“A vivacious 23-year-old in our church is facing the possibility of a terminal diagnosis. Understandably, each day she swings between faith and grave fear. We’re praying like crazy, but what will happen if our prayers don’t work? When one of my relatives heard about this book, she broke down in tears. Her struggle is with chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition that has sapped her energy since leaving university 2 years ago. She is sometimes unable to lift even a small bag of potatoes, gets exhausted after any serious conversation, and has never been able to work. I’m also recalling the face of a man who received a clear word from God to abandon his safe career and launch out in business. It was a risk, but he felt sure that the Lord had spoken to him. Three years later, he was bankrupt and without a house. But by far, his greatest loss was the ability he once had to trust God simply. Maybe your problems are less obviously painful than those scenarios. You’re probably reading this because… some of your prayers simply aren’t working and you want to know why. Maybe you took a risk, stepped out of the boat, and sank. Maybe you’re sick and tired of praying for healing and breakthrough.” This excerpt from Pete Greig’s God on Mute is sure to ruffle a few feathers, if only because somewhere in the middle of it, we find ourselves. It’s painfully honest and it provides a gloomy portrait of reality. Unanswered prayers are powerful enough to cause us to question everything. Even with all the “head knowledge” of God in the world, unanswered prayers can make us struggle deeply, questioning the goodness and/or existence of God altogether. And yet, even as we’re tortured on the inside, we’re able to mask this on the outside. We tell others only of the positive things, as we desperately try to salvage the fleeting image of what we once thought was a good God. It is here that Grieg reflects: “[We] are quick to spread glory stories, but disappointments tend to be brushed under the carpet because we don’t want to discourage anyone or be a bad commercial at work. But God isn’t like us. He doesn't get insecure about His performance, and He never asks us to cover up for Him.” If we were to embrace this invitation and open Pandora's box, our minds might naturally run to Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:7: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you." Some would quickly push back saying, but in-context this passage is speaking about praying in God’s will. If only it were so simple. “Why do so many prayers that appear to fit perfectly with God’s revealed will in Scripture remain unanswered? Can we really say to the mother in mourning, “it wasn’t God’s will to save your baby?” Are we supposed to believe that the rape victim who screams for help is praying out of line with the Father’s purposes? These are extreme examples, admittedly, but they are not uncommon." It gets darker. Grieg adds: “How are we to make sense of the idea that God provides for the details of our lives -- (i.e.) food on the plate -- when so many people cry out to Him from the farthest clutches of despair, yet suffer and die?” At this point, you’re probably wondering if it was even a good idea to open up this blog, if only because it’s left you in an extremely uncomfortable state of mind. But don’t bail just yet. There are sound answers to these questions and you’d be happy to hear that a world exists in which you can be content living in the disappointment of seemingly "unanswered" prayers. It might not be the life you had imagined, but if you stay long enough to endure the pain, you’ll find yourself living a stronger and more resilient life than you ever thought was possible before. There’s a very real tension that exists between the disappointments and celebrations, the promises of Matthew 7:7 and the unanswered prayers. For this reason, we can’t simplify God. He’s both far more complex and far more beautiful than the human mind can comprehend. In God on Mute, Grieg segments unanswered prayers into three different categories:

    1. Prayers are at odds with the orderly nature of the world
    2. Prayers that are affected by multiple different competing "wills" at play
    3. Prayers that are caught up in the cosmic battle that surrounds us
 So let's unpack each one.



It’s easy to talk about the miraculous nature and wonder of God, yet in doing so we often completely overlook the orderliness of God and how this plays into our perception of unanswered prayers. Just take a look around at the world that surrounds you and you’ll find order at every turn. In fact, this is one of the reasons scientists are starting to wonder if there may indeed be an intelligent creator behind everything. They even made a documentary about it. Hosted by actor Will Smith, 2018’s One Strange Rock explores the absurd and precise conditions in which life on Earth is even made possible. How does this apply to prayer? Because quite simply, sometimes our prayers contradict with the way the world actually is ordered. Grieg explains, “we know that God has intricately established certain governing principles (laws of nature) that make life work, and that they do so most of the time with almost infinite complexity and exquisite harmony.” Speaking in generalities, if God were to answer every prayer for a miracle, it would most certainly at points conflict with the orderly nature of the world. Twentieth century theologian CS Lewis, puts it this way: “That God can and does, on occasions, modify the behavior of matter and produce what we call miracles is part of Christian faith, but the very conception of a common, and therefore stable, world demands that these occasions should be extremely rare.” Let’s make this a bit more practical. Many people have difficulty reconciling natural disasters with the concept of a good God. How could he allow hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes that have wrecked cities, stolen lives and changed the fortunes of millions in an instant? Yet we must consider, if God were to stop or suspend every single one of these events, this would quite literally create an infinite amount of ripple effects that would affect the rest of the world. Grieg calls storms “the air-conditioning system of the earth, keeping the climate-- and thus ecosystem--delicately in balance.” This does NOT mean that God intends for you or your loved one to die in a natural disaster. In fact, some don’t even like the term natural disaster to begin with, because humans have had a role in accelerating the intensity, frequency and visceral nature of these events. But we digress.

The point is to contemplate all that God is holding in balance -- the stories of 7.8 billion people, the laws of nature and the sin that has affected those laws (ex. air pollution).

Perhaps on an even more practical level, some of our prayers conflict with the prayers of other people. On July 8th, 2010, the city of Cleveland was locked in a standstill, awaiting The Decision from LeBron James on what his next move was going to be. For many people in the city, LeBron’s story was wrapped up in theirs. A hometown hero, one of their own, making a choice of whether to stay or leave for greener pastures with another team. Inevitably that day, thousands of people threw up prayers that he would stay. Perhaps millions more in other cities were praying that he would sign with their squad. So whose prayer should God answer? Because clearly it can’t be all of them. Someone is going to be left with unanswered prayers. In the end, LeBron took his talents to South Beach and left the city of Cleveland in distress. Jerseys were burned, people enraged. And it took years for Clevelanders to get over it. Depending on your personal appetite for sports fandom, it might seem a bit dramatic and borderline ridiculous that an athlete could evoke those types of emotions out of people. Let’s switch gears. Say you prayed to get a parking spot, someone else took it, you were late for an interview, you didn’t get the job and your life was turned upside down? The anxiety rushing through your veins, as you plead with God to save you from your own foolishness. And maybe he would. But this time, he doesn’t do it, as someone else was praying the exact same thing who actually got the spot. Admittingly, these are more softballs in the context of unanswered prayers. Rationally, we can work them out in our heads and get to a place of contentment. My foolishness led to me losing the job opportunity. Maybe LeBron leaving wasn’t all that bad. We might even be able to process the weather patterns more easily through this lens. But what about the unanswered prayers that are much harder to swallow? The ones where it seems obvious that God could have come through, like healing a 5-year-old of cancer and setting them on the path towards a long and healthy life. But no... he decided to go silent, instead choosing to let someone go through the unexplainable pain of losing their child that day. As we go deeper into this conversation, these are the types of unanswered prayers that often cause people to spiral.



Because those of us engaging in this conversation today are spread across the spiritual spectrum, we must clarify that God does in fact have a will. As in what he wants to see happen. Put simply, this would include the moral expectations he’s laid out for humanity. Things as simple as humans not being greedy or racist. Scripture tells us that in the beginning, God created a beautiful world that perfectly embodied his perfect will. Now, if there’s one too many perfects in there for your taste, consider that collectively, our hearts deeply long to see this world. How is it that we can imagine a world that we’ve never known? Why is fighting for a better world so deeply embedded into our DNA? Why do we long for racial reconciliation? It’s almost as if we have this phantom pain of the soul, where we long for the idyllic conditions of the Garden of Eden. But something is quite clearly standing in the way. I am. You are. As we follow along with the biblical story, we find that humans decided to go rogue in God’s beautiful world. It goes without saying -- but the ability to go rogue infers that we also have a will. We have the ability to choose. Do we want what we want? Or what God wants? And if the last few years have shown us anything, it’s that people don’t always make good choices. Sometimes they’re just plain evil. So why does God allow this? How could God allow someone to murder? To rape? To commit racist and sexist acts? Even when the person who is being raped is crying out in prayer? Because at a 30,000 foot view, his highest value is love. Love is only possible if it exists in a framework where there is free will. If you had to force your significant other to love you, then it wouldn’t really be love. That’s not something you can manufacture. In the same way, God didn’t create us to be robots, who would freely love him and others and programmatically do exactly as he wishes. We can choose. We see this play out as Jesus explores the nature of God through the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-32. For those unfamiliar, Jesus tells a story of a Jewish father with two sons. The younger son takes his inheritance and spends it like a Vegas casino gambler, ends up destitute and living among pigs, and comes home, only for his father to lovingly embrace and forgive him. The story is a mirror for God's relationship and love for us. But also implicit within that story is an aspect of choice. The father's initial heart was not that the son would run away, but the son also was able to make up for his mistake by making another more positive choice. How much different would the story have sounded if the son never ran away because he was threatened or forced to love his father from the start? The key question to consider is this: how often does God allow us to reap what we sow (both good and bad) from our choices, and how much does he intervene or interfere with that supposed free choice? We don't have specific percentage points or insights as to why it appears that God moves or heals or saves in certain situations and not others. In fact, you might reject this theology altogether. You don’t agree. Surely God could have created a world where we have free will, freeness to love and only choose good all at the same time. Here’s what theologian Tim Keller has to say about this in his book Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering: “The assumption is if I can’t see any reasons God might have for permitting evil, then he probably doesn't have any. But that premise is obviously false… if God is infinitely knowledgeable -- why couldn’t he have morally sufficient reasons for allowing evil that you can’t think of? It would seem absurd to think that we humans, with only the lens of living out our own personal experience, would know better than the Being that has created well… everything. Keller says that “to insist we know as much about life and history as all-powerful God is a logical fallacy.”

There is a reason scripture constantly is talking about trusting in God’s goodness, his character and the like. We’re constantly being redirected to who he is, because we’d argue that quite frankly, that’s all that we can handle.

We will never be able to make sense of everything in our current form and why certain prayers go unanswered, while God allows people to commit acts of evil. While that can be an incredibly unsatisfying statement, it is ultimately what will set us free from the why questions. Why me? Why my child? Why my mom? Why my business? Of course, God gives us freedom to explore these questions as much as we need to. Just read the book of Psalms. But at some point, we have to go through the seven stages of grief. Ultimately, the ideal landing spot is holding fast onto God, his goodness, that he has our best interests in mind and the life that he promises is to come. Most people do not realize this, but God actually promises a future where there is no more pain and suffering. A new world is coming where evil does not exist. In Revelation 21:4, it says “he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” But in the meantime, author Tyler Staton explains, "[God promises that he] won't let a single tear be wasted. [He says], "I hear you. And I'll make all things right. All things new." Our persistence in prayer comes from the promise that we don't pray to a reluctant, half-interested, can't-be-bothered judge, but to an unfathomably loving Father who collects every prayer we ever utter and every tear we ever shed." This comes down to how we perceive time, as God experiences time differently, and whether or not we believe that this life is not all there is. Only when we die will we likely be able to fully see things the way he does. There remains one more category of unanswered prayers we have yet to address. A driving factor that is hard to comprehend, yet deeply interwoven in the biblical narrative.



In the Old Testament, we read a strange story in the book of Daniel about how Daniel’s prayer was held up in another realm for three weeks. The prayer was heard and was to be answered, but it was delayed. Suspended in an unseen world that could easily be missed. This might sound crazy to you, but is it really? Humans have a strange relationship with the supernatural and the unseen. Remarkably, during the COVID-19 pandemic healing crystals skyrocketed in sales. In recent years, our culture has also been increasingly seeking out mediums, psychics and everything in-between. Why would that be if we didn’t at some level believe in the power of the unseen? In fact, science is even open to the idea of another realm or commonly called “the fifth dimension”. And does that dimension in some way interact with the world that we live in? Curiously, we see this play out in the 2014 Academy-Award nominated film, Interstellar. This is a mini-spoiler alert, but at one point we see Matthew McConaughey in a different realm, somehow able to tap on his daughter’s bookcase and subtly communicate to present-day Earth. While some of the science behind the film was written off, astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson reflected on the film by saying it was theoretically possible to interact with the past and that “we don’t know what’s in a black hole, so take it and run with it.”

Once we discard the preconceived stereotypes about religion and spirituality, how is what we read in Daniel much different than theories that have been thrown around in scientific circles?

In fact, there is even psychology around our aversion to heaven, hell, angels, demons and the spiritual realm. Known as the priming effect, it’s this idea that there are unconscious influences that affect our thinking and behavior. We have an automatic wiring to certain stimuli, usually predicated upon some sort of previous experience. In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kaheman calls the brain an “associative machine” that attaches associations unconsciously to different words and ideas. So when it comes to terminology that has previously been attached to religion and folklore, our brain now automatically writes them off due to prior wacky experiences. But for the purposes of this conversation, you could just as easily swap the trigger words of yesterday for the more sophisticated modern language of today, like “fifth dimension” and “extraterrestrials”. Could an extraterrestrial really be a demon in disguise? How would we even know the difference? Is the fifth dimension something that is part of God’s realm? Will we know the answers to these questions when we die? Quite clearly, scripture would affirm there are other dimensions to be experienced after death -- commonly referred to as heaven and hell. But it is not limited to that. One of Jesus’s original apostles, Paul expounds on this further when he describes the "spiritual" struggle we are living in, warning the church that their actual fight is not against fellow human beings, but "against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Eph 6) It is quite clearly here that we see the last will that is in play, which is the will of spiritual beings and the spiritual realm. Michael Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm is heady, but it unpacks the cover-to-cover narrative in the Bible of the spiritual realm. However, he offers a more simple overview in his book Supernatural. So another reason our prayers may be going unanswered is because spiritual beings are imposing their will on the situation, causing interference. Which means that from the exterior, all we may hear is silence, yet in the unseen a war may be waging that prevents our prayers from getting through. The mere possibility of this realm underscores the importance of persistent prayer. Even when the weariness starts setting in. Even when it feels hopeless, over and over again persistent prayer is taught in the scriptures. Of course, it would be impossible to fully understand a spiritual world we cannot see. There’s only so much we can understand with a human lens. And for those of you that are newer to prayer, this all might sound silly, yet consider that McConaughey could hear his daughter from the other realm. And science has categorized in the realm of at least speculative possibility. So why not trust in the scriptures, the most remarkable book in all of history, with thousands of years of history speaking to the importance of pressing on with tenacity?


As we come to a conclusion, the call would be to learn to live in the balance of possibilities. Admittingly, this can be incredibly difficult to do, especially when your heart gets so invested in a particular outcome of a situation. But that’s exactly what we need to guard our heart against. Being ready for each scenario gives us a healthy equilibrium. We’re ready for the possibility of our expectation being fulfilled (or not). We’re ready to say “God even if you don’t…” and accept the possibility of a prayer going unanswered. But we’re also ready for the challenge to lean in and ramp up our persistence. We can learn much from Paul, who speaks of his journey towards contentment in his letter to the Philippians. “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” But most importantly, we need to hold fast to what is true, which is that God is good, whether it feels like that or not right now. And also that life is a continual process of becoming. So who do you want to become? There’s no doubt that unanswered prayers can certainly make you more cynical and bitter. Staton says that "pain and suffering has capacity to deepen you and transform you, but it also has the capacity to destroy you." We can freely choose that route if we want. Or we can let unanswered prayers drive us into a place of resilience, to which we look most like Jesus even in the midst of the pain of the present world. This is not easy, nor is it a straightforward process. Jesus has far more grace for the stages of grief than we do, but with him, the journey of resilience will always be an invitation. He’s saying, do you trust me? Will you walk with me? To learn more, click here to visit our Prayer Hub.


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