When Prayer Doesn’t Work

In last week’s post I talked a little bit about why I believe that prayer does indeed change more than just us (check it out here if you haven’t yet). However, sometimes our confidence in prayer wavers when our prayers just don’t seem to be answered. I know firsthand that feeling, and I don’t want these types of experiences to turn us away from the great power and privilege of prayer. So here are some thoughts on why some prayers might not be answered.

It is not in line with God’s will.

Now although God has granted his people a certain amount of spiritual say in what will come to pass, I do not believe He has limited Himself to the point where He has no choice but to grant the requests of His people. He has not enslaved Himself to us, for good reason. Think about if you had gotten everything that you had ever asked for. I know that I would regret some of those prayers. Even more than that, imagine if you knew you could get anything you asked for. I think that would quickly go to my head and I would use it for less good then I might hope. No parent is simply going to give their child absolutely everything that they ask for, especially when it is not good for the child.

John tells us that we can have confidence that whenever we ask for something in accordance with God’s will, He hears us (1 John 5:14–15). He goes on to say that if we know He hears us, then we can also know that we have whatever it was we asked for. Also, in Luke 11, Jesus finishes giving a model prayer for his people, discusses the need of persistence, and then says that even earthly fathers know how to give good gifts to their children, so therefore how much more will God? He says, which of you would give your son a scorpion when they ask for an egg?

This also goes to show that God knows how to give good gifts. He isn’t in the business of bad gift giving. No scorpions here. Therefore, if we are to ask for that scorpion (just like if I asked my mother for a flamethrower) I’m inclined to think that you won’t be getting it. So in summation, sometimes our request just isn’t good for us or in line with what our perfect Father would want.

Human free will interference.

Like I’ve said before, God made us with free will. He gave us freedom insofar as it allows for genuine love (it’s not love without a choice). This means that we are free to resist. For example, we can pray for a specific person’s salvation, but this does not mean God will force them into loving Him. It may increase the Spirit’s influence on them, but they ultimately must make a free will decision.

Also, it can be a resistance by way of faith. One of the examples that come to mind can be found in Mark 6 and Matthew 13. Both authors depict Jesus attempting to do miracles amidst the people of his own hometown, yet when the recognized him they lacked faith because He was simply “the carpenter’s son”, Jesus was unable to perform any miracles amongst them. They used their free will to resist. But instead of physically it was by way of lacking faith, so that person you are praying for may resist using their free will in this sense.

Spiritual free will interference

Not only have humans been allotted a certain amount of free will, but so have angelic beings. Satan is fallen by way of free will. There are other forces at play within the usage of prayer than simply God and man. By using prayer to move things in the spiritual realm there is also opportunity for it to be resisted within the spiritual realm.

One great example of this come in Daniel 10. In this passage Daniel is met by an angel. This angel tells him that from the first time Daniel prayed for understanding and humbled himself before God, his prayers were heard. It says that it was because of those prayers that the angel was sent. However, he says that the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” opposed him for 21 days. He even had another angel, Michael, come to his aid.

God was not wanting the 21 day delay in prayer. God sought to answer the prayer of Daniel, but it was something spiritual that prevented the answer to prayer. Daniel’s prayer was aligned with the will of God but there was a spiritual interference to be overcome before Daniel could receive the answer to his prayer.

Lack of persistence.

Finally, another thing that may play a role in prayer not being answered is a lack of persistence. If prayer is laboring in a spiritual realm, then it makes sense that moving something larger would need more work and persistence to be moved then something small would. Perhaps this points to why it would also be beneficial to have the prayers of multiple people over one (lifting something larger is easier with multiple people. The labor is divided.)

The passage that I referenced earlier, Luke 11, has Jesus saying keep searching keep knocking and it will be given. This makes it true then that if they were not to search and knock it would not be given. Jesus teaches the need to persist in prayer.


I believe prayer is indeed powerful and is something that really does change how things come about. However, I do not think that anything we pray for will happen. Our prayers must also be in line with God’s will. Also, our prayers are only going to be effective insofar as they are not resisted by the free will of either human or spiritual beings. Lastly, sometimes a certain amount of persistence is required before our prayers will yield results.

Hopefully after reading these posts on prayer you feel the importance to be diligent in prayer as scripture so often asks us to be. It is my prayer that these two posts will help encourage people to take to prayer and enjoy this wonderful gift and privilege that God has given us!

Image by Glenn Losack vis flickr

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Curtis Snell

I am first and foremost someone who is trying to follow the example and teachings of Jesus. I serve on the pastoral staff of a church in Iowa and I love writing, reading, and my dog Pepper.

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