Note from Randy: As I’ve mentioned before, our Eternal Perspective Ministries staff members sometimes answer questions on my behalf, often quoting from things I’ve written. I am often struck by the fact that what they write back is better than what I would have. I appreciated this answer that Stephanie Anderson wrote to someone asking about unanswered prayer.
A reader wrote us to ask:
Dear Mr. Alcorn, I read your lf God Is Good booklet but I feel there’s an aspect left out that is causing a stumbling block for me with faith. I have no problem with the sovereignty of God in the trials of life. But I’m struggling with His promises in regard to prayers that don’t seem to be fulfilled. As a single woman, I have prayed for marriage and there is no answer on the horizon yet. I have also prayed for a baby’s life, putting my reputation on the line claiming God doesn’t desire that any of these little ones should perish and it is the enemy that comes to steal kill and devour but Christ came to give life more abundantly, and yet watched that baby die.
It is so hard for me to even pray anymore because I feel like if God wouldn't give me my daily bread in this regard with prayers for what His Word says are good things, then why should I bother praying about more minor things? There are SO many promises in Scripture about if you live a righteous life, God will bless you, but all I feel is cursed by a desert. I would have no problem if there were only verses in the Bible such as "in this world you will have tribulation." But I cannot conveniently cut out the opposite: "Trust in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart" and "Ask whatever you will and it will be done for you" and Matthew 7 about God being a good Father and not giving a stone when His children are hungry for bread.
So how can I reconcile what seems like God's blindness to His promises? I'd have no problem if God set the expectation that life is just going to be hard, and suck it up. Where I struggle to believe is when He promises but doesn't deliver.
I’m Stephanie, part of the EPM staff, and I’m responding on Randy’s behalf. Your struggle with unanswered prayer is not an uncommon one, and I think if we’re honest, we’ve all faced it at some point. We understand from God’s Word that He is sovereign and in control, and He is good, and He loves us. He demonstrated that love on the cross dramatically. So why does He not answer these very good prayers (for a godly marriage, and for a child’s life saved) in the way you had hoped? It certainly can be hard to understand from our limited perspective.
You wrote, “I feel cursed by a desert.” And yet—and I know this might sound surprising—I think it’s very good that you are wrestling with these issues. You’ve been given an opportunity. In the desert, you can truly experience God in a way you might not in any other situation. I love how the band I Am They puts it in their song “Make a Way”: “You brought me to the desert so You could be my water…You brought me to the fire so You could be my shield…You brought me to the darkness so You could be my morning light.”
Randy writes in his large If God Is Good book, “If you base your faith on lack of affliction [I would add, on a prayer being answered as you had hoped], your faith lives on the brink of extinction and will fall apart because of a frightening diagnosis or a shattering phone call. Token faith will not survive suffering, nor should it. …Losing your faith may be God’s gift to you. Only when you jettison ungrounded and untrue faith can you replace it with valid faith in the true God—faith that can pass, and even find strength in, the most formidable of life’s tests.”
You mentioned several verses. I will share a few resources related to a couple of them. Like any verse in Scripture, we must look into the context and at parallel passages to understand what God is communicating. Mark 11:24 says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.”
The ESV Study Bible says this: “God delights to ‘give good things to those who ask him’ (Matt. 7:11) and is capable of granting any prayer, though we must ask with godly motives (James 4:3) and according to God’s will (1 John 5:14). …Those who trust God for the right things in the right way can have confidence that God will ‘supply ever need…accordingly to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus’ (Phil 4:19), knowing that he will work ‘all things together for good’ and will ‘graciously give us all things’ (Romans 8:28, 32). Some have misused this verse by telling people that if they pray for physical healing (or for some other specific request) and if they just have enough faith, then they can have confidence that God has already done (or will do) whatever they ask. But we must always have the same perspective that Jesus had—that is, confidence in God’s power but also submission to his will: ‘Father, all things are possible for you…Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mark 14:36).”
I found what Jon Bloom wrote in this article helpful: “This is what we must keep in mind: prayer is a relational interaction, not merely a service transaction. Faith is not divine currency that we pay God in order to receive whatever we ask in prayer. Faith is a relational response of trust in what God promises us. Faith says to God, ‘I trust what you say so much that I will live by what you say.’ And those who are audacious enough to really live by what God says will see mountains move that God wants moved. That’s why Jesus said, ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you’ (John 15:7).”
You also mentioned Psalm 37:4. Randy writes, “Psalm 37:4 is a great but often misunderstood verse: ‘Delight yourselves in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.’ Some people take this to mean that God will give us whatever we think we want. But the key part is ‘delight yourself in God.’ When we delight in the Lord, He often changes our heart’s desires to what most honors Him, then grants them to us. It’s not that we always get what we want, but that He teaches us to value and even want what He—in His sovereign and loving plan—gives us.”
As I read your message, I thought about how hard it can be for us to truly want Jesus more than we desire anything else, even seemingly very good and right things. But it is only when He is the primary desire of our hearts, and we truly know that He is good and He loves us, that we can open our hands and give Him the gift of our trust. Like a good parent (the best parent, really), He knows exactly what His children need, and when we need it. And He also has the immense advantage over earthly parents of seeing and knowing all the things we can’t possibly see or understand. Anyone who spends time around children knows how often they ask for things they think would be wonderful (a third scoop of ice cream or a dinner consisting entirely of gummy bears). He would never give us a stone when we ask for bread, and like any good father, He also will not give us bread if He knows it won’t be in our eternal interests. We truly can trust Him. “My times are in your hands” (Psalm 31:15).
Randy’s ministry focus is on having an eternal perspective. I love this quote from Oswald Chambers about prayer: “We impoverish God in our minds when we say there must be answers to our prayers on the material plane; the biggest answers to our prayers are in the realm of the unseen.”
You wrote, “So how can I reconcile what seems like God’s blindness to His promises?” The truth is, God has not promised us a godly spouse, healthy children, adult children who love and walk with Jesus, the perfect marriage or job, great wealth, or excellent health. Anyone who says otherwise is misusing Scripture. Confusion about what God has and hasn’t promised can easily trip us up. In fact, Scripture says, “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). But God has promised that He will always be with His children (Hebrews 13:5, Matthew 28:20), He will work all things together for our eternal good (Romans 8:28), and He will bring us into His presence with great joy (Jude 1:24). He has promised us a beautiful eternity with Him (Revelation 21:3).
Here are a few more quotes from Randy in If God Is Good:
“Every time we ask God to remove some obstacle in our lives, we should realize we may be asking Him to forgo one more opportunity to declare his greatness. Certainly He sometimes graciously answers our prayers to relieve our suffering. This too testifies to His greatness, and we should praise Him for answering. But when He answers no, we should recognize that He desires to demonstrate His greater glory. May we then bend our knees and trust His sovereign grace.”
“We want deliverance from suffering. We don’t want our loved ones to die. We don’t want economic crises, job losses, car accidents, or cancer. Our prayers and often our expectations boil down to this: Jesus should make our lives go smoothly. That’s what we want in a Messiah. But it is not what God wants. Jesus is not our personal assistant charged with granting our wishes. While He sometimes does not give us what we want, He always gives us what we need.”
“Trusting God in suffering involves obeying God even if He chooses not to rescue us. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to worship an idol even though King Nebuchadnezzar threatened to throw them into a blazing furnace. [An idol is anything that takes God’s place in our heart and thinking.] The three young men answered, ‘If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up’ (Daniel 3:16–18). Some people hold tenaciously to a faith that their child will not die, that their cancer will disappear, that their spouse will recover from a stroke. Do they have faith in God or is their faith in what they desperately want God to do? The three young Hebrew men trusted and obeyed God, knowing He could deliver them from the fire and asking Him to do so, but realizing He might not. God sometimes chooses to heal in supernatural answer to prayer. Still, all who pray for healing should affirm, like Daniel’s friends, that they will worship and honor and obey God ‘even if He does not.’”
I want to share something that Randy wrote in our EPM magazine about all the prayers for his wife Nanci’s healing from cancer that seemingly went “unanswered”:
Thank you so much for all your prayers, some of you for four years of praying consistently for Nanci. My heart is full of gratitude to you. Don’t feel your prayers were not answered. Many of them were, and many others were answered in a better way than we could ever ask.
Nanci and I prayed together every night for over four years, asking God to remove the cancer. We asked Him to perform a miracle, and if He didn’t do that, to use the medical means over which He is sovereign to save her life. We understood that healing was never a certainty, and also knowing full well that sometimes He chooses to heal and sometimes He doesn’t, and even when He does the healing is temporary, and death always comes. “For death is the destiny of every person, and the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2). When doctors told us Nanci was going to die, she told me, “We always knew that, we just didn’t know when, and we still don’t.”
I don’t regret all those prayers for a moment. I believe it was right to ask, and I know we were sincere in our asking. God didn’t answer as we hoped He would. But then God also didn’t answer the prayer of Jesus to have the cup of suffering taken from Him.
In Gethsemane Jesus prayed to his Father three times, saying, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). A bit later, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42). Though we asked God wholeheartedly to heal Nanci, we recognized Him as Lord and trusted Him to do His will even if it wasn’t our will. We knew what God sovereignly chose would be both for His glory and Nanci’s good.
Similarly, Paul prayed earnestly for God to remove a physical disability, but recognized God had a higher purpose in not removing it: “In order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
Some people claim that if God doesn’t answer your prayers as you wish, it’s your fault because you lack faith. By the same logic, Jesus and Paul were at fault that their prayers weren’t answered as they desired. (But of course, Scripture does not fault them at all for this.)
I vividly remember hearing the story twenty-two years ago, in May 2000, when Pastor James Montgomery Boice preached at Tenth Memorial Church in Philadelphia for the last time. He told his stunned congregation that he was rapidly dying of cancer. At the end of the message Boice said, “Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you’re free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to perform miracles—and certainly He can—is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place…Above all, I would say pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying Himself in history and you say, `Where in all of history has God most glorified Himself?’ the answer is that He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross, though He could have…And yet that’s where God is most glorified.”
Finally, here is something that Nanci wrote in her journal about faith. She said, “Faith is…a deep and continued study of the character and work of God Almighty; then, based upon the above, submitting your requests to God Almighty—placing your well-grounded knowledge of His character and works into each request, always asking His will be done.”
I believe having someone to talk to about all of this would be of immense value to you. Do you have a local church, and is there a trusted older believer or your pastor you could meet with?
I pray that you will come through the other side of this faith struggle with a deeper trust in Jesus and a greater understanding of His love for you and His purposes in your life.
Stephanie Anderson is the communications and graphics specialist at Eternal Perspective Ministries.