Why doesn’t God answer our prayers?

Have you ever prayed for something important and good, but the opposite happened?

Do you remember how that felt?

One member of the Reasons for God community shared what this experience feels like for her. With her permission, I want to share this part of her email so that you can hear the weightiness of what she had to say. 

For many years I have struggled with the differentiation between “God is fully able” and “God is fully willing”. When I pray for help, for healing, for hurting friends, for an outcome in my personal situations that I desperately need, I never doubt that God is fully capable of changing circumstances or people’s hearts or performing healing or miracles. But I struggle with trusting that God is willing to answer in the way I ask. I don’t know how to reconcile this subtle but significant difference, and I don’t know how to pray with expectancy or courage when I’m not sure the outcome I seek is what God wants. There have been so many gut-wrenching unanswered prayers, especially for many people in my life who have been stricken with cancer in the prime of their lives and ministries, who had a lot of prayer support. But passed away anyways. God was able to heal them… but it would appear He was not willing. I have in my head all the rhetoric about God’s vision being larger than ours, about how when we cling to “physical life” as the be-all-end-all to pray fervently for extended life here on earth, we disrespect and misunderstand the gospel, and about trusting God’s will in the unanswered prayer. But when I see and must conclude that God was able but He was not willing, I don’t know how to reconcile that nuance and pray faithfully and expectantly … or courageously … in all the things that burden me. At the back of my head I always think, what if it is (kind of) pointless to pray this because God isn’t willing? How do I pray then? If you could spend some time on your vlog tackling this question, I would appreciate it.

First, I want to thank Julie for asking this. It is a treasure and a gift to receive such an honest question. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve felt this is a question on my own heart. 

I want to know: how would you respond to Julie? You can share with us in the comments below.

For me, I remember when my friend Nabeel Qureshi went to be with the Lord in 2017. It seemed like tens of thousands of Christians were fervently praying for his healing – but he still died. It was a painful loss.

As I’ve prayed and reflected on what Julie shared, I think it is important to note that she has already heard some common theological explanations:

  • God’s vision is bigger than ours
  • Salvation is more important than prolonged life
  • We trust God even when we don’t know what he is doing

These are all true statements, but for some reason they haven’t provided comfort in her grief or trust in her God. Do you think the best thing we can do is provide more truth? More Bible verses? A year or two ago, I might have dug up my apologetics training and deployed it to help Julie figure it all out.

But as I have walked through more grief myself, now I am increasingly frustrated with how spiritual language gets used to diminish our hurts. As Julie put it, someone explained that her questions show disrespect for the gospel! In hearing this, I am a little offended and even angry. 

Spiritual language should not be used to avoid spiritual responsibilities. And where does the Bible say, “When someone is hurting, quote this next section to them and it will fix their problems”?

When I’m grieving a loss, I can still trust that God has a plan, and I do respect the gospel. But at the same time, a drive-by Bible verse feels more like stiff-arming me rather than caring about me. Instead of entering into another person’s experience of grief, we try to apply a quick fix to their hurt. The benefits are numerous:

  • We quoted the Bible!
  • We said a prayer!
  • We reminded them of good theology!
  • We didn’t feel bad!
  • We move on with our lives!

In sum, we get to feel like we did the Christian thing, but without making any sacrifice.

And meanwhile, we create confusion for the other person. They still feel isolated and alone in their loss. They heard the spiritual language, but they didn’t experience the help that it was supposed to provide. So now they not only have the grief of their loss but a growing doubt about God and his response. As God’s people are absent, is God absent too?

The experience of grief is a complex one. I am not an expert on grief, I am not a counselor, and this is not an area of significant professional training for me. But what I want to say is that we can all weep with those who weep. We can choose to be with someone as they are feeling sadness, disappointment, anger, and heartache. We can let them know that they matter to us. That there’s no rush to get better. There’s no impatience that insists upon a quick fix. There’s no expectation to feel a certain way. We offer our accepting presence that, in love, shares the burden of grief. 

In John 11, when Jesus sees Mary and Martha weeping at the loss of Lazarus, you will remember the famous lecture he gave. Right? No, it’s not there, because that wasn’t the occasion for another Sermon on the Mount. Rather, we read, “Jesus wept.” 

Why doesn’t God do anything? If we ourselves aren’t willing to do something to show that God has prompted us to care when someone is facing a loss, what is the point of our theological speculation? Does our theology function to minimize our involvement in the hurt of other people or does it propel us to draw close to them? Do we have an important sermon to deliver in Jericho or do we have the time to get a broken man to an inn? 

And do any of us know with certainty what God was doing in the specific situation when Nabeel succumbed to cancer? There may be some lessons we learned and those are very much worth sharing. But we must remember that what we learned from the experience is categorically different from a factual presentation of God’s exact purposes in the timing of Nabeel’s life. 

I find that uncomfortable. I want a certain answer that makes sense of why God didn’t help. And I don’t have it. 

What I do have is a story of Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus because he was deeply moved by the hurt that Mary and Martha were experiencing.

I also believe that spiritual death is a bigger problem than physical death. And I see that Jesus met that need as well in his death on the cross. But both in Bethany and at Golgotha, Jesus did not offer a theological lecture but sacrificial love. The meaning of his love is of great consequence, and is worthy of accurate theological description, but we must remember that the actions themselves are what resolved our problem. God’s salvation was not accomplished through heavenly pronouncements but an Incarnation that was aimed at the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the ascension.

No matter what we believe, there will always be a gap between what we experience and how we make sense of those experiences. My conclusion is that our best response is to step into that gap and be present, in love, with one another. As we draw close together, sometimes it might come to pass that our hurting friend asks, “Would you pray for me?” And as we bring our aching hearts together before a God of sacrificial love, I believe we will slowly regain the capacity to pray with honesty, with confidence, and one day, with even greater hope. 

This is just one approach. You may have a better one — please share it in the comments (available to subscribers here). I’ll say this in closing: as I shared these reflections with Julie in advance of the newsletter going out, I found that it opened up the conversation to new areas of reflection. Julie, thank you for the privilege of this conversation.

Giving Credit: The header photo is by Stu Lauren on Unsplash