Let me start off by saying that I don’t think that “unanswered” prayer is an accurate term because God hears and answers all of our prayers. It’s just that sometimes the answer is no, and those often feel unanswered. Those are the prayers that feel like they’re being, or have been, lifted up to a brick wall, that have fallen back to earth with a thud. But, unanswered prayers can be blessings in disguise even if they feel like crushing or heartbreaking losses at the time.
I think that the mystery of God’s no can be one of the most perplexing and difficult stumbling blocks for Christians. It can be right up there with the problem of evil, and often the two combine when our prayers seemingly go unanswered in the midst of tragedy or pain. It can be even more frustrating when your prayer seems ignored while others around you see their prayers answered.
I had a college roommate who was engaged to his high school sweetheart. They were in their senior year and looking forward to their wedding and life together. Then she got sick, critically ill. It seemed like our entire campus came together in prayer interceding for her healing, but she died. Around the same time I had met a woman who struggled with infertility since having an abortion with complications as a teen. A few of us had prayed with her on one occasion and had heard months later that she was pregnant. I have friends who have seen miraculous financial provision seemingly come out of nowhere at the eleventh hour when hope was lost, and others who saw deadlines come and go with no rescue.
What do we do when we’ve poured our hearts out to God in prayer and nothing happens, or the exact opposite result of what we had been praying for comes to pass? I have found a few things that have brought me comfort in those valleys.
My first consoling thought is to remember that this is not our home. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen in this life is not the end of the story. My wife and I lost a baby to a miscarriage a few years ago. At the first sign of trouble we prayed and prayed and prayed, but it felt as though all my prayers were hitting the ceiling and going nowhere. It was remembering that this world is not the end that helped me through the grieving process. It was knowing that I would meet my child one day that put my temporary, but very real, sorrow in perspective. St. Paul, a man not unaccustomed to pain and difficulty wrote to the Corinthians, “For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18)
Another thing that helps me when God says no is to remember that he knows what he’s doing even if I don’t. God is love. He is our loving Father. God’s plans and purposes for my life are beyond what I can fully understand from my perspective. It is hard sometimes to trust God when it seems like he isn’t listening or doesn’t care about my current circumstances. My own pride, fear, or anxiety can cloud my understanding and obscure my view of the grand design. It’s precisely at the moment of having our prayer “unanswered” that we are faced with making a decision—will I doubt God’s goodness or will I seek his consolation? In essence, do I trust him only when he’s doing what I want, or will I trust him when I don’t understand him? Learning to trust God when everything inside you is angry with him and ready to walk away is a precious moment of spiritual growth.
Finally, never waste your suffering. It might be something small or trivial, or it may be a matter of life or death, anytime we feel that our prayers are ignored or unanswered, anytime God tells us no, there is disappointment and a degree of suffering. When we unite our suffering, no matter how big or small, to Jesus we are united with him in a powerful and unique way. When we bring our wounds to touch his wounds we can make up “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” (Col. 1:24) Ironically, the pain we experience from “unanswered” prayer can be used as a prayer in itself for others. We can take our disappointment and offer it up to Jesus as a gift, as a sacrifice, for those in need of grace. This can redeem our suffering, our disappointment or disillusionment and bring healing and comfort to us that deepens our relationship with God and helps us to trust him again.