We have been chosen and called by God so that he can shower each of us with the “surpassing riches of his grace” for eternity, all to his glory. Not one of his children is forgotten or passed over. He governs each of our lives carefully and lovingly as our Father. Since we can’t always see the specifics of what he’s doing, we have to live by faith—that is, trust in the things we can’t yet see, a trust that’s based on everything we know to be true about him. And how can we know what’s true about him? We must learn.
I was recently asked, “Why do you think some prayers are unanswered despite their heartfelt, sincere, and unselfish motives?” (Greg and I responded to this on the #STRask podcast here.)
I don’t think we can know why God answers some particular prayers the way we want and not others, though we can know the two main goals God is working towards in and through our lives regardless of how he answers:
His glory: Sometimes God reveals his glory by answering our prayers the way we hoped, but sometimes he reveals his glory through our learning to depend on him as we experience his faithfulness and trustworthiness through an unchanging trial (see 2 Cor. 1:8–9, for example). He uses our life situations to make himself known to us and to the world, to draw others to himself, etc. No matter how he responds to our prayer, we can be confident he is working to reveal his glory more fully to us. As Ephesians says, his goal is to show us the riches of his grace for eternity (2:4–7), to the praise of his glory (1:6).
Our good: Romans 8:28 makes it clear God is working all things for our good, but 8:29 defines exactly what that good is: becoming like Christ. (And of course, our seeing more of his glory also works for our good!)
Since we know he has promised to reveal himself in such a way that we will enjoy the riches of his grace for eternity, and he has also promised to work everything for our good (i.e., to fulfill his purpose for us, which is to make us like Christ), we know that every answer to every prayer is working towards those two goals, even if we can’t see how his answer is accomplishing those things.
In light of those promised goals, I can think of two reasons why his responses to our prayers might seem perplexing to us at times:
First, we might not have enough knowledge to evaluate his response to our prayer. Since he’s omniscient, he knows much better than we do how to accomplish his two great goals, so his answers to our prayers could look very different from our expectations (which we developed with very limited knowledge).
Second, we might have different, lesser goals in mind when we pray (for example, our comfort, or even the easing of our distress, when such things are requested in situations where they will not actually serve God’s two great goals for us). If we evaluate God’s answers in light of our own, lesser goals, his answers won’t make sense because he has different, greater goals for us than we have for ourselves.
The above is an intellectual response to the question, but of course, an intellectual understanding of unanswered prayer and comfort in the midst of it are two different things. Sometimes grief just has to be gone through, and the best we can do is try to bear up under it in a way that brings us closer to God rather than pushes us away from him. When it comes to unanswered prayer, the only thing that can sustain us is trust in God’s sovereignty, goodness, and specific love for each of us:
God’s sovereignty: We need to trust in his sovereignty so we can rest in the knowledge that he has a reason for not giving us what we’ve asked for. We can only know there’s a reason for our suffering if we also know he could change our situation but isn’t—that our lives are not out of his control, filled with meaningless pain. (This is why God answers Job’s distress with a statement of his sovereignty.)