Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? This is a tough question—but not so much theologically or biblically. The New Testament makes clear that the God who has come among us in Jesus Christ has a “yes” orientation toward us as his beloved creation (2 Cor. 1:19-20). This is the nature of who God is: God relates to us with radical openness, hospitality, welcome, grace, and life. In Jesus, God answers every prayer with his personal presence and precious promises (2 Pet. 1:4).
No, this is a tough question because it’s so intimately personal. “Heal my sister’s cancer.” “Help my brother stop drinking.” “Give my son a job.” These are the kinds of prayers that make us wonder if God is listening, or powerful, or loving. What this question is really asking is something like, “Why doesn’t it seem to me right now as if God answers my prayers?”
This is a helpful clarification. And there are all kinds of possible answers. It might not seem as if God answers our prayers because we might not recognize God’s answer. We might not like God’s answer. We might not prefer the timing of God’s answer. You catch my drift: we might ask this question because we don’t like God’s ways, which are not our ways (Isa. 55:8-9).
Of course, we might be asking for the wrong thing, or a foolish thing—or just something that in the bigger picture doesn’t make sense (and God knows it) but from our limited perspective seems reasonable or obvious. We might just be going through the motions of prayer with our heart, mind, and will not really in it. Sometimes, if we’re honest, we’re really relying on our affluence, influence, or ability to get us through.
Sometimes we pray as a way of avoiding our responsibilities. We’d rather push what needs to be done onto God instead of rolling up our own sleeves and getting our hands dirty. Sometimes we treat God like a genie in a bottle, turning to God and wanting enough of God to get his involvement only where and when we need it.
But we might also feel as if God is not answering our prayers because we have a limited or faulty view of what prayer really is. We live in a powerfully technological world. But God isn’t a technology or a technique to manipulate the universe to fit our desires or visions. God isn’t a cosmic vending machine where, if we just put in the right currency (right beliefs, right behaviors, right intentions, etc.), we get what we want.
Prayer isn’t the way for us to get stuff from God or to get God to act like a waiter in a nice restaurant. Prayer isn’t giving God our shopping list or to-do list. Conceiving of prayer as “We bring questions; God brings answers” mistakenly assumes God is some sort of divine Google. Sometimes Google answers our questions, sometimes not. This isn’t prayer.
At its most basic, prayer is the shape that life with God takes. Prayer is mindful communion with God, who is always more present to us than we are to ourselves (St. Augustine). Or, in words shaped by the Heidelberg Catechism, prayer is living before God in moment-by-moment gratitude for nothing more than God’s covenant faithfulness to us in Jesus.
Prayer has moments in which life stops and all of one’s attention is focused. But more often prayer is a life being lived out of and through a living encounter with God at the core of our being. This is why Paul says that Jesus’ Spirit is a seal and a guarantee of God’s eternal faithfulness to his every promise to us as his beloved creation (2 Cor. 1:22).
About the Author
Michael Wagenman is the Christian Reformed campus minister at Western University in London, Ont., where he invites undergraduate students to put their faith into loving service and mentors graduate students. His most recent book is The Power of the Church: The Sacramental Ecclesiology of Abraham Kuyper (Wipf &Stock, 2020).