Mediating the Problem of Unanswered Prayers

With prayer, are our actions – what we petition or praise God for – informed by our beliefs, or do our beliefs push us to pray? The difference is crucial. What we believe need not make rational sense, as when we posit the existence of a God we have never seen.  But what we do –actions that flow from the belief that an existing God reacts to our prayers – has consequences. Believing privately that God heals our ailments requires no verification, but if that belief leads us to pray for a specific healing for our loved ones, for example, we should do so with the expectation that what we pray for is “happenable.” If we doubt God would grant what we ask for, it seems pointless to make the request. Engaging in liturgical prayer with doubts of its efficacy is like playing a shell game.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

A Christian who claims he has never seen god might just as easily be conned into thinking that he’s an atheist.

I don’t know, for certain, whether or nor I’m a Christian, as I’ve never had the chance to speak with Jesus personally and in the flesh.

But I do know that I’m not an atheist, not because I believe in some book or the hearsay of some long-dead prophet, but rather due to the fact that I find my creator’s presence an ever-evolving and inescapable reality which surrounds and infuses every aspect of my natural life.


Thank you so much for this, Matthew. I don’t know how it all works on this level, anymore. However, I do know several things…or maybe I think that I know:

First, I’m aware at times that prayer somehow brings me into the presence of God in a more telling way than when I’m not praying. I become more aware of and in tune with a power outside of myself. I sense a peace and encouragement, or even a sense of direction, no matter what may be happening circumstantially or externally. It may not change things one iota, but it changes me, for want of a better expression.

And, I’m sometimes reminded that this power seems to know me…personally. Knows my weaknesses, my continual struggles, my fears, my makeup. And, communicates with me regarding them. Often, the scriptures come into play during these times, speaking to me along these lines. Some may call this a self projection. Maybe, somewhat? But, I’ve never experienced this before coming to faith in God, and don’t apart from prayer.

I also see that when Jesus himself was asked by his own closest followers about how to pray, he didn’t say anything about petitioning God for direct healing, or specific answers to problems. The first half of the Lord’s prayer is about coming into God’s presence, acknowledging our mutual belonging to him, and asking for his rule to come to bear on earth, as it is in heaven. That would seem to not only have as its purpose a request for God’s ultimate intervention, but to align us and our thinking, doing, and being with God’s overall purposes in the world. That we become his delivery system to bring compassion, justice, shalom, to one another, on earth as it is in heaven. IOW, we become the answer to our prayers, and those of others, even in the face of continual problems and evil circumstances.

The second half addresses asking for daily needs. Maybe this also reminds us that we are not only directly dependent upon God, but that God has made us dependent upon one another for our daily bread. Those who had in the early church provided for those who didn’t, so that no one lacked. Jesus also pointed to our need of forgiveness, and the idea that the way and the degree to which we forgive others is the measure of our own reception of forgiveness.

All of this seems to put the nature and purpose of our praying into a different place than how we usually perceive it, and engage in it. In Jesus’s teaching, prayer becomes a spiritual practice that aligns us with God and his ways, rather than an exercise of making requests and hoping for our desired answers…even though the latter is still somehow part of the picture in approaching God.

Finally, I also like the balance of the Serenity Prayer…“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That is a very realistic way to pray…to me.




Because we are confined to one time dimension, petitioning God who has available more than one time dimension, makes it very difficult to accept that God even hears us when we need immediate “answers”. His knowledge of our future is clear to Him and it would make sense to allow His response to our immediate concerns to be governed by His knowledge of our future and I believe He has our best interest at heart . I think that it would be best to trust Him that in the end we will" see " that He was always there for us .He hears all, He knows all I am willing to confess that I don’t always know what’s best for me
Dave Okamura


I appreciate the honesty of Mathew’s article. I don’t fully understand how prayer works either. Prayer has functioned as a one-way conversation for me when, for example, I thank God for food I am about to eat. In recent years I have come to understand what prayer is not: Prayer does not function like a celestial ATM. Prayer does not provide a protective shield over Adventist houses, farms, jobs or business while allowing others’ material goods to be destroyed. I definitely see evidence of God in nature around me and I believe God is very near in a parallel dimension similar to that in which radio waves and the mind occupies. So if I talk to God, I have the comfort of knowing my words are heard and that God cares but that’s about as much as I can be sure of.


If one were to ask, why are there ‘unanswered’ prayers, the simplest and most honest answer would be , God chose to answer them in a particular way, one of which we may interpret as unanswered prayer. If we see prayer as a communicative tool we use to approach God, we would recognize that God may answer our prayers as we wanted, perhaps give us something better, perhaps say no which is the equivalent for many people to unanswered prayer.
One of the things that forcefully comes to my mind, is that God alone has the capacity to answer any prayer the way we want and the opposite is also true. Pray as fervently as we may, I do not believe our prayers, in and of themselves can make God change his mind on a certain course of action. If God determines that he will not answer Andrew’s prayer- in the sense that He will not give him, his heart’s desire- that is God’s answer to me. It may seem disappointing, keenly frustrating, even create a sense of depression , but it is God’s answer nevertheless.
One of the dangers we face in prayer is that we will get exactly what we pray for, at the same time and perhaps in the manner we ask for it. This is not necessarily true. When we recognize the will of God in this matter, and the mind of God, in contradistinction to ours- that God is an independent Being who is not obliged to answer us corresponding to the specific manner and circumstance in which we pray, we are beginning to understand God better. Perhaps this is the reason why Jesus used the words when He prayed just before His ordeal- O My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me, nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.
Jesus recognized this principle and subjected Himself to the will of God- giving God the opportunity to do as he pleased even though Jesus expressed his own unique specific will in this context.
This is why we should never set up others in thinking that we will get what we want when we pray., especially as it relates to children or young people. If we do this, we may well lead them on a path that will ultimately cause them to reject God if He does not respond in an expected way. It will create disappointment, resentment and in some cases outright hatred of God if He is seen not to answer the requests in the manner they desire.
Another aspect which comes to my mind is the question of the specific will of God towards an individual. I have heard many times the expression that God has good things in store for you if you accept Him, or God has a plan for your life. No one knows what is the plan of God for someone’s life except God Himself. When we say this to people we are setting them up for circumstances that they might not expect. It could very well be the will of God that this person should die, for reasons only known to God. It is always best to introduce the expression, if it be God’s will or words which reflect this sentiment.


Generally, a praise for answered prayer has been a euphemism for “things happened the way I wanted them to happen”. And that generally implies that God wants the same thing for you and responsible for whatever it was. But, you wouldn’t want to ruin someone’s celebration with “why do you think it was God?”

the problem with prayer, in general, is that it is a form of communication unlike anything we are used to…one aspect that’s unique is that we deal in the currency of words, thoughts and feelings, all of which are known to god before we speak, think or feel, whereas as god generally deals in terms of his HS, which we can usually feel, but never see or hear, and which we don’t always anticipate or understand…it’s very rare to hear or see something that you know is a form of communication that directly answers your prayer…if you do, it’s frequently in the form of a dream, or sometimes in unfolding circumstances, that can happen long after your prayer…

but the more important aspect of prayer that’s unique is that it’s the form of communication we have that has the potential to cross the divide between the dimension of our lost world, which informs, unavoidably, everything we know and believe we want, and the dimension of the much wider unfallen, eternal world, where essentially nothing that consumes us can have much weight…the dimension of the unfallen, eternal world that is invisible to us, but which we’re visible to, and that’s inaccessible to us, but that has access to us, has interest in our doomed dimension only because some of us are being fitted for that unfallen, eternal world…in fact the process and opportunities in prayer are part of that fitting…but the various aspects of our fallen world that tend to consume us - the pandemic, afghanistan, the state of our democracy, our health, our finances, what we think we’re owed in this life - likely aren’t consuming the unfallen, eternal world…

so while we pray in terms of our fallen, lost condition, god is responding in terms of the eternal, unfallen dimension in which he has always existed…this gap suggests we may not understand or perceive that god is answering prayer because he isn’t necessarily answering us according to our expectations…even the conditions imposed for effective prayer, namely the resolution to move away from sin, Ps 66:18; a voluntary and complete alignment with god’s will, Matt 6:10; and the condition of our heart, Is 66:2, seem to suggest that prayer isn’t meant to be our means of securing things in this life that don’t impact our salvation…the picture that christ portrays of asking and receiving, seeking and finding, of knocking and having doors open, and also of receiving expected things like bread and fish, as opposed to stone and snakes, seems to be part of a highly spiritualized connection with god, as opposed to a more moderate, more distant connection…

in taking all of this in, one wonders whether even half the prayers we tend to pray are legitimate…maybe it’s the case that church people get together and pray, and their prayers don’t even get through the ceiling…

The problem with all “cut-and-paste” ideas about prayer, or any theological system, for that matter, which relies on out-of-context citations from an essentially constricted selection of books and authors, as opposed to adopting a “truth is where you find it/everything ever written is inspired in some sense” approach to god-seeking interaction, is that such arbitrarily limited philosophies are not, and cannot be self-validated simply with lofty sounding pronouncements from various pulpits, by appealing to a higher authority, in the usage of an assortment of seemingly absolutist terms, etc., any more than blowing out candles on a birthday cake can magically make childish dreams come true, no matter how hard the kid huffs and puffs and regardless of whether or not the celebrant succeeds in extinguishing all of the flames in one breath.:rofl:

(And yes, I can find randomly chosen memory verses to support this assertion just as easily as another can come up with a non-contextual texts to refute it. So, as always, “proof texting” proves nothing and the resolution of this conflict comes down to subjectivity and what one prefers to believe. For my part, I like the idea that my creator is here and now, rather than accepting the unfalsifiable claim that god is an untouchable superhero-like being who resides in unreachable fortress of divinity, and take comfort in knowing that the notion of me being lost and separated from my maker is as inconceivable as believing that an ocean could somehow exist after having lost the attribute of being wet!:rofl::rofl::rofl:)


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