Wednesday, October 10, 2018

What's the problem of unanswered prayer?

The "problem of unanswered prayer" is often discussed in apologetics. There's really more than one problem:

1. At the most abstract level is the issue of whether unanswered prayer throws doubt on the existence of a prayer-answering God. That's a philosophical and theological issue. I've discussed that objection on multiple occasions.

2. At a more personal level, some professing Christians suffer cognitive dissonance, a crisis of faith, or loss of faith because the NT contains some unqualified prayer promises which don't seem to live up to experience. That's a hermeneutical issue. I've discussed that objection on multiple occasions.

3. But at the most existential level is the ordeal of professing Christians who pray in vain for something they desperately need. They pray their heart out but nothing changes. 

i) I do think there are reasons why two Christians can offer equally needy, equally legitimate prayers, yet God answers the prayer of one rather than the other. This intersects with theodicy. For instance:

ii) Unanswered prayer can be spiritually damaging if you ask for the same thing day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. Every day your request is rebuffed. Every day you leave yourself open to disappointment. That has a cumulative effect. 

If you pray for something that never happens, the outcome is the same as if you never prayed at all. You'd get the exact same outcome by not praying. In that situation it doesn't make a dime's worth of difference whether or not you prayed. So that can erode confidence.

In that respect, giving it a rest may be a way to protect yourself from cynicism. You might revisit the prayer request at a later time, but it's not necessarily a bad thing to take a break. Otherwise, the exercise becomes too punishing. 

iii) If you pray for something and it happens in a timely fashion, it's easier to identify that outcome as an answer to prayer. If, however, you eventually get what you pray for years later, that fosters the suspicion that it happened naturally. It was going to happen anyway. Given enough time, odds are what you ask for will happen every now and then. 

That may be another reason to give it a break. In the interim you might forget about the prayer request. If what you prayed for then comes to pass, it's a pleasant surprise. Indeed, an unexpected answer to prayer may be more encouraging than praying daily for the same thing. 


  1. Zechariah likely had ceased to pray for offspring by the time an angel told him he would conceive John. That seems to follow from his disbelief in the angel's message. The answer seemed to be "no" at some point. He moved on at some point and even considered it impossible in his advanced age.

  2. I think the main problem with the suggestion is that the things that people tend to pray for daily or very often without answers are also ones they'd feel very unwilling to 'take a break' from. The conversion of loved ones. Wayward children. Break-throughs in desperate situations. They're not the sort of things that people will generally feel "let me just leave off this for a while" on.

    1. Well, I'm discussing the situation of Christians who feel so hopeless and disheartened that they've already given up or teetering on the brink.

    2. I'm reminded of William Lane Craig's surprise at his parents conversion after 30 years of praying. He had basically given up hope they would every be saved, and he was just going through the motions of prayer by that point.

      Already cued up here:

  3. This wouldn't be of much help to convince unbelievers but I believe there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. It's just that the answer may be "wait" or "no". When I start to feel disheartened about my prayers, I try to hold off on praying *for* the request & start praying *about* the request. I try to pray to understand more of God's will & what He may want me to learn or I pray to better understand the situation and so forth. Honestly, I don't think that we can weigh in all the issues about answered/unanswered prayers until everything is said & done. Then we can look back and say, "Ohhh! I get it now!"

  4. Here are some of my notes on prayer: