As we continue our series considering tough faith questions our kids ask, it seems to me that questioning why God isn’t answering our prayers is not just one for the kids. It’s a question most of us have struggled with as adults at one point or another.
There are so many complexities to answering this question that even the greatest theologians could spend days discussing the answer. Being fully aware that there’s a pretty significant gap between my brain and that of a theologian (understatement), I’m going to keep it simple.
A Prayer Caveat
Before I discuss why I believe God answers all of our prayers, here’s my big caveat: some things are beyond our understanding on this fallen earth. The child with cancer. The infant who dies. Only one family member surviving a flood.
I’ve seen these and other inexplicable struggles firsthand. When we approach prayer, it would be a mistake to try to fit all the unknowns into single Bible verses or simple explanations. When we discuss prayer with our kids or other adults, we will most often start by humbly admitting we don’t have all the answers.
From that starting point, we can then discuss a journey for praying through a given situation.
Why Didn't God Answer My Prayer?
Many years ago, I heard someone answer this question very concisely, and it made sense to me: Why didn’t God answer my prayer?
Simply put, he did.
The Lord always answers with either a yes, no, or not now.
That may seem oversimplified, but it’s an important starting point with our kids because it’s critical to lay the groundwork that the Lord always hears their requests (Matthew 18:20) and answers them. There would be nothing more defeating as a believer than to pour out your heart to the Lord only to decide that he just ignored you or didn’t hear you.
It’s the opposite, though. God has great compassion for his creation (Psalm 103:8; Joel 2:13) and hears our every cry (Psalm 55:16–17). Just because we don’t get the result we asked for doesn’t mean he didn’t answer or somehow ignored our request.
But the harder question then becomes: Why didn’t the Lord answer my prayer in the way I asked?
Here are a few thoughts.
Consider the "Desires of Your Heart"
There are lots of verses we can point to saying that if believers have faith and make their requests to the Lord, he will answer (1 John 5:15; Mark 11:24; John 16:24). Or that we have not because we ask not (James 4:2).
But, obviously, it’s not always that simple or we wouldn’t have sick people in hospitals and poor people struggling for their next meal. Although I wouldn’t dare be audacious enough to try to answer the deeper questions of global poverty and injustice, I think a good starting point for our kids is Psalm 28:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord, And he will give you the desires of your heart.”
When we are about the things the Lord is about, then our requests align more closely with his will and his answers look more like the answers we have in mind. When we aren’t walking with the Lord closely, oftentimes our asks look more like, well, our asks, and not something that the Lord can bless.
I have found a direct correlation in my life between the amount of time I spend in God’s word and the degree to which I feel God is not answering my prayers.
Reconsider the "Right" Answer to Your Prayer
Sometimes our motives are right and we still don’t get the answer that seems fair.
For example, your child prays and prays for their grandparent to get well and the grandparent ends up losing their battle with cancer. It’s hardly a selfish prayer to ask for the healing of a loved one, right?
These are the times we can talk to our kids about redefining what they consider to be the “right” answer.
Remind them where God tells us that his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not ours (Isaiah 55:8–9). What may seem like an unanswered prayer might actually be the Lord’s greatest blessing for our lives or those we love.
(Let’s join together now and sing Garth Brooks’ “sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers,” being prepared for a deer-in-the-headlights look from the kids).
In this example, we may have prayed for our grandmother to live, but God chose to take one of his own to be with him for eternity. That’s ultimate healing and blessing -- even though it’s not what we wanted.
Avoid Limiting God to Earthly Timelines
Bob Goff recently said in our Pardon the Mess podcast that oftentimes we want God to work like a microwave, but he typically operates more like a slow cooker.
Isn’t that the truth?
In a world of smartphones, Google, and Amazon instant delivery, how hard it must be for our kids to understand the concept of waiting on the Lord (Psalm 27:14).
It seems obvious, but we’ve got to help our kids understand that the Lord works within his own timeline. He’s in it for the good of all those who call on his name, which means it won’t likely happen solely based on our convenience.
Here’s another consideration. Oftentimes, God is working way ahead of us in ways we can’t see.
In Joshua, when God allowed the Israelites to cross the Jordan on dry ground, we are told that the water “piled up in a heap a great distance away” in an area called Zarethan (Joshua 3:16). Geographically, Zarethan was over thirty miles upstream.
Are you following this?
The Lord was at work thirty miles upstream so that the ground right in front of the Israelites would be dry and a safe place for crossing.
When we pray, it’s critical that we remember we don’t have the aerial view. We don’t have the benefit of seeing all the pieces the Lord is adjusting to work all things together for our good (Romans 8:28).
Be patient, pray boldly, and keep routinely acknowledging that you don’t know what you don’t know.
Don't Forget to Remember
Depending on the age of your child, one, all, or maybe none of the thoughts above will resonate. Consider this: as important as it is to help our kids understand the places where it seems God did not answer their prayer, it’s equally critical to remind them of the places where God has faithfully provided.
I think my very favorite passage in the entire Bible is in Joshua 4, where the Israelites, after crossing the Jordan, take their stones of remembrance and build an altar. Joshua told the Israelites it would be a reminder to all people that “the hand of the Lord is powerful and so that you might always fear the Lord your God” (Joshua 4:24).
I plan on writing a lot more about this in a later blog, but our stones of remembrance are the sustainers during times when we don’t see God’s hand directly at work. If our kids are so filled with our stories of how the Lord has worked in our lives and directly intervened for our good, then the disappointment they may feel in unanswered prayer pales in comparison to the long list of places where they have been told that the Lord has been faithful to our families.
I don’t know anyone who feels like they have a complete grasp on how and when the Lord answers prayer. But here’s what I do know: when you live a life marked with gratitude, acknowledging every morning you wake up and each blessing he’s bestowed, you focus less on the unknown in your life because you’re overwhelmed by his goodness.