I had one to hear me! Oh, that the Almighty would answer me”. King David struggled with unanswered prayer. In Psalm 13, we read his words, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me”? Habakkuk, Job, David, all echo the frustrations that many of us have had at one time or another when it seems as if God is not answering our prayers.
Now, let me be right upfront with this. The Bible says that God does not hear and answer the prayers of those who do not belong to his family. Praying is a family exercise. It belongs to those who are in the family of God. The only prayer that God hears from someone who’s not a Christian is, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner”. But even after we become members of the family, we began to realize that sometimes when we pray, it doesn’t seem like our prayers are working. There are several places in the Word of God that simply say that under certain circumstances God will not answer our prayer”. And this is what I want us to explore in these next few moments. I hope we can use this as a sort of checklist. If my prayers are not being answered, could the reason be found on this list? Let’s begin.
Sometimes our prayers are not answered because of unprayed prayers. James 4, verse 2, says, “You have not, because you ask not”. It’s amazing to me how many people say, “God doesn’t answer my prayer”. When I begin to talk with them, I find out they have never specifically asked God for the thing they say they have not received. God is not gonna answer your prayer for some specific thing because you pray at the dinner table. You’re to ask him, the Bible says, “Ask, and ye shall receive; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” Matthew chapter 7. The biggest reason why prayers aren’t answered and this is probably bigger than all of the other reasons, is they’re just not offered. We have not because we ask not.
And then the Bible says that sometimes our prayers are not answered because of unconfessed sin. I used to think there was just maybe one verse about this in the Bible but during this particular study I have found out that this is a prevalent truth in the Word of God. Here’s the most famous verse that says that, Psalm 66:18, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear”. Or Proverbs 15:29, “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous. Or Proverbs 28, verse 9, “One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination”. Or Isaiah 1:15, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you, even though you make many prayers, I will not hear. Your hands are full of blood”. Isaiah 59: 1 and 2, “Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor his ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But our iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear”. Or 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”.
Sometimes as followers of Christ, our prayers don’t get answered because we’re harboring unconfessed sin in our lives. Go back with me to the first verse, Psalm 66:18. Read it again. “If I regard iniquity in my heart”. Notice, it doesn’t say, “If I sin, the Lord will not hear me”. It says, “If I regard iniquity in my heart”. In other words, if I know there is a sin in my life and I’m not doing anything about it. A person who regards iniquity is one who holds a particular sin in his heart and he loves it and he makes an alibi for it and he excuses it and he covers it up. It is not primarily, therefore, the fact of sin that keeps us from getting our prayers unanswered, it is the love for it and the excusing of it that pushes God away from us.
The prayer God wants to hear from us when we have sin in our lives is 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. All of us, as believers, sin. The Bible says, “If a person says, ‘I do not sin,’ he is a liar and he doesn’t do the truth”. But it’s what we do with it when it happens that God cares about. He’s opened a way for us to have instantaneous forgiveness. But if we harbor something that we know is evil, something that’s sinful and then we try to pray, we will often find it to be very difficult.
Sometimes our prayers are not answered because of unprayed prayers and unconfessed sin and sometimes our prayers are not answered because of unbelieving minds. It says in James chapter 1, “Let 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 he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways”. What does it mean to be double-minded? It means to trust God and then not to trust him. To trust him over here, not to trust him over here. To believe him here, to not believe him here.
Someone has written this in a little free verse. It goes like this. “As children bring their broken toys with tears for us to mend, I brought my broken dreams to God because he was my friend. But instead of leaving him in peace to work alone, I hung around and tried to help with ways that were my own. At last, I snatched them back and cried, ‘How could you be so slow?’ ‘My child,’ he said, ‘what could I do? You would never let them go.'” To be double-minded is not to let the request go, not to be able to give them up completely to God. To give them to God and take them back. Sometimes our prayers aren’t answered because we pray them and then we take them back. And we try to work out the solution ourself instead of trusting God.
And then number four, sometimes our prayers are not answered because of unrighteous motives. James 4, verse 3 says, “You ask and you do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures”. Now, let’s just be honest about this, men and women. God is not the big genie in the sky. He is not the sugar daddy just waiting for you to come and tell him all of the fluffy little wonderful things you would like. Maybe we do that when we’re little kids, but grown-ups need to know better than that. God is not there in heaven just waiting for you to ping him so he can give you everything you ever dreamed of, no matter what you’ve heard on television or on radio. 1 John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence that we have in God, that if we ask anything according to his will, he will hear us”. Matthew 6:9 and 10 says, “Hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done”. Psalm 37:4 says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart”.
We must remember that God’s ultimate concern is not with our team winning the ball game, but in himself being glorified in the process. His ultimate concern is not that we all have perfect health but that we lift every ounce of our health up to his honor and glory. His ultimate concern is not that we have a high-paying job, but that we praise him and are thankful for what he provides. His ultimate concern is that we are consumed with his glory in whatever state we are in and I believe that God delights in giving even the smallest of things to his children. But we must weigh the motives of our hearts against the substance of our requests. We must ask, “Is my desire in this to see God glorified in my life or am I just wanting this so that it’s for me”? Sometimes we don’t pray right. Listen to me now. Sometimes we pray, “Thy will be changed,” not “Thy will be done”. Do you ever pray that prayer? Maybe not in those words but, Lord, can we talk about this once more? Thy will be changed. Someone said, “When you pray, do you give instructions or do you report for duty”?
Sometimes, number five, our prayers are not answered because of unresolved conflicts. The Bible says in Mark chapter 11, “When you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses. But if you do not forgive, neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses”. Again, in Matthew chapter 5, it says, “Therefore if 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. Be reconciled to your brother, and come and offer your gift”. The Bible says, “If you are harboring resentment or unforgiveness or anger in your heart toward another brother or sister, it may not shut down your prayer life. It just says it will hinder it. It’ll get in the way. It’s almost like you’re coming to the Lord with your prayer and you hear him in the back of your mind saying to you, “Have you taken care of that yet”? And it takes the edge off of it. Nothing is so important as maintaining the right relationships that you have with others.
And then number 6 tells us that our prayers are not answered because of uncompassionate hearts. Proverbs 21:13 says, “Whoever shuts his ears to the cry of the poor will also cry himself and not be heard”. Wow. This is not about trying to feed the world’s hungry although we ought to be concerned about that. This prayer barrier is about failing to have compassion for those we know who are in need. The Bible says when you harbor an uncompassionate spirit, when you don’t ask God to make you sensitive to people you can help, then it will be hard for you to have the relationship in prayer that you desire. And then finally, the last one and I have to tell you, this is for men only. All you women can’t listen to this. I’m fooling with you a little bit because you all need to listen to it but I’ll never forget when I first understood this. And I read the verse and I read it and I thought, “Is that really true”? And I read it again and every time I’ve read it, I’ve come back and so I’m gonna read this verse to you and you see if you have the same response I do.
1 Peter 3:7, “Husbands, likewise, dwell with them,” your wives, “with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered”. Wow. Men, what that says to us, if we’re Christian husbands and we have a Christian wife, our relationship with our wife can often be the reason why God isn’t listening carefully to our prayers. This passage of Scripture says that men that are not having the right kind of relationship with their wives can, at the very least, find their prayers hindered. It makes it hard to pray for your wife when you haven’t been loving her and meeting her needs and living with her according to the teaching of the Word of God, according to knowledge. On the other hand, just think of the potential that is wrapped up in the two of you praying together for something because the Bible says that “if two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by the Father”.
When you pray with your wife, men, you open up an incredible potential before God. I know that for most of us who are “A” personalities, I confess, praying with your wife may be a difficult thing. But praying with your wife is an important thing. The Bible says, if you don’t cherish and honor the woman in your life who is your wife, if you don’t try to serve her, if your relationship with her is not right, it will affect the way you pray and what happens when you pray. So there you have it. Unprayed prayers, unconfessed sin, unbelieving minds, unrighteous motives, unresolved conflicts, uncompassionate hearts, and unresponsive husbands. I wanna give you one final little paradigm that wraps all of this up in four statements. This is what this is all about. I’ve written this down in the front of my Bible, and here’s what it says.
“When you pray, if the request is wrong, God says, ‘No.'” How many of you know, “No” is an answer? We try to teach our kids that but we don’t like it when it comes back to us. “Yes” is the answer we want but “No” is an answer, and I am so thankful for the times over my life, as I look back over my shoulder, when I have prayed for something and God has said, “No”. I didn’t like it at the time but, oh, do I see it now. So if the request is wrong, God will just say, “No,” and you’ll get it. If the timing is wrong, God will say, “Slow”. How many of you know God isn’t on our schedule. God doesn’t work off of our calendar app. God doesn’t work off of our time schedule. God works totally off of his time schedule and when we ask for something, he’s not obligated to give it to us by next Thursday.
So sometimes, we ask God for something and it’s a good request and it’s a legitimate request but the timing for the reception of it is just not right. Sometimes, we ask God for something and if the request is wrong, he says, “No,” and if the timing’s wrong, he says, “Slow”. And sometimes, and this has been the bulk of the message today, we ask God for something and we are wrong. Something’s going on in our life that needs to be fixed. And when that happens, God says, “Grow”. Grow up, get it right. And the good news is that if the request is right and the timing is right and you were right, God says, “Go”.
I want you to know that God answers prayer. He’s answered a lot of prayers for me, continues to answer them for me every day. But I’m like you, I know I can do better with this prayer thing. And I’m sure when we get done with our lives and we look over our shoulders and somebody says, “If you could do something better, what would you do”? Somebody asked Billy Graham that question and he said, “If I could do anything better, I would pray more. I would have prayed more in my life”. All of us feel that. You know, someone said, “If you wanna empty an auditorium, announce that you’re gonna preach on prayer ’cause nobody will come”. ‘Cause everybody has a bit of a sense of guilt in our hearts that we don’t pray as we ought. Can I get a witness? Kind of somber but it’s a good witness. So you know what? This is not to make us feel guilty about prayer, this is to help us find out how we can be more effective in praying. I got some things in my life right now that I really need God for. How about you? I wanna make sure that I don’t have anything in the way of God being able to hear my prayer and answer it and I hope you feel the same way.
A lady came up to me. She said, “I’ve been praying for my father and he’s getting close to the end of his life and God doesn’t seem to be hearing”. And I told her, Howard Hendricks who was a good friend of mine once told me that he prayed for his father for every single day for 72 years. And at the very end of his life, before he died, he became a Christian. All I can say to you is if you’re praying and it seems like God isn’t answering, remember, God’s not on your time schedule and so you’re to pray, continually, faithfully, every day, no matter what. Don’t give up, don’t quit. Keep praying. He loves you and he cares about you. He wants you to get your prayers answered. And let’s make sure we understand that the one reason most of us don’t get ’em answered is this. ‘Cause we don’t ask em. “We have not, because we ask not”.