“Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” So sang Garth Brooks in his No. 1 Billboard hit country song in 1991. I have enjoyed that song over the years, even learned to sing and play it on the piano. I agree with Garth…but not entirely.
It is true that God does not always give us what we ask for, and that can be a very good thing. If everyone got their prayers answered literally, we’d have a lot of sporting games with no losers, a lot of millionaire lottery winners, and a lot of people with the “perfect” body shape and size. But is prayer really about answers?
It’s interesting to realize that Jesus never referred to unanswered prayers. He taught that God always answers prayers. “Ask and it will be given to you,” Jesus said (Matthew 7). In comparing God to an earthly parent, Jesus said, “how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask!” Over and over again, we are invited to make our requests known to God and encouraged that God hears us and responds.
The analogy with a parent is helpful. A good parent will answer a child’s request, but not always with “yes”. Some Christians have suggested that God has a variety of answers for our prayers and requests. God might say “no, not yet” or “no, I love you too much.” And God might say, “yes, I thought you’d never ask” or “yes, and here’s some more.”
God always hears our prayers, and in one way or another, God always answers. It might not be the answer we think we want, but we trust God that it is the answer that is best for us and for all involved. If a child asks a parent to go outside on sunny 30° spring day without a coat, the parent will likely so “no, trust me, that’s not a good idea.” Even more, we can trust God’s answers to prayer.
Garth Brooks’ song is about how God said “no” to a prayer of making his high school sweetheart his wife. Instead, Garth offered a prayer of thanks for the wife and the life he has. I know a lot of people who have prayed for a spouse, myself included. My prayer was not so much for a specific person as it was to be married by a specific time. I didn’t want to be a single, dating pastor. Try to imagine that! I prayed that I would find my spouse before I was ordained. I met some people I thought might be that person but were not. Then, exactly 10 months before I became a pastor, I went on a first date with my wife. We were engaged two months before I was ordained, and married two months into my first call. I remember every day how wonderful my wife is and how glad I am that she is mine and I am hers. But I had forgotten what an answer to prayer my wife is. You might review your life and see answers to prayer you’ve overlooked.
That being said, prayer is certainly more than asking for things! The whole concern about “unanswered prayer” makes the assumption that prayer is only about requests. This is a very limited understanding of prayer. Prayer is so much more! It’s adoring God, coming clean to God, thanking God. Prayer is asking questions and listening to God. Imagine only spending time with your grandparents when you wanted something. What kind of relationship with that be? No, we spend time with people we love because it feels good and grows our love for each other. Prayer is drawing close to God. Prayer is pouring your heart out to God. Prayer is putting your life in God’s hands.
I remember a very powerful time of prayer, when someone prayed for me, much like we have begun praying for each other 1:1 during Holy Communion. I was at college, away from home, and had just received news that my grandpa had died. My campus pastor Mike heard my name called over the loudspeaker at a football game (pre-cell phones) and went to my dorm room out of concern. He walked with me to the prayer chapel on campus and prayed for me. He thanked God for my grandpa and our family; he prayed for comfort and strength. He helped me climb onto God’s lap when I need it most. I didn’t need an answer; I needed God. Sometimes the very act of praying is the answer we need the most.
Pastor Matthew Poock
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.”