In the 2005 science fiction thriller, The Island, two clones, created for sole the purpose of providing organs for wealthy donors, escape their compound. At one point in the film, they encounter an individual who speaks of a “god complex.” One of the clones asks, “What’s God?” The man replies, “You know, when you want something really bad and you close your eyes and you wish for it? God’s the guy that ignores you.”
Sadly, that is the attitude that many have toward prayer—even, to a limited degree, Christians. Sam Storms has noted, “The easiest thing about praying is quitting. Giving up seems so reasonable, so easy to justify.” Most of us, if we are honest, we will admit that this rings true with us. So often, we pour our hearts out in prayer, only to be (seemingly) ignored. Despite our prayers, a loved one dies, a job is lost, finances crumble, relationships are shattered, and sin remains unconquered.
On the one hand, we read these powerful words by the apostle John: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15). On the other hand, we do not experience what we think these verses mean. We just know (or so we convince ourselves) that our prayers are according to God’s will, and yet he doesn’t seem to answer. How do we make sense of this?
We must understand that this problem is not unique to us or to our time in history. Believers throughout the ages have struggled to persevere in the face of seemingly unanswered prayers. That is one reason that Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 3:2).
But noting that we are not unique in our frustration does little to help us when the heavens appear to be brass. If we will obey the injunction of Colossians 3:2 to “continue steadfastly in prayer,” it will help to think through some of the reasons that God doesn’t always immediately answer our prayers.
Storms suggests at least six reasons that we do not always experience God’s immediate positive response to our prayers.
First, presumption: We battle with the unbiblical notion that God owes us whatever we want. We think that he must immediately give us what we ask for because that’s his job. God owes us nothing. Every breath we take, every positive experience we have, is purely an act of sovereign grace.
Second, dependence: God’s delays are frequently a means for us to cultivate greater dependence on him. By our nature, we like to be independent. We are self-reliant and self-sufficient. If God always gave us immediately what we asked for, this sense of independence would surely only grow. It is frequently when we come to admit and express our utter dependence that God is pleased to act on our behalf.
Third, receiving: Persistent prayer serves to put us into a right frame of mind to receive what God is prepared to give. God is not averse to answering prayer, but we must be prepared to receive it in a humble, thankful manner. Until we are ready to do so, God will often withhold from us what we are seeking.
Fourth, motive: We often do not have because we do not ask, and even when we do ask, we do so with wrong motives (James 4:1–3). Often, when God delays and we have time to think through our requests, we come to realise that they aren’t as God-honouring as we initially believed them to be. Delayed response to prayer affords us opportunity to weed out improper petitions.
Fifth, petitions: Sometimes, it is the actual content of our prayers that requires alteration, and a delay in God’s answer affords us opportunity to alter our requests accordingly. As God delays his response, we have opportunity to rethink our requests.
Sixth, patience: Delayed response to prayer cultivates patience. Often, we simply need to learn to wait on God. Waiting on God is “an active, expectant, persistent pressing in to the heart and purposes of a loving God” (Storms). Perseverance in prayer is the best way for us to learn this.
Paul adds that we are to do this “with thanksgiving.” It is not always easy to be thankful when God does not seem to answer prayer. But there are some things for which we can always be thankful.
First, God exists. The author of the letter to the Hebrews writes that “whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6). God is alive, alert and never sleeps. We pray to a real God who is actually listening and is never too busy to hear the prayers of his people.
Second, God listens. He is never too busy to hear the prayers of his people. In fact, He delights to hear them. “The LORD waits to be gracious to you” (Isaiah 30:18). The picture is almost of God waiting with bated breath to be gracious to his people.
Third, God can—that is, He can answer prayer. He is “able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). He is not weak, subject to any force outside of himself. He is omnipotent and infinitely wise, and delights to give good things to his children (Luke 11:13).
Fourth, God includes. It ought to create in us profound gratitude that God actually chooses to include us in his purposes. He does not need us. He can accomplish whatever he purposes to accomplish quite apart from our participation, yet often blesses us by including us in his plans.
Fifth, God transforms: He changes us even while we pray. The design of prayer is less to change God’s mind and more to change ours. We should deliberately thank God that he uses times of prayer to conform our will to his.
Sixth, and finally, God answers. It does good as we pray to thank God in advance for what he will do in response to our requests. “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).
In the words of John Piper, “when Paul says our praying is to be done with thanksgiving, he means that we should keep our eyes on the victory of God. We do not fight as losers or even as those who are uncertain. We know God will win. And if we have eyes to see, we will recognize the path of his power again and again.”