The first thing I’d like to suggest about unanswered prayer is that there is no such thing. It can definitely be tricky interpreting God's answers, but he always answers – by giving us what we ask for, by not giving us what we ask for; through a variety of actions, messages, and often silence. For example, after the apostle Paul prayed three times for his “thorn in the flesh” to be removed, he heard God say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). So God answered Paul, even if he didn’t grant what Paul asked for (at least not yet).
I don't know about you, but I find that while I'm waiting, God usually stays in communication with me through words or phrases that pop out at me while reading Scripture, or through things other people say. I also try to give him some time each day, with journal and red pen in hand, to speak directly, which I think he sometimes does.
But most of the time, silence is part of the process. Even when God eventually grants my requests, he can be pretty silent along the way. It can be hard to interpret his silence, or know what to do with it. Is God saying, “Yes” or “Not yet” or “Not this time” or “I’ve got something better for you” or just “You’re going to have to wait and see"?
According to Scripture, silence is one of God’s best answers, for however long, because it teaches us faith or trust. And faith is always our best response to God’s response, however he responds. A number of Jesus’ teachings and parables (e.g. Luke 11:5-12; 18;1-8) suggest that trusting God when God is silent can actually improve our chances of getting what we ask for, if not something better. Like any good parent, he really loves giving gifts to his children.
One thing God is doing when he's silent is trusting us to trust him. Silence is that space of mutual trust where trust can put down its deepest roots, like when God says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Probably the most concentrated chapter about faith in the Bible is Hebrews 11, which happens to be today’s epistle reading. If I counted correctly, the words “by faith” are used 19 times. There is this long list of people and circumstances where God responded miraculously to people’s prayers, including people being raised from the dead. But there were others who were put to death by stoning, were sawed in two, or killed by the sword; or who lived lives of destitution and persecution, without any resolution in this life. Nowhere does the writer suggest that the faith of those who experienced miracles was greater or better than the faith of those who didn’t. In fact, we’re left thinking more highly of those whose faith produced few if any miracles. That’s confirmed at the beginning of the next chapter, where Jesus is referred to as “the author and perfecter of our faith,” who “endured the cross, scorning its shame,” till his death.
There are a fair number of prayer pundits out there who suggest that the main purpose of prayer is to change us or make us feel better, that God doesn’t actually intervene in human affairs. Biblically speaking, nothing could be further from the truth. I understand the sentiment. What do we do with a God who grants some people’s requests and not others? How can he allow all the horrific suffering in the world? I’m not going to attempt an answer (if there is an answer), but I get it. On the other hand, I’d rather have a God who is inconsistent in granting my requests than a God who never deigns to answer prayer at all.
There are prayer pundits on the other extreme who say that if we have enough faith God will always do what we ask for. While there are biblical passages, if read literally, that might give that impression, reality tells us that if we pray for people to be raised from the dead, for example, it’s not likely to happen. It hardly ever happened for Jesus’ apostles. It wasn't even an everyday occurence for Jesus.
So we need to be careful not to equate answered prayer with God giving us what we ask for. What God always promises in response to our prayers is something the New Testament calls grace. In the Bible grace is this luggage word (because of all it holds) that basically means “gift,” and can include forgiveness, being gifted for ministry, personal transformation, comfort, strength to endure, and whatever specific blessings God wants to send our way, including during our trials.
This isn’t heaven, not yet anyway, but until then, God loves showering us with his grace, his gifts, which seem to only multiply in response to our faith.
So yes, ask, and, like Jesus said, you will receive! Your prayers will always be answered, even when you don’t get what you asked for. And don’t be put off by the silence. It means he trusts you to trust him.