Trusting God in the Face of Unanswered Prayer

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will. —  Matthew 26:39

“Stop trying to figure God out.”

That’s the counsel I got from one of my daughters as she listened to me verbally wringing my hands. God hadn’t answered another one of my prayers — at least not in the way I had wanted Him to — and eager to find a sticking place for my trust, I was sorting through the possibilities. I knew God’s ways didn’t always parallel mine, but if God had a better plan, what was it? And why was He taking so long to reveal it? And why, if I truly believed in God’s goodness, was I feeling so sad?

I felt like David did when he wrote the words found in Psalm 13:2.

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long indeed?

I know what Scripture says:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.1

Truth be told, though, I’d just as soon skip the whole thing. No mourning, no need for comfort, no need to be blessed in that particular way.

But no book about prayer would feel honest or real if we didn’t open the door to one of prayer’s thornier questions:

What do we do with the questions, the disappointment, or even the anger that can box us into a corner when our prayers seem to go unanswered or when the outcome doesn’t look like we expected (or wanted) it to?

I’ve circled the wagons on this one dozens (hundreds?) of times, and the only answer that ever satisfies is this: lean into God. I remember crying out to Him during one particularly gut-wrenching season, one where God said no to something I wanted for my child — something she wanted even more than I did, something we both believed would be good. I knew God was for us, that His plan was for hope, and that His purpose would always prevail.2 Why, then, was my stomach in knots? Shouldn’t someone who’d spent twenty-five years writing and speaking about prayer be filled with more faith?

Not knowing what else to do, I took my questions to God.

Here’s what I wrote in my prayer journal (and I share this for those of you who worry about not sounding holy or good enough when you pray; sometimes you just need to let it rip).

“God,” I said, “I feel so spiritually lame. I really am trying to trust You. I don’t mean to be sad. I know You love me, and that You are good —”

It’s okay.

(Have you ever been interrupted by God? Because I think that’s what happened to me as I prayed.)

It’s okay, I sensed God say. Go ahead and grieve. Your sadness is real. Bring it to Me, and let Me comfort you.

Talk about a perspective changer. There I was, trying to push my disappointment and pain into a manhole and put the cover on, and God said not to. He wanted me to come to Him the way I wanted my children, when they were younger, to bring me their skinned knees and fevers, so I could hug them and bandage their hurts. Or the way I want them to now, with their worries and fears, so I can pray and let them know they’re not alone. And I realized that day, as I essentially climbed into God’s lap and let the tears come, that I had it all backward.

I thought that disappointment and anger were bad things. Things that had no legitimate place in the life of a “real” Christian. (And just as a sidebar, if we allow these things to shape our identity, dictate our perspective, or become our life’s focus, I think they are bad.) But if they invite us to press into God — to climb into our Father’s embrace — our unanswered prayers can become agents of connection. They become places where God can showcase his tenderness as he heals our hearts and binds up our wounds. They become touchpoints that are surprisingly, exquisitely beautiful.

In his book How to Pray, Pete Greig pulls beauty out of unanswered prayers. “The Bible,” he writes, “is more honest about unanswered prayers than the church.”3 He cites the example of Jesus in Gethsemane, who pleaded with God, “May this cup be taken from Me,” as well as Jesus’ prayer that we — His followers — would be “brought to complete unity.”4

“It’s an extraordinary thought,” Greig writes about the unity prayer, “that Jesus Himself sits at the right hand of the Father today, carrying the pain of unanswered prayer.”5

So how did He do it? How did Jesus surrender His desires to God, asking for the cup to be taken away, even as He layered another prayer on top: “Yet not what I will, but what You will”?

He leaned into God.

“Abba, Father,” Jesus prayed, as He climbed into His Father’s embrace. “When His soul was overwhelmed, Jesus resolutely anchored Himself in the Father’s love.”6

We can — we must — do the same thing.

God’s love is the sticking place for our trust.

We don’t need to know how something works in order to trust it (if we did, I would never get on an airplane again). We don’t need to figure God out. All we need to do — all we can do — in the face of unanswered prayers is to find our comfort and our satisfaction in his presence.

Read

➢ How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?… But I trust in Your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in Your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for He has been good to me. (Psalm 13:2-6)

➢ God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. (2 Corinthians 1:3-4 NLT)

➢“I know that You can do all things; no purpose of Yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:2)

Reflect

➢ God’s deepest longing is for connection with us. He wants to satisfy our desires with good things. Whether your prayer is for a physical provision, a mental health need, or an ache in your spirit that you want God to fill, be assured that He understands. Jesus knows the pain that can come with surrendering a desire or a prayer to God.

➢Where have you struggled with unanswered prayer? Have you experienced the comfort of God’s presence? If so, how has it equipped you to come alongside others to share with them the same comfort you received?

➢ It’s okay to bring your pain — and your questions — to God. He invites us to pour out our hearts. Ask Him to replace your mourning with joy and equip you to trust in His unfailing love. Relinquish your desires to Him and allow the Holy Spirit to fill the empty places — the disappointment of unanswered prayer — with God’s presence.

Respond

Heavenly Father…
➢When I ask, “How long, Lord? Will You forget me forever?” and when I wrestle with my thoughts and have sorrow in my heart, look on me and answer. Help me trust in Your unfailing love; let me sing of Your goodness. (Psalm 13)

➢ May I place my hope in You and not in any earthly blessing or reward, so I will not be disappointed. (Isaiah 49:23)

➢When I find myself questioning Your timing or wondering what You are doing, remind me that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted. (Job 42:2)

➢Thank You for Your promise that You will never leave me or forsake me. (Hebrews 13:5)

➢Be my refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. (Psalm 46:1)

➢Your thoughts are not my thoughts; Your ways are not my ways. Help me trust that Your ways and Your thoughts are higher than mine. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

➢ Crown me with love and compassion; satisfy my desires with good things. (Psalm 103:4-5)

➢ Bless me and keep me; make Your face shine on me. Be gracious to me as I wrestle with the pain of unmet longings, and give me peace. (Numbers 6:24-26)

➢ Comfort me as a mother comforts her child. Open my eyes to see Your hand on my life so that my heart will rejoice and I will flourish like grass. (Isaiah 66:13-14)

➢ Satisfy me in the morning with Your unfailing love, that I may sing for joy and be glad all my days. (Psalm 90:14)

➢ When I call to You for help and You answer, saying, “Here am I,” let me rejoice in Your presence and provision. (Isaiah 58:9)

➢ Give me a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair in the face of unanswered prayer. Strengthen me. Make me an oak of righteousness where You can display your splendor. (Isaiah 61:3)

➢ May I come before You like Jesus did, telling You what I long for but surrendering my desires to You, saying, “Not as I will, but as You will.” (Matthew 26:39)

  1. Matthew 5:4.
  2. See Romans 8:28; Jeremiah 29:11; Job 42:2.
  3. Pete Greig, How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People (ColoradoSprings: NavPress, 2019), 115.
  4. Matthew 26:39; John 17:23.
  5. Greig, How to Pray, 115.
  6. Greig, How to Pray, 118.

Excerpted with permission from Praying the Scriptures for Your Life by Jodie Berndt, copyright Jodie Berndt

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Your Turn

Are you wringing your hands worried and stressed? Wrestling with your thoughts and disappointment night and day? Take your worries to Jesus. Lean into God. God’s love is the sticking place for our trust. Come share your thoughts with us. We want to hear from you! ~ Devotionals Daily

Jodie Berndt is a popular speaker and author of several books, including Celebration of Miracles and Praying the Scriptures for Your Teens. She is also a former writer and producer for The 700 Club, and she is cofounder of Changing Seasons (www.changingseasons.com), a speaker series that equips today’s women to lead lives marked by purpose, grace, and joy. She and her husband, Robbie, have four children. They live in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

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