Q&A: Why do prayers go unanswered?

“Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, TEACHING in the synagogues…and he HEALED every kind of disease and illness” (Matt 9:35).

My sermon text for this Sunday is Mark 1:29-39 which displays Jesus’ powerful healing ministry, first with Simon’s mother-in-law, and then “the whole city was gathered around the door” as “he cured many who were sick with various diseases.” The Gospel writers clearly describe Jesus’ ministry as having a two-pronged approach: 1) “preaching the good news” and 2) “healing every kind of disease and sickness” (Matt. 4:23) as well as casting out demons as a subset of his healing ministry.

My challenge to our congregation, leadership and myself is to point out the lopsidedness in many (non-charismatic) churches today, where the focus is almost exclusively on preaching the word and very little on healing ministry. Why is this?

I will probe that question a bit, and offer some basic biblical principles related to supernatural healing ministry today — truths to embrace and pitfalls to avoid. Then we’re going to invite people forward to celebrate the Eucharist and have a short healing service.

Yet, as soon as someone gets the courage or faith to pray for physical healing, you have to face the reality that often such prayers go unanswered. Let me share an important word from Greg Boyd’s blog at ReKnew.org:

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All of us have prayed for things and have been left wondering why God did not answer. Clearly, our prayers don’t all bring about what we ask for. It has been popular to say that God always answers prayer with one of three responses, “Yes,” “No,” or “Not Yet”. But isn’t the reality a little more complicated than that?

Why does one prayer get answered and another is not? Is God’s will the only factor?

In Greg Boyd’s book Is God to Blame? he lays out nine variables that influence or affect outcomes to prayer. There is no way to include the full explanation of each, but this provides a basic summary:

1. God’s will. I have argued [in this book and elsewhere] against appealing to God’s will as the only explanation for why prayer is or isn’t answered. Yet God’s will is the most basic variable affecting whether prayers are answered. John says we should be bold in prayer, having confidence that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us (1 John 5:14). …

2. The faith of the person being prayed for. Everywhere Jesus went, multitudes of people were healed and delivered, except in his own hometown. Mark explains why: “he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:5–6).

3. The faith the people praying. Many times in the ministry of Jesus the effectiveness of prayer was associated with the faith of the people praying for others, not the faith of those being prayed for. For example, when a group of people took the trouble to dismantle a roof and lower a paralyze friend into an overcrowded room so Jesus could heal him. Luke says that Jesus “saw their faith” and thus healed their friend (Luke 5:20).

4. Persistence of prayer. A fourth factor in the outcome of prayer is our persistence. We have no reason to think that spiritual work is all that different than physical work, and we know that physical work often takes persistence. Some rocks can be lifted in a minute, but others take hours. So it is in prayer. (See Luke 11:5-8)

5. The number of people praying. When dealing with an important matter, most people of faith instinctively ask others to pray with them. The assumption is that with more people praying, it’s more likely that this matter will be resolved in accordance with the prayer. The assumption is reasonable.  (See Ephesians 6:19-20; Colossians 4:3–4)

6. Human free will. A sixth variable to take into account is the free will of the people we are praying for. For example, we may pray for someone’s salvation, and this will undoubtedly increase the influence of the Holy Spirit in his or her life. But God will not—and given the kind of world he has created, cannot—simply override a person’s free will to answer our prayer. Indeed if God could simply override the free will of people to get them saved, we have every reason to believe everyone would be saved (see one Timothy 2:4–6, 4:10; two Peter 3:9)!

7. Angelic free will. Human beings are not the only agents in the cosmos who possess morally responsible say-so. Spirit agents (referred to in Scripture as angels, gods, demons, principalities, powers, authorities, rulers) also possess free will. Their activity is another variable that influences prayer.…  (See Daniel 10:12-13; 1 Thessalonians 2:17–18).

8. The number and strength of spirit agents. There is another variable in the role that spirit agents play in affecting the outcome of our prayer. In the physical world we have no trouble accepting that the number of the forces on either side of a battle is a significant factor in deciding its outcome yet we Westerners customarily ignore this piece of common sense when it comes to thinking about spiritual warfare.  … (See Luke 11:24-26)

9. The presence of sin. After suffering a terrible defeat, Joshua and the elders of Israel fell on their faces in prayer to God. But the Lord said to Joshua, “Standup! Why have you fallen on your face? Israel has sinned” (Joshua 7:10–11). What was required in this situation was not prayer but confronting sin. This episode illustrates the principle that in some cases God wants us to do something (e.g., repent or confront sin) before he will hear our prayer. For example, no one would be surprised if God told an abusive husband that prayer for his wife’s love is useless until he stops abusing her!

Join us Sunday at MainStreet as we lean into and practice James 5:13-16:

13 “Are any of you suffering hardships? You should pray. Are any of you happy? You should sing praises. 14 Are any of you sick? You should call for the elders of the church to come and pray over you, anointing you with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 Such a prayer offered in faith will heal the sick, and the Lord will make you well. And if you have committed any sins, you will be forgiven. 16 Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.”

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