Spiritual Life

Why doesn’t God always answer our prayers?

We’ve been discussing the Catechism’s teaching on personal prayer, most recently the objections to and difficulties people have in prayer. In today’s column, we consider why so many prayers seem to go unanswered.

We should trust God as a child trusts his father. The Catechism notes that this is often a challenge: “The principal difficulty concerns the prayer of petition, for oneself or for others in intercession. Some even stop praying because they think their petition is not heard” (no. 2734).

Petition may be the most natural of all prayers. We need or desire something, and we turn to God to help us obtain it. Even people who rarely attend Mass, or who are not sure what they believe, find themselves petitioning God when they are in trouble. Why do these prayers sometimes seem to go unheard? If God is our Father, why won’t he supply our needs?

We may have a double standard in our relationship with God. We expect a certain result from him, but we don’t ask what he expects from us. The Catechism says, “When we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits in general, we are not particularly concerned whether or not our prayer is acceptable to him. On the other hand, we demand to see the results of our petitions. What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (no. 2735)? God is not an online shopping cart. He is the Creator of the universe.

The first reason, then, that we do not receive what we ask for is that we lack humility. We see God as our servant, rather than seeing ourselves as his servants. Prayer requires that we be open to transformation in Christ. The more we persevere in prayer, especially meditation on the Scriptures, the more we acquire the humility that we lack at first. Consequently, we see more of our prayers answered in an obvious way. We should petition God as people who are needy and submissive to his wisdom and providence.

Secondly, we sometimes ask with a wrong motive. The Catechism, quoting St. James, teaches, “‘You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.’ If we ask with a divided heart, we are ‘adulterers’; God cannot answer us, for he desires our well-being, our life” (no. 2737).

If our motives are selfish, God will not grant what we ask. We are putting our desires ahead of his will. Scripture often depicts him as our Divine Spouse. He is “jealous” for our affection. He wants us to seek him, not something other than him. So he withholds from us what we ask in order to help us change our priorities.

If we do not immediately receive what we ask for, perhaps we will persevere in prayer. As we persevere, the Holy Spirit refines our attitude, revealing to us the greatness and goodness of God. He leads us toward seeking the Giver, rather than his gifts. God changes our desires, so that “we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give” (ibid.).

God is a good Father who cares about our smallest needs. He knows our greatest needs can only be fulfilled in an intimate relationship with himself. So, while we may not at once receive what we ask for, God answers the deeper desire he sees in our hearts, beckoning us to a closer relationship with him.

Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is the author of “The Q&A Guide to Mental Prayer,” now available at amazon.com, and five other books on Catholic spirituality.