Tim Challies recently posted some reasons why God will not answer our prayers. About the same time I was wondering about unanswered prayer and got to thinking that perhaps much of what we call unanswered prayer is really prayer that we simply don’t see answered. The reasons for this could be legion, but here’s one that stuck out to me: Many times we don’t know what we’re praying for, or what the answer will look like.

Our church recently held a ‘week of prayer.’ In one of the meetings we focused on prayers of contrition as a theme, emphasizing our absolute dependence on God for all things. In our last meeting we prayed prayers of dedication to God, committing our future plans and ministry hopes to him to do with as he sees fit. In both of these cases many prayers were offered to God, begging him to keep us humble and to demolish pride in all its subtle forms in our hearts.

That got me to thinking.

Those are wonderful and biblical things to pray! But how do we know when those prayers have been answered? Sometimes I think we expect God to answer those prayers by simply changing our hearts overnight so that we never are tempted to pride again. But that’s not a biblical expectation.

What is a more likely answer to that prayer? It’s more likely that God will bring hardships or persecution. He may allow me to fall into some sort of sin, or else have some secret sin in my heart exposed before others. It is in these types of ways that God strips us of our self-reliance and our sinful, blind desire for and pride in autonomy. Pride is too deeply ingrained in our personalities, thought processes, and decision-making capacities for us to deal with it any other way.

How can we put pride to death when we don’t know where it is?

Looking back over my life I can see that many times God has answered my prayers in ways that I have not expected. More often than not when I sincerely pray for humility and for the Lord to destroy sin in my life, that prayer is answered with suffering or the exposure of sin in my heart. The trouble is that since I wasn’t expecting this as an answer to prayer, I don’t see it as one at the time, and then I get upset and cry out, ‘Why would you let this happen to me, God?’

But it’s all grace. He gives grace in the trial, he gives grace for increased faith, he gives grace as he humbles us so that we might increasingly depend on him in love.

This is just one example, but I think it illustrates the point well. From our end prayers often seem to go unanswered. I wonder if often we are just looking for the wrong type of answer.

Just for fun, here’s an awesome hymn by John Newton that illustrates the same point:

I asked the LORD that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of his salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, his face.

‘Twas he who taught me thus to pray,
And he, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.

I hoped that in some favoured hour,
At once he’d answer my request;
And by his love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.

Instead of this, he made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.

Yea more, with his own hand he seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.

LORD, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the LORD replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.

These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in me.”