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Unanswered Prayers and the Dialectic of Disappointment with God

July 17, 2012
Benjamin Spalink

Everyone has experienced disappointment because of “unanswered” prayers.  Think of a loved one who has suffered, a family member who falls from the faith, a dream that has fallen by the wayside. Trust in God is shattered when God fails to deliver on important prayers.  So much hinges on whether or not God really does answer prayer that it's devastating when God doesn’t respond the way we want him to, especially when those prayers are for things we believe are good – things that God ought to want to do.

Does God really always answer our prayers?  That’s what is taught in Sunday school anyway, but it doesn’t always feel like it.  As we grow older, we realize that things don’t always work out the way we had hoped. This shouldn’t cause us to give up on prayer, or worse, give up on God. The truth is that God always answers prayer, but in order to see how, we must have an open mind and an open heart.

There are two ways “unanswered” prayers can turn out – one is coherently, and the other is mysteriously.  There are times when God doesn’t answer a prayer the way we want and we will never know why.  Something terrible is about to happen and we pray against it, but it happens anyway, and there is no possible human way to reconcile why God might have allowed it to happen.  This does happen.  But experience tells me that this is rare, and usually our disappointment or disillusionment is the beginning of something more.

What we must be willing to consider is that we have a tendency to miss out on the ways God is answering our prayers. If we allow disappointment with God to lead us to the conclusion that God doesn’t care, or that God doesn’t answer our prayers, we miss a tremendous growth opportunity as well as an opportunity to see God move in response to our prayers.  There are numerous ways this can work out, but consider just a couple possibilities.

First, God could be saying, “Yes, but wait.”   In many instances, God is answering our prayer, just not at the speed that we may want.  God has his reasons and his timing, and sometimes it is for our benefit that he makes us wait.  Imagine what our relationship with God would look like if prayer took no effort and God simply gave us whatever we asked for whenever we asked for it. God is no genie in a bottle. If he allowed us to treat him that way, we'd lose our respect for him. Only newborn babies can get whatever they want whenever they want it.

Think of a time God answered a prayer such that the timing worked towards your advantage?

Sometimes, God is saying, “Yes, but not like that.”  We can never be too careful about putting parameters on God for how God will work and answer our prayers. It's not up to us to determine how God will fulfill our prayers.  God has his way of doing things, and we hurt only ourselves if we insist upon God doing something a certain way.  When God does indeed answer our prayer, we continue in our disappointment because our eyes are not open to his way of doing things.  If we are open minded about how God answers our prayers, we will be delighted to see that God oftentimes does answer prayers we thought had been unanswered.

To be realistic, sometimes, God also says, “no.” But, God’s “no” is always, “I have something better in mind.”  It’s important to remember, that a “no” is not the same as an unanswered prayer. An unanswered prayer would be one in which you got no response.  Think of “no’s” as good.  Be thankful you got a response.  But also remember, part of the whole reason we pray is to discern God’s will.  A “no” shouldn’t be taken as God not caring, or God ignoring you.  A “no” means that God has something else in mind, and God is always going to do what’s in your best interest.  We must learn to trust that and use even the hard experiences of “no” to guide us more fully into the life that God has for us.

Think of a time God said “no.”  What larger greater purpose might God have had in mind when he answered your prayer in the negative?

Remember that God wants us to lift up prayers for all things.  It is inevitable that we will pray prayers that leave us feeling disappointed, but remembering that God is a loving Father who wants to give good things to his children, we must never allow disappointment with God to lead to unbelief or giving up on prayer, but must allow this suffering to make us stronger and ever more reliant on his grace and love.  The ultimate goal of prayer is not that we get everything we want, but that we grow to realize more and more that our life, our joy, our satisfaction, our essence, is found in our relationship with God.  Even in disappointment, God is teaching us how to pray and what to become.

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Allen B

December 21, 2015 1:06 AM

I am 70 yrs old and I too have known suffering. Paul said to live is Christ and to die is gain. What do we learn while walking in this life? Suffering, joy, love, hate etc. Jesus saw/experienced it all and suffered greatly. He was tested and not found wanting. Has all this been a test to prepare us for a greater life? Have I lived life to its fullest? Have I achieved conformity to Christ? I don't know! I do know I want to know God and I find that all I have ever done or experienced in the flesh is worth nothing. The short time on this earth cannot be compared to life with Christ for all eternity! I agree, suffering I do not want or ask for, but I know it will end someday thanks to my saviour who will come again for me and you! 

L Bryant

April 20, 2015 10:43 PM

@Belinda and lyn

First off, I am truly sorry for what both of you are going through and I can't imagine the pain that you must feel and the struggle that you have been through! But I urge you to not give up on God! His thoughts are higher than our thoughts and His ways are higher than our ways. He has a reason for everything whether we understand it or not. I would encourage you to read the book of Job if you haven't already. Also, Paul encourages us in Phillipians 2:5-11 to have the same attitude as Christ. He was God, but humbled Himself into the form of a man and came to serve. Imagine that! The God that created everything became a human being just like you and me! He experienced birth as a baby (Matt 1-2, Luke 1) , life as a man, hunger (Matt 4), temptation (Matt 4), grief (John 11:35 "Jesus wept."), suffering (Isaiah 53:5) , and ultimately an extremely brutal death in addition to God totally abandoning Him for 3 days! He understands what you have been through because He's been through something just like it! And the best part is that He did it because He loved you so much that He wants you to live in Heaven with Him forever! Matthew 11:28 says, "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He cares for you more than you may think.


December 10, 2014 8:27 AM

How did God use my miscarriage for "my good"? How could allowing my baby to die and letting me pray for a healthy pregnancy when the baby in my womb was already dead be "in my best interest"?

I'm not trying to be facetious here ... I'm really struggling to process this. If Jesus came to 

give us life, and life in abundance, why did He allow me to even fall pregnant, after 6 years of infertility, if this was His plan?


April 05, 2014 8:20 PM

@lyn if i were you, I'll cried out to God day and night! Until He answers my call!


I had gone through some terrible things in life. Betrayal, affairs, my dad had had cancer for three times and the death of my sister's son.


You may not understand now but I pray that God will give you strength and grace to endure.


Taking care of six kids is tough and even tougher now that you had cancer. Do you have anyone helping you?


Is your church helping you? If they don't help you with anything you may want to look for a new one who us truly caring and God fearing.


August 20, 2013 10:42 AM

I hate hearing "God has someting else in mind, and God is always going to do what's in your best interest" or anything like that.

I asked God to heal my brother, and now he is dead.  Tell me how that works out for anyone's betterment.  I asked not for myself, but for him, having had a very aloof relationship with him.  After our mother died, I had hoped that my brother would learn to find his way in life.  Instead he's dead.

I've asked God for family - a heartfelt desire he created me with, and the answer was "no" - God put us 2,500 miles away from family nearly 40 years ago.  My kids have all moved away.

My husband's dad died of cancer 40 years ago - leaving his widow in poverty with six kids to raise.  And still she was faithful.

I continue to try to be faithful, but I'm tired and in despair.  I'm nearing the end of my life, when it will be too late to have those prayers answered.

So my point is, sometimes God just doesn't answer prayer.  And He does not treat His children fairly - blessing some and cursing others.  And to teach otherwise defies reality.

James Kim

July 18, 2012 5:41 PM

Yes, that's why we should keepy praying!


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