Why Doesn’t God Answer My Prayers? (Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb)

Rev. Dr. Charley Reeb   -  

Last week we began a new message series called Why? The seed of this series was a simple question I posted on my Facebook page some time ago: “What Question Would You Like a Sermon to Answer?” I was amazed at the response. After a day or two I received over 100 questions.

Last Sunday I addressed the question “Why did God allow that to happen?” or, if you like, “If there is a God why do people suffer?” My answer was that everything that happens to you is not God’s will but God has a will in everything that happens to us. And that will is to turn your trouble into triumph. If did not hear the message, I encourage you to grab a transcript of it or watch the video on the website. I believe it will helpful to you if you struggle with the theodicy question.

Today I continue this series by responding to the most popular question I received on Facebook: Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? Of course, the question came in different forms: How do I know if I am praying right? Why does God answer some prayers, but not others? Can prayer change God’s mind? How should I pray? Do I pray to God or Jesus? Do I need to save up my prayers for important things? How do you tell the difference between God’s voice and your own voice? How can I receive answers directly from God? Great questions!

If you grew up in the church you were taught that prayer is important. And even if you didn’t, I am sure you have heard about the importance of prayer. If you need something, ask God for it. If you need guidance, ask God for it. If you are worried, pray about it. If you need strength, pray for it. I am sure many of you are here today because you are seeking God to answer a prayer.

But maybe you struggle with prayer because you never seem to get the results you are looking for. You pray and never seem to get an answer. And you are frustrated because you hear people talking all the time about the power of prayer like God is eating their cornflakes with them at the breakfast table every morning and when you pray it feels like you are ringing the doorbell to an empty house!

I understand the frustration. I have prayed for marriages to be restored, but they weren’t. I have prayed for children to be healed of sickness, but they died. I have prayed for God to open doors of ministry, but they were slammed in my face.

Sometimes my prayers feel like rubber balls bouncing off the doors of heaven.

Maybe you prayed for a promotion and didn’t get it. Maybe you prayed for a job and didn’t get it? You prayed to pass a test and failed. You prayed for God to hold your marriage together but your spouse left anyway. You prayed for a loved one to recover from an illness and they died. It can be extremely frustrating and discouraging. You wonder, “Is God listening?” And maybe you feel you are not doing it right, and you think if you come to the right church or sing the right song or say that right prayer, things will be different.

Before I go any further, I need to say there are times when God wants to answer our prayers but rebellion prevents it from being answered. If you have prayed for God to hold your marriage together, but your spouse cheated on you and left anyway, don’t blame God, blame the spouse. If you prayed for a relative to heal from lung cancer and they never do because they continue to smoke like a chimney, don’t blame God, blame the smoker.

God never goes against free will, no matter how hard we pray. If someone makes a bad choice, it’s not God’s fault.

There are also times when God answers prayer but we are too stubborn to see it. Like the old story about the man on top of his roof during a flood who prayed to be rescued. A raft, a boat and a helicopter each came by and to each one he said, “I am fine. God is going to rescue me.” Well, the man died and asked God why he wasn’t rescued. God said, “Don’t blame me. I sent you a raft, a boat and a helicopter.”

If you prayed for God to help you get in shape, but you never used the free gym membership you were given, don’t blame God when you don’t lose weight. If you prayed for God to help you heal from an ear infection, but never take the antibiotics prescribed to you, don’t blame God when your ear still hurts.

Answered prayers are not always esoteric or mystical in nature. Sometimes God’s answers are obvious and practical, and we simply overlook them.

But those disclaimers aside, it is painfully true that some prayers are not answered, at least not in the way we want. And this hard truth gives more problems to more people than I know. Especially when we read the words of Jesus recorded in the gospel of Mark. Jesus said, “I tell you this: if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Be lifted from your place and hurled into the sea’ and has no inward doubts but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him. I tell you then, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that that you have received it, and it will be yours.” –Mark 11:23

That’s what it says. And I believe in the power of prayer. I have seen amazing things happen as a result of prayer. I preach about prayer and it’s transforming impact. Prayer can make all the difference in the world.

Yet, our experience tells us not every mountain is moved, not even when we believe and pray with all of our heart. Perhaps this has you stuck spiritually.

So, how do we deal with that? What do we do when it seems that our most desperate prayers are not answered?

Here is the issue: God does answer prayer, but God does not always answer prayer the way we expect him to. Sometimes God’s answers are not immediate, and sometimes God’s answers don’t align with our wishes, but that does not mean that God does not answer prayer.

This morning I am going to share with you the different ways God typically answers prayer. I encourage you take notes, especially if this has been a struggle for you. I have reflected a great deal on my faith, done a great deal of research and listened to some of my favorite preachers on this subject. What you learn today just might get you unstuck from your struggle with your prayers that don’t seem to work.

Sometimes God says, “Go!” Sometimes God says what you are asking for is a go. In other words, “Yes, I am with you and I will help you with it. Go for it!”

There are times you ask God for a job one day and the phone rings and you’ve got a job the next day. There are times that you ask God for surgery to be successful and the surgery is successful. There are times when God says yes and we are thrilled.

Now, by a show of hands, how many of you wish this is how prayer worked all the time? Of course we do! The only answer we want from God is “Yes.” What child likes to hear, “No” from his parents? Children always want to hear, “Yes.” My son Paul always wants me to say “yes.”

But let me ask you, do you think it is a good idea for a parent to always say yes to their child? We all know the answer to that one.

Too often we think that if God does not give us what we want when we want it then God has not answered our prayers, but that is not true.

Sometimes God says, “Whoa!” Sometimes God says, “Yes, but not now.” James Merritt says that “God not only wants to give us what is best for us God wants to give it to us when it is best for us.”

Football coaches understand this. Most of the time, high school and college coaches are very reluctant to play quarterbacks who are extremely inexperienced. It doesn’t matter that they have great talent, great speed or a great arm. It is best to bring them along slowly and not give them everything they may want. If they do, it could either go to their head if they are successful or destroy their spirit if they are not. Sometimes they are not mature enough yet to handle where they are destined to be.

One of the greatest battles a parent has to fight is to make sure that he or she doesn’t give their child too much, too soon. There is nothing wrong with teaching your kid, at the right age, how to drive a car, but it’s possible to teach them how to drive a car before they are old enough to know how to drive it.

I want to teach Paul how to swing a golf club, but he’s too little to put a real golf club in his hands. So, for now, he uses a plastic toy golf club. Otherwise, he could hurt himself and others.

There are times that God answers our prayers and eventually gets around to saying, “Yes”, but he does it WHEN is it best for us.

You and I can live with those types of answers, but it is the third one that gives us the most trouble. And it is the third one that most of us have problems with.

Sometimes God says, “No!” God can say “No” to any person and any prayer because God is God and we are not! God said, “No” to some of the greatest figures in the Bible.

Without question, outside of Jesus Christ, the hero of the entire New Testament was a man named, Paul. Nobody loved God more than Paul, served God better than Paul and was more devoted to God than Paul. Yet, Paul had what he called a “thorn in the flesh.” We are not sure what that thorn was, but we do know that he asked God, not once, not twice, but three times to remove it from him.

Do you know what God’s answer was?

“My grace is sufficient for you for power is perfected in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NAS)

God lovingly said to Paul, “No, I am not going to take the thorn away from you, but I will give you the grace to handle it and overcome it.”

Now why? Why would God say no to Paul? And why would God say no to us?

God’s Perspective is Bigger and Better Than Ours

God has something that you and I don’t have. The Big Picture. This is why the Bible says in Isaiah: “This plan of mine is not what you would work out, neither are My thoughts the same as yours!… For My ways are higher than yours.” (Isaiah 55:8, LB)

So often when we pray we don’t realize the consequences if God were to say “Yes” to that prayer.

James Merritt puts it this way: “If we knew everything that God knew and we could see everything that God sees, then every time God says, ‘No’ we would say ‘No’ as well.

“All prayer has a ripple effect. Every time God answers “Yes” to a prayer, it will always affect somebody else. When I pray for something, I can’t see how my prayers are going to affect my life down the road. I can’t see how my prayers are going to affect my family. I can’t see how my prayers are going to affect my church or you.

“Prayer is like a nuclear bomb. For a nuclear bomb to explode there must be a change reaction and that is exactly what prayer does. Prayer always sets off a chain reaction. And because God knows the end result of that change reaction many times has to say, ‘No.’”

For example, take the Apostle Paul’s desire and prayer to go to Spain to spread the gospel. God said, “No you are going to Rome.” Shortly after Paul arrived in Rome he was thrown into prison and chained up. But do know you what happened? Paul wrote a large chunk of the New Testament in a prison cell. We might not have the New Testament if Paul had gone to Spain.

God sees things we can’t see. God knows things that we don’t know.

One author wisely stated that God’s outlook always takes two things into consideration: What is for our good? What is for God’s glory?

No matter how eloquent or profound the prayer may be it if doesn’t meet those two criteria, God will say, “No.” Why. God’s Perspective is Bigger and Better Than Ours.

One of the most interesting chapters in the Bible is Hebrews 11 where it talks about so many heroes of the faith and some many people who stood strong for God in history. In one of the most interesting parts of that chapter we read these verses: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better…” (Hebrews 11:39-40, NIV)

There are some prayers that God said, “No” to in my life that I am still upset about, but there are many more prayers I have prayed that I thank God that He did say “No” to.

James Merritt says that if you ever get to feeling angry or bitter because God didn’t answer one of your prayers, go to a high school reunion. More than likely, you will find that man or woman you wanted to marry so badly went down an unexpected path, and they did not turn out the you expected!

When I look at the beautiful, sweet, precious wife that I married and think about some of the girls that I could have married, I am absolutely convinced, “When God says “No” it is always for my best.”

It is so easy to trust God when he says, “Yes.” It is a different story to trust God when he says “No.”

Faith is not believing God when He says “Yes” to your prayers; faith is believing God even when He says “No” to your prayers. Faith is trusting that God is always looking out for what is best for you.

But maybe that is not good enough for you. You are hurting. You are disappointed. You don’t understand why the mountain has not been moved in your life. Jesus said, “If I pray, if I believe, the mountain will be moved…”

Let’s take another look at our scripture about moving mountains. In first century, Jewish culture, “moving mountains” was a figure of speech which meant, “removing difficulty”. So, in this text, I don’t believe Jesus is saying, “Whatever you ask for, you will get.” Instead, I believe Jesus is saying, “Through prayer, I can help you overcome difficulty with my strength.”

There is an old saying, “When a door is closed, God always opens a window”. Although it sounds cliché, I believe it. God hurts with us when we suffer, but God also goes to work helping us by opening a new door or window. God is in the business of bringing good out of evil.

James McCormick said “The problem is that we cannot go through the new door that God opens if we are staring at the door that is closed.”

Folks often can’t move forward in their faith because they are stuck staring at the door that has been shut rather than allowing God to lead them to the door that he has opened.

If that is where you are today, it is time to change the way you have been praying. Instead of praying, “Lord, why haven’t you answered my prayer” pray, “Lord, lead me to another door or window that you have opened.”

And in order for that to happen we need to see prayer more than just putting an order into God. Prayer is not bending God’s will to our will; it is bending our will to God’s will. Prayer does not give us what we want from God; prayer helps us want what we need from God. Prayer does not change God. It changes us.

I remember going on vacation with my family when I was a kid. Our resort was next to a big lake and you could take canoes out. One morning I decided to go canoeing. On my way back in I accidentally dropped the oar in the water and the current took it away.

So, there I was stuck in the middle of this lake. The current drifted me a little closer to the shore and began to call out. Finally, a man saw me, grabbed a rope, threw it out to me and then tied the rope on the dock and told me to pull myself in. I got the feeling this was not the first time he had done this for a guest! As I was pulling on the rope, there was this optical illusion. It looked like I was pulling the dock to me but, in reality, I was pulling myself closer to the dock.

This is what prayer does. It does not move God to us. It pulls us closer to God. As we move closer to God in prayer, we find we are changed by His love and power. Prayer moves us closer to the heart of God and his will for us.

So often we forget this and pray, “Okay God, I don’t need much of your time. You don’t need to get too involved. Just give me some direction here. What should I do?” God replies, “Just hang out with me for a while. Let’s spend some time together. I want to show you some things.” We persist, “Lord, really. I don’t need that much of you. Just give me a yes or no.” God replies, “Just abide in me and my love from day to day and you will find what you are looking for.”

God still wants us to bring him our needs, and our desires, and our questions and doubts. But God wants more than that. God wants us! God wants a relationship with us. We need to remember that the same God who created the universe is waiting to hear from us. The same God who parted the Red Sea is waiting to hear from us. The same God who enabled David to defeat Goliath is waiting to hear from us. The same God who raised Jesus from the dead is waiting to hear from us. And God will always have our best interest at heart.

Daily Devotional Guide

Monday: Read Luke 5:16. In the gospel of Luke we find 15 different references to Jesus praying. Jesus taught us what prayer is by his own example. He prayed at every turn in his life. He prayed as he sensed God’s call on his life. He prayed before choosing his disciples. He prayed as he served and healed people. He prayed as he felt the demands and pressures of his ministry. He prayed as he faced the cross. He prayed as he finished his work on the cross. Jesus was continually praying. Prayer was as vital to Jesus as taking his next breath. Jesus could not have accomplished what he did on earth without the power of prayer. There is power in prayer because prayer is a continuous conversation with God that anchors us to his strength and wisdom. Can you think of a time when prayer made a difference to your life or helped you make a decision?

Tuesday: Read Luke 11:5-8. Did you notice that this prayer lesson from Jesus is not about technique. It is not a lesson in right phrasing. It is not a lesson in how to persuade God. It is a lesson in persistence. Through the story of the man banging on the door all night Jesus is telling us that effective prayer is consistent prayer. Effective prayer is a continual connection to God. For prayer to make a difference it must become a habit. When conversation with God becomes a habit, we will be rewarded. How often do you pray? Has prayer become a habit for you? What is the biggest hindrance to your prayer life?

Wednesday: Read Luke 11:9-10. In this text Jesus is reminding us that God always answers our prayers. Whenever we ask, search or knock, God will answer. But notice what Jesus does not say. Jesus does not say everyone who asks receives the answer they want or finds what they are looking for or has the door they want open opened. God always answers us, but we may not always like the answer or expect the answer we receive. Effective prayer is not about what we can get from God, but what we receive from God. There is a big difference! For, often times, what we want from God and what we receive from God are two different things. Does this change your understanding of prayer? If so, how?

Thursday: Someone once said that God answers prayer in one of four ways: “yes, no, wait, and are you kidding?” Someone else put it cleverly: “If the request is wrong, God says, ‘No.’ If the timing is wrong, God says, ‘Slow.’ If you are wrong, God says, ‘Grow.’ But if the request is right, the timing is right and you are right, God says, ‘Go!’” I recall times in my own life when I prayed and prayed for God to give me something, and my prayers were never answered, or so I thought. Later, I discovered that what I wanted was not right for me. That event always reminds me of the country song, “Thank God for Unanswered Prayer.” There have been other times when God seemed to know that I was not ready for the answer to my prayer or the timing was not right, and God asked me to wait. Have you ever been relieved that God did not respond to your prayers the way you desired?

Friday: Read Luke 11:11-13. This is the single most important text about prayer. Jesus says that whenever we seek God in prayer God will always give to us His Spirit (the Holy Spirit). What is the purpose of the Holy Spirit? To love us, mold us, shape us, guide us, empower us, and direct us. This means that prayer is not putting our order in to God. Prayer is not getting our phrasing right so we can unlock the God machine. Prayer is intimate conversation with God. It is as natural as turning around and speaking to a friend. It is also about being quiet, still and listening to God and in order transformed by his love. Prayer is a conversation with God that brings us closer to God and allows us to be formed by His love. Prayer does not change God; it changes us. When C.S. Lewis was going through a difficult time someone once said to him, “I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.” Lewis replied, “That’s not why I pray. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God, it changes me.” Does the previous quote from Lewis speak to you? If so, how?