The Pain of Unanswered Prayer 

hands folded in prayer

Herb Montgomery | July 22, 2022

To listen to this week’s eSight as a podcast episode click here.


“When we dont directly face the anguish caused because some of our most desperately wanted prayers are unanswered, the reality puts us in a state of torment. The conflict between what we think we are supposed to believe and the way things are causes a deep need for resolution that many never find. Some choose to simply live with the torment, and some of them are haunted by it. Others challenge what they have been taught to believe, and find rest.”


Our reading this week is from the gospel of Luke.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”

He said to them, When you pray, say:

  ‘Father,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come.

Give us each day our daily bread.

  Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

And lead us not into temptation.’

Then Jesus said to them, Suppose you have a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say, Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have no food to offer him.And suppose the one inside answers, Dont bother me. The door is already locked, and my children and I are in bed. I cant get up and give you anything.I tell you, even though he will not get up and give you the bread because of friendship, yet because of your shameless audacity he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:1-13)

For many people, this week’s reading brings up painful memories and deep questions about unanswered prayers.

The first portion of the prayer is believed to have come from the same source as Matthew’s version:

“Father, hallowed by your name, your kingdom come.”

Here, within his own cultural setting, Jesus is praying for a world where resources are justly distributed to all. Where everyone has what they need to thrive. In that patriarchal culture, the father was the householder who had the responsibility of maintaining a just distribution of resources for all within the household. No one was to have too much while others didn’t have enough. (For more on this see God the Father, Exclusive Othering, and a Distributive Justice for All)

I know the language of kingdom is also problematic, being both patriarchal and undemocratic.  Today, we live in different social contexts from the audiences for which the gospels were originally written. In our social contexts, we can use better language to describe a just world where everyone has what they need to thrive.

Nonetheless, what this language is attempting to describe is a just world order. This prayer is a patient expression of longing for some other iteration of our present world. It is a prayer that this world, with all its injustice, violence, and hurt, will be put right.

This context helps explain the next phrase that both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions have in common—that we will together all have our daily bread. This means that we will have what we need, not simply to survive but also to thrive. It is not a spiritual prayer but a physical one. It is concerned with the concrete needs of people living their daily lives in the here and now.

From time to time I hear pastors say that saving souls for the afterlife is to be our mission as followers of Jesus. They denounce being concerned with matters of justice and rights and equality in this life and so reveal their own privileged social locations here. Jesus’ prayer calls that gross other-world focus squarely into question.

Luke’s version changes the third prayer request from the debt cancelation Matthew’s version includes to forgiveness for sins. This might represent a shift taking place in the Jesus movement away from calls for economic justice to forgiving sins in general. I’ve written before on my preference for Matthew’s version and why in our context today Matthew’s call for economic justice and plea for reduced inequality and the year of Jubilee is more life-giving. (For more on this, see A Prayer for Debts Cancelled.)

After the prayer, Jesus and the disciples share an anecdote intended to emphasize the importance of persistence in prayer. The story is rooted in Mediterranean shame/honor cultural expectations and the social tensions connected to them. In that region it would be shameful not to show hospitality to a friend who arrives late from a journey, and it would also be shameful for someone to approach their neighbor to help show hospitality very late at night. The person in the story chooses to risk the shame of going to their neighbor late at night over risking the shame of not being hospitable to their unexpected guest.

It’s difficult for us in our contexts today to understand how deep these social expectations of hospitality were in this culture and how strong the sense of shame would be if someone failed to meet them. A host cannot bring themselves to deny sustenance to their guest and must thus ask for help, despite the inconvenience hour. Luke adds that the neighbor finally decides to help because of the host’s persistence.

It’s awkward to use a story about hospitality to teach a different value, persistence in prayer. But Luke’s gospel attempts it nonetheless.

That’s how this reading becomes problematic. Presuming that God is good and that goodness is the only variable in prayers being answered, Luke’s Jesus uses some troublesome absolute language:

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

If only it were that simple. If only answered prayers were solely dependent on the variable of an all powerful, good Divine being. Absolutes like this have produced atheists when reality doesn’t line up with the teaching.

Because everyone who asks doesn’t receive.

Sometimes those who seek don’t find.

Sometimes the door remains closed in spite of our persistent knocking.

And it’s okay to admit this!

I don’t claim to know how God, the universe, or prayer work. What I do know is that absolute language like this, used by the author of Luke’s version of the Jesus story, has proven to be more troublesome than helpful when people experience bad things in their lives and the prayers we need answered are not.

In this month’s recommended reading from Renewed Heart Ministries, Nancy Eiesland quotes Nancy Mairs’ book, Carnal Acts: Essays:

The bodies we inhabit and the lives those bodies carry on need not be perfect to have value. Bad things do happen, we know—to bad and good people alike—but so do good things. Life’s curses, like life’s blessings are always mixed.” (In The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability, p. 13)

I find the expectation that some prayers may not be answered or are even unanswerable to be more life-giving in my own work of endeavoring to shape our world into a safer, more just, more compassionate home for everyone.

I never see the Jesus of the gospels waxing eloquent in Hellenistic philosophical fashion to explain why bad things happen and why some prayers go unanswered. What I do find is a Jesus who calls his followers to keep doing what they have the capacity to do to be the answer to other people’s prayers. Being someone else’s answer is something I can often do (not always). I’m going to have to accept that is enough.

Not all prayers are answered. And they are not all answered for a multitude of reasons.

Yes, we can say that. We must, because it’s true.

When we dont directly face the anguish caused because some of our most desperately wanted prayers are unanswered, the reality puts us in a state of torment. The conflict between what we think we are supposed to believe and the way things are causes a deep need for resolution that many never find. Some choose to simply live with the torment, and some of them are haunted by it. Others challenge what they have been taught to believe, and find rest.

I believe there is wisdom in facing this pain rather than living in denial.

It is in facing our disappointments that we begin to grieve and in the end our spirits are released.

Believing that everyone who asks receives can impact our personal well-being when we don’t receive. This doesn’t even begin to address how believing the absolutes about answered prayer can often relieve us of our own responsibilities to take action on behalf of others and sometimes even ourselves.

But I believe the path of healing begins not with believing that the door is always opened for those who just knock long enough, nor even with the belief that all prayers are answered, but instead with coming to terms with the reality that, for whatever reason makes the most sense to you and is most life-giving for you, sometimes we pray, and don’t receive.

HeartGroup Application

1. Share something that spoke to you from this week’s eSight/Podcast episode with your HeartGroup.

2. If you feel comfortable, please share with your group a story of how you had to come to terms with a prayer that went unanswered, and how you processed that experience.

3.  What can you do this week, big or small, to continue setting in motion the work of shaping our world into a safe, compassionate, just home for everyone?

Thanks for checking in with us, today.

Right where you are, keep living in love, choosing compassion, taking action, and working toward justice.

I love each of you dearly,

I’ll see you next week



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