Many scriptures throughout the New Testament reverberate the message of “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7 NKJ). James elaborates a little more in James 4:2-3 when he says, "...You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures." But what about unselfish prayers for the healing of others; why do some of those prayers seem to go unanswered?
When we read verses like the ones above it is tempting to believe God will always answer “yes” to our prayers (if our motives are virtuous). Many Christians believe prayers that go unanswered were simply not prayed with enough faith. This view states: “Had the person prayed with enough faith their prayer (for literally ANYTHING altruistic and noble) would have been answered.” I don’t think Christians who believe this (and I understand there are some prominent pastors who subscribe to this view) have thought this out very well. Here are some of the problems with this view:
1) This view does not follow NECESSARILY from the texts above. Notice the specificity within the text (“IT will be given.”) In other words, while “it” can represent many things, it does not imply ALL things. Additionally, the verse in James seems to be using language similar to what we find in Proverbs (i.e., not a list of iron-clad promises, but rather general principles, which if applied consistently will lessen the impact this fallen world will have on us).
2) This view limits God’s sovereign will. While orthodox Christian theology holds that our free will is limited to God’s sovereign will, this view flips that on its head and limits God’s sovereign will to our prayers (if they are made with enough faith). In short, assuming our motives are pure, this view puts every believer in a theoretical sovereign position of power (if they just have enough faith). Now some might try to wiggle out of this by saying, “No, no…God is still sovereign and can decide (arbitrarily) if our prayer had enough faith.” But they are just jumping right out of the frying pan and into the fire because this makes God arbitrary (which He is NOT).
3) It diminishes God’s wisdom and it assumes that our limited knowledge is somehow all-wise (as long as our motives at the moment are noble). Some people may pray for something with a pure heart, but God knows the effects this request will have on the person praying for it and it may be worse (in the long run) for the person (and perhaps many others) to have it. The bottom line is our knowledge is limited but this view gives our limited knowledge more credit than it deserves purely on the basis of faith and motives.
God knows what we need and what is best for us, but He still wants us to ask. He doesn't want to just give us the things that He knows are best for us, because then we will not be thankful for them, we will expect them. This is why we must pray without ceasing, and pray for everything. There are some things God wants to give us, but He has not given us simply because we have not asked yet. On the other hand, there are other reasons (beyond our limited knowledge) that God denies our prayer requests. The bottom line: praying with enough faith and the right motives is necessary for God to answer “YES” to our prayer requests; however, praying with enough faith and the right motives is not sufficient for God to answer “YES” to our prayer requests—adequate faith and proper motives must also be aligned with God’s sovereign will. To clarify that last sentence, consider the following ways God may answer our prayers:
--“No, because it will harm you.”
--“No, because you do not understand my plan.”
--“Yes but not yet.”
Most of us ask for things that are actually harmful to our souls; therefore, God will say “NO” to them. When we pray for wealth and riches, the answer is usually going to be “No because it will harm you.” There are very few people that can actually put riches and wealth to good use in an altruistic way that is in accordance with God's will. For many Christians, having great wealth would cause them to neglect or forget about God and start trusting money instead of Him. We must understand, however, that God does not need our submission, service, money, or praise. God lacks nothing, and needs nothing. He does not grieve over our rebellion for His sake; He grieves over our rebellion for OUR sake. He knows how insatiable and pernicious a self-serving soul can be. He knows that submitting to Him, seeking Him, and praising Him is what WE NEED!
When we pray for progress, or opportunities like a better job, many times the answer will be, “Yes but not yet.” We pray for certain things that are in accordance with God's will but our timing is usually when we see it fit. Only God knows the perfect time.
I can still remember the day I was informed of her death as if it were yesterday. My grandfather knocked on my door while I was asleep and told me I have to go to the hospital because my mother passed away! Passed away!? Most people having all the information I had received prior to this would have been prepared for that news, but I was not. I was in shock and disbelief. When I arrived at the hospital, a priest, or counselor told me I could see her to “say goodbye.” They told me it would be good to see her to bring “closure.” I thought maybe I do need to see her so I know for sure. I should have listened to my aunt when she looked me right in the eyes and said, “You don't need to go in there Jimmy.” When I opened the door where my mother's body lied I saw her blue lips and colorless face. I couldn't bear the sight for longer than that one second. Even though I already had the news and knew she was dead, there was something awful about that sight. I had never seen death before, let alone my own mother like that, and the sight was heart-breaking. I never cried so hard or felt so much pain in my life then at that very moment. Just writing this and having to relive that moment brings back the pain.
But where was God during all this pain? C.S. Lewis describes the way he felt when he searched for the help and presence of God when he grieved over the loss of his wife. “But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence.” (A Grief Observed)
The feeling of desolation that accompanies grief may be out of design and not apathy. There remains certain scientific mysteries within the early stages of embryonic development (life); these mysteries are why scientists can have all the essential elements and conditions to create life, but they cannot create life. It's as if something supernatural (our spirit) is infused and is necessary to make life.
1 Corinthians 6:19 (NCV) “You should know that your body is a temple for the Holy Spirit who is in you. You have received the Holy Spirit from God.”
I don't know exactly how someone's spirit is infused in their body, but we know death is that point when the spirit leaves the body (see 2 Corinthians 5:8). The isolation and hollowness that accompany the great grief from the end of a life are evidence to something supernatural. No amount of random mutation, and natural selection could produce the degree of emotion that flows when a loved one's spirit has left this earth. But God's perfection is not called into question from the equivocacy of this grief; on the contrary, His perfection is highlighted. You see, we wouldn’t feel as much joy in life if we didn’t feel that much grief in death.
I can look back now and realize that when I prayed for my mother to be healed, God's answer was, “No, because you do not understand My plan.” God had a plan for my life that could not become reality with my mother alive (the details of my life during that time are too much for this post, but I can say with confidence that my life today is mutually exclusive from a life with my mother alive). That is, the reality that I know of today—with my beautiful wife and daughter, and even the depth of my relationship with God (as evident in this ministry and my writings)—would not be if my mother did not die when she did. I would not be writing this now and I could not be the same testament of God's glory if God answered, “YES” to my prayers of healing my mother. As Garth Brooks put it in one of his hit songs, "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."