Howard Hendricks, the beloved professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who is now with the Lord, loved to tell this story about himself and unanswered prayer. When Hendricks was a young man and unmarried he became aware that several mothers in his church had set their caps on him on behalf of their daughters. One mother was so bold she told him one day, “Howard, I just want you to know that I am praying that you will be my son-in-law.” When telling the story Dr. Hendricks always stopped, and with a pregnant pause stated solemnly, “Have you ever thanked God for unanswered prayer?”
Like Howard Hendricks, I think many of us have lived long enough to thank God for unanswered prayers. We can indeed be thankful that God has protected His glory and our best interests against the selfishness and shortsightedness of others and ours praying. Yet while there are times we can be deeply thankful for unanswered prayer, there are more times we are deeply troubled by unanswered prayer! Heaven’s silence and God’s delays in the face of our prayers often stymie our faith and unsettle our hearts. How do we explain the fact that the Bible repeatedly enjoins us to come to God in expectant prayer? And yet when we do, we often come away with our prayers unanswered (Psa. 34:15; Jer. 33:3; Matt. 7:7-11). In fact, my guess is that the question of unanswered prayer may be one of the most common stumbling blocks to spiritual development with young and old Christians alike. As Jerry Sittser notes, “Unanswered prayer is like a raw nerve in the Christian community.”
As I have reflected on this raw nerve issue, I have reminded myself that the problem of unanswered prayer may lie on God’s end. I mean that God in His infinite and sovereign wisdom decides it would be better for us that He not answer that prayer or answer it another way. After all, who would dare to offer herself as God’s counselor (Isa. 40:13; 55:8-9)! In this case, God’s no must be assumed to be a yes to something better! Yet while the issue of unanswered prayer may be as a result of God trumping us, I would suggest it is more often a result of our own action or inaction (James 1:6-8; 4:1-3). A humble and honest spiritual accounting in the matter of unanswered prayer will repeatedly show that we only have ourselves to blame.
To help remove the static on the prayer line to heaven, let me list some of the actions and attitudes that hinder the effectiveness of our praying: (a) the harboring of known sin (Psa. 66:18); (b) the lack of a firm conviction that God will answer (James 1:6-8); (c) motives void of God’s glory (James 4:2-3); (d) unresolved conflicts along with a spirit of unforgiveness (Matt 5:23-24; 6:14-15); (e) a heart that lacks compassion for those in need (Prov. 21:13); and even insensitivity toward ones spouse (1 Peter 3:7). Stopping this kind of stuff will go a long way to bringing us closer to an answered prayer.
Listen! Unanswered prayer may be a result of God making a choice for us, but many times it is a result of us making a choice against God.