“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16).
“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 5:15).
If you pray for something, you’ll get it. Isn’t that what these verses are telling us? Well, we all know that it doesn’t work like this in real life. We have all prayed for things and then not received what we were asking for. So either these verses are wrong, or we are wrong to interpret them as blank checks from God to be filled however we desire.
God makes clear that there are some types of prayer that won’t be answered. On the one hand, James tells us: “You do not have, because you do not ask” (4:2). So there are some things that we don’t have simply because we have to ask for them first. But in the next verse he goes on to say: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (v. 3). So it is possible for us to ask for the wrong things or with the wrong motives, and in those situations God will not grant what we ask for.
Even 1 John 5:15 does not appear to be a blank check when we take it in context. The preceding verse says: “This is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” So it’s not the asking itself that guarantees a favorable response, it’s asking according to God’s will. We should also keep in mind that sin in our lives can hinder our prayers (see 1 Peter 3:7).
All that this means is that God is not a genie. And prayer is not a formulaic transaction. It’s a relationship.
But what about those times when we ask for something good and it goes unanswered? What about the times when we pray that our cancer-ridden Christian friend who spends her life witnessing to Jesus will be healed so she can keep ministering? What about the prayers we make on her behalf that go unanswered? What do we do when that godly woman dies and our godly prayers go unanswered?
The theological answer is that God’s will is still being done. He has a good purpose even for evil events. Joseph knew his brothers betrayed and sold him with evil intent, but he acknowledged that God meant those circumstances for good (Gen. 50:20). Peter knew that the most evil event in history—the corrupt conspiracy against and murder of the only innocent Person ever—was carried out with evil intent by evil people but still fell under the plan and purpose of God (Acts 2:23, 4:27-28). So we have to acknowledge that sometimes God’s will includes evil things, and we need to be okay with God choosing to forego our good requests for the greater good that only he can see.
But the theological answer is not always easy to swallow, particularly when we or the people we love are going through intense suffering and God appears to be turning a deaf ear. In those cases, people don’t necessarily need to be convinced of a theological truth. They need to feel loved. They need us to mourn with them (Rom. 12:15). They need to know that evil deeply grieves God as well, and that he is at work in our world to heal that which is broken, to destroy that which is evil. They need to be reminded that the day is swiftly approaching in which sin will be no more, when every tear will be wiped away and justice will be perfectly fulfilled (see Rev. 21–22).
Unanswered prayer will only be a roadblock to faith if we assume that prayer is a blank check designed to make us happy in every moment. Prayer is powerful and effective, and God is constantly accomplishing mighty things through the prayers of his people. We will not always see the direct effect of those prayers, nor will we always receive the things we ask for. But if we trust that our God is good and that our God is powerful, then we can enjoy the fellowship of prayer. We can delight in the reality that God calls us to know him and to be involved in his workings in our world through prayer. And we can lean on him when things aren’t going the way we think they should.
I will end with the same passage that I closed with last week. It is so essential to know we are not always going to know what to pray for and to be okay with that. The Spirit himself is praying for us, and he knows what to pray for. God is on your side, and if all you can muster is a prayer of uncertainty and a request to God to guide you as he sees best, then you’re on the right track:
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:26-28)