That night I stole away without her: she remained praying and weeping. And what was she praying for, O my God, with all those tears but that You should not allow me to sail!
But You saw deeper and granted the essence of her prayer: You did not do what she was at that moment asking, that You might do the thing she was always asking (St. Augustine, Confessions, Bk. V. Ch. VIII).
Some prayers go answered, or answered unfavorably, like St. Monica’s, who asked that her son might be prevented from leaving home.
But it would be away from home, as St. Augustine mentions, that the essence of St. Monica’s prayer would be answered: her son’s conversion.
God denies some requests and delays others. Yet, since Wisdom does nothing without good reason, what’s the reason for unanswered prayers?
Let’s look at a couple.
…though I call and cry for help, he shuts out my prayer (Lam. 3:8).
God may close his ears to pleas for the present in order to answer pleas for the future. Our Lord, thank God, is interested in the long game, which just might mean losing the short game. Jesus says:
For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mk. 8:35-36).
The exchange should be more than okay with us. For, as St. Teresa points out:
Our life lasts only for a couple of hours; our reward is boundless…(Way of Perfection, Ch. II).
Thus, God may disregard our prayers for temporal-anything, in order to secure for us that which is eternal.
Denied prayers in the present, might also indicate that what we ask for is, in the end, not good for us. Although God’s refusal may be devastatingly disappointing to us, every good parent knows that some things just cannot be given to a child.
St. Augustine explains the point, writing:
And so, Brethren, let us ask for those temporal blessings too, but in moderation, being sure that if we do receive them, He giveth them, who knoweth what is expedient for us…
Lo, thy son cries a whole day before thee, that thou wouldest give him a knife, or a sword; thou dost refuse to give it to him, thou wilt not give it, thou disregards his tears, lest thou shouldest have to bewail his death.
Let him cry, and beat himself, or throw himself upon the ground, that thou mayest set him on horseback; thou wilt not do it, because he does not know how to govern the horse, he may throw and kill him.
To whom thou refusest a part, thou art reserving the whole. But that he may grow up, and possess the whole in safety, thou givest him not that little thing which is full of peril to him (Sermon XXX, P. 7).
By disregarding certain requests, God may be regarding, albeit unbeknownst to us, our other request: the request for eternal life.
Besides securing eternal life, unanswered prayers may also lead us to a greater beatitude within that life. For, as Jesus teaches and the Council of Florence defined, not all enjoy heaven equally. Here are the relevant texts:
For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay every man according to what he has done (Mt. 16:27).
…(the blessed are) received into heaven, and see clearly the one and triune God Himself just as He is, yet according to the diversity of merits, one more perfectly than another. (Council of Florence, 1439 A.D., Dz. #693).
Hence, in proportion to one’s merits, so too will be his vision of the Divine Beauty. To increase such clarity, God may not only shut his ears to our prayers but also permit many painful, meritoriously latent, circumstances to enter our lives.
The fact is comically illustrated in the life of St. Teresa of Avila, who after sliding and falling headlong into the mud, cried out to God, saying:
If this is how You treat Your friends, no wonder why You have so few of them!
Moreover, if God answered every one of our prayers for deliverance, not only might we be left without merit, we may even, through indolence, snooze into vice.
St. John Chrysostom, explains the point, in this frank ultimatum:
For should poverty press not, ambition urges; if sickness provokes not, anger inflames; if temptations assail not, corrupt thoughts often overwhelm. It is no slight toil to bridle anger, to check unlawful desires, to subdue the swellings of vainglory, to quell pride or haughtiness, to refrain from excess, to live in self-denial. And he who does not accomplish these things, and such as these, can never attain salvation (1 Tim. 5:6.)(Discourses on Lazarus, Dis. III, P. 6).
Adversity can be to our advantage, provided we suffer patiently, and along with increasing merit, unanswered prayers might also give us an opportunity to make amends.
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered; I call aloud, but there is no justice (Job. 19:7).
Every sinful indulgence comes with a debt of satisfactory mortification to be paid. To “put back” for unlawful pleasures entails undergoing lawful displeasure, and along with the atonement which comes through the hands of the Church (via sacramental grace and indulgence) another way we can make amends is by suffering through the day-to-day inconveniences.
Therefore, God may disregard (as in the case of Job, above) prayers for help, for the sake of letting us make amends.
St. Gregory the Great makes this point explicitly, in his commentary of the above-cited verse. He writes:
Almighty God, knowing what has in its efficacy to prove our good, shuts His ears to hear the voice of persons mourning, that He may add to their advantage, that their life may be purified by punishment…(Morals of Job, Bk. XIV, P. 40).
And, since God chastises every son brought to him, not only should we expect to undergo such punishment in this life (by Divine permission) we should even start to worry if we seem to have gone without it. Here, stands the Word of God:
…for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are without discipline, in which all have shared, then you are illegitimate and not sons (Heb. 12:6-8).
If unanswered prayers can work out so well for us, should we pray at all?
Yes, and in the manner our Lord taught us (Cf. Mt. 6:9-13). If we would like a guarantee that such prayers will be answered, we need only apply the four conditions from Infallible Prayer.
So, let us rejoice equally in both answered and unanswered prayer, trusting in the providence of God who orchestrates, “all things (to) work for good, for those who love him” (Rom. 8:28).