When Heaven Is Silent: The Value of Unanswered Prayer

Prayer is more about reaching out to the transcendent than receiving favors.

Posted Feb 16, 2014

Many people pray to praise God, to thank Him for blessings, to lament sorrows and difficulties, to talk to Him, to tell Him things, and to escape from worldly matters. In a 2009 national Pew Survey, nearly six in ten adults in the U.S. reported that they pray at least once a day outside of attending religious services. According to an online U.S. News & Beliefnet poll, the most common reasons reported for prayer included seeking guidance, giving thanks, seeking forgiveness, and asking for help with illness or injury. 

Although some prayer is borrowed from special sources, such as reciting the Psalms or liturgical texts, most people use their own words along with formal prayer. Many people pray to ask for things—favors, protection, healings, success, guidance, miracles and forgiveness. Christians are likely to believe that God answers specific prayer requests, often justifying prayers of petition as following Christ’s directive, “Ask and you will receive.” Petitionary prayer is not exclusive to Christians. According to a national Gallup Poll in May 2010, 83% believe there is a God who answers prayers, 9% believe there is a God who does not answer prayers, and 5% believe no God exists. A 2011 Fox News Poll of registered voters found that 77% believe that prayer can literally help someone heal from an injury or illness, while 20% believe it can’t.

However, when asked if they had ever received a definite answer to a specific prayer request, perceived effectiveness varied with affiliation and practice. In the Beliefnet poll, 70% of Christians reported that their prayers are often or always answered, and fewer than 1% believed that their prayers are never answered. In a 2007 national Pew Survey, 31% of Americans who pray at least several times a year said they receive definite answers to specific prayer requests at least once a month, but 23% reported seldom or never receiving a direct answer. Overall, however, the data are not as optimistic. In a national Pew Survey in 2006, 55% of respondents reported that they had received a definite answer to a specific prayer, whereas 42% replied they had not.

Why some petitions are granted and others are not is beyond the scope of psychology. However, behavioral principles can be applied to understand belief and prayer behavior. It is not surprising that people who believe their prayers have been successful continue to pray. But what is the impact of disappointment with unanswered prayer? One study of young adults with a parent living with mental illness suggested that the greater the sense of personal loss, the greater the adverse impact on spiritual faith. One young woman explained:  “I prayed every day for probably 6 straight months, and then he just kept getting worse. So, I prayed a little less and prayed for different things. When he had organ failure I just stopped praying all together.” 

Unanswered prayer can lead a person to conclude that he or she is not worthy enough or deserving of God’s favor. Someone can also conclude that they didn’t pray hard enough or often enough or with the right words. Some people rely on ritualized prayer at least in part, because then failure is less likely to be seen as the result of weakness on the part of the pray-er or the quality of prayer. Using the words of sacred authority can be one way of avoiding or minimizing self-blame. 

Although some people who have experienced tremendous personal loss feel betrayed by God and give up on prayer, and in some cases on God, most people continue in their faith and their prayer activities. From a traditional behaviorist perspective, Skinner framed prayer within the category of superstitious behavior. He argued that occasional, erratic, coincidental answers to prayers, reinforce praying as an operant behavior that resists extinction having been conditioned in a variable schedule of reinforcement.  The behavioral approach suggests also that during the early formative years of childhood prayer becomes associated with the comforting feelings of security and affiliation as prayer is encountered in family and social contexts. Having learned to pray in such settings, not praying in similar situations can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety, guilt, loneliness, separation, or the lost security of childhood. So even if someone no longer believes in the efficacy of prayer, the acquired superstitious character of praying sustains the behavior. 

Recent psychological research has focused on cognitive explanations for persistence in the face of disappointment. For example, over the course of a terminal illness, patients often reported that they changed the nature of their prayer requests as the disease progressed. Around the time of the initial diagnosis, patients were more likely to ask for guidance in choosing the best course of treatment or for a cure. As the illness progressed, they were more likely to ask for strength to endure, comfort for their loved ones, a little more time, or ultimately for forgiveness. As requests became less concrete, it became easier to feel the prayers were being answered. The criteria by which people judge the success of their prayers often change to accommodate the recognition that the specific concrete petition had not been granted. For example, when a cure was not received, a patient might believe that their prayers were answered with greater acceptance, emotional comfort, or finding meaning in their suffering. 

When people perceive their requests to have been unanswered, they often excuse God by blaming themselves for being unworthy or having failed in their faithfulness. Other cognitive approaches to maintaining a positive image of God include deciding that the prayer request was not God’s will or not in the pray-er’s best interests. As Garth Brooks sang, “Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.” 

With greater belief in and reliance on scientific solutions to problems, many now pray for psychological and spiritual rather than physical help. Recent studies have shown that people are not likely to pray for the return of an amputated limb, the resurrection of a deceased loved one, or other requests that would violate our scientific understanding of what is possible. Some theorists suggest that restrictions on what is prayed for results from the avoidance of the cognitive dissonance that would otherwise be suffered in trying to keep faith in a caring, omnipotent Being in the face of disappointment.  

Viewing prayer as behavior motivated by superstition, cognitive dissonance or wishful thinking misses a crucial element. Dein and Pargament have argued that it is more important to conserve our image of God and maintain our relationship with the sacred than to receive favors. Viktor Frankl compared our relationship with God to that between pet and owner. He offered the metaphor of a pet’s trust in its owner even when asked to accept frightening and painful veterinarian exams or treatments. The dog “cannot understand the meaning of pain, the purpose of a shot or a bandage, but the way it looks at you reveals a boundless trust in you, out of which it feels that the doctor will not harm it.” What is lost when one gives up on prayer is much greater than the request made. Recent research shows that although most people relate to God in human terms, the sacred is embraced as mysterious and beyond human comprehension. To feel connected with the transcendent is more important than having the sacred solve earthly problems. People aspire to experience the sacred, not to diminish the sacred to that of the human. In Frankl’s thinking:  “Man cannot break through the dimensional difference between the human world and the divine world but he can reach out for the ultimate meaning through faith which is mediated by trust in the ultimate being.” Prayer might well be best understood as one such reaching out.

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