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The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

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The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

by Bill Hybels

Text: Isaiah 55; Matthew 6: 9-13

Topic: How to cope with unanswered prayer

Big Idea: God always has the right answer to our requests: “No,” “Slow,” “Grow,” or “Let’s go.”

Keywords: Prayer: Lord’s Prayer


  • I’ve counseled countless people on the mystery and agony of unanswered prayer.

If the request is wrong, God will say, “No.”

  • Like us, the disciples made inappropriate requests of Jesus, and he said, “No.”
  • Illustration: In this lengthy illustration, Hybels describes a time when the board of elders at his church prayed fervently for a person to fill a staff position. Once they had decided who they wanted to join the team, Bill sat down to lunch with the man and prayed that God would provide the right opportunity for him to make the offer. He sensed God saying, “No.” Later, the elders discovered that the man had deception in his life and he would indeed have been a bad fit for the job.


If the timing is wrong, God will say, “Slow.”

  • Like children, we dislike the words, “Not yet,” as God shakes his head at us.
  • God has reasons for his “Not yets;” we must not insist we know better than he.


If you are wrong, God will say, “Grow.”

  • Relational discord will cut us off from close fellowship with God.
  • When we disobey, God says, “Why should I honor your requests when you don’t honor mine?”


When the timing is right, God will say, “Let’s go!”

  • God wants to move that mountain for us; to change that circumstance; to answer that prayer.
  • You’ll be amazed at how often God will say, “Let’s go!”



  • I encourage you to follow the greatest pattern of prayer of all time: the Lord’s Prayer.




! The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

God always knows the right answer to our requests: “No,” “Slow,” “Grow,” or “Let’s go.”

by Bill Hybels


It’s almost a weekly occurrence. The conversations go something like this: “Bill, didn’t Jesus say, ‘Ask and it shall be given, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be open?’ Didn’t he say that?”

Now, not being born yesterday, and being fairly confident in where conversations like this usually go, I sometimes play prophet, and I burst into the conversation and say, “Friend, what prayer have you been praying that you fear God is not answering? Let’s get right to the root of the matter.” It is amazing how often that response opens the door for an honest out pouring of confusion and frustration.

Someone says, “I’ve been praying for my husband to stop drinking, and he hasn’t stopped.” “I’ve been praying for a job, but I can’t find one.” “I’ve been praying for my wife’s depression. Nothing has changed.” “I’ve been praying for guidance, but no guidance has come.” On and on the lamentations go. I couldn’t begin to count how many people I’ve counseled over the mystery--I could even call it the agony--of unanswered prayer.

I have decided to use the same memorable little outline with all of you that I use from time to time in my counseling sessions with individuals. It’s not original with me. I have to credit a pastor friend of mine for his insight on this subject. And admittedly at first the outline sounds trite. But let me develop it before you dismiss its value. If you’ve been praying and nothing seems to be happening, think on these statements with reference to unanswered prayer.

If the request is wrong, God will say “No” to your request.

If the timing is wrong, God might choose to say “Slow,” go slow; wait.

If you are wrong—a distinct possibility for some of us—if something is amiss in your life, maybe God will choose, instead of granting your request, to say, “You need to grow.”

But if the request is right and the timing is right and you are right, chances are God will say, “Let’s go,” and grant the request.

Let me develop these statements so you can apply them more effectively to your own situations as you pray.


If the request is wrong, God will say, “No.”

First, if the request is wrong, God will say “No.” There are such things as wrong or inappropriate prayer requests. You are aware of that, aren’t you? Three famous disciples during the time of Jesus—Peter, James and John—accompanied Jesus to the top of a high mountain, and there, all of a sudden, God’s full glory descended upon Jesus. The three disciples stood back in awe. They beheld the splendor of God just a few feet away. And they were so taken with Jesus’ transfiguration that they say, “Jesus, allow us to build shelters up here, and we’ll just live up here the rest of our lives, and we’ll bask in your glory.”

What was Jesus’ response, in a word, to their request? “No.” “No. I’m not going to grant that one, fellows. We’ve got work to do down in the plains, down where people live. We’re not just going to stay up here and bask in my glory. No. Wrong request.”

One time James and John went to Jesus, and asked if they could make reservations for the best two seats in heaven. They said, “We’d like one directly on Jesus’ left and one directly on Jesus’ right. Could you arrange that for us, Jesus?” Remember Jesus’ answer to that request? “No. I’m not going to grant that one, fellows. It’s a wrong request.”

Another time, Jesus and the disciples were denied a travel permit through a certain part of Samaria. That denial aggravated the disciples so much that they requested Jesus to destroy the entire region with fire from heaven. Remember Jesus’ reply to their request? Jesus said, “No, I didn’t come to torch people; I came to transform people. No, I’m not going to grant that request.”

Do you see the point I’m making? The disciples were fully capable of making inappropriate requests of Jesus. And when the requests were wrong, Jesus said no.

Are you capable of making wrong requests to God? I am. I do. I probably will in the future. Are you capable of making requests that are totally self-serving? I am. Are you capable of making requests of God that are patently materialistic, convenience-oriented, shortsighted, and perhaps immature? I am. And our God loves us too much to say yes to wrong requests. If the request is wrong, God will answer the prayer, but his answer will be “No.” And you wouldn’t want God to do anything less.

By hindsight I can thank God for saying “No” to prayers I thought at the time were appropriate. Now by hindsight I say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you that you said no to that particular request.”

I remember one time when the elders had been praying for years about a particular need on our staff. We needed a person. We all thought of an individual at the same time and we prayed, “Oh God, would this person be the individual to help us in a certain area?” We all agreed that we were going to pray that this person would be the one. I was commissioned to meet with the person and ask him to join our staff. So I went, commissioned by the elders, to ask that person. I went to the restaurant, sat down with the individual, and had a nice lunch. During the conversation, I was praying, “Lord, should I ask right now? Should I pose the question? Should I issue the challenge right now? You know how desperately we need a person to lead this particular area.” And as I was ready to launch ahead, it was so apparent that God was saying, “No, don’t do it.” And by God’s grace, I decided not to issue the challenge.

I remember toward the end of the lunch him saying, “Well, was there anything else? Was this sort of a social visit, or is there anything else you wanted to talk to me about?” I said, “Not really.” And I went back and told the elders, “I couldn’t do it.”

Six months later we learned that there was deception in the life of that leader, such that his entire ministry crumbled around him, and even today he is disqualified from service. That may have happened right here in our body, and God could have been dishonored. And I remember when all of that hit, I thought, Whew! Thank you, God, for having enough love and concern for our body and for our elders and for our staff to just plain say no!

So if you have been praying diligently about a matter, and if you have sensed resistance from heaven, do you know what I would challenge you to do? Review your request. Your request may be the problem. Maybe the request is a cop-out on your part, an unwillingness to face a real issue. Maybe the request is destructive in ways you don’t understand. Maybe the request is self-serving. Maybe the request is shortsighted. Maybe the request is too small, and God might have something better in mind, and he’s saying no to this one because he has a better plan. But again because of our God’s omniscience and because of his great care for you, if the request is wrong, God will say no, at which point you should review the request or modify it or lay it to rest, let it go. If the request is wrong, God will say, “No.”


If the timing is wrong, God will say, “Slow.”

Secondly, if the timing is wrong, God will say, “Slow.” Parents, have you noticed in your childrearing challenges that second only to the word “No,” the words “Not yet” rank as the most awful words in the English language to little children? You’re leaving on a 500-mile trip in the car. You are 15 miles from home and you slow for a toll booth. And the kids say, “Are we there yet?” And you say, “Not yet.” And they groan and complain, “Oh, no. Come on, Dad, hurry it up!” You think, It’s going to be a long trip.

It’s four days from Johnny’s birthday and he says, “Can’t I open my present? It’s close enough!”

“Not yet, Johnny.”

“Aw, come on!” Groan, complain, murmur.

Another little guy says, “I’m six years old, Mom. Count ‘em. One, two, three, five, six. I’m six years old. Can’t I hang out at 7-Eleven? All of my friends are going to be there. I want to read magazines; make a nuisance of myself. Come on, can I?”

“Not yet.”

“Aw, Mom!”

Or, “Mom, I’m nine, and I want to wear nylons and makeup to school every day.”

“Not yet, Jane.”

Oh, how children hate those words! “Not yet.” And guess what, there’s a child in all of us, isn’t there? The child in all of us still wants God to meet every need, to grant every request, to move every mountain. When? Now! Maybe yesterday, actually. And when the all-knowing, all-wise, loving Heavenly Father deems it best to say very caringly to his children, “Not yet,” what is our mature, adult response? “But God, I want it right now, right now! You don’t understand how badly I need this right now! Not three years from now, not three months from now, not three weeks from now, not three days from now. Read my lips as I pray to you, God. I want it now, now, now!”

And let it be known that God is no more intimidated by our childish fixation on instant gratification than our wise parents were. He simply chooses from time to time to shake his head at our immaturity and say, “Kick and scream, but not yet.” How essential it is for you to understand that God’s delays are not necessarily God’s denials. How essential it is for you to understand that often God isn’t saying no, he is merely saying, “Not quite yet. Trust me. I know what I’m doing. I have my reasons.” God says in Isaiah 55, “My ways are higher than your ways. You think that you are as wise as the Creator. It’s not entirely true.” It’s not even close to being true. You are the creature, I’m the creature, he’s the Creator. “My ways are higher than your ways; my thoughts are higher than your thoughts. In my time,” God says, which is one reason why God encouraged people to pray and not lose heart, because sometimes our requests are okay. What you are asking for is good and proper and right. But for reasons known only to God, he simply chooses occasionally to say, “I’ll grant it, but in my time.”

Again, I can’t tell you how many times I thought my prayers were going unanswered only to find out later that God was saying, “Not yet,” so that he could carefully orchestrate a greater miracle than I had the faith to pray for in the beginning.

Lynn and I are in the middle of experiencing a kind of miraculous answer to prayer. I’m sorry I have to stay general on it, but we started praying about a certain matter five years ago, and I mean praying diligently. We tried to orchestrate this and that, tried to understand why God kept saying wait. This has been a five-year prayer effort, and in the last eight days, God has begun to swing some doors open in this area of our lives. And what we’re seeing as we come through those doors is so much more wonderful than we ever dared pray for five years ago. We have just been looking at each other. We stayed up until almost midnight last night talking about it and saying, “In God’s time, in God’s time.” Are we glad we waited patiently!

People, please be careful in insisting that you know better than God just when a prayer request should be granted. God has his reasons for his “Not yets.” Among them are such concerns as the possibility of you developing some character, some endurance, some trust, some patience, or some submission, while God is orchestrating the timing of the answer to prayer. As human beings we tend to be much more concerned about comfort and convenience than we are about building character through patiently waiting on and trusting in God’s timing. I think God is a whole lot more concerned about character than he is about instant gratification and personal convenience. And sometimes the prayers that are sweetest to have answered are the ones that you have trusted to God for a long, long time.

If the request is wrong, God will say “No.” You’d better change the request or let it go. If the timing is wrong, our loving God will say, “Just slow down. Not yet. In my time.”


If you are wrong, God will say, “Grow.”

If you are wrong, the third statement God will say, is “Grow.” This is a rather sobering statement, isn’t it?

If you are wrong. What does that mean? I mean, isn’t it a lot easier to point the finger at God for not answering prayer than it is to look in the mirror and to say, “Maybe I’m the problem.” As I told you, over the years I have counseled thousands of people on the mystery and the agony of unanswered prayer. Only a handful have come to me and said honestly, “Bill, might it be me who is the obstacle to the miracle that I’m praying for?”

It’s almost always, “You explain to me why God isn’t moving my mountain.” It’s just human nature. I’m not trying to lay a trip on you. It’s just easier to point the finger of accusation at God than it is to look in the mirror and take a spiritual inventory and say, “Maybe it’s me.”

Psalm 66:18 says if I regard sin in my heart, in other words, if I’m leading a life of disobedience to God, the Lord will not hear my prayers. Pretty well says it, doesn’t it? Matthew 5:23-24 warns that if there is relational discord, if there are private wars going on between people, if there are broken friendships, Jesus says it cuts us off from close fellowship with God. He continues in that passage by saying, “Drop everything and attempt to reconcile those relationships. Then go back to the altar and worship and pray.” If those passages aren’t sobering enough, listen to this passage from I Peter 3: “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way. Grant them honor so that your prayers won’t be hindered.” Gulp! Now that may explain a lot of things right there. Of course, vice versa is true too. “Wives, live with your husbands in an understanding way. Honor them so that your prayers won’t be hindered.”

One time in the Old Testament, despite clear instruction from God to offer only the best lambs for worship sacrifices unto the Lord, the Israelites decided to take their best lambs to market and get top dollar for them. They would identify the worst lambs in their flocks— the lame, the blind ones, the ones who were no good, the ones who were ready to die—and they would offer those blemished lambs as worship offerings to God. God spoke to the people about that through the prophet Malachi and said, “After disobeying me and dishonoring me, you have the audacity to entreat my favor? You’ve got to be kidding! You mock me with your disobedience, and without batting an eyelash you make requests and fully expect me to grant them? Be not deceived! God is not mocked!”

God says, “Why should I honor your requests when you don’t honor mine? Where is the integrity, fellows? Where is the integrity, gals?” If the truth were known, often the only obstacle standing in the way of you receiving your desperately needed miracle is you. It’s you. It’s me. The requests aren’t always wrong. Most of them are probably right. The timing isn’t necessarily the biggest problem. I think God is rather easygoing about some timing matters. He has a heart inclined to meet our requests. But when we’re wrong, God says, “Come on, grow, grow. Put that sin away. It’s the only thing standing in the way. Change your attitude on this or that. Stop that practice. End that pattern. Get off that merry-go-round. Reconcile that relationship. Soften up in your spirit. Repent; receive forgiveness. Come on, grow, grow. It’s the only thing standing in the way!” And God says, “When you grow, I’ll open up the floodgates of power and blessing and pour myself out to you, but you’ve got to grow.”

In the book of James, the brother of Jesus says the fervent prayer of a righteous person has great power. But if you want to pull the plug out of the power of prayer, then just dishonor God in some area of your life on a continual basis. The psalmist says if you do that, if you regard iniquity in your heart, if you are leading a sloppy life, your prayers will not be heard.

And God is saying to you people this morning that there is power in prayer. When the request is right, when the timing is right, and when you are right, “Let’s go!” He says, “Just let me release my power in your life; let me be great in you and through you; free me to address and meet your needs. Free me to do that. But you’ve got to grow.”

When the timing is right, God will say, “Let’s go!”

I doubt any of us know how badly God wants to change that impossible circumstance in your life. I doubt that many of us understand just how badly he wants to touch that untouchable individual in your life. I’ll bet all of us underestimate how badly God wants to move immovable mountains that stand in our path.

If the request is wrong, God will say “No.” Thank him for saying that.

If the timing is wrong, he’ll say “Slow.”

If you are wrong, he will say “Grow.”

But when all of those get lined up, as it fits into the plans that he has for you and for this world, you’ll be amazed at how often God will say, “Let’s go,” because you matter to him and it’s in his heart to meet your needs and grant your requests. It’s really more a matter of you letting him, you freeing him to do it.

Now, I want to close this service by encouraging all of you in your individual prayer lives with one final reference to the greatest pattern of prayer of all time. Would you stand with me now and bow your heads as I review for you the precious prayer that Jesus prayed?

The greatest prayer begins with the words “Our Father.” I want to encourage you people never to forget who you are praying to.

God is our Father if we’re his children through Jesus Christ. Don’t ever forget how he feels about you, his children. He couldn’t have greater love for you than he already has. Don’t forget who he is. He’s your Father, your Heavenly Father. And don’t forget who you are. You are his very own child—his son, his daughter. And know that God feels fatherly toward you today.

The next phrase says, “who art in heaven,” and reminds us that God is sovereign and he is majestic and he is omnipotent and nothing is too difficult for him. He is the mountain mover. He is able. He is bigger than any problem you have. Fix your eyes on God’s ability, not on your mountain.

“Hallowed be thy name.” Make sure that your prayers include worship. Don’t let your prayers degenerate into a grocery list for personal purposes. Always include a paragraph of praise.

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Have a submissive spirit. Say, “Lord, may your will be done first in my life. Your will be done in my life, my marriage, my family, my career, my ministry, with my money, with my body and in my relationships and in my church. May your will be done in my life and in others, the church, the nation, and the world.”

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus is saying, “Let your request be made known to God. Your little concerns, your big concerns—lay them out. Say, “Lord, I want to talk to you about these things. Sounds silly; I know they are small.” Or, “Lord, I want to talk to you about some things. They’re big. I need your help. I need a miracle.” Register your heart’s request with God. Don’t shrink back.

“Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Confess your sins in prayer. Grow. Make sure you’re not the obstacle. Receive forgiveness through prayer. Live with a forgiving spirit toward others.

“Lead us not into temptation. Deliver us from the evil one.” Pray for protection from the evil one, for yourself, for loved ones, for this church, for me. Pray for protection from evil and victory over temptation.

“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever.” Maybe you began your prayer with worship: “Hallowed be thy name.” Now end it with more worship. “God, the kingdom is yours. The world is yours. The power in the world is yours. All the glory in the world is yours forever and ever. You’re a wonderful God.” And tell the Lord, “I can’t get over that I matter to you, and that you’ve opened up access for me to talk to you through prayer.”

And we close by saying, “Amen,” let it be so. “May it be forever so.”

Bill Hybels is founding pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. His most recent book is The God You’re Looking For.

(c) Bill Hybels

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