I hope you’re still chewing on this sentence that came out of our study of Acts 5:12-16 this past Sunday morning: “God answers big prayers for the growth of the church and the good of the world.” This is the faith-fueling truth that we gleaned from witnessing God’s miraculous healing power at work in the early church.
But let’s be honest: we all have a list of prayers that God seems not to have answered. We know from first-hand experience that miracles don’t always happen. So how do we reconcile that reality with the idea that God answers big prayers?
Let me take a moment to share a few different reasons that might explain why an earnestly-prayed-for miracle doesn’t happen. If you’re praying hard for the healing that hasn’t come or the reconciliation that remains elusive or the help that hasn’t arrived, then consider the following list of possible reasons why God may not be giving you what you’re asking for:
1. Because it wouldn’t serve the church or the world. This was a vital point of the passage we looked at Sunday: miracles aren’t an end in themselves. They’re meant to build the church and bless the world. Perhaps the miracle you’re praying for wouldn’t accomplish this goal.
2. Because God has bigger plans. From time to time, my kids ask for a snack while my wife is in the process of preparing dinner. In those instances, we inevitably tell them “no,” not because we don’t want them to enjoy something to eat, but because something much bigger than a snack is on the way. Perhaps you’re asking God for a snack, when unbeknownst to you, he’s cooking you a lavish dinner.
3. Because it isn’t the right time. I’ve been taught my whole life that God answers prayers in three different ways: yes, no, and not now. The problem is that we’re impatient, and when God tells us, “Not now,” we have a tendency to take it as, “No way!” But maybe God is simply asking you to wait while he prepares to answer in his own time.
4. Because we need to learn. I love what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12:8-9, regarding his thorn in the flesh: “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’” What is God trying to say to you? Often he teaches us things through the word “no” that we could never learn from the word “yes.”
5. Because we are asking selfishly. In James 4:3, we are told, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” Looking back, I can think of many times when I have prayed sincerely for something that I wanted greedily for myself. If you’re in the same boat, it’s an act of grace that God doesn’t grant those requests.
6. Because our faith is too small. It would be wrong to always jump to this as the reason for unanswered prayer, but it would be equally wrong to dismiss it altogether. After all Jesus says, “Whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matt. 21:22). When we ask with hearts of doubt (see James 1:5-8), we undermine our own prayers.
7. Because…well, God knows. Let’s face it. Sometimes there’s not a neat, convenient reason—at least not that we know about. At the end of the day, God’s mysterious ways are just that: mysterious. And while we’d love to have all the answers, we simply don’t. In those instances, we do well to be still and trust that our sovereign and loving Lord is eternally committed to his glory and our good.