Few attitudes are more disheartening and destructive to faith than the feeling that God doesn't hear our prayers, doesn't answer or doesn't care. It is easy to come to such conclusions when God doesn't respond when or how we want.
The apostle Paul was a man who could have concluded that God doesn't listen to people. After all, he urgently pleaded with God to intervene for him in a chronic trial. But God refused to grant Paul's request.
Does this mean Paul lacked faith? Of course not. However, there is a deeper lesson for us in Paul's life of living faith.
When Paul pleaded with God
Notice Paul's account of this trial: "There was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me" (2 Corinthians 12:7-8, New International Version).
What was this trial that tormented Paul? Comments in Paul's writings hint it may have been a problem with his eyes (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11).
The implication is that Paul fervently asked God to deliver him from the trial, no doubt with fasting and heartfelt prayer (2 Corinthians 11:27). He wanted this hindrance removed so he could continue to spread the gospel effectively and care for the congregations God had raised up.
God's answer to Paul
Paul could have concluded that God had not heard his pleas. But this is not the case. God simply gave Paul a different answer: "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Whether God directly spoke these words to Paul or whether Paul gradually came to this understanding of God's will isn't clear from the Greek wording. What is clear is that Paul came to a deeper spiritual understanding that strengthened his faith and commitment.
Paul came to see that the credit belonged to God and Jesus Christ rather than to himself and that his weakness drew him closer to that source of power and strength. "I am therefore happy to boast of my weaknesses, because then the power of Christ will rest upon me. So I am content with a life of weakness, insult, hardship, persecution, and distress, all for Christ's sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong" (verses 9-10, Revised English Bible).
Of course, Paul's experiences were not typical of what most modern Christians experience today. Along with his great trials, he also witnessed great miracles and evidence of God's power. Still Paul's "thorn in the flesh" stands as an important spiritual lesson for us. Sometimes when we experience unanswered prayers, God's answer for us is actually "no" or "not yet." God never intended our physical bodies to last forever. He has allotted us an existence of about 70 years (Psalm 90:10). He is far more concerned that we develop righteous character and a trusting relationship with Him that can last for eternity. He wants to resurrect us to eternal life in a glorious, immortal spirit body not subject to weakness, illness and death (1 Corinthians 15:40-44, 50-54).
In the meantime, Paul understood that God in His love will never allow us to fall into trials greater than we can endure. "But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it" (1 Corinthians 10:13, NIV). Sometimes that "way out" is simply the determination to endure the trial, to "stand up under it."
Hearing God's will
Paul was not the only one who learned that living, trusting, abiding faith is more important than physical health and long life. Even Jesus, knowing that He faced a cruel death only hours away, prayed, "O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me" (Matthew 26:39). Jesus loved life and wanted to live as much as any of us. But He acknowledged a greater purpose for this physical life: "Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42).
Jesus Christ, the perfect example of faith, knew God's will was more important that His.
God knows what is best for us in the long run, even if it may conflict with our short-term wants and desires. As Peter tells us, "[cast] all your care upon Him, for He cares for you" (1 Peter 5:7). Paul says we should be "confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). Because God works within us from a broader perspective to build faith and character, He doesn't always answer our prayers in the way we desire.
Some were delivered, some not
The Bible tells us at times "women received their dead raised to life again." But "others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment… And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us" (Hebrews 11:35-40).
Even when we have unanswered prayers, know that God does listen. He does not always answer our prayers to our immediate satisfaction and instantly deliver us from our trials. But He will always do what is best for us.
For more understanding please read our booklets Why Does God Allow Suffering and You Can Have Living Faith .