Unanswered Prayer


How is it, you will say, that so many prayers go unanswered?

How is it, you will say, that so many prayers go unanswered? Saint Augustine answers with Latin concision: it is because we asked mala or male — because we asked either for bad things, or asked badly.

No doubt this answer covers many cases. Many times God does what a good mother does, when her little one wants a knife or matches to play with: "No," she says, "you would hurt yourself. Take this book instead." But the child cries and is unhappy, because he does not get what he wants so much. Only later will he understand why his mother refused him — for love.

We often behave like the child and ask for things which seem to us important but which would in reality be bad, mala, for us. God in his wisdom and love gives us something else instead, but we feel unhappy because he did not grant what we had asked. How often this can be the case when we ask for material things (money health, success) which it seems would make us happy, but could also easily be an occasion of spiritual ruin!

Maybe what we were asking for was good, but it was not granted because we asked badly, male. Perhaps we did not insist enough, which is proof that our desire was not very deep. And this may happen easily when we ask for spiritual goods — love of God, love of neighbor, patience, or some other virtue. God gives in the measure we ask, according to our desires: "Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it" (Ps. 81, 10). This verse of the Psalms always brings to mind the image of a nest crowded with four or five little birds their mouths gaping wide. If we were to open the mouth of our heart, how God would fill it!

Perhaps our petition was not granted, because we did not have enough faith. Jesus demanded faith from those who were asking a miracle from him, the father of the epileptic demoniac, for example. "If you can believe," Jesus said, "everything is possible for anyone who has faith" (Mt. 13,58).

When he visited his home town, Nazareth, "he did not work many miracles there, because of their lack of faith" (Mt. 13,58)

Saint James is very explicit about it: let him who needs, ask God "who gives to all freely and ungrudgingly; it will be given him. But he must ask with faith, and no trace of doubt, because a person who has doubts is like the waves thrown up in the sea when the wind drives. That sort of person, in two minds, wavering between going different ways, must not expect that the Lord will give him anything" (James 1, 6-8).

What we lack is not faith in God's power, but faith in his goodness — a complete trust like the trust of the little child in his parents, which makes him turn to them in all his needs.

Or it might be that our prayer was not humble enough: that were not asking, but demanding; not begging, but commanding; sending out an order to heaven and expecting a parcel by return mail! A respectful child does not give orders to his father.

Jesus in the garden taught us how to pray with humility: "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass me by. Nevertheless, let:, be as you, not as I would have it." (Mt. 26,39). Likewise the Blessed Virgin at Cana, when she says simply, "They have no wine" (Jo. 2,3), or Martha and Mary of Bethany, when they send Jesus this message: "Lord, the man you love is ill" (Jo. 11,3).

They do not tell him what they want him to do, but, as Saint John of the Cross points out, their prayer is most confident and most humble, convinced as they are that it is enough to state the need when he who is good will provide, and that he knows better what will be best.

It might happen in some cases, (not too frequent I suppose), that a prayer remains unanswered as a punishment of presumption. If one places himself knowingly and without necessity in a difficult situation, he has no right to expect a miracle from God to get him out. It would be presumption also to neglect the means God has placed at our disposal and wants us to use to provide for our needs, and have recourse instead to prayer.

Apart from these cases, when prayer is not heard because we ask badly or for something bad, there are two other cases, when prayer remains or seems to remain fruitless. The first one is prayer for others. Jesus said, "ask, and you will receive," not, "another will receive."

Not that he does not want us to pray for others, when he did it himself and taught us to do it. And not that prayer for others does not obtain wonderful results. The prayer of Saint Stephen dying obtained the grace of conversion for Saint Paul; and the prayers of Saint Monica obtained the conversion of Saint Augustine. But even if God grants the graces for another, the resistance opposed may render the prayer fruitless.

In the second case, the prayer seems to be in vain, but in reality is heard and accepted. God delays granting the grace requested for reasons he alone knows.

Perhaps he does it so that the soul will remain humble or grow in humility; perhaps to purify it; perhaps to make it hunger and thirst all the more so as to satisfy it all the more. Or he may delay for other reasons which we cannot even guess, but which will be revealed to us some day and show us God's mercy. This is why it happens that a soul, who has been asking God all his life to overcome some fault, remains with it until perhaps his last days, and finally sees the prayer answered — even abundantly answered.

Since prayer is so fruitful and so easy, this should be enough to bring us to pray, especially when Jesus promises us that "Whatever you ask in my name I will do .. . . If you ask for anything in my name I will do it" (Jo. 14,13-14). Don't forget however: you must ask in his name, in his place, as he himself would ask. Then you can be sure that you will not ask badly for something bad.




Fr. Leonard M. Puech, O.F.M. "Unanswered Prayer." In Spiritual Guidance (Vancouver, B.C.: Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty, 1983), 323-326.

Republished with permission of the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice and Liberty.


The late Fr. Leonard M. Puech wrote a popular column for the B.C. Catholic from 1976 to 1982. Those columns were compiled and published by the Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, and Liberty as the book Spiritual Guidance in 1983. The VFAJL is interested in reprinting Spiritual Guidance. Anyone who would like to contribute to this worthy cause please write: Dr. Margherita Oberti, 1170 Eyremount Drive, West Vancouver, B.C. V7S 2C5.

Copyright © 1983 Vancouver Foundation of Art, Justice, & Liberty

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