Does every prayer get answered? What does it even mean for a prayer to be answered?
Matthew 7:7 suggests (rather clearly) that every prayer is answered. Arguably, it even suggests that every prayer is answered favorably and might even imply to some that all prayers are answered immediately. At least, it says nothing about answers ever being “no” – nor about our having to wait for them. The Savior said:
“Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?”
This same passage is similarly repeated in Luke 11. However, before going there, I would like to state one emphatic belief of mine: every prayer is answered.
However, I do not believe that every prayer is answered the way we want. We do not believe that God is like the genie in the bottle, there to grant us every wish exactly when and how we like – or even at all in some cases. Some answers are “yes.” Some answers are “no.” Some answers are “not right now; let’s hold off on that one.” And some answers are “you need to struggle through this one on your own for your own benefit; I’m going to let you do that.” You could come up with your own variations on those themes, but that’s how I see it. In fact, it troubles me whenever I hear someone say their prayer was answered, when they say it in a way that suggests that the proof of it being answered is that they got what they wanted – which in turn suggests that their prayer would have been unanswered if they didn’t get what they wanted. I think we need to be careful to never suggest that “answered” prayers are comprised only of those whose answers we like.
Back to Luke 11. This is an interesting chapter! It begins with one of Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them to pray. The Lord responds with what we know as The Lord’s Prayer and eventually gets into words similar to those in Matthew 7, quoted above. But, interestingly, between those two things he asks his audience a question involving “importuning,” which, according to Google, means “to ask someone pressingly and persistently for or to do something.”
“Keep asking, keep searching, keep knocking…”
Let me quote Luke 11:5-10. However, I’m going to quote the International Standard, rather than the King James, version. (The everyday language of the ISV may be startling to some Latter-day Saints, but I find it insightful sometimes to review other translations of the New Testament.) It says:
Then he told them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, let me borrow three loaves of bread. A friend of mine on a trip has dropped in on me, and I don’t have anything to serve him.’ Suppose he answers from inside, ‘Stop bothering me! The door is already locked, and my children are here with us in the bedroom. I can’t get up and give you anything!’ I tell you, even though that man doesn’t want to get up and give him anything because he is his friend, he will get up and give him whatever he needs because of his persistence. So I say to you: Keep asking, and it will be given you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened for you, because everyone who keeps asking will receive, and the person who keeps searching will find, and the person who keeps knocking will have the door opened.”
The part I italicized is rather interesting. It is a completely different translation than the KJV because it adds in the “keep asking/searching/knocking” part, which doesn’t seem to exist in the Greek text at all. I’m definitely not suggesting the ISV is a more literal translation of the text. Nevertheless, isn’t it expressing what we believe? And isn’t that, in fact, what the Savior is teaching? Verse 8 in the KJV says, “I say unto you, Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity [his “pressingly and persistently” asking] he will rise and give him as many as he needeth.” (Emphasis added again.) The Savior is teaching that receiving doesn’t always immediately follow asking; nor finding seeking.
That teaching might remind us also of a parable the Savior teaches seven chapters later – a parable which begins with an instructive preamble!
“And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary. And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man; Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily.”
Now that last word is a little confusing, as is the comparison of God to an “unjust judge.” Nevertheless, the teaching seems unmistakable: men and women ought to pray repeatedly over the long term and never give up praying, because, even though answers will come “speedily” when they do come, they won’t come necessarily immediately. Some answers take time. And sometimes the answer is “no” and sometimes the answer is “wait” and sometimes the answer is “you’re on your own.”
Blessings, in real but not pre-specified forms, always follow obedience quickly (see Mosiah 2:24 ). Prayers, however, are not always answered the way we wish. Nor are they always answered the way we wish without consistent “importuning.”
What, then, should we do about our frustrations over our prayers not being answered when and how we want? The same thing we should do when our prayers are answered exactly when and how we like: be humble and submissive; maintain a broken heart and a contrite spirit; trust in the Lord and wait on Him. Getting impatient and angry with God will not result in happiness. Waiting on Him with faith and submissiveness, however, is critical to living after the manner of happiness!