I heard a story recently about a young girl who wrote a letter to a missionary to let him know that her class had been praying for him. But evidently she'd been told not to request a response to her letter because the missionaries were very busy. So the missionary got a kick out of her letter. It said, "Dear Mr. Missionary, we are praying for you. But we are not expecting an answer."
I can't help but think that that little girl summarized the prayer lives of many Christians. Sometimes we pray without expecting an answer, even though God has assured us that He does indeed hear our prayers. David said, "I love the Lord, because He has heard my voice and my supplications." (Psalm 116:1). But I think many of us struggle with the nagging question, "Is God really listening to me?" Yes, He heard David, He heard Elijah, and He heard the apostles. But does He hear me?
How do we really know that our prayers are answered? Sure, there are times when we see visible results. We may pray for someone who's sick and the next week they get well. But more often, our prayers don't produce flashing "neon" answers. We pray for help in financial problems, and we don't see things get any better. We pray for guidance in making right decisions, but the decisions don't get any easier. We pray for relationships with other people to improve, but they just seem to get worse. How do we as Christians account for that happening? How do we explain the fact that so many of our prayers seem to go "unanswered"?
The truth is, for a child of God there is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. Maybe you've heard it said before that God answers prayer in three ways. Sometimes the answer is "yes." Sometimes the answer is "no." And sometimes the answer is "wait a while." It's easy to accept an answer of "yes," but what about when God says, "no"?
Let me suggest three principles:
First of all, we need to trust God enough to realize that our all-loving, all-powerful Father loves us and has our best interest at heart. So when it seems that God says "no" to our prayers, we must trust Him enough to understand that there must be a good reason for it. It may be beyond our limited ability to understand, but we must simply trust God.
Secondly, we must not forsake God. Disappointment is a dangerous, powerful thing. When we get the feeling that God isn't listening to us, that He has said "no" to some prayer, we have a tendency to feel disappointed in Him. And Satan whispers to us, "God said He loves you, but He's not here." And if we allow that disappointment to harbor in our hearts, it can drive a wedge between us and God. We must continue to be faithful to our responsibility before God.
And thirdly, we need to realize that the answer may not be "no," but only "wait a while." God always answers our prayers immediately, but sometimes there's a delay in the giving of the answer and that can be a difficult thing for us to accept. The ability to wait for an answer is one of the marks of maturity. Be willing to let God answer in his own time, in his own way, and in his own power.
Many people see God as a divine vending machine in which you deposit one prayer and out pops a blessing. But what happens when you put your money in the Coke machine and nothing comes out? You get angry, you kick the Coke machine. So it's not surprising that such a view of God and prayer leads to disappointment when God says no.
I believe that we need to foster an entirely different view of prayer from that one. Our God is the Great God of the Universe, the Creator of all things that exist other than Himself. For us to even venture to speak to Him is presumptuous. For us to ask Him to pay attention to our requests and then hope for Him to meet them requires bold expectation. In fact such would be arrogance if it were not for the simple fact that God tells us to do just that.
Looking from the proper perspective, we will not ask "What happens when God says no?" but rather "What happens when God says yes?" That the God of the heavens would listen to us and our needs is a great testimony to His great love for us. And it is that love that will lead Him to say no from time to time. At those times, we must trust Him knowing that he loves us and desires what is best for us. We must never forsake Him nor our duty toward Him. And we must realize that what we interpret to be an answer of "no" may just be God telling us to wait a while.
"This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us." (I John 5:14)