When God Does Not Answer
By: Dr. Gary Habermas
Many doubts are seemingly caused when believers do not receive the answers to their prayers or other needs like they think they should. In other words, uncertainty sometimes occurs when God does not act in the way that we think is required. We are giving this issue special attention not only because of its apparent frequency, but also because there is a crucially important set of principles which emerges from grappling with this problem. We will initially view several passages of Scripture which denote similar questions, followed by an investigation of two prominent biblical cases where such issues occur in greater detail. It is here that the key principles which deal with this uncertainty will hopefully emerge, reaching beyond this initial topic.
Before beginning our study it will perhaps be helpful to set forth a teaching which I think will be found in Scripture. When this general question is raised by believers, it appears that it is quite frequently couched in terms not only of why God does not answer, but such is contrasted with the biblical accounts where God almost always does answer. Thus, to frame the question more clearly, it is often said that God used to act frequently, but now He does not. But Scripture clearly points out that believers down through the ages have struggled with this exact same issue. And not only is there comfort in knowing this, but what has been learned from saints who deal with this question is even more instructive.
A. Biblical Examples
Numerous times in Scripture a believer thinks that he is in need of assistance or cries out to God in prayer, only to find that God does not answer as he desired. In fact, such appears to be a fairly common experience, even in biblical times. And beyond the issue of prayer, we have other reports of God’s silence.
One common contemporary complaint is that, “My prayers don’t get through; it is as if they bounce off the ceiling” and yet the complaint in Lamentations 3:44 sounds similar. Here it is poetically claimed that God had covered Himself with a cloud so that Israel’s prayers could not get through. In this case the problem was the nation’s sin (3:42). David also realized that known sin keeps an individual’s prayers from being answered (Ps. 66:18). But in another passage, David speaks of his prayers going unanswered when he was apparently unaware of the reason and he relates how this affected him (Ps. 35:13-14, NIV).
A stunning Old Testament passage occurs in Psalm 74:9, where the writer reports that, at that time, God was neither working miraculous signs or sending prophets to His people. Then it is added that no one knew how long this silence would last.
This might be a shock to the seemingly common Christian attitude that God basically acted throughout the biblical period but is much less active today. As we will see, there are several “silent” periods in Scripture. Another example is Isaiah 57:11, where the Lord Himself proclaims that He had “long been silent” towards the Israelites.
One very interesting passage occurs in Daniel 10:10-14, where Daniel describes a visitation from an angel. He had been mourning and fasting for three weeks (10:2- 3). In answer to his deliberations, an angel was sent to him. In fact, we are told that God heard Daniel’s words and sent the angel on his first day of supplication. However, the messenger was delayed for three weeks by “the prince of the Persian Kingdom,” apparently denoting spiritual warfare, since Michael was then sent to assist him. After being freed, the initial angel came to Daniel to explain the Lord’s message to him (10:10-14).
There are several interesting features in this passage, including the teaching that answers to prayers can actually be decreed, but delayed by external conditions. More specifically, most believers probably do not think of Satan’s forces as hindering God’s answers to prayer. Thus, a prayer could be heard and answered with the latter not being manifest for some time. Another feature is that, while we are not told of Daniel’s response, he could presumably have considered his prayer to be unanswered. And believers today are at least tempted to consider their prayers as unanswered if such does not occur in a relatively short time, yet this may, in fact, not be the case even when we do not witness that answer immediately.
A major example of God’s silence occurs between the testaments. It appears that we hear seemingly little about the so-called 400 silent years before the birth of Christ. But if we had been one of the Jews living in that period of time, we might very well have wondered why neither we nor those for several generations before us had heard from the Lord. It might actually have been more unnerving living during that time than in others previously discussed. Had God given up on His people? While He had been angry in the past, had it ever lasted this long? And why would there be no communication at this time which directly followed the centuries of Hebrew prophets sent by God? But just as Scripture attests that the darkest night is still followed by a new morning (Ps. 30:5), the Jews who lived during these “dark ages” did not realize that the coming of the Messiah would be just around the corner, the event of all events which effectively broke the silence of those many years.
Such issues are also found in the New Testament. By far the major instance here is Jesus’ own prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. The texts tell us that, suffering deep distress and anguish to the point of sweating drops of blood, Jesus requested that His Father allow the coming events to be bypassed, but prayed that the Father’s will, not His, be done. Certainly the petition requesting the Father’s will was accomplished, but not the earlier request for removal of the immediate future (Mk. 14:33-36; Lk. 22:39-44; cf. Matt. 26:36-43). Here we have one of the cases where Jesus was tempted like we are, including the suffering of distraught emotions, yet without sinning (Heb. 4:15).
Paul also found that God does not always act in accordance with our will when he prayed three times that God would remove his apparent physical problem, all without success. Yet Paul learned what Jesus already knew, that the Father’s will is preferable (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
These biblical cases, then, point out how God does not always answer prayer the way that believers think He should. In fact, sometimes specific periods of silence ensue. It is simply a fact that believers struggled with such issues throughout Scripture and not just today. Many biblical saints presumably even lived their entire lives during the silent periods when God was not as active. But beyond the helpful knowledge that this was so, we need to ask what was learned from these dilemmas? Are there any helpful truths here which can also assist us today?
B. The Case of Job
In an earlier chapter we looked briefly at the cases of two Old Testament believers, Job and Abraham. Here we want to dwell on each one in more detail, not only because the biblical accounts record that they wrestled with the problem of God’s silence over an extended period of time, but especially because of the extraordinary truths which they learned through it.
To summarize very briefly, Job was tested by Satan and faced with various calamities such as the loss of his domestic animals, the deaths of his servants and children, as well as personal sickness (Job 1:6-2:7). Even though his wife suggested that he respond simply by cursing God and dying (2:9), Job refused to sin by charging God with fault in any of these problems (1:20-22; 2:10).
Most of the book is taken up by Job’s dialogue with his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. And it is here that Job’s complaint against God begins to surface. Job blames God for his troubles and specifically for injustice to him. And some of these charges are rather strongly stated. He also challenges God to confront him (Job 13:3, 21-22). All the while, the silence of God is a main issue (19:7). Yet Job never loses hope, and even voices his trust in God (13:15; 19:25-27; 27:3-4).
Then a fourth person, Elihu, begins to dialogue with Job (Chapter 32). He speaks more truth than the other three friends and, in a sense, frequently speaks for God. Now the end of the story is well known. Job confronts the Lord Himself and, after repentance, is blessed by God more than he ever had been in the past. Yet, what transpires in this confrontation with God and what lessons Job learns are not as frequently recognized.
Initially, Elihu gets angry at Job for blaming his problems on God (Job 32:1-2). In the next six chapters he and Job converse (see list below), but the climax of the book occurs when God Himself challenges Job; in a sense it is almost like a final exam. God tells Job that He will ask the questions and Job can provide the answers, since he professes to know so much (38:1-3). The Lord’s queries then concern such issues as whether Job could create the world (38:4-11), move the stars (38:31-33), or control the animal kingdom (Chapter 39). At this point, Job was confronted with the glory and awesomeness of God.
In fact, God also challenged Job to explain the problem of evil (Job 38:12-15; 40:8-14), insisting that, if he could, then the God of the universe would admit that Job could save himself (40:15)! By this time, Job had already confessed that he had nothing left to say (40:3-5). So after having confronted the Lord, Job concluded that he was now certain that the Lord was omnipotent (42:1-2). As a matter of fact, this conclusion had already been proclaimed by both Elihu and the Lord himself before Job came to the recognition of it himself.
From his conversations with Elihu and later with the Lord, Job heard (and apparently learned) a number of lessons.
- He was not to assert his own righteousness against the Lord, especially in a rebellious and scornful way (Job 32:2, 5-7; 40:4, 8; 42:5, 6).
- One ought not blame God for His silence (33:14; 34:29; 35:12-16).
- It does profit a man to follow God (34:9; 42:5ff.).
- God is not to be condemned or blamed for evil (34:10, 12, 17; 38:12-15; 40:8- 14).
- God is personal (34:21-22; 42:12).
- Man ought not trust in his own knowledge (34:35; 37:5, 24; 38:2, 4, 18; 39:2; 42:3).
- Instead, man ought to trust in God (35:14; cf. 42:1-6).
- God must punish if man goes too far (36:18), but He also rewards and blesses (36:16; 42:12).
- God should be praised (36:24ff.; 37:14; 38:4ff.).
- The works of God are incomprehensible (37:5, 23-24; 38:2-39).
The conclusion to Job’s dilemma is a very instructive one. At the beginning of this book his major question concerned why he suffered. But, strangely, he never received an answer to that question. Indeed, Philip Yancey claims that for God to have explained the need for evil to Job would be like attempting to teach Einstein to a clam! Yet Job was satisfied because he realized that God could do anything, including take care of evil. So Job made the decision that, based on what he did know about God, he could trust Him in those things which he did not know. And he made this decision while he was still tormented, before God blessed him.
This is a tremendous principle for believers today to learn, too. When God’s silence or the presence of pain and evil can be explained, so much the better. But even when such cannot be figured out, we ought to trust God, for we have enough of a basis to do so. After all, if man is finite, why do we frequently act as if we must be able to explain everything in the universe? At least this major principle should be garnered from the Book of Job. After all, if even Jesus resigned Himself to the will of His Father, why shouldn’t Christians learn to do the same? But, as we have seen, there are many other lessons that are also applicable to the issue of God’s silence.
C. The Case of Abraham
Like Job, Abraham wrestled with the issue of God’s silence and also learned some great truths which are applicable to doubts on the same subject today. To set the specific scene just briefly, God had spoken to Abraham (when his name was still Abram) and called him to take his family from his homeland of Ur, east of Israel, to Canaan. Abraham was promised that a great nation would come from him there and that they would, in turn, be the source of blessing for all the peoples of the earth (Gen. 12:1-3).
So Abraham took his family and, after several incidents, settled in the land of Canaan, where he and his wife Sarah later died and were buried. God greatly blessed his family and he became the father of the Israelites.
Throughout his long life, Abraham was characterized as a man of faith. The writer of Hebrews notes several of his accomplishments which were gained by trusting God. Initially he responded in faith and proceeded to Canaan, even though he did not know where he was going (Heb. 11:8-10). He also trusted God’s promise that he and Sarah would have a child, even though they were elderly and Sarah had been barren. But the faith that God was trustworthy allowed him to be the father of a great nation (11:11-12). And then when God asked Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice, Abraham was willing because he even believed that God, having made him a promise, could raise his son from the dead if need be (11:17-19). So Abraham lived his life by faith and God honored that and blessed him.
But some might wonder how Abraham could ever have had a question about God’s leading. After all, didn’t Abraham speak directly to God basically whenever he wanted to do so? But yet, we find after an examination of the texts that Abraham may also have had a question concerning God’s silence, in spite of our ideas to the contrary. For example, Genesis 16 ends when Abraham is 86 years old. As far as we are told, the next time God spoke to him was 13 years later when he was 99 years old (Gen. 17:1). Now it is hard to be dogmatic here, but if there were any major communications it is likely that we would at least have been told about these, based on the other major episodes of his life that are related to the reader. But it is also true that we cannot be sure. God may have spoken to him during this interval. But at the very least, neither do we have grounds for asserting that God communicated with Abraham throughout his life on a weekly or even a yearly basis. It does appear that there may have been gaps, and perhaps even sizeable ones.
Regardless, Abraham was a man of faith. But neither did God expect him to believe in a vacuum. Abraham was given warrant for his belief, as well. After all, God did speak to him and such communication must have been very convincing. And then there was the rather mysterious time when Abraham asked God how he might know that Canaan would be given to him as his possession (Gen. 15:8). The Lord responded by telling him that he could know this truth for certain and then proceeded to utilize a supernatural manifestation in order to make a covenant with Abraham (15:13-21). So faith does not exclude good grounds for belief. Yet Abraham exercised more faith than normal and as the writer of Hebrews makes the point, the great events in his life would not have been possible without this exercise of faith.
But here is the key in the case of Abraham: he not only exercised faith, but that faith grew as he trusted God more and more. Paul also utilizes Abraham as his example at this very juncture. When he could have just given up and ignored God’s call, Abraham chose to believe instead and moved his family. And then when a child was promised, he still did not falter in his faith even though all the medical data opposed it. In both cases Abraham did not give up or lapse into unbelief; but his faith was actually strengthened (Rom. 4:18-25).
Imagine a faith that actually grows when the pressure is the greatest! Yet that was Abraham’s experience. And like Job, the chief reason is that he concluded that God was trustworthy; what he already knew about Him was enough to trust Him in unknown areas (Rom. 4:21).
None of this is to say, however, that Abraham did not experience hardships, even regarding his faith. Just as Job resorted to questioning God, Abraham also had his troublesome moments. We have already mentioned His need for assurance, resulting in a supernatural event (Gen. 15:8-21). There were also the times when Abraham concealed the identity of Sarah to protect his own life (12:10-20; 20:1-18), or when Abraham and Sarah resorted to allowing the maid, Hagar, to bear a son (Ishmael) for Abraham, since Sarah still had not gotten pregnant (16:1-16), all in spite of God’s promises.
But, as a whole, Abraham regularly acted in faith. And his faith did not give way to unbelief. He was strengthened even during trying times because He trusted God (Rom. 4:18-25). And as we pointed out in Chapter V on Volitional Doubt, believers today can also let their faith grow precisely during the times when it is under attack.
There are many reasons why prayer may not be answered the way believers expect. But as pointed out above, this chapter is not primarily concerned with why prayers are not answered but how believers respond when they think that they have not been. To this end we have endeavored to point out, initially, that it was common for believers in Scripture to both wonder why their prayers were not answered and to question God’s silence, which sometimes lasted for long periods of time. Such a study should help us to see that we do not have a dichotomy between biblical times when God always answered prayer and today, when He often does not. Such a thesis simply is not supported by the facts. God answers many prayers according to the request, while believers have concluded that others have not been responded to (according to their own evaluations).
Using the experiences of Job and Abraham, we found that some believers have grown even during tough times. And like both of them, believers today can also resolve to trust the Lord even further, right during times of doubt and dismay. One principle here is that, since we know enough about God in other crucial areas, we can trust Him even in those further instances where we cannot figure things out completely. After all, I may not know why I am presently suffering, but this is still a world where God has raised Jesus from the dead and believers still have eternal life.
Here we need to practice exerting our faith during times of doubt, perhaps by directly affirming our belief to God during prayer or meditation. Another helpful practice is to literally list our answers to prayer as they come about, thereby providing a ready list for times when we experience questions as to how much God answers our prayers. Incidentally, such questions are more usually emotional in nature (see Chapter IV) and so just such a list is helpful in confronting our own untruths which we tell ourselves. And then, as Job and Abraham experienced, we can also witness the growth of our faith and the corresponding lessening of the grip of doubt.
- It should be carefully noted that this chapter is not primarily concerned with the biblical conditions for answered prayer but rather with the doubt which proceeds from one’s perception that prayer has not been answered, even if all conditions are thought to have been met. In other words, we are not really dealing with the reasons God does not appear to answer prayer as much as how an individual reacts when such is the case and what lessons can be learned through this experience. (But see endnote 7 below as well).
- For examples, see Job 7:11; 10:3-4, 13-14, 20-22; 12:6; 14:19; 16:9; 27:2.
- For some instances, see the various related claims in Job 33:12; 36:26; 37:5, 23; 40:2; cf. 33:17.
- Most of these following principles are repeated in the words of both Elihu and God.
- Philip Yancey, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” Christianity Today, volume 27, number 12, August 5, 1983, p. 23.
- We are not asserting that the cause of specific sorts of pain and evil will never be known, for Scripture also provides a number of such reasons, as well. Rather, we are addressing issues for which the cause cannot always be ascertained.
- However, we can still briefly list some of the biblical conditions for answered prayer. Most of such factors are personal in nature, such as the need to confess one’s sin (Ps. 66:18; 1 Jn. 1:9), exercise faith (Mk. 11:24; Js. 1:5-8), be obedient (Jn. 15:7; 1 Jn. 3:22), pray according to God’s will (1 Jn. 5:14-15) and in Jesus’ name (Jn. 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23). But we are also told that individual prayers are sometimes not answered when the nation itself has been in a state of sin (Lam. 3:42-44; cf. Isa. 57:11).2PCHabermas0706 Doubt Part 6