I think all of us have had the experience of praying for something or someone and not getting what we asked for. In those instances, did God “hear” our prayer? If He did, why did He say no? After all, Our Lord encouraged us to ask for things in His name and He would come through for us (e.g, Mt. 7:7-8; 18:19; Jn. 15:7). So, we might be inclined to ask, “Why doesn’t God answer my prayers?”
Let’s start by providing some context. There are basically four types of prayer: (1) adoration or praise; (2) thanksgiving; (3) contrition (asking for forgiveness); and (4) supplication or petition.
For the first three categories of prayer mentioned above, we seldom trouble ourselves with the question of whether God heard our prayer. However, when it comes to prayers of supplication or petition–in other words, when we ask God for specific things–we naturally wonder about the efficacy of our prayer when we don’t get “results.”
Three things should be kept in mind when this happens.
First, we should reflect on our own motivation in seeking divine assistance. Are we praying to the Holy Trinity as the center of our lives, as the source and goal of our earthly existence? Or are we merely seeking to “use” God just to get what we want? God is our heavenly Father; He is not a “vending machine.”
Second, are we asking for something that is truly good for us? If what we’re seeking is not good, or if our hearts are divided, then we shouldn’t expect God to give it to us. After all, He desires our well-being, even when we don’t. As we heard at Mass this past Sunday, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Jas. 4:3).
Third, we must become truly convinced that we don’t know how to pray as we ought (Rom. 8:26). We turn to God in our need, not always realizing that what we truly desire is much greater and deeper than our feeble requests. Further, our Father already knows what we need before we even attempt to ask (Mt. 6:8), yet awaits our prayers out of respect for our dignity as His sons and daughters, eager to grant us His blessings.
Spiritual guides often remind us that prayer is meant to change us, not God. God does answer our prayers, but often in ways we don’t expect, as His ways are not our ways (Is. 55:8-9). As we grow in our relationship with God in prayer, we come to understand more intimately that God richly provides for all our needs.
The following quote from the early Christian writer Evagrius Ponticus (c. 345-99 A.D.) sums it up well:
“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask Him; for He desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to Him in prayer.”