The question inevitably comes up during any probing discussion of prayer: What happens to prayers that go unanswered? What if the answer is No? What if you’ve prayed and prayed about something, storming the heavens, and things don’t turn out the way you believed in the depths of your heart they should?
It’s thorny territory. Jesus said, “Whatever you pray and ask for, believe that you will receive it, and it will be so for you” (Mark 11:24). Interestingly enough, in the next verse, Jesus reminds the disciples: “If you have something against anyone, forgive so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your wrongdoings.” Forgiveness seems essential to all prayer.
We can all recall times when we believed and our prayers weren’t fulfilled. Some people feel guilty. Was their faith at fault? Had their belief been too lukewarm, too full of doubts to make their prayers come true?
All I can say to that is: what a terrible load of guilt to be weighed down with. Perhaps that’s why the next line in Mark is about forgiveness. Self-forgiveness. Some people even lose their faith over unanswered prayers. I had an aunt who prayed and prayed for a little brother. She got a little sister instead—my mom. And although she adored that little sister and loved her always, she closed all communication with God. At least that’s what she told us.
This past Sunday I was a guest at a church, discussing prayer and my book 10 Prayers You Can’t Live Without. The talk naturally turned to this issue of unanswered prayer. One woman said that when she felt she was getting the wrong answer from God, she thought of it like criticism she would get in a review at work. Unwelcome perhaps, but often a chance to listen more closely to what God (or boss in her analogy) was saying.
This group was dealing was the death of a good friend and church member after a long struggle with cancer. I looked around the room and could feel their pain. And yet they were all here, asking questions. Still asking God. It wouldn’t be fair to give them that too glib response: that God has three answers to prayer, “Yes, No and Wait.”
It was only after I left, on my way home, that I recalled what often happens through those struggling prayer times, those baffling painful trials. The people who stick with God, even as they cry out, grow closer to each other and God. Think of the disciples on Good Friday. Their Lord was crucified, dying a terrible death. Was there ever a deeper prayer that went unanswered? He was not the Messiah they hoped for and believed in.
But then came Easter. We are an Easter people. It makes me think that God says yes to all our prayers. I just have to listen closely enough to hear him. The way the disciples heard him—and saw him!—on that first Easter Sunday. I believe in Yes.