One of the most important questions in the spiritual life is: What happens when we don’t get what we pray for? It is also one of the most neglected topics in books on prayer. And it is also a reason people are sometimes opposed to petitionary prayer—not because they think it’s childish or selfish, but because they have tried it and it hasn’t “worked.”
In his essay on petitionary prayer, Karl Rahner, the Jesuit theologian, writes sympathetically in the voice of those whose prayers did not work: “We prayed, and God did not answer. We cried, and he remained mute.”
Why some prayers seem answered in ways that we would like and others are not is beyond our powers of comprehension—certainly beyond my power and beyond that of even the best theologians. But we all must confront this difficult question. Over the years, I’ve heard many suggestions. Here are the most common explanations, with my responses.
God answers our prayers, but God does so with what is best for us. In other words, we might not get what we asked for, but whatever we get is what’s best for us. The idea is appealing. If we ask for a particular job and it doesn’t pan out, perhaps God has a better plan in mind for us. In this understanding, God is like a wise parent who does not give her child an extra piece of candy because, even though the child asks for it, she knows that candy is not the best thing; she has something more nutritious in mind and gives the child an apple instead. So even though the child is disappointed, it’s really all for the best.
Just recently a friend told me that he and his wife had placed a bid on a new house. It seemed perfect. But the owner sold it to someone else. We both uttered the pious Christian thought: “God has something better in store.” Sure enough, in a few weeks another house came on the market, and they put in their bid and purchased it. They say it’s perfect.
But the idea that God always answers your prayers with something better has far less appeal in more serious situations—for example, when you ask for a child to be cured of cancer, and the child isn’t cured. This explanation, then, can cause misery for people. Imagine telling someone that their child’s cancer is what’s “best” for them, or that many years later they will see that it was “all for the best.” Such explanations fail in the face of the reality of the situation. They also make God in this case not only a trickster (you have to “figure out” what good has come of the child’s illness), but a sadist (God is “using” the illness to give you or your child something better). So, overall, that approach fails.
God answers our prayers, but sometimes the answer is no. This explanation is closely related to the first one, though harsher. But this explanation appeals to me because it’s brutally honest. I pray for something. It doesn’t happen. Using the candy analogy, it would be as if the parent simply said no to the request for more candy.
This explanation, however, is confusing. Why would God not want something good to happen? Doesn’t this go against the idea of God as the one who answers our prayers, to say nothing of Jesus’s saying, “Ask, and you shall receive”? What about the child with cancer? The argument again falls short.
God answers our prayers, but we can’t see how. In this conception, God hears our prayers, but gives us something that is hard to see. I pray for healing and instead am given courage. Indeed, it is often incumbent upon us to look for the “answer,” which may not be as obvious as we had hoped.
Let’s say you are lonely and pray for a friend. For several days, nothing happens. Weeks pass, and you lose hope and grow angry at God. Months later you unexpectedly strike up a friendship, but you may not relate this to your prayer. In this view, God answers our prayers all the time in ways that are concealed from us or in ways we’re too slow to understand. Overall, we trust God as a loving child would trust a loving parent, even if, as a child, we don’t fully understand all the parent’s reasons.
But this argument is also incomplete, because it again can lead people to think of God as a trickster. God has given or will give you an answer, but you must figure it out, like a puzzle. Sometimes this can frustrate people’s relationships with God. And people could pray for a close friend—or, as with many of my friends, a spouse—and never see any discernible results.
God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we would like, and why remains a mystery. In the end, why some prayers seem answered and others don’t is a mystery. To me, this is the most honest response and the one that I rely on most. God’s ways are far beyond our ways.
I often ask God for help. Sometimes it seems that God answers as I would like. Sometimes it seems that the answer is more mysterious. But always I believe God hears me, is with me, and helps me. The key is still trusting and believing in a God whose ways may remain mysterious.
For me this is not only the most intellectually and spiritually honest answer, but also the one that squares the most with experience. It’s honest because it admits that we sometimes have a hard time understanding God, who is a mystery. It squares with experience because all of us will admit that at times it seems that God does not answer our prayers, at least in the way that we would like.
Father James Martin, S.J., is the New York Times bestselling author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything and Jesus: A Pilgrimage. His new book, Learning to Pray, guides, enables, and models how anyone can converse with God.