I know people who are afraid to pray because they don’t want to be let down if their prayers are not answered. I also know people who are hurt and disillusioned with God because they prayed earnestly and their prayers were not answered. Sometimes prayer does not seem to work. Look at this passage from Acts:
About that time King Herod laid violent hands upon some who belonged to the church. 2 He had James, the brother of John, killed with the sword. 3 After he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. (This was during the festival of Unleavened Bread.) 4 When he had seized him, he put him in prison and handed him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending to bring him out to the people after the Passover. 5 While Peter was kept in prison, the church prayed fervently to God for him.
The rest of the story is that God sent an angel to free Peter, and Peter escaped, hid, and had a fruitful ministry for years until he was crucified in Rome. This seems like a story about how prayer works, but what about James? Isn’t it entirely probable that the church prayed fervently for James as well? Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.
I do not have an answer for this. James was just as much beloved by the church as Peter was. James was one of Jesus’ inner circle of three just like Peter was (along with James’ brother John). James was an Apostle just as Peter was. Yet James was killed and Peter was spared.
What I do know is that the church prayed for Peter after James was martyred. This means that the death of James, the unanswered prayers for his deliverance, did not stop the church from praying for Peter.
We do not understand why prayers are answered or not answered because we are the ones asking for intervention. It is up to God to decide if, when, and how to do it. This is where faith comes in to the picture. Faith is strengthened when it is tried. Perhaps the best illustration of this kind of faith and prayer is the when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego all are about to be thrown into the fiery furnace. Here is how that situation played out:
13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in furious rage commanded that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego be brought in; so they brought those men before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar said to them, ‘Is it true, O Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods and you do not worship the golden statue that I have set up? 15 Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, drum, and entire musical ensemble to fall down and worship the statue that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire, and who is the god that will deliver you out of my hands?’ 16 Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, ‘O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defence to you in this matter. 17 If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up’ (Daniel 3:13-18).
They had enough faith in God that, whether or not God answered their prayers for deliverance, they would still believe.
Prayers are our outpouring of our selves to God. Sometimes we see them answered in miraculous ways, and sometimes they seem ineffective and unanswered. The question we all have of ourselves is whether or not we will continue to pray even if our prayers in the past were unanswered.