If we (believers) are honest with ourselves, I think that we would have to admit that the fact that prayers often appear to go unanswered is probably the most troublesome challenge to our faith to answer. I was reminded of this by an excellent piece by Van Robison entitled "Why God does not answer prayers?" (Recently posted over at Gary Leonard's Banned By HWA blog) The article (and some of the many thoughtful comments it provoked) certainly gave me a lot to think about and consider.
As the author of the post suggests, the traditional answers offered by most of us (believers) really do appear feeble and inadequate. We say that God doesn't answer prayers because the petitioner is not a Christian (or not righteous enough), asking for the wrong things/reasons (or not in accordance with God's will) or is simply failing to ask in the manner prescribed by Scripture.
First, in attempting to deal with this challenge, I think that it is important to acknowledge the validity of the challenge! It should be easy for us to acknowledge that this is a challenge that deserves consideration and is not a candidate for easy dismissal. Why? Because some of us (believers) have asked that same question (why doesn't God answer prayers?) at some point in our faith journey (unless you're a mindless automaton). After all, Christians are anointed and prayed over every day who are not healed and/or die.
In fact, we could cite many instances where prayers appear to go unanswered. I have prayed every day for my family's protection, and yet my beloved niece died in an ATV accident. People who have prayed for God's protection are killed on a regular basis by fire, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes.
Nevertheless, people report many instances of answered prayer. Is that coincidence? I once had a few seconds to say a prayer on behalf of my family as a tornado rolled toward our mobile home, and we were spared - though the houses on all four sides of us were not and other people were killed (and that same niece who would later be killed in the ATV accident was present). Were we just lucky that day? Would our deaths at that moment simply have interfered with some great cosmic plan/design?
Are there things that would cause me to question God's existence (or, at the very least, if "He" was listening)? What would I do if one of my children or grandchildren was not protected/sheltered by God? How would I respond if God didn't heal me of rheumatoid arthritis, cancer or some other debilitating disease?
The truth is that none of us like living in a world where we have no control - where we are powerless to determine the outcome. Moreover, most of us don't like the idea of living in a world in which there is no One to intervene and fix or ameliorate things that go wrong. And yet we often appear to find ourselves living in just such a world!
Is that happenstance or by design? And would it make sense for a God who has designed and set in motion such a world to change or alter it for the sake of an individual or a few? Can we think of any reasons why a loving God would design a world to function in this way? In other words, is there someone/something out there who is trying to teach us something about Him/Her/Itself and us?
Is God a magician that we should expect "Him" to perform on demand? Does the absence of immediate action upon a request constitute proof that "He" doesn't exist, or that the request will never be satisfied? Is this reality all that matters? Or is this only an ephemeral existence? Is there another reality that will trump anything that we experience in this world?
In short, is God looking at the long game? In John 14:12-14, was Christ speaking of our physical lifetime - the here and now? What does one month or one hundred years look like on the cosmic time scale?
It is interesting to note that Christ's model prayer asked for God's will to supercede our own. Also, when Christ prayed for the cup to pass from him (if it was possible), what happened?
Does what appears to be unanswered prayer constitute proof that God isn't listening or doesn't exist? Aren't we really saying that God's failure to fix bad things is offensive to our sense of fair play? Is our evaluation of this "evidence" objective or subjective? Is a rejection of God on this basis rational or emotional?
Just some thoughts and questions about a thought provoking topic. In the end, we all must answer these types of questions to our own satisfaction.