What does it mean when your prayers aren’t answered?
Someone asked me this question recently, but I’ve heard it before. Really, I’ve heard it all my life. I’ve heard it asked by Pagans and Christians and by people of no particular religious affiliation.
I’ve heard answers, but many of them have been simplistic: “it’s not your karma to have that.” Some have been authoritarian: “how dare you question God!” Some have been dismissive: “that just proves that prayer doesn’t work.”
Like all “big questions” this is a fair question, but it’s not a simple question. The best answer (I don’t think there is a “right” answer) varies from person to person and from situation to situation. But if we contemplate the possible answers, we’ll be better prepared when we’re the ones wondering why it seems like our Gods are ignoring our prayers.
This question misses the point of prayer
While this is a legitimate question, it’s a question that often misses the point.
“Why was my prayer not answered” (and its corollary, “why was the answer ‘no’?”) implies that the purpose of prayer is to get stuff from the Gods. But the primary purpose of prayer is to maintain good relationships with our Gods.
We pray and we give thanks for the good things we have received, whether they came to us directly from our Gods or through other people. We pray and we express our devotion – our love for Them, for Their values and virtues, and for Their presence in our lives. We pray these prayers not so we can receive, but because we have received.
When we pray regularly, it becomes part of who and what we are. We pray when we get favorable responses, we pray when we get unfavorable responses, and we pray when we get no responses. Praying is simply what we do.
It is good to speak the yearnings of our hearts. Sometimes that means asking for something: health, wealth, wisdom. Sometimes our Gods provide what we ask for. But sometimes They don’t.
And then we wonder why our prayers aren’t answered. Except they were answered – they just weren’t answered the way we wanted.
“You need to do this yourself”
Our Gods are not vending machines. They are not divine helicopter parents. Those we are closest to often care about us and our well-being, but that doesn’t mean They’re going to give us everything we want… or even everything we need.
Self-reliance is often misused to justify hoarding wealth and ignoring those suffering under injustice, but it’s the first place to start when you need something. And sometimes just getting started is all it takes for doors to start opening.
You have to do your part. Don’t pray for protection against Covid if you refuse to get vaccinated. It’s not working for Christians – it’s not going to work for Pagans either.
“You don’t know Me well enough to ask Me for that”
Here I speak from first-hand experience… unfortunately.
Early on my Pagan journey I had a need. And so I prayed to a God who was involved in such matters in ancient times. I got a response – it just wasn’t what I expected to hear.
“Who are you and why should I do anything for you?”
I didn’t know this God. I had never prayed to Them, made offerings to Them, or led a ritual in Their honor. I had barely read anything about Them.
If someone you don’t know knocks on your door and asks you for money, what are you likely to do? Yeah, it’s like that – your prayers aren’t answered.
Yes, different Gods have different areas of interest. But the God to pray to is the God you know – the God you have a respectful, reciprocal relationship with.
“This would be bad for you”
I have mixed feelings about the Gods as our parents. Many times it’s an excuse for wishful thinking, or worse, a holdover from the abusive parenting demonstrated in some tales of the Christian God.
But sometimes it’s a useful metaphor. Just as a human parent has the wisdom and experience to recognize dangers their children can’t spot, so our Gods can see that sometimes we want things that would bring us more harm than good.
Sometimes we know this ourselves, but we want it anyway. Never pray (or work magic) for an ex-lover to come back into your life.
Our Gods also have more vision and foresight than we do. Sometimes They can see that while giving us what we ask for would be good enough, there’s something even better we can’t see yet. And so They tell us “no” (or They just don’t respond), and a month or a year or a decade later we realize They did us a huge favor.
“I have more important things to do”
One of the things I was taught early on is the importance of an ancestor practice: “ancestors are your most accessible allies.” They may be less powerful than Gods, but they’re almost always available. Meanwhile, Gods are often busy doing God stuff.
Now, I’ve found that the more regularly I practice, the more regularly my Gods are noticeably present in my life. And if Their capacity isn’t infinite, it’s certainly very large. But something doesn’t have to be beyond their capabilities to be beneath Their dignity as Gods.
This especially happens when you ask for a spectacle.
Asking for confirmation is one thing – I do that frequently in divination. But asking for confirmation in a way that’s big and boisterous is asking to be ignored. Their communication is usually far more subtle. If your prayers aren’t answered you may not be listening closely enough.
Or you may be asking for something They’re never going to give you.
“You have more important things to do”
Let’s face it: many times we want things that ultimately don’t matter. It’s not that they’re frivolous and fun – we need frivolous and fun, at least occasionally. It’s that they’re trivial. They don’t matter. They won’t make us happy even in the moment, much less help us do our deeper work. This is especially true when our desires have been manipulated by advertising or entertainment.
This is why when I’m discussing petitionary prayer, I say “speak the yearnings of your heart.” What do you really, really want? It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of it – if it’s important to you, ask for it!
But don’t bring trivial things before the Gods.
“Come back when you’ve done what I told you to do”
In my experience – both first-hand and from the experiences of others – the Gods are usually quite forgiving with beginners. They know we’re human – They know we’re going to screw up from time to time. They don’t expect perfection – They expect us to make mistakes (and also to learn from them, but that’s another topic for another time).
But there comes a time when you’re not a beginner anymore.
After a while, the expectations get higher. The tolerance for careless errors gets less and less. And the willingness to overlook your failure to uphold your end of “maintaining a reciprocal relationship” goes to zero.
If your prayers aren’t answered, ask yourself if there’s something you’re supposed to be doing that you’re not. Or worse, if there’s something you promised to do that you’re not. If so, go take care of that and then come back. And if you can’t, then explain why and offer to do what you can instead. Your counteroffer may not be accepted, but it may – and at least you’re demonstrating that you’re taking your obligations seriously.
A process of discernment
Prayer is one of the ways we maintain our relationships with our Gods. When They respond favorably, the feeling is, well, divine.
When They don’t, it leaves us wondering why. These are six of the most common reasons our prayers aren’t answered. We have to do the work to figure out which one it is… or if there are multiple reasons… or if there are reasons that aren’t on this list. If there was an easy answer people wouldn’t have been asking this question for several millennia.
May your prayers always be genuine, may they always be heard, and may the answers always be clear, even when they aren’t the answers you want.