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Unanswered Prayer

By Fred Zaspel–

“Unanswered prayer” is a frustrating question virtually every Christian has faced. We know that God has promised to act in response to our prayers, but then he so often does not seem to at all. He has said he will give us the desires of our heart (Psalm 20:4-5), but so often he doesn’t. Why?

Part of the answer to this problem lies in our misunderstanding of God’s promises. Surely no thoughtful Christian would assume that God has bound himself to grant our every whim. God is not so naive as to think that loving us requires him to give us everything we ask for. Every parent, Christian or not, knows that such indulgence is harmful, not helpful. Children often are so naive, however, and they are convinced that if they are being denied anything at all they are being abused! And the fact is we, God’s children, often think the same way. We know better, but then again we don’t. But when we stop to think more maturely, at least, we realize that we can be content knowing that our heavenly father loves us perfectly and cares for us passionately and provides for us fully.

Sometimes, however, we do not receive what we ask for because we ourselves are wrong. Our hearts are deceitful, and we can pray out of a context of otherwise sinful behavior. Beyond that, our motives can be self-serving (James 4:1-3), and we make request not for God’s glory but for our own selfish advancement in one way or another. We do not seek kingdom interests first (Matt. 6:33) but our own. In such cases the reason for unanswered prayer lies in us.

But we must notice that this problem of unanswered prayer is not a problem of supposedly “low level” Christians. Even great saints have struggled with this problem. Three times the great apostle Paul asked for relief from his physical suffering (2 Cor. 12), but the request was denied. Instead, God taught a most important lesson — that God’s grace is sufficient and that his power in us is most realized in our weakness.

And it may be that in such cases God gives us the desires of our heart by transforming our desires! By one discipline or another God molds us to conform to his Son, and our values and goals are shaped accordingly — and so also are our prayers. And at some point we eventually learn that we cannot pray better than Jesus, who said “Not my will, but yours be done.” Eventually, we learn to be content in God’s faithful providence.

God assures us of his love for us and of his continued all-embracing care for us. He assures us and demonstrates to us that he is a God who loves to give. He gives to us, each time, not because we deserve it but because he is gracious and loves to show it. He is a generous, loving God. And he promises to hear our prayers and respond in a way that is right.

But in the end this problem will entail a degree of mystery. We may never be able to see the reasons for his granting or non-granting certain of our requests. Such reasons are often hidden in the mysteries of divine sovereignty. God nowhere promises to be our heavenly vending machine — just deposit your prayer, and receive your specified blessing. No. We must remember that every request we make is a request for mercy, something we do not deserve. We must remember that he knows what is best for us. We must remember that his will, not ours, is supreme and right. And we must remember that he works all things together to accomplish his good purpose for us.

And so when we pray, we pray expectantly. But we also pray submissively, like Jesus, bowing before the God who is too wise ever to make a mistake and too good ever to do us wrong.

Fred Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also the interim Senior Pastor at New Hyde Park Baptist Church on New York’s Long Island, and Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is also the author of The Continuing Relevance of Divine Law (1991); The Theology of Fulfillment (1994); Jews, Gentiles, & the Goal of Redemptive History (1996); New Covenant Theology with Tom Wells (New Covenant Media); The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010). Fred is married to Kimberly and they have two grown children, Gina and Jim

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