Francis Chan and John Piper get to the bottom of unanswered prayer

If our prayers aren't being answered it may be time to take a fresh look at ourselves

Published 03 February 2011
As Desiring God, the ministry of John Piper, drew its annual pastors conference to a close on Wednesday, a Q&A session about prayer turned into something of a confession for the audience and panellists alike.

Speaker and author Francis Chan spoke early on in the conference about how God is faithful in hearing and answering prayers. But the talk proved to be discouraging to some of the pastors present, one of whom confessed that during his 20 years in ministry, there was not a specific answered prayer he could point to.

"It's caused me to struggle in my ministry and in leading people because I don't feel like even though I do it that I can see the specific intervening of the hand of God," the anonymous person wrote.

Another pastor submitted, "'If you abide in me and my Word abides in you ask what you will and it will be done.' This never happens in my ministry."

Yet another pastor expressed frustration with prayer, comparing Chan's amazing story of answered prayers to his own unanswered one.

"I took a difficult church, prayed that God would help me and the church split three months later."

In an obvious struggle to find the right words, Chan said the typical response to such statements is to say "God doesn't always answer".

But he cautioned against simply putting one's arms around those struggling and saying "it's OK".

"I think that's the worst thing you can do for a person."

He continued, "I want to be careful because we're talking about Scripture here and all of my belief in what prayer does comes from the Scriptures. I think there should be even more answers to prayer because of what I read in the Scriptures.

"So when I don't hear answers like I expect to based upon the flow of Scripture, I first look at my life," the former pastor of Cornerstone Church in Southern California stated.

With that, Chan said he did not want to let the pastors "off the hook" because that may not be the best for them.

Chan, who wrote Crazy Love, suggested to those unable to oint to answered prayers to check their relationships, particularly marriage, their motives and their heart.

"I look deeply at myself. What's my motivation? Is it selfish?" Chan reflected. "I look at my own personal holiness, ... at my faith. Is there doubt in me?"

Reformed theologian John Piper agreed with Chan, challenging pastors to examine all of those aspects in their lives.

"It's either give up on Him and go sell insurance ... or say 'I trust you [God].'"

Addressing those who ask whether prayer makes a difference if God is sovereign over everything, Piper said such curious questions are "sophomoric".

"The Bible is clear: God is absolutely sovereign. ... The Bible is just as clear that you have not because you asked not. Had you asked the universe would've been different," he explained.

"God knows you're going to pray or not; ... if they happen, they were in the plan designed to unleash a hundred magnificent things. If they don't happen, those things don't get unleashed. This is not philosophically hard.

"If you want to be fatalistic it's because you're not a Bible person. You're not submitted to God's word. You're resistant to it. This is God's word; it is smarter than you are. God is smarter than you are."

The panel discussion turned more personal as Chan opened up about his eldest daughter and later his grandmother. He recalled what he considers the most painful time in his life when his daughter, who was around 12 or 13 years old at the time, was not walking with the Lord.

"Lord, this is the one thing I asked you; ... I think I can handle everything except them (his children) not loving You," Chan said, recounting his prayer.

He took the difficult step of following the words of one hymn: "Let goods and kindred go."

"I have no control over this. ... If my daughter never loves you, I will still love you, God," Chan said.

"I will surrender even that to you."

Fortunately, his daughter began walking with the Lord two months later. Not so with his grandmother. She died as a devout Buddhist, he lamented.

There are times when God doesn't answer a prayer the way you'd expect, but Chan said that doesn't discourage him or cause him to doubt his prayers because God has already shown him that He hears and answers.

Addressing struggling pastors, he noted, "If it really is true that you say 'never had I had an experience like that' (answered prayers), that is a cause of concern for me."

Along with doubt, a weak prayer life or prayerlessness also proved to be a problem among pastors.

Jerry Rankin, president emeritus of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, pointed to the enemy – Satan – as one reason for the lack of prayer among many leaders. And the enemy works in subtle ways by causing busyness, discouragement, diversion, or distraction.

Joel R Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, meanwhile, stressed that prayer is "just kind of a parentheses" for many.

"The most important thing you're going to do all day long is praying. But we don't believe that anymore," he lamented.

The hour-long session of answering the audience's questions turned out to be an edifying time for not just the participants but the speakers as well.

When the panellists moved to the topic of praying with their wives, some confessed that it wasn't a regular practice.

While Beeke spoke of how enriching praying with his wife every day for 22 years has been, Chan confessed that he does not pray together regularly with his.

"I don't want you to follow my example in this area," he told Christians honestly. "I'm learning a lot in this conference."

Chan opened up further, admitting that he finds it easier to talk about spiritual things with every other person except his family.

Piper made the same confession, saying it is easier for him to be spiritual in such a context as a conference or publicly than with his wife. He does, however, currently pray with his wife every day.

Challenged by fellow pastors and what they've exemplified, Chan said he will make the effort to try a daily prayer routine with his wife.

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