The Challenge of Unanswered Prayer

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The Challenge of Unanswered Prayer

July 24th, 2011


I recently heard a story about a boy growing up in the Congo, one of the poorest nations in Africa.

  • He was one of seven children living together with all his other relatives in one small home.

  • As you can imagine, life was difficult for this boy… especially seeing so many around him dying from preventable diseases.

  • But, even as a powerless, impoverished little boy, he offered this one big prayer up to God…

That one day he would be able to build a hospital in that little village. But how? He had no connections, no resources… nothing.



  • But there was something different about this little boy. You see… this young kid knew how to pray bold prayers.

  • “God, give me a way to bring this dream to pass!” And then something started happening… He started growing.

  • 5 feet… 6 feet… 6’5”… 6’10”… 7’… 7’2” ! And along the way, he started playing basketball on a dirt playground in that village.

After he graduated with straight As from his local village school, he began applying for scholarships to study abroad.



  • It was an impossible dream. So, he prayed really big prayers. And, amazingly, he got a scholarship to Georgetown University.

  • A supernatural break. He went to study medicine so he could go back and minister in his village.

  • But while there, the basketball coach noticed him and asked him to try out for the team.

He not only made the team, but he became a star player. He was so good that he was drafted by the Denver Nuggets….


  • And would eventually play for the Nets, Knicks, and the Houston Rockets.


  • In fact, Dikembe Mutombo became one of the best NBA players of our time.

But more amazing that that, Dikembe donated 15 million dollars to build that hospital.



  • And, in July of 2007, he brought a number of other NBA players with him to dedicate a brand new 29 million dollar hospital in the Congo. [show slide of Dikembe]

  • God is ready… if we would bring Him bucket sized prayers… than know that God has a way of making those prayers come to pass. [return back to title slide]

You see, if you were to ask me, "Craig, what is the single biggest motivator for your prayer life?" I could tell you in two words, "Answered prayer."



  • When I hear stories like that… I’m moved to pray! When there is a need and God responds

  • If I’m feeling stressed and turn to God in prayer… and, out of nowhere I’m filled with total peace... it just makes me want to pray more.

  • The biggest motivator to pray, in my life, is answered prayer.

And yet, if somebody were to ask me, "What's the single biggest de-motivator for prayer?" I could tell you that in two words as well!



  • Anybody want to guess? Yes… Unanswered prayer!

  • Somebody looking for work goes to God in prayer… but just can’t seem to find the right job.

  • Or somebody wrestles with depression, and they ask God for it to lift, and it doesn't lift.

  • Or somebody gets seriously cheated or wronged in work, and they ask God for justice to prevail but they just got away with it.

One way or another, every one of us has experienced this… where unanswered prayers have not only impacted our prayer lives but challenged our faith as well.


  • When I think about unanswered prayer… what really stands out in my prayer journey took place during our fourth year living in Tajikistan.


  • There was a girl living in a village next to ours... she was about 10 years old.

She had slipped on some ice and broken her leg. Her family was extremely poor... so poor that a trip to a doctor was out of the question.



  • Well, her leg didn’t heal properly... and eventually got infected.

  • By the time the family had found me and asked me to come and pray for her, she already had advance gangrene.

  • Her leg was completely discolored and swollen.

I tried to get them to the capital city where they could get some kind of attention... but they wouldn’t go.



  • I prayed every day for her. In fact, most nights I climbed out onto the roof of the apartment building where we lived...

  • And just prayed and prayed that God would make her well until one day when her father came to tell me that she had just died.

Needless to say, it’s always great to share stories about answered prayer... stories of God miraculously intervening in people’s lives.



  • And yet, it seems, at times, that our prayers get lost and we begin to wonder: “Is it worth it?” “God, did I do something wrong?” “Do You even hear me?” “Do You care?”

  • Truth is, the Bible is full of stories about people who ask for something and don't get it.

One day Peter, James, and John are on a mountain with Jesus, and they see Him radiantly transformed.



  • He’s walking around with Moses and Elijah, and Peter says, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters – one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah," as if they're all on a par with each other.
  • So Jesus says, "No, Peter. We’re not building three little houses today. We have other work to do. That's the wrong request."

Another time, James and John decided they wanted to upgrade their heavenly seating assignments, so they had their mother come to Jesus.



  • Now you imagine this. Their mom gets down on her knees before Jesus, and He asks her, "What do you want?"

  • She said, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine sit at Your right hand and one at Your left hand when You come into Your kingdom."

  • Jesus says, "No. That’s not how it works in my Kingdom."

People often share with me the things they are praying about… and sometimes they share their frustration over the fact that they aren’t seeing those prayers answered.



  • My boss isn’t letting up on me, my relationship is still hurting, my finances are still a wreck

  • and, again, if what their experiencing isn’t painful enough... the confusion over why God seems so distant only adds to the pain.

  • There have been moments in my walk with God that I’ve walked down that same road... and, like you, have wrestled with the question of unanswered prayer.

But over time, I’ve come to understand more and more in my own life why my prayers aren’t always answered.



  • So, what I’d like to do this morning is to walk you through some of the things God has shown me as I’ve interacted with this question of unanswered prayers over the years. [PRAYER]


1. The first thing we need we need to consider as we face unanswered prayer is the motivation behind these prayers.
The Gospels are literally full of examples where the disciples, especially John and James, are making “wrong requests” to Jesus
  • When the people in one Samaritan village told them that they wouldn’t be rolling out the red carpet when Jesus and the disciples were passing thru…


  • James & John asked Jesus if He would destroy the village with fire from heaven! Jesus is like…

  • Let’s see… you want to Nuke the Samaritans, huh? Well, I appreciate the offer, but no."

Now, I’m gonna assume that we’re a little beyond the, “Lord, would you rain down fire on my boss today,” or



  • “Lord would you smite my ex today” type of prayers.

  • And yet, there are times when our prayers are a little off.

  • For example, one popular “wrong request” goes like this:
    “God, please change that person.”

  • Wives pray this for their husbands, husbands for their wives. Workers/Bosses, Students/Teachers.

Needless to say, there are a lot of legitimate reasons to pray for others… for them to know Jesus, be set free from their addictions, that they would experience his love and healing, and so on.



  • So, here’s the question… when you pray for them, does your motivation come out of an authentic concern for that person?

  • You see, I might pray for someone to change... someone who is making my life difficult. But why? So my life can be easier!

  • Truth is, the true intention of our prayers may really be: “I don’t want to face my own issues. I don’t want to work on this relationship. I don’t want to change at all! Instead, I want the other person to accommodate all my needs, so I’m asking you to change him or her.”

So, while it’s fine to pray for that new, big account; while it is fine to pray while running down that field about to make what could be a game winning catch;



  • while it is fine to pray that God would cause His church to grow

  • We always need to be mindful of what motivations lay beneath the surface.

    • Is it to show off all the other salesmen?


    • Is it to get your picture on every sports magazine hoping for personal glory?

    • Is it to show off to other pastors how your church is growing while theirs isn’t?

I’m not trying to get you to spend hours looking at the motivation of every prayer you make.



  • Just get in the habit of asking yourself, would it bring Him or me glory? Would it advance His kingdom or my reputation?

  • Would it really help others? Would it help me to grow spiritually or just make my life easier?

Of course, even when our motivations are spot on, there are times when God answers our most sincere, most appropriate prayers with a “No.”



  • All through the Bible you see this. In fact, on four separate occasions, four different people, Moses, Jeremiah, Elijah, and Jonah each get so discouraged that they ask God to take their lives.

  • But, in every case God says, "No!" Don't you think when their dark seasons had passed, they were glad God had said no?

  • Thank God that God sometimes says no!

There is a song by Garth Brooks that hit number one on the charts some time ago called Unanswered Prayer. It came from a true-life experience.



  • He was at a football game at his old high school, and he saw this girl who he hadn't seen for a long time.

  • All through high school he had such a huge crush on her. In fact, be used to pray that they would get married one day.

  • Well… it didn't happen, and now all these years later, he sees her again… and he wonders, “What was I thinking?”

Under his breath, so grateful for the amazing wife God did give him, he whispers, "Thank you God for not answering that prayer.”


  • In fact, the main line of this song, is that "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."


  • There’s a scene in Bruce Almighty where Jim Carey was trying to figure out how to respond to the millions of prayer requests coming in.

So he gets this brilliant idea. He just says “yes” to all of them. And, as a result, the world starts falling apart!



  • Suddenly, everyone asking for financial power are getting rich. Everyone asking to marry their crush are getting just what they’ve asked him for.

  • Before they’re ready for it, people are being given financial power, political power, physical power, and supernatural power.

  • And, needless to say, it was a disaster. You see, the good news is that God always reserves the right to say no.


2. The second thing we need to consider when facing unanswered prayer is the fact that God might be wanting us to “slow down.”
In fact, the Bible is packed full of examples where God's response to people is, "Not yet."

  • Abraham had to wait years, till he was 99 years old, before God answered his prayer for a son.

  • Moses and the people of Israel had to wait 40 years in the wilderness before they made it to the Promised Land.

  • Joseph had to wait two years in prison after he had interpreted the cupbearer's dream before he was released.

  • David had to wait a whole lifetime before he saw the beginnings of his prayers for a temple answered.

Of course the problem with that, is that we don’t like to hear “slow down” or “not yet” much more than we like to hear “no”.



  • We like things fast… from supermarket lines to computers... to answered prayer!
  • But God is not some celestial vending machine (Hybels)… where we put our 85 cents in and get our candy bar in an instant.


  • It’s embarrassing to say, but I can be like the proverbial kid who always asks, “Are we there yet?” And God has to always say, “not yet Craig!”

I was flying to Anaheim a few months ago and was getting frustrated watching a TV show online. It was a little slow.



  • Then it hit me… am I actually complaining that my internet connection up at 36,000 feet is a little slow? Am I insane?!

  • We can kick or scream, but the truth is that God isn’t intimidated by our demands for instant gratification.

He cares about how we are feeling… but He will not cave in and give us all the chocolate we want just to keep us from complaining.



  • Though it can be hard, we need to trust God… embracing the reality that He completely loves us

  • and while He is both all-powerful and good… that He knows better than we do… that His reasons are just and good.

  • That when He says “not yet” or “slow down”, He is solely motivated by what is best for us.

Its during these times where we simply need to surrender to God... to let go of the steering wheel of our lives and hand it over to a loving Father who “knows best.”



  • If you’ve seen Bruce Almighty, you know that “Surrender” is one of the central themes of the movie.

  • Once Bruce is endowed with God’s powers for over a week, and has made a complete mess of his life, he realized that these powers only magnified his self-centeredness.

Finally, trying to make amends, he listens in on the prayers of his girlfriend, Grace.



  • This scene starts with her sister picking up her things from Bruce’s apartment.

  • [Bruce Almighty, “Full-Surrender” Clip]
  • If you’re in that place right now... of frustration b/c God isn’t answering your prayers the way you had hoped... will you choose to trust Him on this? Will you surrender to Him?

Truth is, if we were to stop long enough to consider those prayers that seemingly went unanswered months or years ago,



  • you may realize that what you thought was a “no” from God was really a “not yet.”

  • And that what He was doing during the “not yet” season was preparing you for the very thing you were praying for.

  • You see, God's main goal for my life isn’t necessarily what I have or don’t have or what I’m doing or not doing… but rather the person I’m becoming.

Although we might be in a hurry… the truth is that we’re not a bunch of frozen entrées that can be prepared in the microwave in 3 or 4 minutes.



  • You see, sometimes we pray and God says “no.” It may be that we pray and he says, “slow,’

  • And then there are times when He says, “hold on… I want you to grow right now”

We prayed for a long time as a church, for example, for God to provide us with our own place.



  • And while we might never know this side of heaven exactly why we had to wait as long as we did,

  • Through our time of waiting, God was no doubt building our character so that we can bear the additional weight that our answered prayers will one day put on our shoulders.

Perhaps another reason he may have us wait is so that we could come to see that what you were praying for was just a crumb when what He really wanted you to have was a feast.



  • For that ten year-old Tajik girl... what I found out was that just the day before, a few women went to visit her...

  • to read Bible stories to her and to sing worship songs. Turns out the girl gave her life to Jesus.
  • I prayed that God would heal her... He did. In that moment she was running around the streets of heaven. God did more than heal her body... He saved her.



3. The third thing we might want to consider when facing unanswered prayer is the state of our own walk with God.
What if Clint was working on his house and wanted to borrow my power tools… and so he comes to my house to ask me in person.

  • He pulls up to the house and starts walking to the front door.

  • Along the way, not realizing I was watching him, he kicks the puppy (that we don’t have) out of his way and pushes Sarah off to the side.

  • With Sarah and the puppy in tears, Clint looks up and sees me looking right at him.

Is this the best time for Clint to ask me for my shiny... hardly-been-used-because-I-don’t-know-how-to-use-them... power tools?



  • Or is there something he needs to clear up before making his request?

  • You see, God is always inviting us to ask Him for whatever is on our heart… offering us free access to all of his resources.

  • But some of us have a few things we need to clear up before taking Him up on his offer.

Sometimes there’s a blockage in my life God just needs to deal with. This is from the first few verses of Isaiah 59:



  • "Surely the arm of the Lord is not too weak to save you, nor His ear too dull to hear you. But your sins have separated you from your God; Because of your sins, He has turned away and will not listen anymore." Those are sobering words.

  • As I shared earlier, oftentimes, when prayers don’t get answered, our tendency is question God… Are you listening? Do you care? Are you able?


It is a lot easier to blame God than to look in the mirror and admit that maybe we’re the problem
  • maybe we’re the obstacle that stands in the way of seeing that prayer answered.


  • In fact, let me share with you several ways in which we can become obstacles to seeing our prayers answered.




  1. The most common cause of unanswered prayer is the lack of prayer! You see, it is for this level of brilliant exposition that brings you here each week!

  • James 4:2 says that “we don’t have b/c we don’t ask.”

  • Be honest… how often do you commit to pray for something or someone… adding it to whatever prayer list you have,

  • and even though you think about what you are supposed to pray for, the reality is, you really aren’t praying about it at all?

Addressing a need by reading books, going to counselors, claiming Bible promises, conversations with Christian friends, etc.,



  • are all good, but they are not the same as prayer.

  • When you find yourself frustrated over not seeing a prayer answered, ask yourself, “Have I fervently and regularly prayed for this over a period of time?”




  1. If we do manage to pray, sometimes our prayers aren’t really coming from our heart.

  • God is a real God... and whenever we relate to Him, His heart is that we be real... that we express what is in our hearts with honesty and sincerity.

  • After Bruce surrenders to God’s perfect will in the scene we just saw, He’s hit by a big old truck (which in itself demonstrates that we don’t always get what we ask for!).

  • Suddenly, he finds himself in heaven, getting a lesson in prayer from God. [ Bruce Almighty: Show “Good Prayer” Clip ]

While Bruce’s first answer may have won him a few points at a Miss America contest… it’s lacked authenticity.


  • If you’re marriage is struggling, clearly you should be praying for it.

  • But, more than just a quick prayer asking God to make it better, perhaps we should be praying, “Please, God… whatever you need to do to make me a better husband… please do it.”

  • Its one thing to casually read a name off a prayer list... it’s another thing to thoughtfully & sincerely pray from your heart.




  1. A third reason for unanswered prayer might be unresolved relational conflict.

  • As committed as God is to seeing us walk in a healthy, vibrant relationship with Him…

  • I don’t know if we will ever grasp, this side of heaven, how committed He is to see us walk in healthy relationship with one another.

  • Matthew 5 says that if you are offering your gift at the altar, you need to first do all you can to resolve those issues b/t yourself and those you’ve hurt or those who have hurt you.

If the other person chooses to remain embittered in spite of your attempts at reconciliation, than you have nonetheless done your part.



  • So, if you are frustrated that your prayers don’t seem to be getting you very far…

  • and yet, you know there is unresolved relational conflict, understand what you need to do.

  • Ask yourself... are there any unresolved conflicts I need to deal with? And then, as an act of worship, deal with them.


D. Another reason for unanswered prayer may have something to do with where your heart is at in relation to God’s heart.
  • For example, In Proverbs 21, we’re told that "If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard."


  • You see, it doesn't work to come to God with a big request and clenched fists. Maybe God is saying, "Grow in generosity."

Sometimes we passionately come to God on behalf of those who have some real needs… those living in poverty or those who don’t know Him.



  • And yet, God’s responses might just be, "That’s a great prayer, but I think I’ll answer that prayer through you!

  • Go and minister to the poor around you. Will you do something about that?"

  • A lot of times prayer works that way… where you come to God in prayer… and He asks you to part of His answer.


E. Another reason for unanswered pray isn’t so much that it has gone unanswered, but that you weren’t listening for God’s reply.

  • People often plead with God to speak to them... to answer them. “God, show me what I’m supposed to do.”

  • The problem is that we are so focused on the question that we never really listen for the answer.

  • After Bruce gets home from the horrible day... he ends up getting in a big fight with Grace.

In frustration, he leaves the house to go for a drive... asking God to speak to Him. The only problem is... that he’s not listening!



  • [Bruce Almighty, “Signs” Clip]

  • When you pray... are you giving God the opportunity to respond?

  • How often have we asked God in complete frustration, “Where are You?” “What are You doing?”

  • And yet, while asking that question, we are not at all listening for a reply.

  • When you’re praying, are putting yourself in a place where you will hear what God has to say?

There are, of course, other thing that serve as hindrances to answered prayer. But, I don’t think we need the unabridged version this morning.


  • God loves each of us more than we could ever understand. Even in eternity I don’t believe we’ll be able to fully grasp it.

  • Yet, there are times when the Father will need to say to us, “Before I give you what your praying for, I want you to grow...

    • Put away that sin… that attitude.

    • Put an end to that destructive pattern & get off that merry-go-round,

    • Reconcile that relationship & receive forgiveness.

  • Grow thru this, and I’ll throw open the floodgates of heaven.

But, having said all that… the reality is that sometimes people ask for really good things with really good hearts with really good intentions



  • and yet, their prayers don’t get answered. And the truth is, we may never know why?

  • It just might never make sense this side of heaven.

  • No matter how desperate and persistent we are in our prayer, sometimes heaven just remains silent and we don’t know why.

Honestly, I won’t even try to offer an answer... mostly because there might not be one that would ever satisfy the cry in your heart.



  • I can’t point you to an answer… but I can point you to a Person.

  • I can only tell you that at the heart of the gospel is an unanswered prayer.

  • Jesus, kneeling in the garden prayed, "Father, if it is possible, may this cup, this suffering, this death be taken from Me. Yet not My will, but Yours be done."

This is the most desperate prayer ever prayed from the most discerning person who ever lived, from the purest heart that ever beat,


  • for deliverance from the most unjust suffering ever known, and all it got was silence.


  • Heaven was not moved. The cup was not taken away. The request was denied.

But, from that unwanted, unmerited suffering came the hope of the world that reshaped history.



  • Because the ultimate answer to every human anguish, including the anguish of unanswered prayer, is a sin-stained, blood-soaked Cross where God Himself suffered.

  • In Isaiah 53 we’re told that the Suffering Servant would bare all of our sins. But it says more than that.

  • It says that on that Cross He will bare our sorrows as well. Jesus not only bore the pain of His own unanswered prayer…

  • But took on His own shoulders the pain of ours as well.

Jesus asked in Gethsemane not to be crucified. What if God had said yes? What if Jesus had been spared that cup?



  • What if there had been no Cross, no death, no tomb, no resurrection, no forgiveness of sins, no outpouring of the Holy Spirit, no birth of the Church?

  • Although I’ve shared some important principles that I’d like you to consider when facing unanswered prayer,

  • Truth is, I just don’t know why some prayers ultimately get answered and some don’t.

I only know that in the Cross, God's no to His only Son was ultimately turned into God's yes to every human being who ever lived.



  • I’d like to close in prayer now. And as we do that, let’s remember that the very God we’re praying to is here right now.

  • I think He would invite you… even though you may have suffered that disappointment and even pain of a silent heaven…
  • whatever your ache is, wherever there is a no that you want so badly to be a yes, would you bring it to Him right now?

Would you bring that dream… that disappointment… that challenge or burden… Would you bring it to Him now?



  • Would you ask Him to renew your faith and stir up expectancy again in your prayer?

  • You see, there are times when God will say “No”. There are times when God says “Slow”.

But, there are also those moments when God will simply say, “GO! Because of your prayer, I’m opening the floodgates of heaven right now.”



  • All of us, as we walk out our relationship with God, will experience a regular diet no, slow, grow, and go.

  • We don’t know what prayer will elicit what answer… and so, we should come, as Paul says in Ephesians 3:20, with “boldness and confidence before the throne of grace…”

  • And, with great expectation, offer up to Him bucket-size prayers… prayers that can change history.

I would have despaired if it had not been for the goodness of God.” Psalm 27:13





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