“There are prayers that are answered only after one hundred years. We learn this from Abraham [who was not blessed with a son until after he was a hundred years old]…there are prayers that are answered only after forty years. We learn this from Isaac as it says (Genesis 28) “and Isaac was forty years old [when he married Rebecca]”. There is prayer that is only answered after 30 years as it says “and Joseph was 30 years old when he stood in front of Pharaoh (Genesis 41). And then there is a prayer which is answered even as it is being uttered as it says (Exodus 14), “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.” [Midrash]
When we pray, we don’t cry often. We often do not pray out of the deepest part of our hearts. The reason for this, and for people stopping praying altogether, is that we have been disappointed. It is simple Pavlovian science. We tried once, twice, or maybe even a hundred times, and our prayers were not answered. We have been through what famous psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman discovered and conceptualized in the 1960s as “learned helplessness.”
In an experiment, dogs were placed in a box, receiving painful electric shocks through electric currents sent through the floor. The box was fairly easy to escape, allowing the dogs an easy way to avoid the pain of the electric shock. Dogs who had been previously in situations where they were not able to escape electric shocks remained standing and continued to helplessly receive the painful shocks, while dogs who had not been in helpless situations before, easily jumped out of the boxes and avoided pain.
When it comes to prayer, we often feel this same feeling of learned helplessness. We feel “stuck” when we want to come and pray. Consciously or not, we recall all the times we prayed for things that never ended up happening. This feeling is followed either by us stopping praying, or by us praying unenthusiastically, often in the spirit of the 17th-century physicist Blaise Pascal’s famous wager. Pascal, who was famously unsure if he believed in God and in Christianity,˚ argued for believing because “If the Christian God does not exist, the agnostic loses little by believing in him and gains correspondingly little by not believing. If the Christian God does exist, the agnostic gains eternal life by believing in him and loses an infinite good by not believing.” (Encyclopedia Britannica). Needless to say, this argument does not hold up from a religious perspective. God does not desire a half-hearted faith which is in place “just in case God is looking.” We must make sure our prayer does not have that meek look, either. , hoping that if God does answer prayers, ours will be answered.
To overcome the “learned helplessness obstacle to prayer, we need to understand why some of our prayers are not answered. While there is no one reason why our prayers are not answered, there are a few models of why and how prayers are not answered, as follows:
The “Joseph Model”
Imagine Joseph, just sold into slavery by his very own brothers in an act of cruelty and treason far beyond what is heard of in any family. Joseph is carried on a camel’s back by slave traders to a foreign land he had never been to. Try and relive what was going through Joseph’s head as it was bumping up and down for days on that camel’s back, not knowing where he was headed. Imagine the prayers he must have been praying. They must have been the most sincere, desperate, and tearfully passionate prayers we can imagine. There he was, a young boy, begging God for help. If there is anyone who met King David’s expectation of “The Lord is near to all who call Him, to all who call Him with sincerity” (Psalms, 145), it was Joseph at that moment. Did it help? No. Joseph was taken to Egypt.
From being his father’s most beloved son, Joseph went on to be a petty slave in the home of an Egyptian named Potiphar. Just imagine Joseph going to sleep every night. Imagine his dreams, hopes, and prayers, asking to be reunited with his dear father. Joseph’s pillow, if he even had one, must have been always wet with tears and memories.
What happened next? His master’s wife falsely accused Joseph of seducing her and even attempting to rape her—when what actually happened was that she tried to do that to him. Joseph was thrown into jail. Is it possible to imagine anyone in that generation whose prayers were ignored as much as Joseph? Probably not.
Yet, shortly thereafter, Joseph found himself the viceroy to Pharaoh, or in Hollywood terms, Joseph woke up to be the prince of Egypt.
In retrospect, would Joseph have preferred that his prayers be answered when he was bouncing on the camel’s back being sent into a faraway land? Would he prefer to have been returned and reunited right back into his very complex family dynamic? Maybe. But arguably not.
Many times, our prayers are not answered. As many say, it is possible the answer to those prayers is no. It doesn’t have to mean that. It may not be a “no,” or God not accepting our prayers. It could just mean something great is being prepared for us. Our prayers are ignored because we don’t know how much better things can get. Like seventeen-year-old Joseph, we may not know what we are capable of; only God knows what is possible for us. Next time your prayer is not answered, painful though it is, perhaps the famous slogan of the New York lottery applies to you: “Hey, you never know.”
The Moses Model for Unanswered Prayers
If you were asked on a TV trivia game: “which person in the Bible is the person whose prayers should be answered before anyone else?” you would be reasonable saying it is Moses. Yet, that is not what happened.
God told Moses) Numbers 20:12) in the most explicit way, he would not go into the promised land. Did this stop Moses from hoping? Of course not. Moses continued to pray and ask God to allow him into the promised land. Why? How is this even possible? God Himself had told him that he would not enter! Why ask for something that has been assured by God Almighty Himself to never take place? The Rabbis learn from this a simple yet very powerful lesson: don’t stop praying. Even if you think God Himself has decided on something and that the deck is stacked against you, do not despair. Keep on praying. Never stop hoping.
The Patriarchs’ and Matriarchs’ Model
A very powerful theme running through the Bible and the book of Genesis in particular is that the heroes of the stories are childless, desperate to have children. Abraham and Sara, Isaac and Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel.
The Talmud, perturbed by this phenomenon, asks, “Why is it that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs were barren? Because God desires the prayers of the righteous and wishes that they pray.”
Sometimes, situations that seem to be ordained by God Himself are only there because of God’s desire that we pray for those. It is utterly frustrating and unnerving when those prayers are not answered, but lack of an answer is not always a rejection; it can be a desire for more, God seeking our proximity and devotion.
Sometimes the Answer is No
Sadly, this least favorite yet most popular answer to the question of unanswered prayer has its place too. Sometimes we pray, and our prayers are simply not accepted maybe because we didn’t pray enough, maybe because what we are asking for is not right for us. If J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, had all of her prayers answered, it is possible she would still be sitting at a mid-level desk job or perhaps a shabbier publisher would have taken her manuscript before her manuscript got rejected twelve times.
If one of R.H. Macy’s prayers had been answered, and his first seven businesses had not failed the way they did, Macy’s world-famous department store in New York may not have succeeded.
If all of President Harry S. Truman’s prayers would be answered, perhaps his clothing store would not have gone bankrupt, and he would never have become President of the United States. God knows better than us and can say no to our prayers. It does not mean we should stop hoping and praying; it means we don’t always know best.
Sadly, sometimes the answer is no because we don’t deserve something, or it is just not possible in a natural world that follows certain rules. If we all prayed to win the Mega Millions lottery, we would not win it; this could be because we don’t deserve it or because the Mega Millions would lose their value if everyone won them. Sometimes the answer is just no.
Even when the answer to our prayers is negative, we have still gained from those prayers. The spiritual closeness we attained through those prayers should not be overlooked. Sure, we are disappointed and even hurt by our prayers not being answered. But we should not despair, nor should we think our prayers went to waste. We are now so much closer to God than we were before. The spiritual closeness we have achieved through those prayers will never be lost, and painful though it is, we can cherish those prayers too.
No matter how unanswered our prayers may be, or if we feel like the answer we got was “no,” God still loves us very much and feels our pain. The lyrics to the beautiful song sung by the Jewish singer M. Ben David captures this sentiment best [paraphrased]:
Daddy dear tell me please, Is it true what they say?
In the heavens there’s a cup, that gets fuller each day
And I heard that God keeps it close nearby
And he fills it with his tears each time that we cry
Grandpa told me daddy dear, did he tell you the same?
That when sorrow strikes his people, God feels all the pain
Tell me why does he cry far away in the sky?
Tell me why daddy dear are there tears in your eyes
Little one Little one, it is true, yes it’s true
Grandpa told me years ago, and his dad told him too
Fathers cry for their children, and God does the same
When we hurt so does he, yes he feels our pain…
This article is from Rabbi Elchanan Poupko’s upcoming series and book on why bad things happen to good people and coping with adversity.