Tag Archives: Unanswered Prayer

Let Down?

“Nero’s Torches – Leading Light of Christianity” by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1876

Have you walked away from God because you think He let you down? I’ve noticed in several “deconversion” stories a common thread of feeling “let down”, whether by unanswered prayers or the more general “problem of evil” that tends to assume that God can’t exist because of the presence of so much evil and suffering in the world. This past Sunday, one of the songs in church had the refrain “He’s never gonna let, never gonna let me down”[1]. What does that mean? And do the testimonies of those who clearly felt God did let them down (and concluded that God either doesn’t exist at all or doesn’t exist as portrayed in the Bible) undermine that encouraging lyric? Let’s work through that objection today.

What are some reasons people give for thinking God has let them down? Sick or seriously injured family members who died despite fervent prayers is a common one. Praying for relief from abusive situations, (often, sadly, at the hands of those who call themselves Christians) is another example I’ve read. How we define our terms will go a long ways toward determining whether we feel let down by God in those situations. But first, let’s look at some examples of people who have gone through really tough times and who didn’t come away thinking God had failed them, and see if there is anything to learn from them.

  • In 2017, at the age of only 34, Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim turned Christian apologist, died from stomach cancer after a protracted battle. He and many Christians, myself included, prayed for his healing, but it didn’t happen. Did God let him down? No.
  • In 2015, the terrorist group ISIS made the news with their video of 21 Coptic Christians being beheaded after refusing to deny Christ. Did God let them down? In spite of the lack of miraculous intervention, no, God did not let them down.
  • In the mid-20th century, when Romanian atheist-Jew-turned-Christian-pastor Richard Wurmbrand was jailed and tortured for 14 years, did God let him down? No. Or when Bulgarian atheist-turned-Christian-pastor was jailed and tortured for over 13 years, had God abandoned him? Hardly. Rather they said it was God who sustained them.
  • Corrie ten Boom, and her sister Betsy, were sent to Nazi concentration camps in WWII. Betsy died there shortly before Corrie was released. Did God fail Corrie in not delivering her sister? Not according to Corrie.
  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs tells the stories of many, many Christians over the centuries killed for their faith, like the Christians being burned alive as human torches in Emperor Nero’s gardens in the opening artwork above. And yet they didn’t consider themselves abandoned even then.
  • Consider the apostle Paul, who counted all his previous accomplishments and credentials as rubbish compared to the surpassing excellence of knowing Christ Jesus [Php 3:8], but got flogged, beaten, imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, and finally beheaded [2Cor 11:25]. No prosperity gospel for him…
  • If anyone could claim God had let them down, Job, who is the archetype for endurance of suffering, could surely say that. Yet this “blameless” man, after losing his family, his possessions, and being covered in boils, could still say “though He slay me, I will hope in Him.” [Job 13:15]

These people understood what many in our culture today have a hard time understanding: the character of God. We tend to think of God as some doting grandpa looking for every opportunity to give us whatever cool toys our hearts desire. And when that doesn’t happen, we may begin to doubt that He loves us or that He even exists. But that’s not what the Bible teaches. Yes, God is more loving than we could ever be, but He is also more just, and holy, and perfect, than we could ever be. He is sovereign, and all-knowing. In fact, He is the only being worthy of worship. And He doesn’t live for us; rather, we live for Him. Until we recognize that, passages like Acts 9:16, where God says He “will show this man (Paul) how much he must suffer for My name’s sake”, won’t make much sense. Neither will the passages in almost every book of the New Testament that speak of the suffering Christians will endure if they follow Christ faithfully. If we think God’s purpose for us is for us to be happy or comfortable, then we’ll be disappointed a lot. After all, “Into each life some rain must fall”[2], as Longfellow would say. For some, the rain seems to never stop falling. However, as Longfellow aptly pointed out, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” The presence of misery in our lives no more refutes God’s existence than storm clouds deny the sun’s existence. But if we recognize, like the apostle Paul did, that God’s purpose is for us to glorify Him, then we’ll be able to say with Paul that this “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” [2Cor 4:17] And that’s a significant statement given the afflictions that he endured.

While we tend to use the term “unanswered” prayer, the reality is that God’s answer isn’t what we wanted, whether that’s a “no,” or “not yet,” or something else besides “yes.” And the history of Christianity is filled with people not being delivered from their trials and, oftentimes, their tortured deaths; but it’s also filled with testimonies of God strengthening, comforting, and even giving peace and joy, in the midst of some of the most evil circumstances mankind has dreamt up. Did God let any of those people down? From the world’s perspective, it might appear so. But the Christian knows better.  For the Christian knows he is called to be a faithful witness of God in every situation [1 Cor 10:31, 2Cor 5:20-21], and God’s light shines bright in the darkest places.


[1] “King of My Heart”, written by Sarah and John Mark MacMillan, © 2015.
[2] Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Rainy Day”, 1842.

The Effectiveness of Prayer – Part 1

Hands of an Apostle - Albrecht Durer
Hands of an Apostle – Albrecht Durer – c. 1508

What do you say when a friend tells you of some struggle in their life like a troubling medical diagnosis, a bad car wreck, or a recent death in the family? Have you ever said “I’ll be thinking of you” or something similar? Most people take that as a sincere statement of sympathy. But what good does just thinking of somebody do? Maybe there’s the intent of follow-up action after that prerequisite thought, which is certainly good, but does just thinking of someone help them in any way? Not really. What about statements like “Could I pray with you now?” Skeptics would place that last statement in the same category as the first one, but I’d like to suggest why that isn’t the case.

First off, what is prayer? The atheist who says that God doesn’t exist would say that it is nothing more than us talking to ourselves. I’ve discussed the rational justification for God’s existence at length previously (here, here, and here among others…), but today, let’s take God’s existence as a given for the sake of argument. In that case, prayer is our personal communication with the sovereign Creator and Sustainer of all there is. And that is precisely where the difference lies. Christians aren’t simply thinking well of another when they pray for them, or expressing their hope for a good outcome. We are asking the God who made all things in the first place to intervene in the course of human events. The power to change events rests not in our own limited powers of thought, but in the nature of the one and only omnipotent God. However, prayers are not magic spells or incantations that move God to act in a certain way; Christians don’t believe their prayers have any power in themselves. Our hope is in the One we pray to, not the prayer itself. Prayer also isn’t our way of letting God know what we want – He knew before we were even born! [Matt 6:8] Why bother praying then? I see four reasons:

  1. Prayer affirms our reliance on God as we seek His will and His sustenance. None of us would even exist without God, but that’s so easy to forget sometimes.  We live in a very self-centered culture, but prayer reminds us that the story is God’s, and it’s better to be a footnote in His story than the star of our own!
  2. It develops our character as we then conform our will to His. As Norm Geisler puts it, “Prayer is not a means by which we change God; it is a means by which God changes us.”[1] In prayer we learn submission to God’s perfect will, as Jesus modeled for us in Gethsemane when he prayed, “Yet not my will, but Yours be done.”[Luke 22:42] We learn patience and trust as we learn to wait on God rather than blindly rush into our own short-sighted plans. And trust is at the very core of biblical faith.
  3. Prayer draws us in to closer fellowship with God just as any conversation draws you closer to the other person you’re conversing with.
  4. Prayer allows us to participate, in some small way, in God’s work. God is sovereign, and knows all things, and yet He condescends to accomplish His goals in the world through the prayers of His people. [James 5:17]

So while positive thoughts may or may not make us feel better, prayer in accordance with God’s will can actually accomplish real change. But that brings up some legitimate questions, doesn’t it? I see three main questions: 1) what about unanswered prayers? 2) what about competing prayers, such as between opposing sides in a civil war, or between Christians and Muslims? and 3) how do we know our answered prayers aren’t just coincidence? Let’s take a look at that first question this week.

What about when God doesn’t seem to answer? What are we to make of it when we petition God to intervene and … nothing changes? Or it changes, but not the way we wanted? While I’ve never considered myself a country music fan, Garth Brooks was on to something when he sang that he thanked God for unanswered prayers and that “just because He doesn’t answer doesn’t mean He don’t care / Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.”[2] Unfortunately, our limited perspective often keeps us from seeing what the best course of events would be until it’s too late. For us, only hindsight is 20/20, and even then, not always. Yet God’s omniscience means that He has better clarity regarding the future than we do even of the most straightforward events in the past. For even when we look at past events where we can clearly see causes and their effects, the butterfly effect still prevents us from ever really knowing how a different chain of events would’ve changed life as we know it.  But what about those tragic events like the death of a child, or intense suffering of a dear friend? These are often the unanswered prayers that hurt us the deepest, and cause some to give up on God. Things like “Why wouldn’t God heal my sick mother?” have led many a person to resentment and rejection of God. This is because we are intensely emotionally invested in that outcome, and with our finite perspective, we see no reason at the time for a good God to not grant that desire. But as noted earlier, we really can’t predict the future good that may derive from a painful situation now. For example, countless lives have been saved over the years because someone was driven into medical practice or disease research because of the impactful death of a loved one. But even if there is no future public good derived from one’s unanswered prayer,  the spiritual character development and closer fellowship with God mentioned above are immeasurably valuable. We were created by God for His glory [Isaiah 43:7], and whatever helps us to glorify God in our earthly lives, and prepares us for our eternal life, is of great value from an eternal perspective.

Do I understand the interaction of our free will to ask for something, and God’s sovereignty to accomplish whatever He chooses, and His omniscience regarding how the situation will turn out before it even developed? No, but I don’t have to either. I do know that He is trustworthy, and like a good soldier, I can be content with some need-to-know scenarios being “above my pay grade”.  If I’ve been willing to trust some all-too-human commanders in my time to overrule what I think they should do, based on my limited perspective from one small corner of the map, then why would I question the One who sees  the end from the beginning with perfect clarity, who does not make mistakes, and who has a grander plan than anything I could ever conceive? In the end, it’s really not that we have unanswered prayers, but that the answer wasn’t what we were looking for. Tune in next week for part 2, and share your thoughts in a comment in the meantime. Thanks!


[1] Norman Geisler, Systematic Theology in One Volume, (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2011), p. 449.
[2] Find the lyrics here. Interestingly, that song is a true story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unanswered_Prayers, accessed 2016/09/25.