Prayer is one of the many precious privileges we have as God’s covenant people. He has indeed promised to answer our prayers. For instance, Jesus says in Matthew 7,
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7-11).In Mark 11, he says,
Have faith in God. Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:22-24).We could go on to cite many more passages as well. But the question is, why is it that our prayers often seem to go unanswered. Let me offer a few suggestions.
Prayer is a part of a personal relationship with God. When we pray, it is not like we are interacting with a vending machine, where we put our money in, press the appropriate buttons and get exactly what we want in return. But this is how some people seem to approach God in prayer. It’s a kind of mechanical and automatic affair: “I make my requests known to God and in return I get what I want.” But clearly we should not think of prayer in this way.
Again, prayer is a part of a personal relationship with God, who is a wise and loving father. Because he loves us, he delights to answer our prayers. But because he is wise, he doesn’t always answer them in the way we had in mind—or in the time-frame we might wish.
Let me give you an example. When my son was very young, he wanted a gun—a .22 caliber rifle. I was not opposed in principle to my son owning a gun; but I didn’t think he was old enough yet to have one. And so I got him a BB gun instead. It was more appropriate for his age. I granted his request, but not in precisely the way he wanted. When he got older, however, he got his .22.
This is how God often deals with us. It may be his desire to grant a request, but he sees that we are not yet ready for it. And so he may delay granting it. Perhaps he will give us something else instead, something more appropriate for us and better suited to our needs. Or he may see that it is in our best interests not to grant the request at all.
We should trust that he is both loving and wise, and leave it to him to answer our prayers however he sees fit.
Having said this, however, I should also point out that the Scriptures give several conditions for answered prayer.
First, what we pray for must be in keeping with God’s will. “This is the confidence we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 Jn. 5:14).
Second, we must ask with right motives. “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3).
Third, we must be walking uprightly before the Lord. “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18).
Fourth, we must ask in faith. “Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord” (Jas. 1:6-7).
Fifth, we must not harbor unforgiveness in hearts if we expect an answer to prayer. “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses” (Mk. 11:25).
Sixth, husbands must treat their wives well if they expect God to hear them. “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet. 3:7).
Lastly, we must ask in Jesus’ name. He is the only mediator between God and men. We cannot approach God the Father on our own merits, but must rely instead upon the merits of Christ.