When should people stop praying?

  • Question 210, from May

    Since thousands of people have prayed for and are still praying for a conclusion to the Maddy McCann story, can we still hope for an answer from God to end the torture of her parents?

    This is a really difficult question because, setting aside the tragic disappearance of Madeleine McCann for a moment, the real question is “When do we stop praying for something and assume the answer is ‘no’.” Possibly the question is even deeper, ‘Does God really listen to prayers and answer them.’

    In his book ‘Prayer, Does it Make a Difference?’, Philp Yancey describes prayer as companionship with God rather than just a means of asking for things (p.208). However, for many people, unanswered prayers cast doubt on God’s faithfulness and goodness. Yancey suggests in those cases people need to learn to live with the mystery and trust that all will be right in the end.

    This may not be a satisfactory answer. Yancey honestly points out that “the main difficulty with unanswered prayers is that Jesus seemed to promise there need not be any.” (p.228) He offers some ways to explain why the “lavish” statements made by Jesus possibly don’t apply, but the central problem remains – why doesn’t God answer prayer?

    In the case of Madeleine McCann, it is highly likely that someone knows what exactly happened to her the night she disappeared. Possibly one angle for prayer is to ask God to convict whoever is keeping the details secret so that they confess what they know. Another angle would be to pray for her parents and other family members, that they would be comforted in their ongoing grief.

    The test for all Christians in situations like this is whether faith in God’s goodness and love is dependent on a prayer being answered. This is something each individual Christian will have to answer for himself or herself. It may be difficult to know if the prayer has been answered, as the results of the police investigations might not be made public despite the high profile nature of the case and the media interest. If it is impossible to know if a prayer has been answered, then Yancey’s advice to make peace with not knowing by accepting the outcome is a mystery will make sense.


    Phil Yancey, Prayer, Does it Make a Difference. Hodder, 2006

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