Why Didn’t God Answer My Prayer?

April 20, 2004 | 20 comments
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It’s not a new question; indeed, it’s one of the oldest questions. And I have no fresh insight to bring to it either; it is a deep, profound, and serious matter of faith and theology, whereas my thinking at the moment is self-centered, mean, even a little angry. Still, tonight it’s my question nonetheless.

For the past couple of months, I have fasted and prayed for a certain blessing–a job–which we really need. Today, I learned that I will not receive it. Why not? Lots of possible answers there. But, in light of my pleadings with the Lord, and in connection with everything that I’ve read or been taught during my life as a member of the church about the consequences of such pleadings, I think I can identify several more-or-less coherent (which is not to say necessarily doctrinal or edifying) answers. First there is the God Didn’t Answer My Prayer category; then there is the counterintuitive God Did Answer My Prayer category. Allow me to lay them out.

God Didn’t Answer My Prayer…

1) …because God only answers the prayers of the righteous, and I wasn’t. Which is true; if answers to prayers are conditioned upon our obedience to the Lord’s commandments, then there is a multitude of ways in which I quite specifically did not uphold my end of things, whether in thought or word or deed.

An important variation is: 1a) …because God only helps those who help themselves, and I didn’t. Did I do everything in my power to warrant this blessing? Study it out enough? Prepare myself enough? Did I pay my dues, go to the right schools, meet the right people, make the right choices, work hard enough, publish enough, teach enough, stay up late working often enough? No? Then where do I get off complaining?

2) …because I didn’t pray the right way, or with sufficient faith. Did I bring the Lord a sacrifice in prayer, or make a covenant promise with Him? Did I ever stay on my knees all day and all night, like Enos, until the Lord responded? No? Well then, again: what right do I have to complain?

3) …because it wasn’t a righteous request. Which perhaps it wasn’t! I mean, I say my family needed it, but really: it’s not like we don’t have food on our table. No, isn’t it more true to say I wanted this blessing for the sake of my ego, my career? If so, then it was a self-interested–and thus by definition unrighteous–prayer.

4) …because God knows what’s best for me…
Which takes two forms:
4a) …and right now, refusing my requests is what is needed. Let’s face it; I’m often an arrogant SOB. I need to be humbled. This is the way it’s going to happen.
4b) …and for the time being, the Lord needs me and/or my family here in Jonesboro, AR. There is a work to be done, either by me and/or my family or at least in some way involving me and/or my family, and God will keep us here until it happens.

5) …because God doesn’t answer those sort of prayers. Get real! All while I was praying and fasting about my stupid desire, righteous and innocent and needful men and women around the world were pleading with the Lord for lives to be saved, for addictions to be overcome, for wars to end, for rain to fall, for evil to be thwarted. People crying out in pain, in despair, suffering oppression or violence or madness, enduring disease and famine and cruelty and abuse: these are the prayers God (sometimes) answers. Honestly, God couldn’t care less whether I have this job or that, so I should just stop pestering him about it and work out my own problems myself.

6) …because God doesn’t answer prayers. Not really, anyway. The hard truth is, faith-promoting stories to the contrary, our God is not, in fact, a petitionary God; He cannot be made, through faith or works or any combination thereof, to do something that He was not going to do anyway. Prayer is ritual, an expression of faith, a form of testimony; it is not an open-ended working out of one’s future, for that has already been determined. Either I was going to get this blessing, or I wasn’t, and prayer wasn’t going to change anything. As it happened, God wasn’t planning on giving it to me (presumably for reasons covered in 4a or 4b). So there you go.

God Did Answer My Prayer…

7) …only the blessing He’s given me is an even greater one, awaiting the right moment. Next year (or the year after), an even better job will be available, and it has my name written all over it. I just have to be patient–remember, we’re talking about the Lord’s timetable, not mine.

8) …only I wrongly assume that Lord’s answers actually consist of the things asked for. Not so! The “answer” to my prayer is the peaceful feeling I (should) have in my heart, it’s the confidence which tells me that my words have been heard. It’s the beautiful sunrise, Alison’s five-month-old laugh, the appreciation expressed by a student, friends over for dinner. How can I say that my wishes haven’t been answered, when I can see God all around me?

I’m pretty certain that I have believed, at one time or another, every single one of these to be true doctrine, sometimes even simultaneously, as incoherent as that may sound. None of them provide me with any solace at the moment; but then I didn’t expect them to. Any that I’ve left off? Any that are clearly without scriptural or theological support? I’d like to be able to dismiss either 1a (pure works righteousness) or 6 (pure predestination), but something tells me that, in our attempts to make sense of God’s will, one or the other of these will always provide the final refuge for any unfulfilled faith.

20 Responses to Why Didn’t God Answer My Prayer?

  1. Mike on April 20, 2004 at 12:25 am

    Wow, been feeling the same way lately
    OK, first and unrelated to the post- I had no idea you were in Jonesboro. (Shows I haven’t read all the biographies) I lived in Jonesboro for 8th and 9th grade. There were a lot of things about Arkansas not to like- although Sr. Mel Stephens was the best seminary teacher I had.

    yeah, but about the post. I wish I really knew the answer. The thing I have kind of been strugling with is a combination of a number of those questions.
    What is my part- how much am I supposed to contribute.
    Are answers based upon my faith and I am not exibiting enough?
    If faith is a gift of the spirit, a blessing, what are the steps to having the faith necesary to acomplish the things I desire.
    Elder Maxwell said in conference and many times before the only thing we really have to give to God is our will.
    What about when I seem to have no will power and really no will?
    In praying to have my will strengthed and my heart softened, and in praying that I might have righteous desires- how does my lack of desire and will prevent me from receiving an answer when those are the things I seek?

    I am being obedient enough in that I am not “doing anything wrong.” But I really am not doing anything. I do good, but fail to do many of the things that I really know I need to do. I can enter the house of the Lord, but I fear I am not at all living up to the covenants made there and consecrating myself to God and his kingdom. If that is the case, do my sins of ommission make me unworthy? And if I really have no direction or desire and part of me doesn’t want to- are my prayers without faith and in vain, even when praying that I might gain that desire?

  2. Ivan Wolfe on April 20, 2004 at 12:26 am

    The answer is, of course, 9.) all of the above.

    I am serious. I think that such things are far too complicated to boil down to one essential reason. God’s insight and foresight are infinite (I’m not making a statement on his foreknowledge – that’s another matter) and so the reasons he answers/doesn’t answer are infinite.

    I am reminded of a story my mother told me. Once, when my parents were still newlyweds, they didn’t have enough money to buy snow tires that year, and in Alaska – you need snow tires.

    So, she prayed and asked God to hold off the snow until they could afford some snow tires. That year, the snows were late in coming, and my parents were able to buy snow tires before any serious snowfall.

    A few weeks later, my mother bore testimony about this in Relief society. Immediately a friend of hers broke down crying and managed to say (between tears), that her husband made his living clearing snow off of streets and out of driveways, and because of the late snows they were in danger of being evicted from their house.

    My mother realized the Lord hadn’t answered anyone’s prayers. In that case, it was basically dumb luck and she had read way too much into it.

    I wonder, when we bear testiomony about how the Lord has blessed us with a job, do we (inadvertently) insinuate that he didn’t bless the other applicants who didn’t get that job?

  3. Mike on April 20, 2004 at 12:27 am

    Wow, been feeling the same way lately
    OK, first and unrelated to the post- I had no idea you were in Jonesboro. (Shows I haven’t read all the biographies) I lived in Jonesboro for 8th and 9th grade. There were a lot of things about Arkansas not to like- although Sr. Mel Stephens was the best seminary teacher I had.

    yeah, about the post. I wish I really knew the answer. The thing I have kind of been struggling with is a combination of a number of those questions.
    What is my part- how much am I supposed to contribute?
    Are answers based upon my faith and I am not exhibiting enough?
    If faith is a gift of the spirit, a blessing, what are the steps to having the faith necessary to accomplish the things I desire?
    Elder Maxwell said in conference and many times before the only thing we really have to give to God is our will.
    What about when I seem to have no will power and really no will?
    In praying to have my will strengthen and my heart softened; and in praying that I might have righteous desires- how does my lack of desire and will prevent me from receiving an answer when those are the things I seek?

    I am being obedient enough in that I am not “doing anything wrong.” But I really am not doing anything. I do good things, but fail to do many of the things that I really know I need to do. I can enter the house of the Lord, but I fear I am not at all living up to the covenants made there and consecrating myself to God and his kingdom. If that is the case, do my sins of omission make me unworthy? And if I really have no direction or desire and part of me doesn’t want to- are my prayers without faith and in vain, even when praying that I might gain that desire?

  4. Mike on April 20, 2004 at 12:32 am

    darn, sorry about the double post. Pressed stop to edit a couple things, but I must have already posted.

  5. Ethesis on April 20, 2004 at 12:34 am

    My biggest problem is when God answers some prayers and then doesn’t answer others the same way.

    If God just didn’t answer … or if there just were not any miracles that were real miracles, rather than coincidence, it would be easier, some times.

    Anyway, just spent the evening chasing two escaped dogs, just dropped one off to be buried.

  6. Ethesis on April 20, 2004 at 12:35 am

    Oh, and you’ve my best wishes in finding a better job. We’ve a family friend who commutes down here and lives part time in one of our bedrooms while trying to find better work.

    My heart goes out to everyone in that condition.

  7. lyle on April 20, 2004 at 12:59 am

    Russell: This is the first attempt at a coherent & thorough list of possibly prayer answers I’ve ever seen. Wow. Thanks.

    I suspect that six won’t work…at least if Elder Maxwell has any type of doctrinal authority. Also, the scriptures are full of prophets making requests…and having them answered. The one I like most is Nephi, he asks for strength to burst his bonds so that he can free himself. Instead, God loosens his bonds…same end result, different means used. Perhaps this is a #9? i.e. God answered my prayer, but in a different way than I expected? This was my experience in grade school.

    I prayed to be able to do more than 1 pull-up, so that I wouldn’t be seen as being weak, a wouse (sp?) & unmanly. I couldn’t do more than 1. I felt so betrayed. However, perhaps I didn’t do the work necessary. I certainly hadn’t been exercising lots and lots (although some). Or…perhaps prayer takes time (#10?). I remember returning to the same grade-school play-ground when I was in highschool & doing like 12 pull ups & sharing the joked with God in my heart.

    [Note, I sent an email to you re: a job].

  8. Sam on April 20, 2004 at 4:32 am

    I loved all the eloquent thoughts expressed on this subject. May I add a small and perhaps less eloquent comment.

    “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us” C.H. Lewis.

    Yes, ok. But I don’t believe it ends there. Prayer is our way of conversing with God, of purifying our souls, of getting to know God and ourselves better.

    Also, though prayer doesn’t change God, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t answer prayers. God, being omniscient would know ahead of time about difficult issues in our lives and would encourage sincere prayer and fasting.

    We’re all familiar with the saying “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it” or some form of the same.

    I prayed for three months with all my heart, with all my soul not for a specific outcome of my desire (a job or where we should move), but the wisdom to UNDERSTAND the decisions I should make.

    I got my answer and boy it was a doozey. And I listened, though the answer was gut-wrentching. I guess my comment/point is that though everyone’s relationship with God is different (and should be), Personally I have found much more success when I don’t ask for something I really want, but rather request guidance.

    I feel compelled to mention that it was years before I dared to directly pray to God again for ‘wisdom’ itself because following the guidance of the answer I received the first time was so traumatic and called for such bravery (though of course it was for my ultimate good).

    I guess I’ve decided that, at least for me, asking for something specific isn’t the way I should pray. I pray about specifics, but I usually don’t pray that a specific outcome take place. I pray for God’s presence and strength and that all involved be blessed with his wisdom (yes, I’m brave enough to use that word again).

    Thanks for letting me comment.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on April 20, 2004 at 8:37 am

    Mike, tell me your last name; Mel Stephens is currently the Jonesboro Ward Relief Society president, and I’d be happy to pass your compliment along to her. (You can just e-mail me if you’d prefer.)

  10. Nate Oman on April 20, 2004 at 12:59 pm

    Russell: I am very sorry to hear about the job. That is too bad.

    FWIW, I doubt that theology ever provides real solace. It may be useful for working out conceptual difficulties, and it can be fun. It doesn’t seem to offer much to the wounded heart (or ego).

  11. Nate Oman on April 20, 2004 at 1:04 pm

    “Obviously, it all comes down to personal righteousness and faith, which you clearly lack at this time (and maybe you have your whole life).”

    Victor: What do you make of the rebuke offered to Job’s comforters in the Bible?

  12. Jim F. on April 20, 2004 at 1:08 pm

    Nate is right, Alma doesn’t say anything about doing theology in Mosiah 18:8-10, only about bearing one another’s burdens, mourning with those who mourn, comforting those who need comfort, and standing as a witness of God.

  13. Mike on April 20, 2004 at 4:08 pm

    The LDS bible dictionary claims that some blessings are conditional- that they requrie work of some sort, and we have to pray as that form of work for God to bless us with blessings he already desires to extend.

    I have been told that we are supposed to seek inspiration in what we should pray for- the bible dictionary talks about prayer as a process by which the will of the child and the will of the Father become one.

    I like Sam’s comments- But Sam, what about when those are the type of prayers extended and you still feel as though they aren’t answered. I guess that is the biggest thing right now for me. I feel as though I am not really doing my part- but I seek and pray for the desire- in this case, what is my part? If I desire to have my heart softened, how much of that comes from me.

    The standard works have lots of references to hardening one’s heart, but only about 9 to softening one’s heart and all are in the Book of Mormon or Doctrine and Covenants. Every instance of hardening a heart is an action of the individual (except Pharaoh according in exodus, but Joseph Smith’s inspired version changes that so that it matches the rest of the Bible.) It is interesting though, because all of the softened heart references refer to the Lord softening some one’s heart, except for 1 Nephi 7:19 where the daughters of Ishmael plead with Laman and Lemual and they soften their hearts and cease trying to take Nephi’s life.
    How are our hearts softened? It usually seems as though it is a purely internal event in which the Lord magically/miraculously changes someone’s heart with or without them knowing their heart has been softened. Is this the case? A contrary example seems to be with Laman and Lemual once again- 1 Nephi 18 when the Lord threatens them insomuch that they repent. Is this how the Lord always softens our hearts- that we are encouraged by events or chastening to change? Or are there times when the heart is simply softened through some sort of miraculous internal occurrence that may or may not be noticed.

    Either way, what is the responsibility of the one coming to the Lord and asking the Lord to soften their heart?
    And if one wants wisdom, understanding, answers, or guidance through prayer rather than a specific tangible item or blessing then what is the responsibility and part of the individual seeking? Because I think simply praying for wisdom or knowledge what to do is also taking no thought but to ask
    Further what about when one is praying for both desire and strength to do the things you already know you should do? It seems as though if I’m just not doing that it falls squarely on me- but I still pray and ask that my heart and my desires (and sometimes my abilities) might me changed.

  14. Adam Greenwood on April 20, 2004 at 4:54 pm

    The problem of prayer that you’re having is really a subset of the problem of pain–why didn’t God act? He could have acted! I have to agree with Nate that the theological answers really only solve the theological questions. The real problem is the hurt and the rejection. Lord, where is they hiding place?

    C.S. Lewis wrote two books. One called the Problem of Pain, attempts to solve the problem. The other is simply A Grief Observed.

    This is not to downplay the careful thinking that you’ve done. I was delighted to read this post.

  15. Mike on April 20, 2004 at 5:09 pm

    Hmmm, what about when our prayers are not really seeking action in the traditional sense?
    What about when we are seeking for our hearts to be changed?
    I think my problem isn’t really “why didn’t God act” but rather, “why didn’t (don’t) I?”

    To some extent it does extend to “why didn’t God act?”- but not in the traditional interventionist sense.

  16. Kaimi on April 20, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    Russell,

    One of the great illustrations of your 4 and 7 is Hugh B Brown’s story of the tree and the gardener. It’s a story that I remember sometimes (not nearly often enough) when I feel that my own prayers haven’t been answered.

  17. Mike on April 21, 2004 at 6:42 am

    I really love that talk.
    “little current bush”

    yeah I remember that part sometimes when I feel the same way.

  18. Matt Evans on April 21, 2004 at 12:41 pm

    Nate and Jim,

    How are you defining theology when you write that it cannot provide solace? Isn’t the assurance that death is illusory and ephemeral a result of our theology, and a comfort to those who lose loved ones?

  19. Jim F. on April 21, 2004 at 1:32 pm

    I take theology to be a study of religious belief sets rather than a belief set. There are lots of kinds of theology, from narrative theologies, to sacramental theologies, to systematic theologies, but they are all the STUDY of beliefs. I know that LDS often use the term “theology” to mean “beliefs,” but I don’t think anyone else does. (We have a number of words for which we have unique definitions, like “scriptorian.”) Surely our beliefs are comforting, but the study of them is not likely to be.

  20. Sherron on June 20, 2004 at 10:02 pm

    Are we forgetting that “No” is, in fact, a possible answer?