Question: "How should a Christian respond to unanswered prayer?"
Answer: How many Christians have prayed for someone, only to see their prayers go unanswered? How many have prayed and perhaps have “given up” because either they have become discouraged through a weakness of faith or have come to the sometimes presumptive conclusion that whatever they have been praying for isn’t God’s will? Nevertheless, how we deal with unanswered prayer is not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of others as well. When we pray, we are engaging in the most precious and God-given act of communication with the One to whom we are accountable in all our affairs. We have been truly bought at a steep price—the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ—and therefore we belong to God.
Our privilege of prayer is from God, and it is as much ours now as when it was given to Israel (Deuteronomy 4:7). Yet, when we pray or speak to the One in Heaven, there are times when He seems not to answer. There can be many reasons for this, and while it is not the intention here to list them all, the Scriptures themselves suggest why and how our prayers are being dealt with by the One who is so tender and loving, who Himself loves our communing with God the Father, for He, Himself, is our representative (Hebrews 4:15).
A primary reason why prayer is unanswered is sin. God cannot be mocked or deceived, and He who sits enthroned above knows us intimately, down to our every thought (Psalm 139:1-4). If we are not walking in the Way or we harbor enmity in our hearts toward our brother or we ask for things with the wrong motives (such as from selfish desires), then we can expect God not to answer our prayer because He does not hear (2 Chronicles 7:14; Deuteronomy 28:23; Psalm 66:18; James 4:3). Sin is the “stopper” to all the potential blessings that we would receive from the infinite “bottle” of God’s mercy! If only we would be more careful to avoid sin, we would be more worthy recipients of all the blessings and foretastes of the glory that is ours in Christ Jesus (Job 11:13-18). Indeed, there are times when our prayers are heinous in the Lord’s sight, most notably when we clearly do not belong to the Lord either because of unbelief (Proverbs 15:8) or because we are practicing hypocrisy (Mark 12:40).
Another reason why prayer seems to go unanswered is that the Lord is drawing out of our faith a deeper reliance and trust in Him, which should bring out of us a deeper sense of gratitude, love and humility. In turn, this causes us to benefit spiritually for He gives grace to the humble (James 4:6; Proverbs 3:34). Oh, how one feels for that poor Canaanite woman, who cried out incessantly to our Lord for mercy when He was visiting the region of Tyre and Sidon (Matthew 15:21-28). She was hardly the person a Jewish rabbi would take note of! She was not a Jew and she was a woman, two legitimate (in their minds) reasons for Jews to ignore her. The Lord doesn’t seem to answer her petitions, but He knew all about her situation. He may not have answered her stated needs immediately, but still He heard and granted her request.
God may often seem silent to us, but He never sends us away empty-handed. Even if prayer has not been answered, we must rely upon God to do so in His own time. Even the exercise of prayer is a blessing to us; it is because of our faith that we are stirred to persist in prayer, and isn’t that a rebuke to all of us? It is faith that pleases God (Hebrews 11:6), and if our prayer life is wanting, does that not reflect our spiritual standing also? God hears our impoverished cries for mercy, and His silence inflames us with a sense of persistence in prayer. He loves us to reason with Him. For example, we do not see many souls saved in this day of “small things,” but only that we would cry out, like Rachel, “Give me children or I die!” (Genesis 30:1). Let us hunger for the things that are after God’s heart and let us walk in His ways and not our own. If we are faithful to pray without ceasing, then we are living in the will of God and that can never be wrong (1 Thessalonians 5:17-18).