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When Prayer Goes “Unanswered”

• Greg Boyd

Why do prayers go unanswered if God is all-powerful? This sermon seeks to answer this question in a way that lines up with the character of God revealed in Jesus.

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Prayer matters. It makes a difference in the world, but what about when prayers go unanswered? This was a question raised by Greg’s father when he wrote:

…if God is interested in us, why is prayer so totally unsuccessful….When Arlyle was dying, we all prayed till we were blue in the face. Even you kids prayed. Maybe God doesn’t listen to the prayers of sinful adults, but He should have at least heard the cries of you kids! Instead, you kids were left motherless and that set in motion a rather unfortunate history  you yourself know only too well.  If God had been personally concerned about us, Greg, he’d have spared your mother and spared all of us a tremendous amount of pain.

-Ed Boyd, Letters From a Skeptic

Like most people, Greg’s dad assumed that, if God is all-powerful, he can do anything he wants. God’s will is the only variable affecting what comes to pass, including if, when and how prayer is answered. But if this is the case, then God is the author of evil, and this picture of God doesn’t look anything like the God whom Jesus reveals.

When prayer is unanswered, we can’t assume it was because God said “no.” Jesus’ whole ministry was spent with people suffering various afflictions. Never once did Jesus suggest their suffering was the Father’s will. There are things that are not “possible” for God to do. Consider the most famous unanswered prayer of all time: the prayer Jesus prayed in Gethsemane just prior to his arrest and crucifixion. See the focus Scripture above.

Jesus is asking,  Is it possible to vanquish the kingdom of darkness and reconcile the world to yourself without me having to die this horrible death on the cross? In this instance, it wasn’t possible for the Father knew that the only way to defeat the kingdom of darkness and reconcile the world to God is for Jesus to die.

Scripture actually explicitly mentions several things that are impossible for God:

* God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18)
* God cannot change God’s character (Malachi 3:6)
* God cannot break covenant (Psalm 89:34)
* God cannot stop loving you (Jeremiah 31:3; Matthew 5:44-45)

God gave humans as well as spirit-agents free will. If God were to revoke our ability to make free choices, then he did not actually give us free will. Free will is by definition irrevocable, not because God lacks the power, but because a free will that can be revoked whenever God wants is not free. This is also why Scripture depicts God relying on God’s wisdom to rule the world at least as much as God’s power.

In addition, there are rebel spirits that war against the will of God, which is illustrated in the book of Daniel chapter 10. There we read that Daniel prayed for twenty one days and a demon fought against God’s will even though Daniel was praying in alignment with what God wanted. Things go on in the unseen-realm that affect us, and that affect if, when and how a prayer is answered. But the reality is that we know nothing about what is transpiring in that unseen-realm unless it is revealed to us.

We can’t know why a particular person was healed while another particular person died, despite receiving more prayer. We know God and what God wants but what we don’t know is the unfathomable complex interrelated cosmos we inhabit. What we don’t know are all the goings-on in the spiritual realm that impact us that can interfere with prayer.

This is why we must confess that we don’t know why certain prayers are answered the way that they are, and why we’ve got to get better at saying, “I don’t know.”

We must trust that prayer always accomplishes much, whether we can see it or not. When a prayer that aligns with God’s will doesn’t bring about God’s will, or when anything else that is contrary to God’s will afflicts someone, we only know that our prayers make some kind of impact, moving the world toward God’s ultimate will.

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Topics: Prayer, Spiritual Warfare

Sermon Series: Sermon on the Mount, When You Pray


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The MuseCast: January 11


Focus Scripture:

  • Matthew 26:39

    Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

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18 thoughts on “When Prayer Goes “Unanswered”

  1. Susan says:

    Amen! There is so much that brings glory to God in this sermon!
    “Or what man is there of you, whom if his. son ask bread, will he give him a stone?”

    It is in God’s character that we put our full trust and not in the outcome seen from the prayers we pray.

    I do ask you to rethink a thought you expressed though. You assume that you four children in praying for your mom know what is best to bring God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven. That is a bold assumption, and I doubt that is how you think.

    We ask God for what we believe to be good things, and then we trust that He didn’t give us a “stone”.
    He is Lord. There are 2 Kingdoms, one is perishing, and one is being built and will last forever. We work for the forever Kingdom.

    I have thoughts about Jesus’ prayer going “unanswered”. I will address that at another time.
    Excellent sermon, not perfect, of course. 🙂

    1. Lorie says:

      I think Greg means that our Lord doesn’t want his beloveds to cry, to be hurt, no matter what. He never wants our hearts broken. That I believe is His will but we are stuck here until we reunite with Him and our loved ones.

      1. Susan says:

        I think Jesus is much more “radical” than you are allowing Him to be. Jesus came to change us from the Kingdom of Darkness to the Kingdom of Light. He does not want us to ” be stuck here until we reunite with him”, He wants us to be salt and light,and His hands and feet, doing His will on earth as in Heaven. Listen to one small teaching that is very cutting to my ” happiness”. These are a few of Jesus’ words: ” If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.”
        Another
        example of Jesus’ call to greater things than our “happiness” is Paul asking God to remove the “thorn” from him. God’s reply was that God’s Grace is enough. God never told Paul that He was unable to help him.

        1. Lorie says:

          Right now, my reality is being stuck here. 😉

          1. Susan says:

            I understand.Read through the Psalms.
            However, what we see and feel isn’t the full picture of what is. God is our all in all. We have to keep trusting Him through the events of our lives. This is how our faith in Christ transforms us. We are new creations in Christ.
            Keep walking with Jesus. You are in my prayers.

          2. Susan says:

            One thing I am learning, when the pain is more than I can bear, is to hand the pain to God and to tell Him, I can’t bear it, He will have to take it and God has given me His peace for my pain. I will send you a beautiful prayer that got me through very difficult times.

          3. Susan says:

            “Loving Lord and Heavenly Father, I offer up today all that I am, all that I have, all that I do, and all that I suffer, to be Yours today and Yours forever. Give me grace, Lord, to do all that I know of Your holy will. Purify my heart, sanctify my thinking, correct my desires. Teach me, in all of to day’s work and trouble and joy, to respond with honest praise, simple trust, and instant obedience, that my life may be in truth a living sacrifice, by the power of Your Holy Spirit and in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ, my Master and my all. Amen ” – Elisabeth Elliot

  2. Susan says:

    Romans teaches us that we don’t even know what we should pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us.

    Below is from Phillipians which shows us a beautiful picture of God’s Kingdom coming on earth as in Heaven, but not what I would probably have prayed for.

    Our ways are not God’s ways. His ways are unbelievably, surpringly, above what we could ever ask! But, we have to know Him to receive His gifts as gifts. We must be weaned away from our present world. Otherwise, we may think we were given a “stone”.

    From Phillipans
    “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters,[b] that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard[c] and to everyone else that I am in chains(V) for Christ. 14 And because of my chains,(W) most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear…

    …Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers(AB) and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ(AC) what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance.[d](AD) 20 I eagerly expect(AE) and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage(AF) so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body,(AG) whether by life or by death.(AH) 21 For to me, to live is Christ(AI) and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart(AJ) and be with Christ,(AK) which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.

    Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy(AL) of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm(AM) in the one Spirit,[e] striving together(AN) as one for the faith of the gospel 28 without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. 29 For it has been granted to you(AO) on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer(AP) for him, 30 since you are going through the same struggle(AQ) you saw(AR) I had, and now hear that I still have.” From Phillipians 1

  3. Susan says:

    Jesus’ prayer was answered.

    Jesus prayed, “not my will but thine be done.” He submitted to the will of the Father. Three times, He says, “not my will but yours be done.”
    “And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

    ” He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, my Father, if this cup may not pass away from me, except I drink it, thy will be done.”

    “And he left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.”

  4. Susan says:

    One more thought on ” unanswered” prayer.
    God’s Kingdom on earth comes through suffering- the Cross, losing
    our lives to find them, taking up our cross and following Jesus, who had no place to lay His head.
    If we are being made into Kingdom people, then we should not try to explain our suffering away by saying that God can’t answer our prayers, and that is why we suffered and didn’t get what we asked Him for.
    Actually, James says that we don’t get what we ask for in prayer because our motives are wrong.

    Our motives will be right when we are motivated by ” Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” But, that will mean suffering in this world.

    1. Lorie says:

      Love is motive and the Spirit will redirect; just pray.

      1. Susan says:

        Love for God and love for our neighbor will mean suffering in this world.
        “But, be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” said Jesus. Amen!
        I agree with you, love and pray, and the Holy Spirit will make sense of our prayers.

      2. Susan says:

        Just a few more verses to consider: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem(W) and suffer many things(X) at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law,(Y) and that he must be killed(Z) and on the third day(AA) be raised to life.(AB)

        22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

        23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

        These are good verses for me and for you to remember as we trust God in this world.

  5. Susan says:

    Another thought about Jesus embracing God His Father’s will.

    There was no other way to reconcile the world to God. This meant that Jesus must suffer greatly, if God’s will is to be done.

    What a moment in history! If, we truly see Jesus as fully human and fully God, the humanity of Jesus could have undone the world forever at that moment.

    But, the humanity of Jesus embraced God, in the fullest expression of love for God. Jesus said, “yes Lord, not my will, but yours be done.”

    To do the will of the Father in this world, we will embrace, suffering, joy, tragedy, goodness, sinners, holiness, all that our Master embraced when He was on earth.

    But, now it is our turn to carry on His work.

    “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” If I pray that I will suffer in this world, and I can trust that God is using me for His glory, even if I don’t understand.

  6. Tim says:

    I would like to add this thought to Greg’s thought provoking sermon.
    :
    The serpent said to the woman, “You surely will not die! For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”
    (Genesis 3:4-5 [NASB])
    Satan answered the LORD and said, “Skin for skin! Yes, all that a man has he will give for his life. However, put forth Your hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh; he will curse You to Your face.” So the LORD said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power, only spare his life.”
    (Job 2:4-6 [NASB])

    One of the meanings of the name Satan means accuser. In Genesis Satan is accusing God of not being truthful and in Job he is accusing God of buying off his followers and Job of just worshiping God for all his blessings. I have no doubt he accuses us before God if we are too faithless or indifferent to pray. Just my way of seeing it.

    1. Susan says:

      One of my favorite examples of God’s faithfulness through dark times is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament.
      Joseph tells his brothers, ” You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.”

      I believe, ” God’s ways are not our ways.” God is greater than all the good I could ever imagine! I trust Him even when life is so difficult I only feel despair…..

      But, should I trust my feelings or should I trust God? God! Of course! God who is over all!

  7. Marvin says:

    I have been a follower of Rev. Boyd and Woodland Hills for several years now. I use excerpts from many of his books in studies and discussions at the church that I am currently attending. I have enthusiastically recommended that people listen to his January sermon on unanswered prayer.
    I have one thought concerning the book of Job. Can we say that since Christs ascension where Christ is now seated at the right hand of God that satan has been denied access to the throne and cannot accuse any believer before God? Does Rev. 12:8 and 9 support this ar guement?

  8. Susan says:

    “I will never look at God’s final answer to all of my longings and prayers as receiving a stone. He told me not too, and He is my Lord. I will receive it as bread and nourishment for my soul and know that my Lord is much wiser and trustworthy than I am.”
    – Abigail J. Simmons

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