What does it mean when my prayers seem to go unanswered?
At the very least it means you've come up against the mystery of God. And as frustrating and even painful as it can be to experience firsthand, the fact that God is inscrutable must, in the final analysis, be understood as a primary and necessary feature of the divine.
We must always remember that we don't know God exhaustively. We can't. If we could fully know God, then we'd have a God we probably wouldn't care to know all that well.
No one is awed by anything they can totally understand and predict. If you want an awesome God (and you do, believe me you do!), then you're going to have to be okay with sometimes not being privy to the how's and why's of his plans.
What you want, then, is a God who's both awesome and loving. If you're going to have a God who's not so utterly transparent that you can tell everything he's going to do-that is, a God for whom infinite mystery is a primary characteristic-then you definitely want a God upon whom you can depend to do whatever he does out of love for you.
Welcome to Christianity. God does love you, always. And you can trust him, always. You can always depend upon God to do the most loving thing.
That said, however, sometimes your prayers are not in any apparent way going to be answered in the way you would hope. And a lot of times you won't have any idea why God chose not to fulfill your stated desires.
But why might God have chosen to respond to your request with a 'no' or with silence?
First off, consider the possibility that when you were praying the prayer in question, your heart wasn't truly into it. That happens. With our desires we're sometimes like a little kid who seems as if he or she really, really wants something-who, in fact, at the time is positive they really, really want that thing. But you know how that is. Sometimes when kids are super intense about getting something they want, they squeeze their eyes shut real tight, get hyper-focused, and basically act like if they don't get what they're begging for, the entire universe will get sucked into the giant black hole caused by their not having it. Sometimes when that happens, you know the kid's desires are temporary-that they have more to do with drama (or peer pressure, or boredom, or over-stimulation) than with any sort of genuine need. So maybe when you prayed for something you never got, or that event never happened, God knew you didn't really want it all that much.
But let's say you prayed earnestly for something that wasn't frivolous, and your prayer still went unanswered. This disappointment is a little more serious. What bears to be said, though, is that this disappointment is also founded upon a supposition that bears some examining. The supposition is that you know what desires God should and shouldn't fulfill. That is one . . . beefy premise. Again (we know, borderline insultingly) we look to the child as a metaphor. Sometimes what kids want at a given time isn't what's actually going to work best for them in the long run: a pocketful of candy. A Mohawk haircut. A forehead tattoo. Their own Hummer. You know the sorts of things we mean.
It certainly seems like a secure bet that sometimes God doesn't answer our prayers because he's aware that his, ours, and the whole world's best interests will not be served if he does.
It's safe to say that when God decides what's best, he's got a broader perspective for making that decision than anything we can bring to the table.
All of which brings us to the very good reason that when mature Christians do pray for something, they tend not to say, "God, please do [such and such]," but rather, "God, if it is your will, please do [such and such]." This is the all-important caveat. Always leave to him the final determination of whether or not what you're asking for is, in fact, the thing most ultimately beneficial.
Besides being the Obvious Best Judge of what is and isn't best for us and the world at large, God, in his unending benevolence, also tends to grant us a great deal more than we would have ever dared request. Being in a relationship with God means that if you earnestly pray, he's likely to bless you far more than you could have dreamed. God knows your life. And part of that is knowing when it's best for you to wait on whatever he has in mind for you.
Be slow to reach the pessimistic conclusion that God has failed to answer one of your prayers. Let things unfold awhile. See what happens. Given time, you'll often find that God has answered your prayers, but in ways so far beyond what you actually prayed that you hadn't even noticed how richly and abundantly your prayer has been answered.
The above piece is an adaptation from Being Christian, by Steve Arterburn and John Shore. Bloomington, Bethany House Publishers, 2008.
Stephen Arterburn is the founder of New Life Ministries, the largest provider of Christian counseling and treatment in North America. As host of the daily New Life Live! radio program, he is heard nationally on over one hundred and eighty stations and at www.newlife.com. Steve is the lead speaker at The New Life Weekend, a conference with specialty programs for Marriage, Balancing Your Life, Anger, Fear, Boundaries, Depression, Weight Loss, Abuse, and Forgiveness. Steve is also the creator of Women of Faith® Conferences and the author/coauthor of over fifty books, including Healing is a Choice, Lose it For Life, Internet Protect Your Kids, Every Man's Battle, Avoiding Mr. Wrong, Reframe Your Life, and Midlife Manual for Men.