The mystery of unanswered prayer

"Prayer requires the faith to let God be God," says the author. Photo: Mandy Godbehear
"Prayer requires the faith to let God be God," says the author. Photo: Mandy Godbehear
Published July 18, 2012

How would you describe prayer? The 19th Episcopal Bishop of Massachusetts Phillips Brooks answered: “A prayer in its simplest definition is merely a wish turned inward.”

When I was a young man in divinity school, that description of prayer made perfect sense to me. We pray to tell God what we want, to ask God a favor, or to express our deepest desires.

After I was ordained a priest and my wife Heather became pregnant with our first (and only) child, we prayed every day for a healthy, normal baby. It didn’t happen. From the moment of our daughter’s conception, she was destined to have Down syndrome by virtue of an extra chromosome in her genetic make-up. For almost nine months, we had been praying for an outcome that had already been biologically determined otherwise.

So what was the point of our prayers? Were we simply engaging in self-delusion or wishful thinking? Our prayers seemed to be futile – a kind of cruel hoax by a God who didn’t care about us.

Although we loved Allison as soon as she came into our world, we found ourselves struggling with the meaning of prayer. Some of our Christian friends told us that we should have been more specific in our prayers. Tell God precisely what you want done. After all, they said, doesn’t Jesus tell us to pray for specific things? If we seek, we shall find; if we ask, it will be given to us (Mt. 7:7). We are to pray for our material needs – “Give us this day our daily bread” (Mt. 6:11) – and our spiritual well-being – “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation” (Mt. 26:41). We are to pray never losing heart that our prayers go unanswered (Luke. 18:1). Jesus flatly says, “Whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them” (Mk. 11:24).

At about the time of Allison’s birth, word came that the evangelist and priest of the Church of England David Watson had died. Watson had an enormously successful ministry, not only in England but in Canada where I heard him speak at the University of Toronto. Watson was a moderate charismatic who had been involved in the healing ministry of the church, but at age 50 he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. There was a tremendous outpouring of prayer on Watson’s behalf. Several prominent pastors flew from California to London to pray and lay hands on Watson. A number of English bishops visited Watson, prayed for him, gave him communion, anointed him with oil, laid hands on him-all seemingly to no avail. Watson died at about the time the doctors predicted. Healing never occurred.

As I reflected on David Watson’s death, I came to understand that what happened to him was not the exception but the norm. Healings, even miracles happen, but they are not as common as we would like to believe. Many of us may wonder where was God when we prayed for healing for ourselves or for a loved one, and the healing didn’t occur? Does God hear our prayers? If God does hear, then why doesn’t God answer? What good are our prayers, anyway?

As someone rooted in Anglican Christianity, let me put myself on the line: I believe God hears every prayer, whether or not we see “results.” Moreover, I believe that God answers every prayer, though not always in the way we expect.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that the essence of prayer is request, and a request may or may not be granted. True prayer is never a matter of manipulating God to do something that God would not otherwise do.

With this in mind, my understanding of prayer has evolved over the years and is now rooted in three principles which help me grapple with the mystery of unanswered prayer.

First, prayer requires the faith to let God be God. On this earth, “we see in a mirror dimly” says St. Paul. In this life, at least, faith substitutes for sight.

Years ago, Anglican priest J.B. Phillips wrote a little book entitled Your God Is Too Small! That is often the case when we pray. We feel sure the more we believe, the more God will do as we ask. But that’s not prayer! That’s magic. We should not place our preconceived plans before God and expect God to rubber stamp them. In prayer we don’t lay our demands before God. We don’t negotiate or bargain with God. Instead, we open ourselves to the mystery of God’s will for our lives. We trust God, even if his ways are beyond our understanding.

None of this means we should not ask boldly, stating specifically what we want. But in the end, we need to let God be God. Keep in mind that Jesus, who in the Garden of Gethsemane began his prayer with a request – “Father, take this cup from me” – ended it with an act of faith – “Not my will but yours be done” (Mt. 14:36). Jesus let God be God. So should we.

This leads to the second principle. In prayer we must never forget that God’s ways are not our ways. In the Book of Alternative Services there is this beautiful Canticle from Isaiah which says: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (1)

Sometimes in severe suffering we are tempted to doubt God or even deny God’s existence. Job in the Bible was tempted to curse God, but he refused. Still, Job could not reconcile God’s goodness with his suffering. The marvel of the story is that when God finally does vindicate Job, God never engages in self-justification. Instead God gives one example after another of how the Creator is beyond the comprehension of the creature. That may not be a satisfying answer to us moderns, but it is a biblical one.

True prayer requires humility on our part. That we know in part; but God knows in whole; that there is more to life than we can possibly know, and more to the universe than we can possibly grasp. So there are times in our lives when we have to live with the mystery rather than demand answers. That, in fact, is what it means to live by faith.

The third principle is perhaps the most difficult for us to accept -“that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom. 8:28).

Today, 26 years after the birth of Allison, Heather and I can’t imagine life without her. She has brightened our lives immeasurably and shown me as a priest what it means to love unconditionally with a simple child-like trust. There have been difficult times, to be sure, but we would never want to undo Allison’s birth. What seemed like an enormous burden at the time has turned into a wonderful blessing.

Still, as a priest, I know full well that many people suffer terribly with all kinds of burdens too heavy to bear. Some people never move beyond their pain. Their stories are heartbreaking as they ask, “Why has God allowed this to happen?” I can’t answer that question. Nobody can. Suffering, like prayer, is a mystery.

In First Corinthians St. Paul says that three times he prayed that a certain affliction would be taken from him. It was not. Instead, he received the assurance, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (II Cor. 12:9).

Sometimes, in fact, it is precisely when we are weak and most vulnerable that the power of God is made manifest in our lives. John Milton, blind, was much more of a poet than when he had his full sight. John Bunyan wrote his greatest works, including The Pilgrim’s Progress while he was imprisoned in Bedford Jail. Franklin Roosevelt was a much more compassionate and caring human being – traits that would make him a great President – after his bout with polio than before. There are many instances in history where tragedy has become an occasion for triumph.

The point is not that suffering is good, but rather that it can be used for good. None of us can avoid suffering, but by the grace of God we can deal with it in the conviction, as St. Paul puts it in his Letter to the Romans, that nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39).

In the end, I believe in the efficacy of prayer, because I believe in the God I pray to. That God in Jesus is revealed as Abba – the One who loves us more than we could ever love ourselves. That God in Jesus shared our humanity in every respect, including the experience of god-forsakenness on the cross. That God in Jesus assures us that someday we will move beyond the pain and tears of this world into the unspeakable joys of the next. That God in Jesus in some sense “listens” and “answers” my prayers, even though I am one speck in a universe so immense that it is beyond my finite comprehension.

The mystery of unanswered prayer will remain a mystery. None of us will ever know for sure why things happen as they do. We may never know God’s way, but we can be certain of God’s love. That love never ends, even as it may lead us along roads we may not have chosen to travel.

No one has put this better than an anonymous Confederate soldier during the American Civil War who penned these words:


I asked God for strength that I might achieve,

I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things,

I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy,

I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men,

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life,

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.


Dr. Gary Nicolosi

Text – 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Proper 9 (14), B


1. Book of Alternative Services, Canticle 6, Seek the Lord (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1985) 78.



The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.



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