What If God Doesn’t Answer?
Not long ago, a man came up to me after a sermon I preached on prayer to tell me that he was no longer interested in praying. His wife had died a few years earlier, and, in the months leading up to her death, he had prayed earnestly for the Lord to spare her life. But God had not answered, and his wife died. His question to me on that Sunday morning was, “Why should Christians pray if God doesn’t answer our prayers?”
This question is one that should be very familiar to us all. We have no doubt all had experiences just like the one this bereaved young man had. We may not have lost a spouse, like he did, but we have certainly prayed and had those prayers seemingly go unanswered. This young man’s question is one that all of us have wrestled with, at least to some degree: “Why should we pray if God doesn’t answer prayer?”
I want to suggest that Luke 11—among other places in the Bible—teaches us that God does, in fact, answer prayer. Isn’t that the obvious take away from Jesus’s words in verses 9 and 10? In verse 9, for instance, Jesus says: “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” It is interesting to me that Jesus doesn’t say “might” here but “will.” The one who asks willreceive; the one who seeks will find; and the one who knocks will have the door opened. And then—as if that wasn’t clear enough—Jesus follows with verse 10 to drive the point home even further: “everyone who asks receives,” everyone “who seeks finds,” and to everyone “who knocks it will be opened.”
But how can Jesus actually be saying this? Doesn’t He realize that God doesn’t always answer everyone who asks, seeks, and knocks? What about the person who asks for $1 million? Surely Jesus doesn’t mean to suggest that this person will always “receive” $1 million. As the only perfect theologian ever to walk the face of the earth, Jesus no doubt knows what James would later tell us explicitly, namely, that we can’t “ask wrongly, to spend it on our passions,” and expect that we will always receive what we ask for (James 4:3). Jesus no doubt knows that; and, yet, I find it fascinating that He doesn’t feel the need to say everything He knows here in Luke 11. He has no trouble leaving His statements about prayer unqualified and giving the impression, at least in these verses, that God always answers every prayer we make by giving us exactly what we ask for. Why would Jesus do this?
I think Jesus is responding to our question, “Why should we pray if God doesn’t answer prayer?” He is responding to it by saying, “God does answer prayer.” He answers every prayer we make—because everyone who asks receives; everyone who seeks finds; and to everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. But Jesus is quick to explain that while God answers every prayer we make, He doesn’t necessarily do so on our timetable or by giving us exactly what we ask for. This is what Jesus spends the rest of His time unpacking in Luke 11, as we will see.
The first thing Jesus wants us to understand in what remains of Luke 11 is that God doesn’t always answer prayer on our timetable. This is the clear implication of the tense of the verbs He uses in verses 9-10. “Ask,” “seek,” and “knock” are all in the present tense, which (in English as well as in Greek) is designed to show ongoing action. The point Jesus seems to be making here is that we are not to ask once and expect that we will receive what we ask for or to seek once and expect that we will find it or to knock once and expect that the door will always be opened to us. We are to ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, and knock and keep on knocking. The present tense tells us that we may not receive what we ask for immediately but that it may take months or even years of ongoing asking, seeking, and knocking.
An example of this can be found in Genesis 25:20-21, the account of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, which takes place when Isaac was 40 years old. In this passage, we are told that Rebekah was barren, that Isaac prayed for her, that “the Lord granted his prayer,” and that Rebekah conceived. But it wasn’t until Isaac was 60 years old that Jacob and Esau were actually born (see v. 26). The point in Genesis 25 seems to be much the same as the one Jesus is making in Luke 11. God answered Isaac’s prayer, but Isaac had to pray it for 20 years before he actually received the answer in time and space. In other words, God answered Isaac’s prayer on His timetable, not Isaac’s.
The second thing Jesus wants us to understand in Luke 11 is that God doesn’t always give us what we ask for. That is the idea Jesus is conveying in verses 11-12: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” Good fathers and mothers know what their children need. They may not always give their children a fish when they ask for a fish or an egg when they ask for an egg, but they will never give them a serpent when they ask for a fish or a scorpion when they ask for an egg. In other words, they may not always give their children exactly what they ask for, but they will never give them bad or hurtful things.
Jesus then applies this idea to God in verse 13: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” The interesting thing here is that in light of the flow of the argument, we would expect Jesus to say, “how much more will the heavenly Father give good gifts to His children.” That is what earthly fathers give to theirs, even though they are “evil.” But that is not what Jesus says. He says that the heavenly Father, who is not evil, will give the “Holy Spirit” instead of “good gifts.”
The parallel account in Matthew’s Gospel, on the other hand, does what we would expect to find Luke doing. Matthew records Jesus as saying that God will give “good things” to those who ask Him (Matt. 7:11). So why does Jesus say “Holy Spirit” in Luke 11? I think Jesus is highlighting an important idea for us in regard to answered prayer. Earthly fathers give good gifts (not bad or hurtful ones) to their children, but God gives the Holy Spirit to His children. And because the Bible, as God’s “breathed-out” words, cannot contradict itself, this implies that we must understand Matthew 7:11 and Luke 11:13 in a complementary way. “Good things” and “Holy Spirit” must be taken together; and, when we take them together, we see that Luke 11:13 means something like “the Holy Spirit and the good things of the Holy Spirit” or, perhaps better, “Spiritual good things.”
Thus Jesus is saying that God will not simply give “good things” to His children—as earthly fathers and mothers do—but that God will give “Spiritual good things.” In other words, Jesus seems to be saying that when we ask for something in prayer, we may not always get exactly what we ask for (i.e., we may not get a fish or an egg when we ask for it), but we will always get “Spiritual good things.” When we ask for physical healing for a spouse, for instance, we may not get physical healing, but we will always get “Spiritual good things.” It may not always be obvious what these Spiritual good things entail—it could be spiritual healing for the spouse, for the family and friends, or for the doctors and nurses—but we can take Jesus at His word that we will in fact receive them in answer to our prayers.
This is vital for us to understand, because it means that none of our prayers ever goes completely unanswered. For one thing, God’s timing is not ours. For another thing, God promises to answer our prayers by at least giving us “Spiritual good things” in response. And if God answers our prayers, then we no longer have any reason to give up praying on account of unanswered prayer, because there is basically no such reality for Christians. God works every time Christians pray!
Guy Richard is Executive Director and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.
Persistent Prayer by Guy Richard
Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer, a free online publication from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals
"Watson’s Wisdom on Prayer" by Donald McKim
"The Simplicity and Profundity of Prayer" by Mark Johnston
Everyday Prayer with John Calvin by Donald K. McKim