There will be an answer—let it be. – Paul McCartney
Does God answer prayers? This is one of the most common religious questions out there. It cuts straight to the question of what kind of relationship we can have with God. It informs how—or even whether—we pray. And it quickly branches out to a multitude of related questions. How can God answer conflicting prayer requests? If God doesn’t answer all our prayers, how can we know which he will answer? What kinds of things should we ask for and what should we not ask for?
I would like to suggest that asking whether God answers prayers is often the wrong question. Usually, it comes out of anxiety or unreflective doubts. Assurance that God “answers” requests is taken to be a sort of proof of faith. In such situations, the question that people should really be interested in is, “Is God listening to me?” And this is really distinct from whether he grants requests.
When the issue becomes more about whether God hears our prayers rather than whether he answers them, the relational aspect of prayer becomes clearer. In a human relationship, it is crass to base the depth of the relationship on whether it is possible to get something from the other person. Rather, if you really care about another person, you are more concerned about whether he really listens when you communicate with him. Once you are convinced that you are being heard, you don’t worry so much about what requests are granted and which are not. Any child of a loving parent knows that asking for something doesn’t guarantee that he will get it; conversely any sensible adult would be appalled if a parent gave to his child everything that was requested. And I think the same must be true in our relationship with God. God’s hearing comes before his answering. “This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles.” (Ps. 34:6)
All this being said, we should still ask God to give us things. On the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus famously preaches, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matt. 7:7) At the Last Supper, he tells the disciples, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (Jn. 15:7) Part of knowing someone well is being free to ask for things, and the granting of requests flows from the relationship. The promise of the Last Supper, after all, is attached to an invitation to intimacy with the Lord. Similarly, St. James notes that our petitions must come from a place of honesty: “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:3)
At the end of the day, trusting that God hears our prayers is a matter of faith. Believing that events in our lives are a response to petitions is similarly an act of faith. It is a faith that his providence is perfectly wise and that his way of responding is always for the best. Much of the time we may not be able to understand his ways, and we may be completely at a loss about how and even whether he has answered our petitions. It should be stressed that this is not a cop-out. It is not obscurantism or an attempt to stifle embarrassing questions. The fact is that we are limited in what we can see and understand. If God is perfect and we are not, then it is to be expected that his ways will be sometimes inscrutable. From our limited vantage point, why should we ever expect to be able to discern how all our prayers are answered? On the other hand, we can always be assured that God hears us. For if God’s power is infinite and all-knowing, then he hears all we ask of him. And if the God of the universe is listening to us whenever we call upon him, what more could we ask?