Prayer is a precious thing – but it is not without its problems. The Bible clearly states one major problem with prayer: “we do not know how to pray as we should” (Romans 8:26). No matter how experienced we are with prayer, the simple fact is that we remain ignorant regarding how to pray. If this is true, why pray at all? If we can never be sure we are praying right, why bother?
The problem with prayer is amplified when we consider that our experience with prayer is not always positive. At times, we question whether our prayers do more than merely hit the ceiling. We wonder: Is God even listening? Does God care at all? Does God really answer prayer? It is this “silence of God” that makes us suspicious of prayer’s effectiveness.
Our experience of God’s silence is painfully intensified during times of great need – the times when our prayers are most urgent and sincere. “We often turn to God at our most vulnerable moments, when all seems lost unless God steps in. Why does God remain distant, silent, and hard when we call on him? If God doesn’t respond when we need him most, then why pray at all?”
And yet, in spite of all the problems attached to prayer, the Scriptures admonish us to persist in this practice. The Bible clearly teaches that God cares for us (Phil. 4:6; 1 Peter 5:7; cf. Ps. 55:22) and hears our prayers (1 John 5:15; cf. Ps. 145:17-18). How can this be true in light of the many prayers we've offered that remain unanswered?
Our experience of “unanswered prayer” is not because God doesn’t hear us or care for us. God does answer our prayers; though we often have a hard time hearing. We must learn to listen to God’s answers in and through God’s silence. There are at least four possible ways to interpret the silence of God.
Interpreting God’s Silence
No. Sometimes God’s silence reveals a simple answer: “No.” What we want, no matter how well-intentioned, may not be good for us. My five-year old daughter, Carmen, would love to eat candy all day. Her requests evidence this all too clearly. My three-year old son, Owen, would love to cut the grass with a riding mower. But my response to both requests must be no. It is neither good nor safe for them to have their desires granted.
Prayer is not a blank check from God. Our requests must receive his approval. God’s invitation to petition does not mean that God will give us every thing we desire. Our prayers must meet certain qualifications, not the least of which is this: “if we ask anything according to his will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). We are to pray “in Jesus’ name” which means we are to pray Jesus’ desires for us and the world – not simply our own wishes.
My daughter, Carmen, once asked me, “Does God make all our wishes come true?” I answered, “It depends on what our wishes are.” God’s ultimate intention is to “conform us to the image of His Son” (Romans 8:29). God wants us to love God and others in the manner of Jesus. Sometimes our dreams and desires run counter to this. Would granting our every wish make us more christlike – more courageous, faithful, noble, or loving?
Not now. “No” is not the only way to interpret God’s silence. God’s silence may also be interpreted as “yes, but not now.” What we want may not be good for us at the moment. My daughter wants to go to school, get married, and have a baby – all at the ripe old age of five! There is nothing wrong with any of these requests; it is just not the right time. Likewise, many new Christians full of enthusiasm and zeal long to have far-reaching ministries but lack the necessary maturity and wisdom. God does not immediately answer their requests for prominence in order to spare everyone involved.
Christian maturity takes time. It does not happen overnight. Sometimes in our zeal we may rush ahead of ourselves. Thankfully, God’s “not yet” gives us time to grow. Patience (lit., “long-suffering”) is the chief characteristic of love. This takes time to develop. In an instant gratification society (which translates to an instant spirituality society within the church), it is often hard to hear God’s response of “not yet.”
The first two ways to interpret God’s silence are simple: God’s silence may be a simple “no” or “not yet”. But these answers do not help us in most cases. This is simply conventional wisdom: if God’s answer is not “yes” it must therefore be “no” or “not yet”. This makes sense in regard to selfish requests or immaturity, but offers little help in regard to most unanswered prayers. What about our unanswered prayers concerning urgent needs? What about prayers rooted in compassionate love for others – prayers that cry out for the alleviation of senseless pain and suffering? As Jerry Sittser writes, “I can understand why God says “no” to some prayers, but not to all.” It is this kind of unanswered prayer that troubles us the most. “Unanswered prayer never becomes a significant issue until we really need an answer to prayer, until our life depends on an answer.”
I can’t / I won’t… because of self-imposed limitations out of respect for creation’s order and human freedom. What we want may not be possible because God is not willing to completely disregard the order of creation (which God established) or deny the reality and consequences of human freedom (which God gives and allows). This third way to interpret God’s silence is rarely mentioned because of the difficulty in fully explaining what is meant. This answer is highly nuanced and sounds like heresy if it is not stated carefully.
God’s power is infinite – far beyond our comprehension. Clearly, God’s “can’t” has nothing to do with any lack of power on God’s part. Instead, God’s “can’t” is a result of the way God chooses to exercise his supreme power. God deliberately limits the expression of his power for the sake of fulfilling God’s sovereign purpose. This does not detract from God’s glorious power, but rather, exalts it. Only sovereign power possesses the ability to limit and restrain the exercise of sovereign power.
Before creation, God was “all in all.” Nothing existed except God. In the act of creation, God “made space” for others. God limited his self-expression in order to give other personal agents the freedom to “be”. God created a world of free human and angelic agents who are responsible for their individual actions and their consequences. By making room for others, God made it possible for authentic personal relationships of love to develop.
Creation clearly demonstrates God’s power, but creation does not give us the clearest and fullest demonstration of the way God chooses to manifest his power. According to Scripture, it is the cross – not creation – that is the greatest demonstration of God’s power. The cross is the hinge upon which the whole world turns. It is the cross that topples the powers of evil and brings redemption. It is the power of the cross that is presently restoring and transforming all creation. As Christians who believe that God’s fullest revelation is in Christ and specifically in Christ’s work on the cross, we must understand God’s power in light of the cross – for, paradoxically, the weakness of the cross is the true power of God.
Since the cross is God’s greatest demonstration of power, we must radically rethink what divine omnipotence means. The cross must be the lens through which we understand the power of God. The cross reveals that God’s greatest demonstration of power is not in fiery demonstrations of brute force, but in the power of self-giving love. If God wanted to, he could “force” all humans to bend to his will and bow to his sovereignty. God’s power is great enough to do this. But God does not exercise his power in such an impersonal and oppressive way. God refuses to coerce through the use of his unlimited power, but chooses to persuade through the power of suffering love – a love that can be spurned, despised, and rejected.
Therefore, God’s power by God’s decision is qualified by, but never defeated by, human freedom. God’s gift of human freedom and responsibility is the reason that God’s silence may sometimes be interpreted as “I can’t.” This is not due to powerlessness on God’s part. Instead, it is rooted in complications that arise from God’s loving creation of a world of free human agents. “God’s problem is not that God is not able to do certain things. God’s problem is that God loves! Love complicates the life of God as it complicates every life.”
It is God’s love that gives his beloved creatures “space” – true freedom and responsibility in a real world where love can be authentically experienced… or absolutely rejected. It is precisely this freedom, responsibility, and order (and all the evils that arise from their abuse) that are often the reason God’s silence must be interpreted as, “I can’t.” For this reason, we can fervently pray for the salvation of a loved one until we are blue in the face without an apparent answer. God will not disregard our loved one’s will for God has created a world where human freedom is honored. As C. S. Lewis rightly understood, our personal decisions bear “the weight of eternity.” Our every choice impacts ourselves, others, and God. This is a gift that can be used for good or evil.
God’s self-imposed limitations do not undermine God’s sovereignty. All the human and angelic rebellion combined cannot thwart God’s ultimate purpose.
The very idea of omnipotence is not that everything that happens does so because God wills it in the sense of intending it. The truth about omnipotence is that nothing that does happen, even though it springs from man’s misused free will, or from the human family’s mass ignorance, or from folly or sin can finally defeat God.”
We come perilously close to attributing evil to God if we demand that every event have its ultimate source in God’s will.
God need not control everything to the least detail in order to maintain sovereignty over it. To maintain that everything is ordained or willed by God is to make God a hypocrite and to deny both God's goodness (for then God must will even evil human acts) and God's love (to permit the free actions of God's subject creatures). 
God’s sovereignty is great, not because every single event is ultimately caused by God, but because every single event – no matter how evil – can thwart God’s ultimate cause. God is able to take great evil and bring great good out of it. The cruel cross is the ultimate demonstration that this is true.
Evil opposes God’s will. God is not the author of evil for then he would have to oppose himself. Much that happens in this world greatly grieves God – sin, sickness, suffering, pain, and death, to name a few. These are evils that God opposes. Though these things oppose God they cannot thwart God’s ultimate purpose. It is these things that God will ultimately remove in a completely restored cosmos. Until then, God is able to incorporate these things in such a way that they further, rather than undermine, his ultimate purpose. This ability to overcome evil with good – to bring great good out of great evil – manifests his sovereignty over all!
Though God’s revealed will is often thwarted (people regularly rebel against God’s stated desires), God’s ultimate will to redeem and restore the cosmos through Christ is unstoppable. Evil powers that oppose God’s will – sin, death, and the devil – are unable to thwart God’s intention for the cosmos for they have been rendered powerless through the cross. The irreversible power of the resurrection now pervades this cosmos, bringing renewal and restoration to all things.
Evil, sin, death, and the devil can never have the final word in such a place, although in the present, these powers of evil continue to exert their force in ways that oppose God and bring great pain and misery. Angelic evil still opposes God’s will and undermines the efforts of God’s people (Dan 10:12-13; 1 Thess. 2:17-18). Human evil still refuses to surrender to God’s love, spreading grief and misery to others. This groaning creation continues to cry out to be “set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
We pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” because this has yet to be fully realized. God’s will is presently not being done as it ought to be – but it will one day! Our prayer helps bring God’s will about, but the fact that we pray for God’s will to be done demonstrates that we understand that all things are not as they should be. Our “groanings” join in with the “groanings” of all creation and the “groanings” of God’s Spirit, pleading with God for an end to all misery, pain, and strife, and thus witnessing to a new creation that has begun in the midst of the old – a new creation that is emerging to a glorious consummation. Then God will be “all in all” again! (1 Cor. 15:28)
But until then, our groanings often go unanswered. Prayer is powerful, but it is not the only variable in what influences what we experience. God respects the order of the world – an order that God has established. In God’s creation, God has given irrevocable freedom to vast multitudes of free agents, both human and angelic. God respects this freedom, for it is essential to truly loving relationships. It is God’s respect for God’s created order and human freedom that results in God’s response, “I can’t.”
Even Jesus experienced the “I can’t” of God. In the Garden, Jesus prayed, “Father, if it is possible, remove this cup from me.” But the opposition of angelic and human evil stirred up by the love of God in Christ made every other option impossible. The cross was the only possibility in a world where divine love is despised because of human sinfulness. God’s response to Jesus was, “I can’t remove this cup” – not because of God’s inability to help, but because of God’s refusal to bend the rules of creation or human freedom, even for his Son. It is this same respect for human freedom that has brought redemption to all through Jesus’ free choice of obedience unto death for the sake of sinners.
I am / I have… but my answer is not what you expected. God’s silence can be interpreted as “no,” “not yet,” or “I can’t.” There is one other way to interpret God’s silence: “I am/have… but my answer is not what you expected.” We might get what we want in a way we don’t want! Sometimes God’s answer is deeper than we can understand at the moment. We pray, “God, make me humble” and humiliating circumstances arise. We plead, “Lord, strengthen my faith” and our world falls apart. Our prayers are answered, but not in the way we anticipated.
We want to be changed… or do we? What if growth involves suffering – painfully experiencing our limitations, wrestling with seductive temptations, and overcoming deep-seated anxieties? God’s answers may not be what we expected, but they may accomplish what we are praying for:
He asked for strength, and God gave him difficulties to make him strong.
He asked for wisdom, and God gave him problems to learn to solve.
He asked for prosperity, and God gave him brain and brawn to work.
He asked for courage, and God gave him dangers to overcome.
He asked for love, and God gave him troubled people to help.
He asked for favors, and God gave him opportunities.
He received nothing he wanted; he received everything he needed.
His prayer is answered.
God is out to change our needs and desires, not merely grant them. “The Gospel is not simply about meeting people’s needs. The gospel is also a critique of our needs, an attempt to give us needs worth having” (William Willimon). Oftentimes, what we want we probably don’t need and what we need we probably don’t want. Do we really want to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, or do we simply desire to feel better about ourselves? God is out to change us; not make us into spoiled brats – which are what we would become if God granted our every wish.
Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that “Prayer is dangerous. It will never leave us the same. We try to change our circumstances when we pray. But God uses our circumstances to change us. All prayer is a willingness to surrender the self to God.” In our requests, we often ask God to change the outside world – the world out there – but we forget that we need change within. Perhaps if we began most of our requests with “Make me” rather than “Give me” we would put the focus where it belongs.
“It is not that our prayers are not answered, it is that we do not accept the answer.” (Kosti Tolonen). We need to remain open to the fact that God’s answer may be unlike anything we imagined. With this in mind, Jerry Sittser offers the following advice: “What I am suggesting… is that we pray with flexibility as well as boldness, holding our expectations with a light touch and looking for signs that God is answering our prayers in a way that is different from what we wanted and asked for.”
Waiting for an Answer
There is a great mystery to prayer. It is hard to know how to interpret God’s silence. This is difficult for even the most seasoned saint. What do we do as we wrestle with understanding God’s silence? I offer three suggestions:
Accept our limitations (Matt. 26:39; Ps. 131). We should never approach God as if we had it all figured out. Most of the time, our ignorance in prayer (“we do not know how to pray as we should,” Romans 8:26) and our experience of unanswered prayers are linked. We do not know how to pray as we should certainly implies that we do not know how God is answering our prayer. Because of our limitations, we need to add a hushed “Thy will be done” to the end of all our prayers. We must always defer to God, trusting that God is good and God knows best. Better yet, we should always pray about “our will” and God’s will in the proper order. God’s will must always come first. The supreme request in the Lord’s Prayer is “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done.” This precedes all the personal requests and puts them in their proper place.
When we wrestle with difficult questions, we must recognize our limitations (cf. Psalm 131). Ultimately, our human weakness is not a hindrance to prayer but the very context in which the Spirit operates (see Romans 8:26-27). Thomas Merton was right: “There are no experts, only beginners in prayer!” We are, at our best, weak!
Persevere in prayer. “We do not know how to pray” is not the only word on prayer. The Holy Scriptures constantly encourage us to persist in the practice of prayer. Jesus admonishes us to “pray and do not lose heart” (Luke 18:1-8). Paul teaches us to pray about everything (Phil. 4:6-9). Peter calls us to cast our cares upon God because God cares so much for us (1 Peter 5:7). God certainly knows what we need, but that is no excuse for prayerlessness: “He knows what you need… therefore, pray” (Matt. 6:7-8).
Any prayer is better than no prayer at all! If we have nothing else to offer God, we can at least offer God our confusion and sorrow. If we need to, we can even express our anger to God. “God is like a good parent who is not put off when a frustrated child screams, ‘I hate you, I hate you, I hate you,’ to his mom because she put him to bed early for not completing his chores.”
The biblical record reveals that God prefers people who fight.
Surprisingly, God seems to look with compassion and favor on those who accuse him and yell at him. For example, Job did not hesitate to shake his fist at God for the losses he suffered, all in his mind undeserved, though God did call Job to account for his accusations. Jacob spent a whole night wrestling with God, refusing to give up even after God disabled him. Jeremiah seemed to complain about everything, and with good reason, considering the suffering he had to endure. Naomi changed her name to Mara, which means “bitterness,” because she believed that God had abandoned her to a lifetime of misery and misfortune. What God can’t tolerate is a plastic saint, a polite believer, someone who plays a part but never gets inside the soul of the character. God prefers working with people who like to fight.
How long do we maintain the fight? Sittser offers this advice: “We should persist in prayer unless and until we have a good reason not to.” We must always remember that God gave Jacob the name “Israel” which means “one who strives with God.” Says Sittser, “This is what God looks for in us. He wants us to strive with him, as he does with us. To wrestle with him as if our life depended on it, because it probably does.”
Remember God’s presence. Even when we make requests that cannot be granted, God remains devoted to us: “God’s no is seldom left to itself… The fullest sense of God’s reply is ‘No, but I’m here… and it will be OK. Trust me.’”
We must always remember that the purpose of prayer is not primarily to “get things” but to nurture a relationship of trust with the living God. Our central request should be to experience a deeper love for God. This can be achieved regardless of whether God ever answers any other request. Indeed, if God granted every one of our desires, we probably would drift away from God rather than grow closer to God. Even worse, we would probably bear little resemblance to the suffering servant and selfless lover, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, to pray is to be caught up in the embrace of God and share in the dialogue between Father, Son and Spirit. If nothing else accompanied prayer, this alone would be an incredible joy and great privilege.
 One disclaimer is in order: I will not argue that God’s silence is due to a “lack of faith” or failure to “say the right words.” It is cruel to suggest to well-meaning people that they are the reason their prayers go unanswered. “Does God only answer the prayers of perfect people, perfectly pronounced, uttered in perfect faith?” (Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayers, 27)
 Full quote: “God answers every prayer. He says “yes” to some prayers and “no” to others. There is something tidy and cogent about this answer. It provides an easy and rational answer to a troubling question. But sometimes personal experience makes this answer hard to accept… I can understand why God says “no” to some prayers, but not to all.” (Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, 20).
 Ibid., 32.
 All language falls short when speaking of God. I could have used the phrase, “I am unwilling” but it would not have the same force. Also, it would be nearly indistinguishable from “No.” Furthermore, people generally recognize there are things that God cannot do because of his nature: “God cannot lie” (Titus 1:2); “it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18); “God cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13); etc. I am simply extending this logic into God’s relationship with his own creation and human/angelic agents.
 Douglas John Hall, God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1986), 156.
 Leslie Weatherhead quoted in Hall, God & Human Suffering, 191.
 James J. Gettel, God's Love, Human Freedom, & Christian Faith (St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press, 2003), 41.
 Sittser, When God Doesn’t Answer Your Prayer, 142.
 Ibid., 184.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 59.
 Ibid., 105.
 Ibid., 118.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2004