Why doesn't God answer every prayer?
In the Catholic faith, there are five basic forms of prayer: blessing, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise (CCC 2644).
Of these, petitionary is the most “spontaneous” (CCC 2629). Think about it — we often turn to God when things are going wrong and, for many people who don’t usually think about God, it’s a last resort to say, “God, if you’re there, please ... ”
However, petitionary prayer also raises a few objections, some of which have already been answered here. In this article, however, we’re going to focus on a singular objection: if God is all-powerful and all-good, why aren’t our prayers always answered?
Why not a perfect formula?
In Matthew 21:22, when speaking to his disciples, Jesus said, “And if you have faith, everything you ask for in prayer, you will receive.” So why isn’t this a perfect formula for getting what we want?
First of all, it’s important to note that God always hears our prayers, and He may often answer them indirectly, quite possibly in ways we don’t appreciate or even notice. He always wants our good, but we have to be open to His perfect version of good, rather than our own, often imperfect version of what we think is “good” or most important.
The best thing for us.
For example, we may pray for the end to an illness or suffering in our life, but God might know that it’s through that illness, suffering, or even imminent death that we’ll come to know, love, and serve Him better. Having made our souls to last forever, God knows the most important thing for us is the state of our eternal souls, not of our perishable bodies.
Though petitionary prayer, in its essence, involves us asking God for things, the answer is not always about us getting what we want. Instead, God, in His perfect goodness, always offers the best thing for us — His grace, which helps us draw closer to Him and eventually join Him in Heaven. Nothing could ever be more valuable than His grace, and sometimes we receive the greatest amount of grace by suffering through and offering up the very thing we wish God would take away!
As always, God knows best, and sometimes, like in the miraculous healings Jesus performed on earth, He does indeed decide to take away our troubles. But we need to remember and trust through faith that removing a trial is not always the most essential thing for us, all things mortal and immortal considered — and God’s response to our prayer will likely reflect that.
Free will and being disposed.
Because God gave us free will (which is a huge gift that allows us to choose God instead of being programmed to love him like a robot), we have to say “yes” to God’s grace in order to receive it. Whether that grace comes as a direct or indirect answer to our prayer, the state of us needs to be disposed to receive that grace.
Being disposed to receive God’s grace is a tricky thing, because none of us ever deserve it. However, I don’t think it’s likely that ignoring God for our whole lives and then half-heartedly asking him to fix our problems is the best way to be disposed to receive something we don’t deserve.
It’s hardly fair to complain that God doesn’t answer our prayers if we don’t cooperate with the grace He so ardently wishes for us to have. His grace is always there, always available to us: we are the ones who have to change. We have to be able to receive His grace. He cannot and will not force it on us, because He gave us the power to choose by giving us free will!
(NB: This article assumes the person praying is able to knowingly choose between being disposed to grace or not. A separate article could be written on how a person might be able to receive God’s grace if they, through no fault of their own, never had an opportunity to know God or their access to knowledge was limited.)
Some prayers are directly answered.
Finally, it’s important to note that some prayers are directly answered by God; that is, for the result to happen as we desire it, we do actually need to pray for such an outcome. This is not to say that by our prayer we “change God’s mind”, but that, as part of His predetermined plan, He factored in us having prayed for such a thing.
As St Thomas Aquinas said, God does this “that we may acquire confidence in having recourse to God and that we may recognise in him the author of our goods” (Summa Theologiae, II-II:83:2).
Can you think of a time you prayed for something and it happened in a way that could only have been an answer from God? These things certainly do happen, and we should have the faith to believe that they do. At the same time, we should also understand that God’s version of answering our prayer may not always be the exact version we had in mind.
In essence, petitionary prayer is a very important type of prayer, and God has a much greater plan for it than we can imagine. We can be sure it has everything to do with bringing us closer to Him and helping us to make our way towards Heaven. In the context of eternity, that is the most important thing by far.
Unfortunately, many people misunderstand the purpose of petitionary prayer as a way of getting God to do what we want. While there is a teensy bit of truth in this, in that God does indeed want us to ask Him for the things we really want and will in some cases directly answer those requests, we miss so much more of the picture when we don’t understand the multifarious effects of God’s grace or that we ourselves are the greatest barriers to receiving that grace. True, it takes spiritual maturity, and sometimes spiritual experience, to begin to grasp this complex reality, but, once we do, our relationship with God starts to make a lot more sense.
All of that being said, there are still, of course, cases in which God does directly answer our prayers, and it would be a lack of faith to not believe that He can, and will in some cases, answer us directly.
A note on spiritual direction.
If you are still wrestling with the content of this article or any other aspect of prayer or faith (which is all of us, by the way!), we at Called to More highly recommend finding a spiritual director (such as a priest or religious sister) who you can talk to and bring your questions to every few weeks.
Most priests, religious, or even lay spiritual directors would be more than delighted to offer this service to you free of charge. (It may be nice to make a donation if you can, but it’s not required, and you shouldn’t feel pressure to.) Some people meet with their spiritual directors in person, but it’s also possible to meet with them by phone or video call, too.