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Surprising answers about unanswered prayers

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Americans are surprisingly optimistic about answered prayer. In fact, nearly 25 percent of people who pray told Lifeway that all their prayers are answered! The majority of people, 58 percent, report that “some” or “most” of their prayers get answered (Americans Pray for Friends and Family, but Rarely for Celebrities or Sports Teams – Lifeway Research). In the most recent study, almost 90 percent of the people who pray said at least one of their prayers was answered in the last year (87 percent of Americans who pray say prayers were answered | Living News). 

The statistics cited are much higher than might be expected, but the enthusiastic Americans who pray are on target. Every prayer is answered. That’s hard to explain to those who infrequently or never pray, because we usually resist the idea that an acceptable answer can be “No.”

In addition to yes and no, when we pray God also reserves the right to keep us waiting. So “yes,” “no” and “wait” are all possible answers to prayer. Oswald Chambers, the early 20th century devotional writer, reminded us of God’s sovereignty when he said, “Never make the blunder of trying to forecast the way God is going to answer your prayer.” 

The answer may be “No”

God has no difficulty saying “No.” For example, Moses had led Israel toward the promised land for 40 years only to be told he could not enter with the people, as a result of his sin. He begged God to change His mind, but God told Moses, “…Enough from you; do not speak to me of this matter again” (Deuteronomy 3:26). David dreamed of building a temple, but God had other plans and rejected David’s seemingly worthy ambition (2 Samuel 7:1-13).

Jesus prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane that, if possible, the “cup” could “pass” (Matthew 26:39-44). Of course, the cross was unavoidable. In other words, God’s answer was “no.” The apostle Paul was plagued with some impediment he called “a thorn in the flesh,” and “a messenger of Satan.” Three times he prayed it would leave him. God refused (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). If Moses, King David, the apostle Paul and even the Lord Jesus could hear God say “no” in answer to prayer, then it seems obvious we should prepare to hear it too. 

What we want and what God determines may be at odds, but praying about it doesn’t bend His will or tempt Him to disregard His own character. No wonder the pithy reminder from the 19th century Episcopal priest, Phillips Brooks, still rings true – “Nothing lies outside the reach of prayer, except that which lies outside the will of God.” 

The answer may be “Wait” 

God also frequently challenges our impatience by delaying the answer to our prayer. As others have observed: Man microwaves, but God marinates! In other words, the way we react to time and the way God uses time are completely different. God’s timetable for answering our prayers, therefore, often makes no sense to us. How can it? We are restrained by time while God moves freely in His own timing. People who learn to persist in prayer do so by constantly allowing for the timing factor. 

King David, for instance, understood that prayer waits on God’s timing, “I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry” (Psalm 40:1). An interesting passage in Daniel also paints a picture of God’s timing related to answered prayer. Daniel prayed and waited three weeks for an answer which was delayed for reasons known only in the counsel of God. Even with the explanation given to Daniel, we may be left with as many questions as answers about why God waits. We do learn from Daniel’s experience, however, that our prayers and their answers are interconnected in and with God’s larger purposes in ways that we, in our limited perspectives, may never fully appreciate except by faith.

“Then he said to me, ‘Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia’” (Daniel 10:12-13). 

In our impatience and self-obsession, we remain oblivious to the space between our requests and God’s answers. In that nexus exists imperceptible connections to circumstances which remain unnoticed by us, but which are critical to the purposes of God. 

God has His reasons for waiting before He answers. Rather than getting discouraged, therefore, we should try to remember that God’s delays are not necessarily God’s denials. In fact, when we pray, and the answer is “no” or “wait” we are actually experiencing God’s best. As Charles Spurgeon correctly observed, “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.” 

The answer to your prayer may not be what you expected. It may be the opposite of what you hoped for. But for the believer, the only unanswered prayer is an un-offered prayer because our God answers prayer.

    About the Author

  • Kie Bowman

    Kie Bowman is senior pastor emeritus of Hyde Park Baptist Church and The Quarries Church in Austin, Texas and the SBC National Director of Prayer.

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