By H. Lynn Gardner
God does not grant every prayer request made by believers. Scripture explains why in some cases this is so. In other cases, however, the reason is not readily apparent. When our heavenly Father does not grant our request it should drive us closer to him rather than farther away from him.
Why Some Requests Are Not Granted
James says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:2, 3).1 God withholds some gifts because we do not desire them enough to ask for them. Some requests are denied because the request is motivated by frivolous, selfish, or worldly desires.
God does not grant some requests because of personal sin. “Your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear” (Isaiah 59:2; cf. Isaiah 1:15; Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 21:13). Husbands are to honor and live considerately with their wives “so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Peter 3:7).
Some requests are not granted because they contradict another’s prayer—prayers for victory offered by players on opposite teams in a football game, two guys each praying that a certain girl will give her heart to him, four applicants for the same job all praying they will be chosen for a single position. God cannot grant all of these requests.
Some requests are not granted for reasons that are not revealed to us. God certainly can and does heal supernaturally today. We have documented cases of miraculous healings. But he does not grant every request for healing, nor did he promise to heal every illness, prevent every death, or stop every suffering. He did not miraculously heal Timothy of his stomach ailment (1 Timothy 5:23) or Trophimus who was left ill at Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20). Paul’s thorn in the flesh was not healed although he requested it in prayer (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
Augustine’s mother prayed that he would not go to Rome, fearing he would be corrupted. He went to Rome in spite of her tears and prayers to the contrary. Later he gave his life to Christ. Augustine said to God, “Hearing afar the real core of her longing, You disregarded the prayer of the moment, in order to make me what she always prayed that I should be.”2
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego told the pagan king that their God would deliver them from the fiery furnace, but even if he did not, they would still serve him (Daniel 3:17, 18). This represents the heart of a true believer in God. Even when our requests are not granted, we will serve the Lord.
Unfortunately, some teach and guarantee that if you have faith, God will always heal and always make you prosperous. This creates false expectations and leaves many spiritually depressed. Scripture does not teach that God wills every believer to be healthy and wealthy all the time. Regardless of whether we are sick or well, poor or rich, God wills that we find salvation in Christ and grow in spiritual maturity.
If God granted every one of our prayer requests exactly as we asked, it often would be the worst possible thing for us. Jerry Sittser lost three family members in a car accident and struggled with the fact his request for safety was not granted. Later he wrote, “We need unanswered prayer. It is God’s gift to us because it protects us from ourselves. If all our prayers were answered, we would only abuse the power.”3
A Garth Brooks song, “Unanswered Prayers,” speaks of seeing an old high school sweetheart later in life. He saw what kind of a person she really was and thanked God for not answering his youthful prayer that she would be his wife. We don’t know the future and can’t foresee the long-range effect of our requests. Frequently when we look back at our requests, we can thank God for his wisdom in overruling our foolishness and ignorance. We depend upon our loving heavenly Father to answer our requests according to his wisdom and what is best.
Requests Not Granted That Appear to Be in God’s Will
What about ungranted prayer requests that would seem to be in God’s will—such as healing from a horrible illness or stopping an instance of child abuse? We may never know why God did not prevent the accident that killed our loved one or why God did not heal a friend’s terminal illness, even though fervent prayers were offered.
We can’t speak for God. He did not answer Job’s exact requests. We do not know why God does not supernaturally intervene to grant requests that appear to be obviously good. Here we must trust in the wisdom and love of our heavenly Father.
Some people may have a greater testimony to God’s power through exhibiting grace and peace in their weakness and suffering than if they would have received miraculous physical healing. God grants them grace for each day but not physical healing. Paul told the Philippians that God would be glorified either through his release from prison or through his death for Christ (Philippians 1:19-26).
When I was dealing with my terminal lung disease, John Ransom, my friend since college, prayed for me. It looked as if I might die of the disease before I could get a transplant. At the time, John was in good health, but in the summer of 2005, John learned he had inoperable pancreatic cancer. I had received a double-lung transplant in the summer of 2004 and was well enough to visit my friend as soon as I heard of his condition.
We talked about the fact that I was the one who was facing the prospect of my death a few months before when he was praying for me. Now the tables were turned. He faced the real possibility of his death and I prayed for his healing. I am continuing to do well. He died of his disease in February 2006.
Is this a clear instance of answered and unanswered prayer? True, in one case, healing was granted and in the other it was not. Still, I believe God answered prayers in both cases. God demonstrated his glory in both cases. In my case I was able to teach in Bible college two more years and continue my writing ministry. My recovered health has brought joy and inspiration to hundreds because they prayed faithfully for my health.
On the other hand, John and his wife have been towers of strength in their local congregation through some difficult times. John was greatly respected both in his local church and community. The way he prepared for and faced his death gave an outstanding testimony to me and to a multitude of others. Even though it was not easy for his family, the way John dealt with his suffering and the way he died certainly glorified God.
Prayer includes request but it is not merely asking and receiving. In prayer we communicate with God because of our relationship with him. We talk with God, seek to know him better, and mature into a deeper fellowship with him. Every prayer request must be offered seeking what is best from God’s loving, all-knowing point of view. When God does not grant a request that we feel is absolutely the best option, we must remember he is God and we do not have his eternal perspective and wisdom.
Trusting God Even When We Do Not Understand
This issue comes down to trusting God even when we don’t understand. For reasons we do not understand, God sometimes heals a person in response to prayer. For reasons we do not understand, God sometimes does not intervene. It may be impossible for a parent to fully explain to a child why a request is granted or not granted. Even when we do not understand with our limited view, we can trust God to do what is best for his children in the big picture.
Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane may be the best commentary on the issue of ungranted prayer requests. Our Lord prayed to be spared the anticipated suffering. God in his wisdom did not grant this request, but did what was best. When our prayer requests are not granted, we need the same attitude of Christ—“Nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).
Like Jesus, we must boldly present our requests to God. Don’t quit praying because a particular request is not granted. Pray earnestly, passionately, persistently, seeking above all that God will be glorified and his will be done on earth, as in Heaven. We will grow in our fellowship and relationship with the Lord when his will is the supreme desire and request of our hearts.
1Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version.
2Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine, translated by E. M. Blaiklock (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), V, viii.15.
3Jerry Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 82.
H. Lynn Gardner is retired after serving many years on the faculty and as academic dean of Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri. This article is adapted from his book Where Is God When We Suffer? available from College Press at collegepress.com.