The Paradox of Unanswered Prayer

by Maggie Wallem Rowe

It was a chance encounter. And then again, maybe not.

Some years back, my husband and I were vacationing in the Smokies. One night, we left our cabin to scout out a place for dinner in a nearby town we’d never visited before.

Noticing a large crowd downtown, we discovered a street dance taking place near the county courthouse. A bluegrass band played while adults and kids of all ages followed the directions of a caller. Intrigued, we plopped down on the grass to watch, only to have a young couple nearby offer us their lawn chairs.

We exchanged first names, chatting casually while watching the dancing. Amy was tall, slender, and dusky blonde; she and her husband, Billy Joe, were local, while we lived hundreds of miles north. But when twilight fell over the mountains and our new friends packed up to leave, Amy blurted out, “Hey, I know we just met, but would you pray for us? Billy and I have been trying for years to have a baby and there’s nothing the doctors can do. You seem like praying people. Would y’all remember us?”

Touched, we promised we would. Infertility is not only agonizing but all too common. At any one time we’ve known several couples hoping for a child just as Amy and Billy were. As we prayed for each family in the years ahead, we prayed for this young North Carolina couple too.

Did we believe God could give them a child? We sure did. Did we believe He would? That’s where faith falters.

In Scripture, we’re told to ask for what we need and also what our hearts desire.[i] It’s our part of the partnership in how God chooses to work in the world. But are we guaranteed an answer? 

Some say so. It’s like a spiritual traffic signal, they claim. You might get God’s green light, or a red that’s a clear no, or maybe even a yellow indicating “wait.” But the answer will come. And when the light of eternity illuminates all our questions, our need for answers will fade away. I believe that. I do.

But sometimes there’s no signal that God has heard us. Months pass, years maybe, and the situation remains unchanged. Is He saying, “Hold on here, the answer’s on its way,” or does the silence indicate that our petition has been denied?

In the book of Acts, the believers praying fervently for the incarcerated apostle Peter rejoice when God uses miraculous means to free him from prison.[ii] Yet in that same passage, we learn the apostle James has been executed. 

Did God love Peter more than He did James? Did the believers praying for Peter have more faith than those interceding for James? 

Scripture is clear that our Creator loves each of us equally.[iii] There’s nothing we can do to make Him love us more or less. And while faith is crucially important in the life of the believer—a sign of our trust in His ultimate will for our lives—prayers are not answered according to some divine formula calculated by the abundance or lack of faith.[iv]

If I claim to have the definitive answer to a conundrum that has perplexed God’s people since time began, you might as well toss this book into the trash. If I could tell you something new that speaks with certainty about the paradoxical problems of pain, suffering, and unanswered prayer, you should brand me a heretic. Because faith is exactly that: faith. The certainty of things not seen.[v] Of answers shrouded in divine mystery that may not be visible this side of eternity.

I’ve lost my father and some of my closest friends to terminal illnesses. I’ve begged God to vindicate loved ones who were victims of false accusations, only to have the situations drag on for years. At times, I’ve felt like the psalmist who lamented, “Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?”[vi]

But still I pray. Because I must. Because God’s Word tells me to. Because along with the anguish of loss, I’ve also experienced the wild joy of God’s glorious YES.

After my husband, mom, and I relocated to the Smokies this past year, we discovered that the residents of our new hometown are still square dancing in the streets on summer nights.

On the last night of the season, as the shadow of Cold Mountain lengthened over the dancers, I spotted a tall young woman with hair like ripened wheat. Amy. Though several years had passed, her face had never left my mind, even as her quiet petition had never left my prayers.

The crowd was dispersing, but I pushed my way through, hoping to speak with her. I wanted her to know these strangers had not forgotten her request.

Then she turned, stooped, and opened her arms wide to scoop up a tiny, tow-headed boy toddling toward her, his face wreathed in smiles, hers in welcome.

I had my answer. And I went home dancing.

Points of Connection

1. What are some deep concerns you’ve carried in prayer without yet receiving an answer? Record them in a prayer journal with today’s date, noting on the December page of your calendar to review them at year’s end. You may well be amazed at how answers have come in ways you never expected.

2. Lots of Scripture passages on prayer are referenced in today’s reading. As time permits, read Psalm 37:4, 88:14, 91:5 and Jeremiah 31:3 in the Old Testament, and Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 11:9; John 3:16, 15:7; Romans 1:17, 5:8; and Hebrews 11:1 in the New. The Bible was never meant to be read one verse at a time but rather as a whole. What new insights do you see when you consider the broad view of biblical teaching on intercession?

LifeLine: The power in prayer is not in the words themselves or in the ones who pray but rather in the One Who hears us. Even when you can’t see Him at work, you can trust His loving and good intentions toward you.


[i] Matthew 7:7-8; Psalm 37:4.

[ii] Acts 12:1-11.

[iii] Jeremiah 31:3; John 3:16; Romans 5:8.

[iv] Psalm 91:15; Luke 11:9; John 15:7.

[v] Hebrews 11:1; Romans 1:17.

[vi] Psalm 88:14.


Maggie Wallem Rowe is a national speaker, dramatist, blogger, and writer who has contributed to more than ten books, including numerous devotional Bibles. She holds an undergraduate degree in communications with a minor in education, as well as a graduate degree in biblical studies, both from Wheaton College. This Life We Share is Maggie’s first book. In it, she offers 52 reflections for women who are seeking refreshment in their daily lives. Maggie lives near Asheville, NC, with her husband, Mike. They have three adult children and five grandchildren. 

For more information about Maggie, visit her website and/or follow her on FacebookTwitter or Instagram.  

To order This Life We Share (NavPress, May 2020), log on to:

2020-06-27T23:42:31-05:00 June 23rd, 2020|Misc.|2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Maggie Rowe June 25, 2020 at 1:11 pm

    Thank you for featuring this excerpt from my new book, Kathy. This one resonates deeply with my heart.

  2. Kathy Harris June 25, 2020 at 5:03 pm

    I loved it the minute I read it, Maggie! Thank you for sharing!

Comments are closed.