The Bible makes some astounding promises about prayer. And few are more so than Jesus’s unblushing statements in Matthew 7:7–8
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.
Jesus’s main point here is to encourage us to come before the throne of grace with confidence. As John Calvin observed, “Nothing is better adapted to excite us to prayer than a full conviction that we shall be heard.” On the flipside, surely nothing is better adapted to dampen our prayers than the nagging conviction that we shall not be heard. How many of us, if we were honest, would say that a lot of times our thought process is more like, “Why ask, when it probably won’t be given to me? Why seek, when I probably won’t find? Why knock, when it probably won’t be opened to me?”
That doesn’t exactly make you want to set your alarm so you can get up early and pray, does it? Why waste time praying if the answer is always no? Such unblushing promises are meant to encourage us to pray.
And yet, such unblushing promises also raise the obvious question, “Then how do I explain the fact that I’ve asked, and it sure doesn’t seem like I’ve received? I’ve sought, and it doesn’t seem like I’ve found. I’ve knocked, and the door hasn’t been opened.” We’ve all felt this way, haven’t we? So how do we explain “unanswered prayers” given that Jesus just said “everyone who asks receives”?
The Bible provides at least four answers:
1. Perhaps we lack faith
Let me be clear that this isn’t always the explanation. But it’s at least a possible explanation, because James 1:5-8 says:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.
We shouldn’t just assume that we’re faithless if our prayers aren’t being answered. But neither should we dismiss the possibility out of hand. Do we doubt God’s power or his goodness or his generosity? Do we doubt that we should be asking for the thing we’re asking for? If so, we need to clear our head with a better vision of God and his will, so we can pray with greater assurance.
2. Perhaps God wants to teach us persistence.
The classic passage here is Luke 18, the parable of the persistent widow. In the parable, there’s a widow asking a judge for justice. The judge doesn’t really care about the widow’s plight, but she just keeps asking and seeking and knocking. So finally, he says, “Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’”
The point here is not that God doesn’t care, but if we badger him to death he might finally give in and answer. Rather it’s one of those “How much more” arguments. If an unjust judge will act this way, how much more a just judge! The point of the parable is that God wants us to be persistent. That’s how Luke prefaces the story: “He told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).
The point is keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking. Don’t give up. God doesn’t want us to stay at the level of someone who runs 500 feet and then pants breathlessly about how they can’t go any further. He wants us to become marathon-runners in prayer. George Mueller prayed for some people for 50 years before they finally got saved, and some of them didn’t get saved till after he died. But he didn’t give up. And neither should we. (See also Luke 11:1-10)
3. Perhaps we’re asking with wrong motives, and God doesn’t wish to honor that.
…You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:3)
Sometimes our prayers are simply adulterous. Instead of being faithful to God, we want to carry on a fling with the world on the side and we want to keep God like a sugar daddy to finance our impure trysts. And God’s response is, “I don’t think so! You’re not getting anything from me!” God is serious about loyalty. “He yearns jealously over the spirit he has made to dwell within us” (Jam. 4:5).
This reason for unanswered prayer is perhaps the most shocking. But this is only because the adulterous lure of the world doesn’t present itself as illicit, but as innocent. The thing we’re asking for may be innocent in and of itself (e.g. a car, a house, a spouse), but we may want it too much, or for the wrong reason. Our desire for innocent things may have morphed into idolatry. And when that happens, an answered prayer shifts from being a Father giving to a cuckold enabling. So if our prayers aren’t being answered, let us search our heart and ask God to show us if there are any adulterous motives.
4) Perhaps we need to learn to trust our Father’s character
From the very beginning, Satan has been selling us on the idea that God is a miser who hoards his good gifts. He says no all the time because he doesn’t want us to be wise or happy or fulfilled. He ignores our prayers because he isn’t good and he doesn’t love us.
Jesus attacks this lie head on in Matthew 7:9-11:
Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!
If you struggle to pray because you think God isn’t good and he doesn’t love you, Jesus basically asks, “Do you have kids? OK. Do you love your kids? Do you want what’s best for them? Do you enjoy giving them good things? Do you love seeing the smile on their faces when you surprise them with a gift? Does it warm your heart when they ask you for something good because they trust you and believe that you’ll give it to them?”
Why did you answer all these questions yes? Answer: because you’re a good dad (or mom). But here’s what you need to realize: there is a Father in heaven who is infinitely better than you. Compared to him, you are evil. The most tender and compassionate father in the world is evil and cold-hearted compared to God. As Matthew Henry put it, “If all the compassions of all the tender fathers in the world were crowded into the [heart] of one, yet compared with the tender mercies of our God, they would be but as a candle to the sun, or a drop to the ocean.”
That’s why he loves to give good gifts to his children. Because he’s the good Father par excellence.
But that works both ways when it comes to answering our prayers. Because as every parent knows from experience, a good father doesn’t always say yes to his child’s request. It’s true that he withholds no good thing (Psalm 84:11). But it’s also true that we don’t always ask for what’s good. Using Jesus’s analogy, do we not all know that children sometimes ask for things that they wouldn’t ask for if they knew better? What do you do in such cases? Answer: you say no—not because you don’t love your child, but because you do!
Have we not all had the experience of looking back and thinking, “I’m so glad God didn’t give me what I was asking for back then! I didn’t know what I was talking about.” In the words of country singer Garth Brooks, “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.”
We should be thankful that God is not an unthinking, uncaring vending machine that just spits out the drink based on whatever button we happen to push. Because sometimes we accidentally push the wrong button. Haven’t we all done this? We meant to push Coke and accidentally hit Dr. Pepper. The machine doesn’t care; it just spits out Dr. Pepper because it neither knows nor cares what you really wanted, it just knows what you pushed.
Prayer isn’t like that. John Broadus observed that “It is really a part of the privilege of prayer, that God will withhold, if he sees best. Were this not the case, the wisest and best persons might often be slowest to ask, for they know how often their judgment as to what was best has proved erroneous.”
If God were an uncaring Coke machine who automatically gave you whatever you asked for, you’d eventually be afraid to ask. But he’s not, so we don’t have to be afraid. It’s a privilege to pray to someone who is infinitely wiser than we are. Who knows us better than we know ourselves. And who loves us more than any human father ever could.
That’s why we can safely ask for anything that seems good according to his will. Not only because we know that he loves to give good gifts to his children. But because we can know that even if he says no, it’s because he loves us and has something better. If not now in this vapor of a life, then in the unending age to come. (Don’t make the worldly mistake of believing that happiness in this life is what matters most.) All things work together for good to those who love God, including the unanswered prayers.
Praying Is a No-Lose Situation
At the end of the day, the Christian who prays is a winner no matter what. Your prayer may be answered fairly quickly (clearly a win). If it’s not, then you get a chance to repent of weak faith or impure motives (also a win), or you get a chance to learn persistence (also a win), or you realize that your loving Father must have something even better for you than what you asked for (also a win).
Jesus wants to encourage us to pray. And what better encouragement could we ask for than to realize that we can’t lose.