Ask a Franciscan

When Prayers Are Answered ‘No’

Q: Jesus told the apostles: “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it” (Jn 14:13–14). How can we believe this if a prayer is answered no? If we are to accept God’s will in all things, why would Jesus make this statement? What was he telling the apostles—and us?

A: If you take verse 14 literally, what happens if 1,000 people ask God to let them win the Powerball Lottery on the same date? At least 999 of them will be disappointed—and perhaps all 1,000.

You may object that your prayers are not about things that benefit you directly.You may be praying that someone else’s suffering will decrease or disappear.

Even so, all our prayers must be in the same spirit as Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26:39). “No” is an answer—even if it is not the answer that someone wanted.

We don’t pray because God’s records need updating, because God may have forgotten who is very sick, who received very bad news from the doctor last week, whose house burned down or was washed away in a flood. Our prayers do not create God’s “to do” list. Prayer acknowledges who we are before God and in relation to other people. Praying keeps us honest.

Is it wrong to pray for something specific? No! We thank God when life is going well, and we mention specific needs as they arise.

A problem arises, however, if we act as though our prayers constantly put God’s honor on the line. God had better come through as we think best—or else!

Our prayers do not give God new information or cause God to move our interests ahead of another individual or group. Our prayers do place our needs within God’s loving providence, reminding us that the world is not really running amok although it sometimes seems that way.

Our prayers also motivate us to take whatever action may help. For example, my praying won’t destroy the white blood cells that are multiplying too rapidly in a friend’s body, but my praying should move me to be a more generous, living sign of God’s love and compassion.

Any prayer that seeks to put God on the defensive is deeply flawed. Jesus prayed that his cup of suffering might pass away, but it did not. Jesus did not die a bitter man on the cross, but he had more reason to complain of life’s injustices than anyone else.

Prayer draws us in to share the divine life of grace. What we do after we finish praying makes all the difference. Honest prayer always changes us.

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