Making Sense of Our Unanswered Prayers

I’ve often told people to do something that doesn’t work.  Or at least doesn’t seem to.

“Pray in faith.”

It always sounds simple when it’s embedded in a sermon.  Then some trusting soul who heard me tries to “move a mountain” while they’re at a car lot.  They “tell” a corvette to move from the dealership to their driveway.  It doesn’t.  They command chronic pain to go away, and if it retreats, it only does so with Vicodin. Silly preacher.  Stop giving ten-cent advice to address a twenty-dollar problem.

It looks like prayer is one of those sputtering, unreliable concepts that might pay out as advertised.  When it doesn’t, whoever recommended the concept to you will look like a snake oil salesman.  He tried to sell you something that probably doesn’t even work for him.

I believe in prayer.  I love it.  I practice it.  You might say I’m as sincerely naïve as the people who listen to me.  I can’t help it.  The Lord said, “…truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20).

I obviously didn’t write those verses or make those promises about faith.  God did.  The way I figure, He created a universe.  That qualifies Him to make any audacious promise He wants.

Yet the stone cold fact is, prayers—a lot of them—go unanswered (unless you call the silence of “no” an answer—which would mean every prayer actually gets a response).  For the sake of argument, we’ll define an effective answer as things turning out the way you wanted, when you wanted.  Using that definition, there are probably millions of prayers that go unanswered every day.

After decades of active Christian living, I have a number of these petitions still floating around my life at ceiling level, like old helium balloons.   They never really went anywhere.    I don’t know why.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to go back to the words of Jesus, looking for clues.

First, how about faith?  From the passage under consideration, Jesus said certain things couldn’t happen without faith.  Thankfully, we only need a little.  He said, “Faith as a mustard seed,” not “Faith as a mac truck.” We’ve all had moments when, after doing everything else, we thought, “What the heck, I’ll try some prayer.”  Then nothing happened.  The mountain didn’t budge.

You told yourself, “Yeh, I didn’t think it would.”   That hardly qualifies as faith.  Something about faith causes prayer to take on a whole new significance.  Faith makes you want to run tell Jesus, to share a concern with Him, to air out a frustration, to ask and then bathe in hope.  No techniques or incantations count here, just a relational power between you and the Lord where anything becomes possible.

One of the easiest ways to get a faith fill-up is by going to the Bible and slowly reading out loud, because “Faith comes by hearing and hearing through the Word of God” (Rom. 10:16).

How about context?  Undeniably, the disciples in this passage weren’t trying to “claim” a swimming pool or jet plane or summer home for themselves.  I think we’ve all seen these verses co-opted for crass material pursuits.  Yet here in this chapter, the disciples were hoping to advance the kingdom of God by casting out a demon.

This is not to say we shouldn’t ask for personal things.  We should be warned though, that our agenda can outrageously conflict with God’s values.  We want to be aware of the need for heart level adjustments.

A mountain needs to be moved, which is a lot more important than building a cabin and hot tub on it. Nor will God let you move the mountain on top of someone who is acting like a jerk.  If you want to move a mountain off someone, then that’s another story.

How about timing?  You can move a mountain several different ways.  One is to suddenly blast it into oblivion.  The other is to erode it.  Everybody likes the first one (which sometimes happens).  Nobody likes the second one (which mostly happens).  Erosion naturally takes time.

When you want a mountain-sized answer to prayer, remember that it potentially affects a lot of other people—people whom God loves.  You are also likely asking for something beyond your own current ability to handle (though you think you can).  Time is needed, and of course, patient endurance.

How about mystery?  When it comes to the things of God, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know.”  Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “the secret things belong to the LORD our God.”  Most of us don’t like mystery as the final answer to anything.  We think it’s a cop-out.  Okay, that could be.  On the other hand, mystery can be humbling and force a walk in faith you’ve resisted cultivating.

Anybody who feels like they’ve got the prayer matrix all figured out needs to be honest.  It doesn’t work with the predictability of computer software.  We’re asking and relating to a Person, not tapping into cosmic powers of some sort.  We exercise the faith to move the mountain.  God decides how and when it moves.



Photo credit:  Lee Royal


      1. True, but we have to begin with Jesus’ faith, not our own human attempt at having faith. When Jesus said “Have faith in God,” literally he was saying “Have God’s faith.” He was offering to impart it to them. Jesus’ faith always works, no matter what “size” it looks like.

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