Study Guide: When Prayer Goes “Unanswered”

Sunday January 9, 2022 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

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.

Extended Summary:

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.

Reflection Questions: