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The Problem of Unanswered Prayer

One of the biggest questions which those in ministry have to deal with in counseling other Christians, and also, would-be Christians, is why God does not seem to answer their prayers. Actually, there may be a number of reasons why, but before we go into the specific reasons, there are some specific things that must be said about the nature of answers to prayer.

We Must Be Christians

In order to be able to bring our petitions before God with any confidence that our prayers will be answered we must first of all be Christians. God in His mercy may answer a prayer from a person who is not saved, especially a devout Jew, but by the Scriptures He has not put himself into any position of obligation to do so. The only prayer that God wants to hear from an unsaved person is a prayer of repentance, seeking salvation. That, of course, He will answer. On the other hand, He has obligated Himself to answer prayers made by Christians who are praying in accordance with His will.

Jesus told us that God will grant us anything we ask in His name. This does not mean, as many seem to believe, mindlessly reciting the phrase "In Jesus' name we pray". (Mindlessly using the word "Amen" at the end of a prayer doesn't really mean anything, either.) Praying in Jesus name means praying in the authority of His name by faith. If you are a Christian who is really living a life of obedient faith and who is really filled with the Holy Spirit, you are praying in Jesus' name every time you pray, whether you use the words or not. And if you are not truly a Christian, you are not praying in Jesus' name no matter how often you do use the words.

Many of those who make the complaint that God does not answer their prayers are not getting answers because they simply aren't Christians. They may even think they are Christians, but not really be Born Again.

No Self-Centered Or Worldly Prayers!

One thing that the Bible warns us about is that self-centered prayers won't get answered. In James 4:3 & 4,  we find a passage that is one of the most important references on why people don't get their prayers answered in the New Testament:

"You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss,
that you may spend it on your pleasures.
Adulterers and adulteresses!
"Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?"

Herein we find two of the biggest reasons aside from not praying for prayers not being answered. As it has been well said, God is not a great vending machine in the sky just waiting to grant our every wish. God will grant our petitions. But He has what we might call His own agenda. And He will only grant our petitions when they are in accord with His agenda.

We must be careful not to deceive ourselves into believing that something is our will is necessarily His Will. There are people who have made disasters out of their Christian lives by insisting on their own will instead of God's will, while telling themselves that what they want really is God's Will.

In the course of this, a subtle but potentially deadly error is to believe that God has promised something He has not promised. Unfortunately, there are major lines of false doctrine that are teaching people to believe just that, that God has promised things that by the Scriptures He has not promised. When people really put their faith in these false expectations, it can make a disaster of their Christian lives, leading to out and out rebellion against God, the destruction of their faith, and even mental illness and/or suicide. Do not ever believe that God has promised anything unless the Bible clearly and specifically says so, and then be sure to understand the Biblical context and conditions. Most of God's promises are conditional.

Two Mistakes

As can be seen in the Scripture quoted above, there are two closely related yet distinct errors that are frequently made in the petitions presented in prayer. They are prayers that usually will not be answered, except in the sense of "No!" Sometimes, if the person doing the praying is really insistent about wanting what is asked in such a prayer, God may grant it to the petitioner as a chastening. He or she may really be sorry to have asked for it.

Prayers For Things To Satisfy One's Own Lusts (pleasures)

People, even Christians who should know better, often pray for things for themselves that they really don't need. This is especially true of the "health and prosperity" crowd. They will pray insistently for things that constitute a better standard of living for themselves in the material sense. If they receive an answer to such a prayer, it may actually be given by Satan. Yes, Satan can do things like that. He will do it to get the person praying deeper in bondage to the sinfulness that precipitated the prayer. Or it may be a divine answer.  But, sad to say, a person who receives such an answer may find that the answer leads to heartache later.

Such a prayer request may even have what may seem to be a good motive. This writer knows of a real case in which a Christian mother had a young son who became critically ill and was expected to die. At that time, in the city where she lived there was a pastor who had a genuine gift of healing. She called upon him to come and pray for her son to be healed. When he came and started to pray, he felt a check in his spirit. He told her that he wasn't sure that it was God's will, and asked her if she was willing for His will instead of hers. Her answer was that she didn't care what God's will was. She was insistent that her son be healed. So the pastor gave in to her wishes, laid hands on the child and prayed for him to be healed.

The child was healed, alright. And he grew up to break his mother's heart. He became a violent criminal who tormented his own mother, and died at the age of 21 of a policeman's bullet. See Isaiah 57:1 & 2.

By the way, this writer does not know the names of the persons involved, but it happened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the 1920's-1940's. This writer's parents knew the family.

If God answers a selfish prayer of yours, you may weep bitterly because He did. You have probably heard the saying, "Be careful what your pray for, you just might get it." This is true of selfishly motivated prayers. But usually, God in His mercy won't grant such a petition at all.

Again, though, altogether too often, Christians pray for things that are their will as opposed to God's will. In doing so, they may be unwittingly asking for grief.

On the other hand, a significant promise of God is found in Proverbs 10:22:

"The blessing of the LORD makes one rich,
and He adds no sorrow with it."

If what seemed at first to be an answer to prayer leads to sorrow, it is a clear indication that the prayer was not in accordance with God's Will.


The problem of worldliness applies to the entire of spectrum of Christian living, but it is a hindrance to prayer in particular. In fact, one of the main manifestations of worldliness in a Christian's life is that he or she won't really spend time in prayer period. And when the worldly Christian does pray, his or her petitions are often selfishly motivated, and/or the worldly Christian doesn't really have the faith to receive what is asked, period.

There is a lie of the devil that says that worldliness is just an attitude of the mind. Don't you believe it. This is like another lie that says that holiness is not so much the absence of sin as it is the presence of the Holy Spirit. This sounds good to Laodicean Christians (it's particularly popular in so-called "holiness" churches), but is contrary to Scripture. Acts 2:38 says "repent...and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit". In other words, where true repentance of sin is absent, so is the Holy Spirit, and therefore true holiness. Holiness is both the absence of sin and the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Similarly where worldliness is concerned, you can't dichotomize between your attitudes and your actions. If you are making a regular practice of indulging in the things of the world, you are worldly. You love the world, whether you admit it to yourself or not. And if you do, you are in a state of enmity with God, even though you may consider yourself "Born Again" and "Spirit-filled". See James 4:4. You probably won't pray the way you should, in terms of commitment to prayer, and even if you do, God will usually turn a deaf ear to your petitions. One of the primary requisites for a Christians to be ready for the Great Tribulation is that they be separate from the world. This applies to both  attitudes and actions. The same thing applies to getting your prayers answered.  If you don't have an effective prayer life, you should examine yourself before God and see if worldliness is the problem. If you realize that it is,


Prayer and Forgiveness

An  issue to related getting our prayers answered, and part of the general doctrine of praying according to God's will, sowing and reaping, and "Love One Another", is the issue of forgiveness.

In the Lord's Prayer, forgiveness of sin is the only petition in the list that contains a qualification (Matthew 6:12); "...As we also forgive our debtors". Then, at the end of the Prayer, this is the only part of it that Jesus made a further comment about (Mathew 6:14 &15);

"For if you forgive men their trespasses,
your heavenly Father will forgive you.
But if you do not forgive men their trespasses,
neither will your Father forgive your trespasses"

Jesus also mentioned forgiveness in the context of prayer in Mark 11:25 & 26, saying much the same thing. The fact that Jesus makes such a point of this tells us that this is a very important matter, which we will ignore to our own hurt.

The point is that if we don't forgive others, unconditionally, from the heart, we are ourselves in a state of sin. God does not hear sinners (John 9:31), and we won't get our prayers answered. This, however, must be clarified.

The concept of unconditional, from the heart forgiveness to all who wrong us is found in Matthew 18. Jesus said, in effect, that all those Christians who do not do this will be tortured! This does not mean tortured externally. Nor does it necessarily mean loss of salvation. But it does mean that we will be tortured internally. This happens. This writer has known dramatic cases in point. In fact, unforgiveness is one of the biggest reasons for Christians falling away from the faith. It is also the source of all kinds of other troubles among Christians. Even murder!

Special Note: Yes, Christians have been murdered by Christians, and this does mean ostensibly real "Born Again" Christians. There is a popular saying, "Christians aren't perfect, just forgiven". From his experience of Christian living, this writer has coined a corollary to this: "Name a serious sin, and I will tell you about a Christian who committed it." This does not glorify God,  but, sadly, it is true!

Yet at the same time, although many have read the entire passage (Matthew 18:15-35) and yet have not seen this, there are two distinct levels of forgiveness in the passage. One is "to the face" forgiveness. Jesus does not tell us to do that unconditionally. In fact, if the person who sins against us, especially another Christian, does not repent, we absolutely should not forgive "to the face". To do so is tantamount to condoning the sin. But at a deeper level, we must nevertheless forgive unconditionally "from the heart". We must apply the principles of Matthew 5:44 & 45 to anyone who wrongs us in any way. To fail to do so will not only torpedo your prayer life, it will torpedo your entire Christian life, and plunge you into a living hell if you persist in failing to forgive.

Righting Wrongs

The same general principle applies in reverse. We will not get our prayers answered if we have done wrong to another person, especially to a fellow Christian, and we have done nothing about it. Jesus told the people of His day that if they were about to offer a sacrifice, and they knew that a brother had something against them, they should leave their sacrifice before the altar, and go and be reconciled to the person they had wronged, and then come and offer their sacrifice (Matthew 5:22 & 23).

In the same way, don't expect to be able to pray effectively if you have wronged someone. Whatever you did, you must put it right before your prayers will be effective. This applies whether the victim is conscious of being wronged or not. It is your own conscience that is the central problem. (See I Timothy 1:19.) So confess, apologize, ask forgiveness, and if there was material loss to the person wronged, do whatever you can to make restitution. Just because God forgives you doesn't give you the right to try to get away with whatever you did in this world. Christians who have wronged people, especially other Christians, will play games in their minds, rationalizing why they were justified in doing whatever and should be able to get away with it. Watch out! If you are doing this, you are falling into the bondage of willful sin, and you will torpedo not just your prayer life, but your entire Christian walk. See I Timothy 1:19. You are begging God to chastise you. See Hebrews 10:26-31. In all your dealings with people that you have wronged, you had better be obedient to God.

See also the "Keeping My Brother's Money" page.

Marital Conflicts

A special aspect of this problem is conflicts within marriage. Conflict with one's spouse will put an obstacle in the way of your prayers to a degree that even conflicts with others will not. There can even be prayer problems from conflicts between parents and children. The trick to dealing with these problems is to apply the solutions to the problems above. For one thing, don't let pride trick you into thinking that you are necessarily in the right in any conflict. The truth is that in most interpersonal conflicts, both sides are in some way wrong. This, again, is often true in serious parent-child conflicts. You must be willing to examine yourself before God and seriously try to understand in what ways your are wrong. When you realize what your error in the situation is, you must repent, apologize, and ask forgiveness. And the principal of restitution applies here as well, as does the underlying principle of keeping a clear conscience before God. And when you are sure that the other party is wrong, you must be godly in how you deal with it. But always check yourself out first (Matthew 7:1-5). Deal with your own problem first. By doing this, you will be pleasing God. You must be pleasing to God in all you do if you want your prayers answer (I John 3:21 &22).

The Conclusion

The general conclusion we come to is that you will not get your prayers answered, and may not even be able to really pray at all, unless you make a priority of overt obedience to God. If, on the other hand, you are, first of all, willing to really obey, then you can have tremendous power in prayer. This doesn't mean that you must be totally sinless, but the intent of your heart must be to obey 100%. This the Bible says you can do. If that is your attitude, then one of the greatest promises in the Bible applies to you: II Chronicles 16:9;

"For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro
throughout the whole earth
to show Himself strong
in the behalf of them whose heart is perfect toward Him."

Do you understand this? If your attitude is one of absolute obedience, and it can be, then the Creator of the Universe is at your service! This happens because of the unity of will that therefore exists between God and you. If you want power in prayer, you must have the same attitude toward God that Jesus had toward His Father:

"Behold, I come to do your will, O God!'

This is the true secret of getting your prayers answered.

Those of us who are participating in the Prayer Network want to be able to receive some very big answers to prayer. We will discuss how to do that in the following page,

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Contact Author, William D. Brehm