The clue to our nagging questions about unanswered prayer is found in the Disney movie, Aladdin. My favorite character is the genie. Whoever rubs the lamp containing the genie can request three things and the genie is so powerful he can satisfy any request. Imagine the enthusiasm for prayer if we prayed to a genie-like God. But God is no genie and unanswered prayers present a problem, even in Scripture:
O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer;
And by night, but I have no rest. (Ps. 22:2)
So, what’s the reason for unanswered prayer? The clue is the lamp—what could be more limited than life in a lamp? The prayer-answering genies of our dreams are always at our service, their powers directed to our wishes. Genie’s are servants on steroids; make a wish and it’s yours. They are powerful, but they are not sovereign. One reason for unanswered prayer is that our Sovereign is not bound to answer us or even to explain why He does not answer.
However, the Bible is not that blunt. Rarely does the Bible say that God did not listen or answer. When it comes to prayer, the main emphasis is that God loves us so much that He wants to be in communication with us and He delights to answer our prayers. The overarching message is that prayer is effective.
When God does not respond it is often because of continued self-willed behavior1 or pride and sin.2 Unlike a genie, God is not under contract to answer every lamp-rubber; He can refuse or ignore His enemies.3 It takes a very hard-hearted person to be an enemy of God; He gladly welcomes back the humble and repentant. So before we all get lost in soul-searching, there’s another important reason for unanswered prayer.
Job had nagging questions like us.4 He felt God had abandoned him to wholesale injustice and, for many months, he could not understand why. However, God used Job’s suffering to draw Job into an even deeper relationship with Him. At the end of the book, Job understood God better and received back double what he had lost. God designed prayer as one of the main ways that we get to know Him and understand His will. If He is not answering then He probably wants us to know Him more.
The psalmist experienced that deepening relationship. The psalm that began in disappointment ends with notes of joy that God did hear and answer. Let’s approach prayer expecting the same result—God will draw us closer to Himself and eventually our prayers will turn to praises.
Save me from the lion’s mouth;
From the horns of the wild oxen You answer me.
I will tell of Your name to my brethren;
In the midst of the assembly I will praise You.
You who fear the Lord, praise Him;
All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him,
And stand in awe of Him, all you descendants of Israel.
For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted;
Nor has He hidden His face from him;
But when he cried to Him for help, He heard. (Ps. 22:21-24)
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