There’s an old saying that God answers all prayers in one of three ways: “yes,” “no,” or “not yet.” Almost every person of faith has felt the frustration of having a prayer go unanswered. When you beg God for an intention and seem to go unheard, it can be tempting to wonder if God cares or is even listening.
Yet our Lord assures us in Sacred Scripture, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” So what is really happening when a prayer seems to go unanswered?
It helps to remember what is the purpose of prayer: We pray not to get what we want, but to draw closer to God. Prayer does not exist to bend God’s will to our human desires, even though Our Heavenly Father wants to give us all the good things that are right for us, but to bring us into a more intimate union with God.
When God lets us wait: The hidden grace of unanswered prayers
Father Paul Scalia explains what is happening when a prayer seems to go unanswered:
We seek and ask for many things in prayer. We knock (sometimes bang) on the door of heaven with various requests. But our Lord’s words indicate that the ultimate end of our petitions is not this or that thing, but something greater: indeed, the Spirit Himself. Our Father always answers our prayers (either yes or no) with a view to giving or increasing the gift of His Spirit. We might intend our prayer only for this or that situation. He intends it for more, for drawing us closer to Himself. He desires not so much that we receive what we think we need here and now but that we grow in union with Him. Whether we realize it or not, our prayer is always directed to this increase of the Spirit, the Spirit of Sonship, Who prays from within us and enables us to cry out, Abba! Father!
Prayer does not change God or His will; it changes us. In prayer, we can reflect on whether the thing we are praying for will bring us closer to God. We might find ourselves praying with Christ: “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
Believing that God’s will for us will be even better than what we want requires childlike trust in His fatherly goodness, yet it’s the secret to having peace when our prayers seem to go unheard:
A trusting child rests in the knowledge that his Father’s will is supremely good. If a prayer has gone “unanswered,” it is because his Father knows better and has a greater good in mind.
If our desire does not conform to God’s will, it’s not worth having (although that can be so hard to hear and to believe!). Yet in uniting ourselves to God’s will, even if it’s not what we would have chosen for ourselves, we find “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).
Here’s why you should trust God