Do you ever find yourself repeating the same requests over and over and wonder, “Is anyone really listening?” I take some consolation in remembering that Jesus, too, had unanswered prayers.

According to Luke, Jesus spent an entire night in prayer before choosing the twelve disciples.  Yet if you read the Gospels, you marvel that this dodgy dozen could be the answer to any prayer.  They included the traitor Judas Iscariot, the overly ambitious Sons of Thunder, and the hothead Simon Peter, whom Jesus would once address as “Satan.”

I wonder if, in a private moment, Jesus prayed something like, “Father, I wanted the best twelve disciples, not these thickheads.”  He came close in this sigh of dismay over the Twelve, “O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you?  How long shall I put up with you?”

I find it comforting that while on earth Jesus faced the same limitations as does anyone in leadership.  Whether you’re the CEO of a large company or the parent of a small family, at some point you have to let go and trust those to whom you delegate.  The Son of God himself could only work with the talent pool available.

 

Another unanswered prayer occurred in the Garden of Gethsemane when, in Martin Luther’s phrase, “God struggled with God.”  As Jesus lay on the ground, his sweat falling like drops of blood, his prayers took on an uncharacteristic tone of pleading.  He “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death,” Hebrews says.  But of course Jesus was not saved from death.

In the darkness Jesus felt acutely alone, for his closest friends had all fallen asleep.  “Could you not keep watch for one hour?” he chided.  I for one am glad that Jesus didn’t face death with Socratic composure.  He experienced fear, and perhaps indignation, like most of us who suffer.

A dramatic change takes place, however, between that scene in the Garden and what follows.  The Gospel accounts of Gethsemane show a person in anguish.  Afterwards they show one who, more than Pilate, more than Herod, seems in utter control.  At his trials Jesus is no victim; he is serene, unflappable, the master of his destiny.

What happened that night in the garden?  What made the difference?  We don’t know the content of Jesus’ prayers, since potential witnesses were all dozing.  He may have reviewed his entire sojourn on earth.  The weight of all that remained undone may have borne down upon him: his disciples were unstable, irresponsible; the movement seemed in peril; God’s chosen people had rejected him; the world still harbored much evil and much suffering.

Jesus approached the very edge of human endurance.  He no more relished the idea of pain and death than you or I do.  “Everything is possible for you,” Jesus pleaded to the Father; “Take this cup from me.”  Somehow, though, in Gethsemane Jesus worked through the crisis by transferring the burden to the Father.  It was God’s will he had come to do, after all, and his plea resolved into these words: “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”  Not many hours later he would cry out, in profound summation, “It is finished.”

How many times have I prayed for one thing only to receive another?  I long for the personal detachment, the faith, that I see worked out in Gethsemane.  God alone is qualified to answer prayer, and at some point we have to let go and trust God, who can transmute our self-focused requests into an unimaginably larger plan.  When Jesus prayed to the one who could save him from death, he did not get that salvation; instead, he got the salvation of the world.

One more unanswered prayer appears in an intimate scene recorded by John: Jesus’ final supper with his disciples.  That evening the scope of Jesus’ prayer expands far beyond the walls of the upper room, to encompass even those of us who live today:

My prayer is not for them [the disciples] alone.  I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.  May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.   I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me.…

 

Disunity virtually defines the history of the church.  Pick at random any year of history—pick today—and you will see how far short we fall of Jesus’ final request.  The church, and the watching world, still await an answer.

Jesus’ best-known prayer contains this line: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  So far that, too, remains unanswered.  Human history hangs in the balance, suspended between the already and the not yet.

 


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39 responses to “Jesus’ Unanswered Prayers”

  1. Rangita says:

    According to Orthodox belief, He was heard and was saved from death. He has won over death, so that we also can share His Resurrection. By the way I am a great fan of your books The Bible Jesus read and The Jesus i never knew. Amazing they are. May be Jesus had got exhausted of the unbelief of the so called thick heads, but never underestimated. Even the great speaker Paul told Corinthians this.” We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

    Mathew 24: 24, 24: 12, Luke 18:8
    clearly tell , why some feel that Jesus prayers are not answered when he prayed for the disciples and believers of this age.

    PS :1.Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold,
    2.For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.
    3.I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”

  2. Erik Johnson says:

    Hi, Philip. I have an only somewhat-related question. Years ago you wrote in one of your CT columns about doubts and (your line if I remember it correctly), “I’m sometimes struck by the implausibility of it all.” Is there any chance you know the date of that article? I’m looking for that quote and would like to cite it in a bibliography. (We met years ago [1985] at a writing conference at SPU; with your help I wrote some CT Eutychus columns. Thanks!).

    If you could help in any way I’d be most grateful…as I, too, am often struck by the implausibility of it all.”

    • Philip Yancey says:

      I did a word search, and find no uses of “implausibility” in articles I’ve done. Certainly I’ve written about doubts, though I’m taking off for an overseas trip next week and won’t be able to help you further. Sorry! –Philip

  3. Phil MacInnes says:

    If unanswered means not yet answered, ok. But if it means a wrong request does that mean that Jesus prayed outside of the will of God? And if so, the implications of that?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Prayers are requests, and I believe God wants us to comes as children, laying out our requests. It’s up to God to determine “God’s will.” I’ve learned to avoid trying to figure out God’s will in advance and praying that to increase the odds, so to speak. Rather, I express my desires and ask God to correct or “edit” them. –Philip

  4. Yeo Yee Ying says:

    Unanswered prayers are not a problem for me because He is always listening and any prayer that is uttered or brought before God within the heart lives on forevermore through the eternal reaches of time. Sometimes an answer comes, sometimes he lets the words we speak unto him pass on by. Surely the sole purpose and end of prayer is to reach the ears of a God who listens and loves, not merely to obtain what it is we ask for or desire in our requests before the Almighty. It is an unhindered and unabated communion with the One in whom we live and move and have our being, making Him nearer than we could possibly imagine, while enjoying sweet intimacy with the divine that would matter so much more to me whether or not I get what I ask, seek, and knock upon His door to obtain. As someone once put it to me, it is the Person who matters so much more than anything we could or ever would receive from His hallowed hand, and He we hold ever dear within our hearts. For having Christ in us, we have all things, and in all. Blessed New Year, Mr Yancey.

  5. Karen Craddock says:

    Hi Philip,
    Thank you for your words.
    I’m mad that you say right out loud that Jesus’s prayer was not answered. It is so shocking to see it in print! Rats!
    But I do take a different point of view, maybe a rose-colored glasses one, in reference to Jesus’s choice of disciples. As a mother, and certainly not discounting anyone else’s love, but expressing the only point of view I have personally experienced, I can’t look at the 12 disciples with the disappointment you expressed. I would be so proud that these 12 were chosen: rejoicing, as if it were my own son! God loves me like that. He recognizes my short-comings but rejoices in what He knows I can be. I can’t reconcile your point of view with my experience with love. But I will keep being open-minded about it. I was wrong once…

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Me too… (And James & John’s mother had that motherly pride you express so well!)

    • Timothy Wolfe says:

      As we can see throughout the Bible, God always uses the “least” to get his work accomplished. That directs or attention and worship to God and not to man. Didn’t the apostle Paul say something about his weakness?

  6. Susan G Murray says:

    Thank you for this e-mail. I have to spend part of tomorrow undergoing medical tests. Your words give me hope that I will be able to have a more positive outcome than I fear now.

  7. brassyhub says:

    Are there ever unanswered prayers? It may be that the answer is ‘no’ and we don’t want to hear it, and prefer to go on asking.

  8. Jim Rudat says:

    When I want to evaluate my walk with Christ, my prayer life is usually a good indicator… Thanks for your insights into one aspect of prayer we all experience.

  9. David Slauenwhite says:

    Thank you for once again for writing with such an openness and transparency that it touches readers’ hearts. I’m a retired pastor. Over the years I have purchased and read every book you’ve published and collected as many of your articles that I found.

    You have ministered to me in my aloneness of ministry more than you’ll ever know. And now you’ve done it again. It feels so futile to pray and then to wait. Then when the answer is different than we expect, we get frustrated, and have to wait again until it makes more sense than we thought.

    Keep writing! It is often an answer to someone’s prayer.

  10. Jody Davison says:

    As in any relationship, and conversation, an answer could be yes, no, maybe, or wait. All reasonable answers to inquiries. We tend to assume a prayer is unanswered if the answer was not yes. We just turned a deaf ear, most likely, to the undesired response. Calamities happen to the believer and unbeliever both. We are only human, after all. But we as believers are never alone or without hope.

  11. Samuel Prem Chandar J says:

    Thank you Sir,
    Wonderful article with respect to prayer. It opens new window to see Jesus’ life on this earth. And help me to purse God in the midst of unanswered prayers. Because the Son of God lived here with unanswered prayers.

  12. Mary Ellen Zent says:

    Thank you for yet another insightful post. I always look forward to reading your thoughts, whether they come in book form or in a website. I do have a comment about “unanswered prayer”. Actually, I take issue with that phrase whenever anyone uses it. I take issue with it because the phrase implies (to me) that where God is concerned, sometimes “the lights are on, but no one is home”. I know that all of us feel like that sometimes, but feeling isn’t necessarily truth. I would rather think that the God I know and love always answers my prayers, but He answers them in various ways, not always to my liking!

  13. Frank Procopio says:

    Thanks for the contemplative blog Phillip! I struggle with unanswered prayer as well, as do many of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I enjoyed the points you made from scripture! What comforts me is that, in the end, prayers answered or not, God’s will is done and will be done!

  14. Michele Gyselinck says:

    You talk about unanswered prayers, but I wonder. In the case of Jesus’ praying over the choice of the disciples, could it be that Jesus had to spend the whole night in prayer to come to terms with His Father’s picks? As a human being, as sinless as he may have been, Jesus may have found that God’s choices left to be desired too. The Gospel writers make it look obvious in retrospect, but doing ministry and sharing food with a guy He knew would sell him to the priests at the first opportunity can’t have been easy to live with emotionally every day. I think we often underestimate what Jesus endured for our sakes apart from the torture on the cross and His Passion altogether.
    And in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus is reported as having said, “Please take this cup away from me, yet not my will but Yours be done.” No offense intended, but do you actually read the passage you’re referring to before you set out to make a theological point about something?

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Excellent point on praying for the choice of disciples, Michele. As for the prayers in the Garden, perhaps I chose infelicitous language. Jesus is shown praying the same prayer three different times throughout the evening, in agony, so it seems to me there was indeed an internal struggle going on within the two parts of that prayer. As you say, the Gospel writers make it look obvious in retrospect.

      • Michele Gyselinck says:

        With the prayer in the garden as with other prayers Jesus struggled with the answer He was getting from God even though He’d known for years that was to happen, and it was the reason He’d come to live on Earth in the first place. But as a human His flesh shrank from what was ahead. God does not reveal to us ahead of time what we will go through, or how we will die because we might take means to avoid it (cf medically assisted suicide in Canada). Jesus knew because He was without sin, and as God in the flesh He could handle it, even though He pleaded to be spared near the end.
        In a book I read years ago the author wrote that when Jews wrote that someone did something three times, it meant they had done it the whole time. Three times meant continuity. Sometimes,or maybe often, we wrestle with God in prayer, and this struggle helps us voice how we feel or maybe even become conscious if we’ve been repressing those feelings from our consciousness, and God allows us to go through those struggles so we become aware of our real attitudes concerning some issues, so that if those attitudes are sinful we can repent of them and move on.

  15. Bobby Tan says:

    Hi Philip, greetings from Indonesia. I’ve been your big fan since several years a go since I read your book “What’s so Amazing About Grace”. Since then I read all your other books (especially Indonesian translated one 🙂 ).

    Thanks for this article Philip, it’s been a tough year last year… and this year seems still tough too. I start this week with a lot worrying things in my mind, but, yes, “let it go… “. You remind me, that Jesus has a plan, a greater plan than my plan.. I don’t have to worry too much – Let it go, and let God… to take control.

  16. Eric says:

    When are you coming back here in Sydney. I’d love to hear you speak.
    Blessings

  17. Lavinia Hopfe says:

    Always precise and to the point. I love your writings for the words say what I think but can’t exactly express them . Thank you for sharing your gift with all of us pilgrims searching for truth.

  18. Reiner Blank says:

    Yes – thanks, Philip! Precious words and comments. What you are describing are the symptoms of “transformational processes” which go deep into the soul and which by definition include crisis-experiences. These are door-openers into a new phase of life-perspective. I’m experiencing this right now as never before… Feeling so close to the Jesus-pains and sensing the much deeper roots of my soul…

  19. Carrol Grady says:

    We all need to pray fervently for a spirit of unity – which may not be total agreement, but a unity of spirit that only God can give.

  20. Susan Jones says:

    Philip, I am still chuckling while intimately nodding over these words: “this dodgy dozen could be an answer to any prayer, I want the best 12 disciples not these thickheads, could only work with the talent pool available, could you not keep watch for one hour?”, and then the gripper, “Somehow, tho, in Gethsemane, Jesus worked thru the crisis by transferring the burden to the Father”. I cherish Jesus intimately knows both suffering and limitations.
    Grateful for the gift of writing you have been given, Philip
    Susan

  21. Jennings Boone says:

    Thank you for this, Philip! If even Jesus’ prayers were not answered, then we shouldn’t despair… our own unanswered prayers don’t mean that God is not there or does not hear.
    I see, in these unanswered prayers, a challenge to us, as well. We are in that time between the already and the not yet, and we can’t expect God’s kingdom to be fully here. But we can work at being more united, at being the people He wants us to be, and at helping to bring His kingdom in some small way around us.

  22. Avenel Grace says:

    Dearest Philip,
    Thank God for the unanswered prayers. If I have learned anything, it has been through this, what I have thought as unanswered., is often the answer.
    I have found this with my late husband Bob, and then with my son J as you know.
    Out of their deaths has sprung great things. God knew… we just could’t see around the corner. Beloved Charles Price from Toronto once said. “Pray, and then wait. A Christian’s life is mainly made up from waiting.” My experience has been that God is always doing more than one thing at once, and if we wait, we will eventually see how it all worked out for good. It may take a life time, but isn’t that walking with God? Abraham went out, not knowing where he was going. and waited almost his life time to even see Issac , let alone the promise God gave him. <3 <3

  23. Joyce James says:

    Thank you Philip. Your comments on this subject are both comforting and inspiring. These qualities have always come through in your writing, and over the years, your books have always brought comfort and inspiration to me as I have struggled with the same, and other questions – and still do! Surely, the day must soon come when our lovely Lord Jesus will answer all the deeper questions that so far we are unable to understand. Bless you.

  24. Lori Heyd says:

    Hi Philip, I first heard of you when my cousin recommended “The Jesus I Never Knew” it came at a time when I truly needed to get back in fellowship with God and it was the impetus to do that. I have followed your words through the years and I always find something encouraging in them. Thank you!

  25. Linda Myers says:

    Yes, once again your heart is written to each of us who also think deeply over life’s journey, struggling often to find that quiet trust that Jesus so humbly showed us. Bless you

  26. John W says:

    Thanks Philip. The diametric opposite of glib; it’s always an encouragement to read your words.

  27. Tom King says:

    Wonderful….thank you, Mr. Yancey!

    The Mystical Body of Jesus requires that we all pitch in for salvation with our own sufferings, even though for most of us they are unremarkable discomforts. The nuns told us, “Offer it up!” It’s not a bad idea.

    Tom

  28. Mary Anne Bennett says:

    I truly appreciate the depth and richness of your writing. It sometimes takes me places that I don’t want to go but at the end I am almost always glad I did. Kind of like Bonhoeffer’s writings do.

  29. David Such says:

    Thank you, Philip. I love the way you leave us hanging, acknowledging that we (your readers) also struggle with these issues and have not jumped to those canned theological “answers” that explain-away the reality of suffering and doubt and what it really means to have faith in an invisible God. (And your last sentence could be the beginning of a poem…)

  30. Katie Stoner says:

    One of my favorites! Thank you, Philip.
    Katie Stoner

  31. Terry Douglas says:

    Thanks, Philip. Your words are always marked by careful interpretation and arrow-straight application that plant good spiritual seeds in fertile hearts. I am reminded of Steven Covey’s book on the 8th Habit. You have indeed found your God-given “voice” and have used it well. Your words, over the years, have spoken to my heart and mind and brought great blessing!

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