Is God still listening? Why doesn’t he answer my prayer?

This is my question, my counselees’ question, and a question that every one of us asks at some point in our lives. We are praying for something that God himself defines as good: the salvation of a loved one, the healing of someone in pain, or justice for a horrible situation. Often, prayers continue to spill out of our hearts, and yet there seems to be silence from above. 

What is God up to?

When my faith reawakened in my early 20s, I loved learning more about the Old Testament. Isaiah became a favorite, especially chapter 55. It speaks of fulfilling our hunger and thirst in the Lord, and the everlasting covenant between God and his people. But when I read, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (v.8), I struggled to understand what seemed to be a rebuke. “Lord, I know I don’t have the depth and breadth of your understanding, but aren’t we coming from the same viewpoint? Aren’t we moving in the same direction?!”

Four decades later, I have a deeper understanding of that passage and how I do and do not understand the Lord’s ways. There are still many times that I question the Lord about what he allows people to face or brings into their lives, but here is what I have come to know about his ways.

God is always with us

Jesus leads us to the valley of the shadow of death. But he also leads us through it—sometimes even carries us. He is our Good Shepherd (Ps 23).

Scripture is clear: we will suffer even as our Lord has suffered (1 Peter 1), but we are never on our own in that suffering. One of Jesus’ names foretold in the book of Isaiah is “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Isa 7:14). And he is with us—still! And he will never leave nor forsake us (Heb 13:5). Even though we suffer, we can be comforted that he is right by our side. We are never alone.  

God does not promise specific outcomes in this world

We know that God is working all things for good for those who love him (Rom 8:28). Although this verse is not usually the first place we go to comfort others during suffering, it is an encouraging truth to ponder what God is doing in our lives and the lives of others. Even in the midst of “this horrible thing” that you are facing, God knows what is happening and he is at work in it. He will ultimately bring good, even though we may not see it or be able to understand it. His ways are not our ways. His promises are mighty but do not include specific outcomes, even if they seem good to us. 

Prayer is a relationship

When we pray, we are entering into a relationship with God, one in which we can come to know him better. Over time, when we pray and the Lord does not seem to answer, we can review the comforting words he has already given us through prayer and in Scripture, such as:

Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed,
     for his compassions never fail.…
The LORD is good to those who hope in him,
     to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. (Lam 3:22, 25–26)

His “silence” is not a sign that he does not hear or does not care. He may be saying “no” or “not yet” to what we are asking. But we can be sure that he loves us, is for us, and understands what is going on in our lives. As with any relationship, as we get to know God better, we will come to trust him to care for us, even if he seems to be silent in the face of our pleas to relieve suffering. 

What God is up to

At the end of Isaiah 55, he promises: 

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace;
     the mountains and hills will burst into song before you,
     and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.…
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
     for an everlasting sign, that will endure forever. (v.12–13)

Joy. Peace. Song. Our fulfillment, his renown. This is what God is up to. These are the good promises that the Lord makes as we wait upon him. His answers to our prayers today are consistent with his ultimate promises. May we be comforted by his faithfulness while we wait—even when it feels like silence.