A common activity for Christians is prayer. It is, in fact, one of the most important things a Christian can ever do in their life. It is considered one of the “spiritual disciplines,” which are actions believers can talk to help them grow closer to God.
However, for many of us, prayer is nothing more than asking God for things. We teach our children to recite simple prayers at meals or when they go to sleep. Athletes or coaches may send up a quick prayer before the big game. Pastors and small group leaders will open church meetings with prayer, inviting God to be present in the study or fellowship about to take place. And there are many for whom prayer is a sweet escape from the cares of the world to be alone with their Creator.
But when we pray, we ask God for things without taking the time to listen (which is another, much larger discussion). Our question today is, how can we know how God will answer our prayers? And what happens when God answers our urgent, sometimes seemingly dire, requests with “no” or “wait”?
Many of us think that God will answer our prayers regardless of what we ask for – that’s what He’s there for, right? We can very easily point to verses like John 14:13, which says, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son,” and assume that this means that Jesus will always grant our requests. But this is not the case.
In what ways does God answer prayers?
Bill Hybel once said, “If the request is wrong, God says ‘No.’ If the timing is wrong, God says ‘Slow.’ If you are wrong, God says ‘Grow.’ But if the request is right and the timing is right and you are right, God says ‘Go.’”
This quote may be simplistic and it does invite much deeper theological exposition, but at its core, there are several answers that depend on what we are asking for, the internal condition of our hearts, and the divine will of God. Let’s look at each of these.
First, we should look at what we are asking for. We may think that we are destined to own a certain thing, or to get a certain job, or to be secure in a given relationship. But is the thing we ask God for right for us – meaning, will it honor God? If we want a job just so we can earn more money, that may not be the right reason to take it; or a new relationship may pull you further away from God. Such requests are not ones that God would fulfill.
Next, we should look at the condition of our hearts. If we are asking for something from purely selfish or even sinful desires, or when we ask for things that are clearly outside what God wants for us, that is obvious ground for God denying our request. Even if we do ask for good things but we just want God to give them to us out of a sense of entitlement, this too is a wrong motivation.
Finally, we should consider the divine will of God and His timing. God is working all things for our good (Romans 8:28), which means that He is actively and lovingly orchestrating eight billion people and a host of other elements to accomplish His purposes in this world. There is no guarantee that what we ask for will benefit us in the long run, or would serve to bring us closer to God if we got it.
Again, this only scratches the surface behind why God answers or seems to not answer prayer. No one can fully understand the heart and mind of God; Isaiah 55:8-9 says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares 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.” This should merely serve as a launching point for a much deeper exposition – one that can be pursued most effectively, in the most beautiful irony, by prayer.
An example of God’s potential answers to prayer
Consider one of the most common requests a Christian may have: the desire to find the man or woman that God wants them to marry.
God may say “no” if we ask with the wrong motivations – perhaps we are pursuing someone strictly out of lust, and not out of a desire to cherish them as a whole person. We may be dismissing wise counsel, or chasing some other selfish desire (such as marrying for money or status). Even if the other person is a fellow believer and you both want what God wants, they may just not be the person God intended for you to marry. There are many reasons for God to say “no” in this case.
God may also say “wait.” This can be very closely related to “no,” and should be distinguished with care. You may be with the person God has for you, but you might not be ready for a marriage relationship. One or both of you may still need to grow in your faith, or perhaps God has different circumstances in mind for you. Or, God may combine a “no” and a “wait” if you are ready but the other person is not, or you are not with the right person in the first place.
Finally, if you are both faithful believers pursuing God’s plan for your life, and God has brought you together, and you have prayed together over your relationship and you both believe that God is leading you together at this time, then all signs would point to God answering your prayers with a “yes.”
Understanding God’s answers to prayer – and His heart behind it
As we seek to understand why God answers prayers in certain ways or at certain times, we should not seek to understand the mind and heart of God. That is pointless on this side of heaven. Instead, we should seek to grow closer to the mind and heart of God. As Scripture tells us, the closer we get to God’s heart, the more in tune we will become with His desires for this world, and we will put aside our selfish requests in favor of seeking His kingdom first. Then, God promises, the desires of our hearts will be granted to us as well (Matthew 6:33) because they are fully in line with His will.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.