Disappointment in prayer: admitting the ugly truth


Disappointment in prayer is one of the ugly truths of the Christian life. It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

As a single person, you know exactly what I'm talking about. You asked God for something good and honorable, and you didn't get it. Sometimes you may have gotten just the opposite.

We're told God will give us anything we pray about that's in his will for us. But how do we know what his will is? We read the Bible, searching for the conditions we have to meet, decide we've fulfilled them, and we still don't get what we want.

I have been studying this for decades. I have read dozens of books on prayer, researched what Jesus said, and have heard countless TV and radio preachers lay down their supposedly surefire principles. Still, I often have major disappointment in prayer.

Let's see if what I've learned makes any sense to you.

Disappointment in prayer: one inescapable fact


Let's start with something we can both agree on: We don't give orders to God. He's not a kiosk at McDonald's. He's the Ruler of the Universe. Prayer is a way to make our needs known to him—even though this omniscient God is aware of them even before we are.

Prayer demands an attitude of asking, not telling. As a son or daughter of God, we have the privilege to approach him, but here's the first hitch. Nobody wants their kids to be spoiled brats, especially God.

That's one reason he doesn't give us everything we want.

It brings us back to attitude. Prayer is not negotiation. We can't bully, pout, or bargain to manipulate him. When I was young, I often told God, "If you'll give me this, I will…" My promises included cleaning up my act, being nicer, or…get this…praying more.

You guessed it: more disappointment in prayer.

I had forgotten whom I was dealing with. Because none of that stuff worked, I can reveal it to you as behavior to avoid. Another of Jack's mistakes to learn from.

Treating God with the reverence and respect he deserves is a good start.

What about God's will, then?

Two of God's attributes explain why he doesn't give us everything we pray for. First, God is good. He's all good, all the time, motivated by love. Yes, God loves you passionately and uniquely.

The second attribute is omniscience. God doesn't just know everything there is to know about you, but he also knows the future. Before it happens, God knows the consequence of every action.

Because God is good, he's not going to give us something that will be bad for us. Now I had a problem with that the first time I got cancer. I prayed to God that my test results would be good. They were bad. That was a big, big disappointment in prayer.

I was 25 years old and immature at the time. I thought I had done something wrong and God was punishing me. No, he wasn't. Listen to Jesus when his disciples asked him why a man was born blind:

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him." (John 9:3, NIV)


God allowed the cancer, but he didn't give it to me. What's the difference? Human beings get sick because we live in a fallen world. I was successfully treated, learned an important lesson (to pass on to you), and my faith grew stronger.

God's general will for us is our salvation, then our sanctification. Sometimes molding us into the character of Christ means allowing bad things to happen. I don't like it and you don't either, but bad things do happen to good people.

When I was 58 years old, I got cancer again. I asked God to help me and he did. I was cured again.

But I have also known great disappointment in prayer, as I'm sure you have. When my father got sick, I asked God to heal him. Instead, Dad died at the relatively young age of 71. When my brother got sick, I also asked God to heal him. Dave died of pancreatic cancer, also at 71.

What can we do? What can we do?

I don't believe disappointment in prayer is a sin because it's an honest, natural reaction. We have legitimate expectations and are sad when they're not met. Notice that when Jesus' friend Lazarus died, Jesus did not scold Martha or Mary over their disappointment that he showed up too late.

Great hurt is unavoidable. We can get angry at God, which is also an honest reaction. Some ministers say this is disrespectful; however, I think it vents our true feelings instead of suppressing them. God is tough; he understands and does not punish us for questioning his judgment. God loves honesty.


So we can be sad and we can be angry. The real issue is where we go from there. When we calm down, we have to decide whether we're going to accept God's decision or continue railing against it. It becomes a matter of trust, and as I often tell you, trusting God is the hardest thing Christians are called on to do. It is also the purest way to show God we love him.

Being a Christian requires accepting many mysteries on faith. God does not explain himself to us. He's not required to because he's in charge and we're not. We have to accept that truth too.

Disappointment in prayer is a fact of life we can't escape, because we're human and we live in a fallen world. The answers to life's mysteries will be given to us only when we get to heaven. That may not be a satisfying explanation, but it's the conclusion most thinking believers have reached.

Unless we give God our disappointment and allow him to heal us, it will fester into resentment, then spiral down into bitterness. A bitter person lives a miserable life.


I'm not proud that I went through a long period of bitterness. I thought God was unfair. The good news is God pulled me out of it. He did it with love. He showed me my circumstances are not a true indicator of how much he loves me.

The cross is.

We singles don't have to wait until we get to heaven to be happy. We can know peace and contentment in the here and now. Unanswered prayer is not a reason to abandon God.

When I finally understood it is God himself that I wanted all along, my healing began. I believe the same can happen for you.

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