Someone once said that if heaven had a complaint department, the biggest complaint would be unanswered prayers. People pray again and again, but they never seem to get an answer to their prayers. Why not?
God certainly hears all prayers, but maybe the answer He gives is not the one we are expecting. A young girl was once praying for a friend of hers who was gravely ill. She mentioned her sick friend to a man. A few weeks later, the sick friend died.
When the young girl saw the man again, he asked about the friend. The young girl answered, “My friend died.”
Then the man remarked, “So God did not hear your prayer?” The young girl responded, “Oh, God heard my prayer. But He said no because He wanted her in heaven!”
None of us likes to hear a no to our requests, especially from God. But God does say no to many prayers. We believe with St. Paul that God does all things for our good when we love Him (see Rom 8:28).
We cannot understand the infinite wisdom of God in these matters, for His ways and thoughts are far above ours (see Is 55:8-9). But we certainly would like to know why He might say no. St. Augustine once gave three answers to that question, using three closely related Latin words: mala, malo, and male.
Mala means bad, or wrong, things. Some people simply ask God for the wrong things, or things that will harm them, spiritually and otherwise. Many approach God in prayer as if they were submitting a Christmas gift list to Santa Claus: “Please give me a new car, a vacation in Hawaii, and a winning ticket for the lottery this week!”
All their prayer requests are for material things that would only engross them in more worldliness. Such things are easily detrimental to their salvation and sanctification, so God would not be inclined to grant them. However, God may occasionally give material blessings to those who ask to win their affection and ultimately their conversion to Him.
Is it ever permitted, then, to pray for material things? Yes, as long as they are not evil in themselves, and as long as we can add at the end of our prayer, “God, I ask this if it be according to Your holy will,” or “God, You know what is best for me.” It would certainly be more to our advantage spiritually, however, to broaden our perspective in prayer to include the many genuine and urgent needs of others.
Malo means “in the wrong.” By this, St. Augustine meant someone who prays while living a wrong or sinful lifestyle. Generally, God will not answer this type of individual’s prayer.
It is said, “God listens to those who listen to Him.” An example of this principle occurred during the October 13th apparition at Fatima when young Lucia asked Our Lady to cure certain people. Our Lady responded, “Some yes [will be cured], but not others. They must [first] amend their lives and ask forgiveness for their sins.” Even so, as we saw with “wrong things,” God may fulfill the prayer request of a person living a sinful life so as to draw that person to conversion.
Male means “wrongly” that is, to ask in prayer, but in the wrong way. What is the right way to pray? Jesus stresses two qualities as essential for effective prayer that is pleasing to God: confidence and perseverance.
Confidence, or great trust, is very important in prayer. Jesus illustrated this confidence in the parable of the woman who went to the corrupt judge (see Lk 18:1-8). She asked him time after time to hear her case. In his arrogance, he refused for a while. But the widow came to him so often, the corrupt judge was afraid she would wear him out, and so finally heard her case.
St. Thérèse of Lisieux said we basically receive from God what we expect. Judging from all the unanswered prayers, we might conclude that many do not expect much when they pray. Yet our Lord assures us of the power of prayer. He taught us, “All you ask the Father in My name He will give you” (Jn 15:16).
Jesus also made this comment on how we must pray: “I give you My word, if you are ready to believe that you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer, it shall be done for you” (Mk 11:24). Do we always believe, then, that our prayer will be answered? This is precisely the confidence we need in prayer.
The second quality required to “pray rightly” is perseverance. Jesus said, “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you” (Lk 11:9). This promise certainly strengthens our confidence. However, we must remember that Jesus did not say, “You need ask only once.” Nor did He say, “Knock just three times!” Perseverance requires that we keep asking, seeking, and knocking.
Jesus illustrates perseverance in His parable about the man who has visitors arrive at his home late at night (see Lk 11:5-8). The man does not have any food in his home to offer his late-night guests. Since the market is closed, he goes to his neighbor’s house and begins to knock on his door.
The neighbor and his family are already in bed. “Don’t bother me and my family!” says the neighbor. But when the man keeps on knocking, the neighbor finally gets up and gives him whatever he needs, not out of friendship, but because he just wants to get some sleep.
So keep on knocking on the door of heaven, Jesus urges us. If we get discouraged and give up, our request may simply become another “unanswered prayer.”
This article previously appeared in Envoy the award winning bi-monthly journal of Catholic apologetics and evangelization.