Thinking it through

The puzzle of unanswered prayers

The puzzle of unanswered prayers
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Stephen Rees
Stephen Rees Stephen Rees is pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport.
31 October, 2023 14 min read

More than 17 years ago, I wrote an article about the problem of ‘unanswered prayers’. It was published in our church’s monthly bulletin. I read it again recently and was prompted to think about the prayers I’ve prayed in the years between.

In those 17 years, I’ve seen some wonderful answers to prayer. I keep a notebook in which I record things I’ve asked for from God and which he’s granted. Every now and again I go back and look through the list. And whenever I do that, I’m thrilled to see some of the remarkable ways in which the Lord has answered specific prayers.

I’ve experienced some remarkable answers to prayer in the last year. I’ve prayed that God would solve problems that seemed absolutely insoluble – and he acted more quickly and completely than I had dared to hope. I’ve prayed that he would meet particular needs – and they’ve been met in ways that never occurred to me as possibilities. I’ve prayed that he would give me help to do things that I felt were beyond my capabilities. And somehow, marvellously, they were done.

Some of the things that God has done for me in answer to prayer have been big things – things that seemed to fill the whole horizon. Others might seem very small things – things that really didn’t matter that much in the long run. Would it really have mattered if I hadn’t found a parking space on that chaotic day when I was dashing around desperately trying to get everything done? Probably not. But it was kind of God to make sure there was a space available at just the right place and at the right moment.

Every answer to prayer is precious. When my Father gives me exactly what I’ve asked for, that comes as a great encouragement, a wonderful assurance of his love and listening ear. But alongside those lovely answers to prayer, I’m conscious that there are things I was praying for 17 years ago that the Lord hasn’t given me.

Some of them I’ve accepted aren’t going to be given to me and I’ve stopped asking. Some of them I’m still praying for but they seem further away than ever. People whom I prayed would be converted have become harder and more unreachable. Backsliders whom I prayed would be restored have sunk deeper into worldliness and sin. Temptations that I prayed would be taken away from me seem to be more persistent now than ever.

Unanswered prayers?

And yet the Bible is packed with promises assuring us that our prayers are not in vain. Many of those promises come from the lips of Jesus himself. ‘Truly, truly I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you… Ask and you will receive, that your joy may be full’ (John 16:23-24). ‘Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’ (Mark 11:24).

When I think of prayers I’ve prayed for things which God hasn’t given, I sometimes label them ‘unanswered prayers’. But such verses as these assure me that no real prayer goes unanswered.

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