As a seminary professor, I get questions like this all the time. And while my answers typically differ based on the context and the person asking, there’s one element I always incorporate into the answer: God is real and he does answer prayers.
I always make the point that “God is real” because if he is not real, there is no good reason to pray.
But if God is real, that changes everything. It means we pray for the same reason that we eat and drink: to nourish our souls just as we nourish our bodies. Our bodies will wither away if we do not eat or drink. That is a fact. And that fact drives us to eat and drink.
But beyond that, the question that nags at many people is whether God actually answers prayers.
I won’t try to sugarcoat the answer. Those of us who follow God continue to wrestle with this question, even when we think they’ve got the answer figured out. But remember where we started: The key question is, Is God real?
If God is real, it changes our approach to unanswered prayer. So whatever else is going on, whatever we don’t know, there’s one thing we can know for sure: When we pray, God is listening. We aren’t just speaking into an empty room.
God really answers prayers. Sometimes he says, “yes.” Other times, he says, “no.” Still other times, he might say, “wait for a while before I make my answer clear.” And while we don’t usually like the “no” or “wait for a while” answers, we shouldn’t miss that those are answers, too.
God is wiser than us and kinder than us; when he answers our prayers in surprising ways, it’s not because he lives to ruin our fun. Quite the opposite, like a good parent, he always gives an answer that flows from his wisdom and love. His wisdom is more loving than ours and his love is wiser than ours, and sometimes his wise love for us involves denying our request.
More importantly, when we pray, God will often do things in our life that are not directly related to our particular prayer. He will do things to change us, to make us into the type of person he wants us to be. And the changes he makes will not usually be sudden or dramatic but slow and deep and profound—similar to the way our family and friends change us over the course of years.
The more we remember that God is a real, active, living, loving person, the more the question of unanswered prayer will recede into the background. Our prayers to him aren’t arrows we’re launching into a far off heaven. They are words spoken to God’s ear, part of a conversation in which we speak, God listens, and God responds.
This means that the most important aspect of prayer will always be the ways we come to know God and know ourselves better. After all, I don’t measure my human relationships by the number of times a friend does what I ask. I measure those relationships by whether I know those people and love them—and am known and loved by them.
In prayer, God sees us for who we are. He knows his children fully—for all of our flaws and sins and secrets—and yet at the same time loves us fully. That is what each of us wants—to be fully known and yet fully loved. That is what God offers to us in prayer.
Why should we bother to pray? Because God is real. Because our souls will wither if we do not nourish our relationship with God. Because God answers prayer. And because in prayer, we experience the unending love of a perfect Father.