The enigma of "unanswered" prayer

A thoughtful look at how we may know and understand how God hears our prayers.

Richard W. Coffen is assistant to the president, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland.

Seven-year-old Kurt and Kent had some idle time at camp meeting, so they scurried down the hill, into the valley, and into the adjacent woods. They tossed pine cones at each other, picked ferns, and raced twigs in the stream.

Tiring of such antics, they decided this was the perfect time for a baptism. Kurt would baptize Kent in the stream, and Kent would return the favor. Removing their jeans and shirts, they proceeded to baptize each other. Wriggling back into their clothing offered a challenge, but they managed.

Reaching the edge of the woods again, the boys decided to pray. After all, shouldn't the newly baptized be people of prayer? This prayer, they agreed, should request some thing special, so they decided they'd ask God to strike dead the next person who'd grasp the handrail while descending the outdoor flight of stairs leading into the valley.

Each boy prayed and then watched expectantly from the edge of the woods. Sure enough, elderly Mrs. Brown began descending the stairs. Alarmed, Kurt and Kent shouted at the top of their voices, "Don't touch the railing!"

Mrs. Brown squinted at them in puzzlement, grasped the handrail to steady herself, and arrived safely at the bottom. They boys watched in terror. Surely she'd drop dead any moment. But she didn't. And two very con fused youngsters wandered back to their tents. Why hadn't God answered their prayers?

Mr. Kurt Williams, who related this experience during the children's story at church, concluded by asking, "Boys and girls, did God answer Kurt's and Kent's prayers?"

The children chorused, "No."

But the storyteller begged to differ. "Of course God answered their prayers," he countered. "Sometimes God says, Yes. Sometimes He says, No. And sometimes God says, Wait."

The children looked puzzled as they returned to their pews. And I don't blame them. I thought that they'd responded with the correct answer and that the storyteller had it wrong.

What counts as answered prayer

Perhaps I should explain what I think counts for answered prayer. Suppose Martha prays that God will heal her pancreatic cancer. The next day a headache she had been experiencing disappears, but six weeks later she dies. Did God answer Martha's prayer? I don't think so. She had not asked for relief from her headache, a possible symptom of her disease, but to be healed of her cancer. Nothing fol lowed her prayer that corresponded remotely with her request.

If an answer to prayer makes any sense at all, it must clearly correspond with the request. Answered prayer means that God fulfilled the request. Otherwise, in the absence of divine silence anything or nothing could be construed as an answer to prayer. Just any event that sequentially follows a prayer does not warrant being called an answer unless it matches the request. I do not mean that God lacks the freedom to deny a particular request we make. Surely He is free to do so. We do not believe in a divine sugar daddy who simply can't say No.

The problem, however, is that with God's response to our petitions as with so many spiritual matters sensory feedback is sparse or nonexistent. For us to speak of answered prayer in an intelligent manner that can also build confidence, the request and the answer should more closely resemble a cause-and-effect relationship than a mere sequentially chronological association.

Christians often echo the storyteller with whom we began this discussion. However, such word games are misguided. They do God an injustice by trivializing prayer. Perhaps a Bible story can help clarify my point.

Elijah and Ahab

After three and a half years of drought, Elijah told Ahab: "'Summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel'" (1 Kings 18:19)* for a showdown between Baal and Yahweh.

Elijah ordered that two altars and two bulls be prepared and proposed that each god Baal and Yahweh be invoked. "The god who answers by fire he is God'" (verse 24).

All morning Baal's prophets danced and sang and cut themselves, pleading "'O Baal, answer us!'" (verse 26). At noon Elijah mocked them because of Baal's silence, urging them, "'Shout louder! ... Surely he is a god!'" (verse 27).

Note the narrator's inspired three fold observation: But there was (1) no response, (2) no one answered, and (3) no one paid attention (verse 29).

At the time of the evening sacrifice prescribed by Yahweh, Elijah took his turn. Before asking Yahweh to answer his prayer, Elijah had the slain bull and the entire altar drenched with water. With a short, no-nonsense prayer, he pleaded, "'Answer me, O Lord, answer me'" (verse 37).

And Yahweh sent fire that "burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also ... the water in the trench" (verse 38). This is probably the most dramatic answer to prayer in all Scripture. What took place the answer to prayer corresponded exactly with Elijah's request.

If we were to assume with Kurt Williams that God always answers prayer, sometimes saying Yes but also saying No or Wait, then we might be constrained to acknowledge that Baal did answer. He wasn't busy or deep in thought or sleeping. Rather, his answer was a simple No! and Elijah was too quick to claim that Baal was a powerless nonentity.

If one accepts the logic of the theological position told to those children at my church, it would be possible that all the prayers, those of Elijah as well as those of Baal's prophets, were answered on Mount Carmel. However, none of us would find that conclusion acceptable. Neither would we believe that the inspired writer was wrong when he stated: "There was no response; no one answered" (verse 26; cf. verse 29).

As I see it, if God truly does answer a given prayer request, we will have some objective way to know He answered. Roger Morneau's books on answered prayer would have been a failure if at the end of each account Roger exclaimed, "Praise God! Another answered prayer. God said No." None of us would find such a book satisfying.

The popular theology expressed in Sally Wong's children's story is problematic because it makes a verifiable answer to prayer impossible unless the answer is Yes. Otherwise, anything that happens or does not happen, as the case may be can be twisted into an answer to prayer. It turns God's response to prayer into a matter of "Tails I win; heads you lose."

It is true, of course, that sometimes we do not recognize, at least at first, the unexpected way God may take in specifically answering a particular prayer. Only later do we see that He has answered in a surprising way, one we would never have thought He would use in connection with our request.

Yet, if we believe that prayer genuinely makes a difference, then we should have evidence for that belief evidence that is specific and compelling. That's why many Christians keep a prayer journal, writing down the particular request and the date they made it. Later they inscribe the date when that request met with a specifically verifiable answer. Such prayer journals help faith grow if the entries for requests and those for answers are equivalent.

That's why the writer of 1 Kings could point out that Baal did not answer the prayers of his 450 prophets on Mount Carmel, whereas Yahweh did indeed answer Elijah's prayer. There was empirical evidence that 10 Elijah got what he prayed for. There was no sensory data that could justify acknowledging an answer to the prayers uttered by the prophets of Baal. Notice the repetition in 1 Kings 18 of words like "answer," "response," "no answer," "no response," and "paid attention."

Does God say No?

Perhaps we should not be afraid to admit that sometimes God does not answer our prayers. Sometimes we pray foolishly. Sometimes we pray childishly. Sometimes we pray selfishly. Scripture is not afraid to admit the possibility of unanswered prayer. "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss" Games 4:3, KJV).

It's possible, I suppose, to deduce from James 4:3 that God does respond to those prayers that we "ask amiss" with a No rather than with a Yes. And if we had sensory data supporting a divine denial, we could say correctly that God replied with a No. But generally we don't have such empirical evidence. As a result, on a practical basis answers such as "No" or "Wait for God" really can't count as answered prayers. Only a Yes with sensory data that corresponds to the request can count for answered prayer.

Although it's true that sensory experience isn't the only approach to reality, the fact is that the five senses, created by God, constitute the primary way we discern reality and are most often the very senses we are requesting be impacted by answered prayer. Empiricism typically works well with physical reality but falls short when it conies to spiritual reality. However, empiricism does happen to be the method we use in our every day experience. That's why we hope to experience evidence that comes close to being empirical in nature even when it comes to our religious life. Empiricism is the road to the knowledge of answered prayer, even as it was when God honored Elijah's prayer on Mount Carmel.

No wonder the apostle Paul felt the need to explain that when we don't know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit offers a prayer for us because God knows the Spirit's mind, who prays in harmony with God's will (Rom. 8:26, 27).

I infer from these words that our prayers are often "amiss" (to use the expression in James 4:3), but that God Himself, through His Spirit, recasts our prayers so God can indeed hear and answer them. "Weakness is characteristic of the human condition. . . . Because of such weakness Christians know not for what they should pray or how they should pray, as Origen interpreted this verse."1

Prayer has dynamics that remain mysterious, sometimes seemingly impossible to understand. Let's not, in our zeal, muddy our already imperfect understanding by undermining the efficacy of prayer through platitudes that make no sense. Otherwise, we inadvertently do God an injustice and nudge thoughtful people toward skepticism.

*Except as otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version.

1 Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Anchor Bible on Romans, 518.

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Richard W. Coffen is assistant to the president, Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland.

October 2002

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