66: Unanswered Prayers
Stories in this episode: Anna’s teen years are spent in anger and frustration at God for not saving her mom until an unwelcome opportunity sparks a new perspective; Juan is stopped in his tracks on his way into a fast-food restaurant when a sign from heaven sheds new light on an unanswered prayer that haunted him for years.
Tens of thousands of women in the U.S. and Canada have laughed, wept, and learned together at Time Out for Women events. Now you can share the spirit of those occasions with this Time Out mini-book. When Your Prayers Seem Unanswered offers piercing insights into the Lord's dealings with His children, and helps us learn to trust His timetable.
Photos of Anna with her mother before she passed away:
Juan's wife with their infant daughter, who they later found out was allergic to peanuts:
Welcome to This Is the Gospel, an LDS Living podcast where we feature real stories from real people who are practicing and living their faith every day. I'm your host KaRyn Lay.
I wouldn't say I am a huge modern country music fan – I tend to like my country a little bit more dusty, but when I put today's theme into Google, just to see what I could see, only one thing popped up in the search results.
The 1990 Country Music juggernaut of a song from Garth Brooks called, "Unanswered Prayers." It immediately triggered a series of flashbacks to those awkward dances at Rockland Junior High where the only thing bigger than my hairsprayed bangs was all of my anxiety about being asked by an actual boy to dance to a slow song.
And if you're unfamiliar with this particular slow song, let me give you a quick synopsis. It's a story about a teenager begging God for something that he thought he wanted, only to realize as an adult that getting that thing that he wanted, would have precluded him from the gift of his current family and life. The song has all the country feelings – regret, longing, a high school football game, and a nod to a loving Heavenly Father. And it ends with a super catchy chorus.
So if you want to jaunt down American Memory Lane, hit the YouTube give it a listen. But here's the thing, Garth song and its catchphrase, "Thank God for unanswered prayers," is a little overly simplistic for my taste.
It might make for a really great t-shirt at the merch table, but I think that understanding and making sense of our own unanswered prayers can feel a little bit more confusing and even devastating when you're in the middle of the asking and the not getting
Getting to gratitude and thanking God for saying, "No," is sometimes a really long and perilous journey. So today, we're going to dig into the complexity of the spiritual phenomenon with two stories from people whose righteous desires didn't end in easy "Yes's."
First, we'll hear from Anna, who's wrestle with prayer began pretty early on in her life. Here's Anna.
Growing up in primary, I was always taught that if you had a good desire, and if it was a righteous desire, then Heavenly Father was going to answer your prayer, and He was going to give you what you wanted. And I was always taught about the miracles that happened, you would read about it in the scriptures, and I would, you know, hear people bear testimony about the miracles in their own life.
So when I was nine years old – I had just turned nine – we found out that my mom's cancer had come back. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was five, and then had been in remission. and it had come back. And this time, they told us that it was terminal, and that she was probably going to not survive it because it had spread so rapidly throughout her body.
But as a nine year old girl I had, you know, all the faith in the world. And I knew that – I knew that it was gonna be okay. I was like, "No worries. I'll just, I'll just pray" – because I felt that praying for my mom to live and to not die was a very righteous desire.
And so I prayed so hard that she wouldn't die because I didn't want her to, and I really believe that if I prayed that she wouldn't die, that that she wouldn't. That she would survive, that this would be, you know, one of those miracle stories.
But on October 13 2005, I remember waking up and I looked at the clock and it – I shared a room with my little sister – and it was nine in the morning. And I thought, "This is the greatest day of my life, my parents have forgotten to wake me up for school. I don't have to go to school."
And so my little sister woke up and she started making noises and trying to talk to me and I was like, "No, no, go back to bed. Mom and Dad won't take us to school if we don't wake up." But my dad heard us, and he asked us to come out and we went out into our living room and he was there with his mom and his sister, and they told us that she passed away earlier that morning. And that the cancer had taken her life and . . . I was nine and my little sister had just barely turned seven.
And I mean I was just bawling. And I was like, "What?" I was like "No!" like, "My mom can't be gone." And I can remember telling my dad, you know, I said I was like, "You know Dad, I'm not gonna pray anymore." Because I said, "God didn't answer my prayer. So obviously God doesn't love me. And God doesn't answer prayers because I prayed so hard and so many people were praying that she wouldn't die." And yet, here I was without a mom here on earth and I was just so upset and I was so angry. And I held on to that anger.
Anger was like this blanket for me where I would just like wrap it around myself, and anytime I started to not feel angry, I was like, "Whoa, this feels weird, bring it back." And my prayers definitely changed after that, where, when I would pray, it would be very routine, it would be, you know, the "Please bless that I'll be able to sleep tonight. And I'll be able to wake up and go to school tomorrow and do good things."
It wasn't very, it wasn't very heartfelt. I didn't want . . . I didn't want to pray. And I didn't really pray on my own. I would pray in like family settings and stuff. But I just really didn't believe that God answered prayers, because he hadn't answered mine. And that was a pretty big prayer that I wanted to have answered.
My dad got remarried to my stepmom, and I did not like her, um, because I was just so angry. I was like, "No, you don't get to come in here and like pretend to be my mom, I've been raised one way for nine years." "You don't just get to kind of like come in here and try and you know, tell me what to do." And I would always tell her that anytime she would say something to me, I would be like, "You're not my mom." That was like my card that I would pull out all the time.
And I was just so angry. And I really took it out on her, because I felt that if I loved her – if I loved my stepmom – then I would be forgetting my mom. But I was lucky enough to have a dad who, you know, when I told him that I was done praying, he didn't just go, "Okay, sounds good." Like, "You're right. He didn't answer my prayer, either. Let's just like stop going to church and stop doing things."
But he taught me of the plan of salvation and of eternal families. And it was, it was those truths, that kept me going. I had to hold on to that hope that I was going to see my mom again, and that families are eternal, and that the plan of salvation is this wonderful plan that our Heavenly Father has given us. And that's what really kept me going.
Even though I didn't feel like I could ask Heavenly Father for important things at that time. So I would only ask them for like little things like, "Can you help us find this lost toy?" Or, "Can you, you know, help me on this test?" It would just be like, very little things, and I wouldn't put a lot of faith in Him to, like, fulfill it.
Like, I'd be like, I mean, I don't really know if he's, you know, I don't know if he's actually going to help us find this toy, I don't . . . you know, like, I didn't really have a lot of faith during that time that he would actually answer those prayers. But I kind of started to ask him for little things here and there to kind of, I guess, see what would happen.
All of this kind of started to change when I was in my first year of college, and I was praying to tell God, that I was not going to be serving a mission, that that was not part of what I was going to do in my life. I was literally – I was like, "Heavenly Father, I'm not going to serve a mission. I hope that's okay with you. Thank you, amen."
And then I felt that I needed to open my scriptures. So I just like grab my scriptures, opened it up to a random chapter – to this day, still can't even find that chapter in D&C – and I just read a little bit of the headline, and it just talks about missionary work. And I shut that book so quickly. And I shoved it back and I was like, "Nope. Nuh uh."
And I felt so like, deep within me, like, I've never had an experience like that, where it was just instant, like, "No, you need to serve a mission Anna." And I was like, "Yeah, no, that's not gonna happen." And I was so anxious.
But then I went to the temple, and I prayed, and I, and I just had this overwhelming feeling of peace. It was like, "Anna, you need to go on a mission." And like, "Everything's going to be okay. If I'm asking you to do this, I'm gonna help you through it." And I was like, "Alright, I'm going on a mission." And from that moment forward, I didn't ever look back.
On my mission, it kind of came to this point where I was miserable on my mission for the first little bit because I just like, didn't want to be there – that I had to make a choice. Whether I was going to let misery rule my life, or if I was going to choose happiness, and if I was going to choose goodness, and if I was going to choose Christ.
And I decided I'd rather be happy. And so I really allowed the Savior to enter into my heart. And that's really – I know, and I believe that that's really what what healed me was letting him come into my heart.
It took, like the entire 18 months, pretty much where I think it was close to the end of my mission where I could remember just thinking I was like, "Wow," like, I don't feel that literal . . . like it just kind of felt like a very heavy burden that had been on me for all those years because I was so angry and upset at God for not answering my prayer.
And I think it was was just the process of, you know, on the mission and missions aren't for everyone, but I do believe that I, I had to serve a mission in order to heal, because I needed to get out of the environment that I was in at home, and I just needed to get like completely thrown out in a new place. And I needed . . . like in a mission like you really have to rely on the Savior, like you can't do it on your own. And so I really had to learn to really trust the Savior, and to trust Heavenly Father.
That unanswered prayer of my mom passing away hasn't been resolved, in the sense that, like, my mom isn't alive, you know, she hasn't come back to life miraculously. And there's still been, you know, other prayers, maybe not as big as that in the grand scheme of things that have gone unanswered. And I still don't fully understand why my mom had to be taken from me and my little sister when we were so young. And I don't know if that's something that I'll ever fully understand in this life.
But I just know that He hears the unanswered prayers. And He is there for us. And it may just not be in the way that we want, or the way that we recognize. And it may take years to look back and recognize that God was there for that unanswered prayer.
What changed for me was the perspective. That instead of focusing on everything that went wrong, I just started to focus on the things that went right.
And I started to focus on the fact that, you know, my dad got remarried, like, nine months after my mom had passed away. And he married a wonderful woman, who is incredible, and loves me and my little sister with everything. And then together, they had my two littlest sisters who I love, and who I could not imagine life without.
And that I realized that, you know, I had such a great support group around me. Neighbors and family and friends, who were there to help me. And so I think what changed is that I, I learned that I could ask for help from Heavenly Father, during the midst of trials and after them, and that he would be there to help me, and that he would, you know, lift that burden.
You know, Heavenly Father knew that my mom wasn't going to survive, and I know that he heard that little nine year old prayer. And I think when I was younger, I, I think I had more so of an image of God, kind of just being this kind of ruthless, like hard person who, you know, didn't like me very much, and so He didn't answer that prayer, and He was okay watching me struggle.
But as I got older, I started to recognize and realize that, you know, I'm sure that Heavenly Father wasn't sitting around going, "Oh, I'm so happy that, you know, sweet Anna's mom's gonna die," or watching my mom suffer through cancer . . I know that He was probably weeping with us, and that He was probably really sad about it too, but that He knew that it was gonna happen, and so He put things in place that He knew were gonna help me and my family after that trial.
And during that trial, I mean, just the incredible amount of tender mercies, and so that specific prayer of like, "Please don't let my mom die," wasn't answered, but then He puts things in my life to help me so that I would be able to overcome it.
That was Anna.
I think we might all be able to relate to that feeling she had, I know I can when she ran headfirst into the dissonance of what she had learned about prayer in primary, and what she learned about prayer while living it.
So many things in our spiritual life can feel like a betrayal when the rubber hits the road of discipleship, and we recognize that there's a little bit more variation in the stories than what we were told in primary.
And anger. Anger is a really normal response to this kind of betrayal, whether it's real or perceived. It's what we decide to do with that anger in the long run that really matters.
I happen to know Anna's stepmother, and I know that while Anna's childhood anger response was anything but pleasant. She was really lucky to have two adults in her life who saw it for what it was and held her more closely during her bouts of rage.
And I think while it might not feel like it – that that's what our Father in Heaven is doing for us. For each of us. He's doing that same thing, drawing us closer during our raging as we learn to manage our expectations against the reality of growth in the Gospel.
Anna's story is a lesson to all of us. She didn't stop praying despite the challenge to her belief about prayer. And that eventually led her to an open heart about serving a mission, which is where her healing was prepared all along.
And though parts of her understanding about that unanswered prayer remain totally unresolved, that's the part of her story that gives me the most hope. It's a testament to humanity's unflagging capacity, to thrive in the in-between spaces. To sit with the pain of the unknown, and still have gratitude for what we do know. To feel the rage of that dissonance and still call out to a father we can only hope is hearing us. To experience the loss of a beloved mother and discover a new love in our little sisters. I really think that unanswered prayers magnified this hopeful truth about each of us.
Our next story about prayers unanswered comes from Juan.
Way back when I was a much younger man and full of more energy, my wife and I had decided that at some point in the future, we wanted to own a restaurant. But the big problem here in West Palm Beach, Florida is that most of our restaurants business is done on Saturday and Sunday.
Especially with – ironically – the church crowds. Obviously, we couldn't have a business that works on Sunday because of our own religious beliefs, but we found that Chick-fil-a doesn't open on Sundays, so it seemed to me that would be the perfect franchise to get.
You work six days a week like the Lord commanded, and you're off resting on a seventh day. Win-win for everybody. So we decided that's what we wanted to do. And so we prayed about it. We got great feelings about Chick-fil-a, that was it. That was the answer to our prayers.
Early on in our marriage, we made the commitment to be full tithe payers, because the Lord has distinctly said, "If you give your tithing God will bless you." And we knew that that was the way it is, because we've seen it in other aspects of our life.
So as we were paying our tithing, we were expecting that this is what would happen. You pay your tithing, you get blessings, and one of the blessings that we wanted was a Chick-fil-a.
So we contacted the corporate Chick-Fil-a offices and the franchise department and so forth and we were talking to them, and they told us they had no interest at all in opening here in West Palm Beach, because a few years before that, the one that they had here, there was a robbery, and it resulted in a fatality.
It was a real blow, honestly, you know, because we knew that this was what was supposed to happen. How could it possibly not happen?
Two years later, the news opens up that some entrepreneur guy who's already worth millions of dollars really loved Chick-fil-A. So he bought a lot here in the middle of town and told Chick-fil-A, "Hey, I'm going to build a restaurant, would you like franchise fees?" Instead, he decided having a Chick-fil-A in West Palm Beach would be amazing. You could imagine what I'm thinking, right? He doesn't need any more money. Or at least I didn't think he needed any more money because that's what's supposed to be my money. So it hurt. I mean, I was crushed.
And caused me to question several things. I questioned my own thought process about tithing and about how God could be so unfair when I had been so good. I mean, I see other people around me very successful. And I knew a lot about them that they were not, quote, "churchy people." So I struggled a lot to resolve their success with their lifestyle versus my lack of success with my lifestyle, which I thought was better because I was following the commandments that God wanted, and he's not blessing me the way I want.
It just changed my entire outlook. And it changed my relationship with God and with the Church. I stopped asking for things. And instead of asking for very specific things, you asked for the general things in hopes of not being disappointed.
So it was about two years that I just had this horrible bitterness and then our daughter Zoe was born. A couple years went by, and her pre-k daycare gave out bagels with peanut butter on and she reacted badly. It wasn't threatening her life, but it was close.
And that's when we discovered that she had peanut allergies. And so after that, it was all hands on deck. We scrubbed our house of all things peanut, egg, and milk related because egg and milk are two other allergies she had. We didn't go to birthday parties because we don't know what would be in the cake or where it was made or what instruments they might have used to make it that might have come in contact with everything she was allergic to. And we cut our lives down to one restaurant, a barbecue joint that we were made sure had none of her allergies.
We really cut a lot of things out of our life to make sure that she, honestly, that she didn't die. And it was rough on the other two kids, but they eventually got used to it. It was a sacrifice we were willing to make to keep her with us.
Time passed, and I had mostly accepted that I was not going to be a restaurant owner and I was not going to be a Chick-fil-A owner. But I travel a lot around town for work. My job keeps me out of the office in a work truck. And I would pass by that stupid Chick-fil-A three times a week.
And if you've ever been by a Chick-fil-A, there's never a time when there isn't six, seven cars in the drive thru. It's just horribly poppin' and horribly busy. And I was just thinking about all that money that millionaire is getting that I wasn't getting.
So every couple times a week I get a little jab in the side, and I'd move on and try to forget it and then I go past it again. I had mostly let it go, but every now and then it would just get to me a little bit.
One day, I was out in my work truck. And I was driving past Chick-fil-A and my stomach decided to forgive the millionaire guy and go get a Chick-fil-A sandwich. But as usual, there's like 20 cars in the drive thru. And I didn't feel like being in line. So I parked the truck and I went inside. And as I go inside, there's this giant banner across the front. It says, "Celebrating 40 years of cooking with peanut oil."
And I stopped. Everything kind of went blank except for the sign. I stopped breathing. I just felt stunned beyond all belief and just turned to walk back out because going through my head was if I had owned this franchise when my child was born, then possibly the first time I ever held my daughter, my newborn daughter in my arms, having come home from work, a hard day at the franchise. And if anybody's ever worked in a restaurant, you know, you carry the restaurant home in your clothes, it just seeps into you. So I would have carried all that peanut home with me and possibly killed my daughter the first time I held her after work. And that's the moment that I realized that I was being the worst possible son ever. I'd literally been looking at my dad and yelling at him because he wouldn't let me touch the stove, in love.
It made me think about all the other times that I didn't do something because I wasn't sure. Or I didn't get that answer I wanted to the prayer. I prayed and prayed and prayed to get that Chick-fil-A.. And if I had gotten that Chick-fil-A, I would have lost my daughter.
Now, speaking from the future, the science has come out that supposedly peanut oil is processed in a way that it removes the proteins that create allergens. But it has the word peanut in it and I'm not taking the chance. It's one of those things you don't want to "if" about.
And so I was angry at my dad for not letting me touch the hot stove. And all he had to do was let me touch the hot stove and I would have been happy, or so I thought. Instead, he didn't let me touch the hot stove. And my daughter just turned 16 two days ago. So, that was a really hard moment because I realized I was being a complete idiot for the past four years. I was actually upset at God for getting a blessing because sometimes the blessing is not getting what you want.
This experience changed the way I think about tithing and prayer. Tithing, and the blessings you get from tithing, doesn't necessarily mean, "Hey, if I pay 10%, God's gonna make me a millionaire." No, that means that, you know, things don't break as often. Friends help you out. You find sales on items that normally don't go on sale, things like that those are robust, and they're tiny. They're small blessings that add up. And that's what that scripture means: but I will pour out blessings upon you until you can handle them anymore. It's the little blessings that add up, not the great big blessing.
Prayer, for me, and I think for our entire family, has become more of a thank you note. We don't really pray for the giant things anymore. We give more thanks. And then we asked for, we asked for protection for our family, we asked for health for everyone, especially right now.
I used to ask God for things and I quit asking God for the big things when all this happened because I was angry. He's, I'm gonna ask him and he's gonna say no anyway. I mean, how many kids have done that? You know, I asked, and asked and asked, and dad always says no. Okay, fine, then I won't ask anymore. But now it's sort of developed into I don't need those big things because he has given me so many smaller things that actually have ended up being a small part of being greater than the sum of the whole.
It sounds strange, but I know that I'm not destined to be that world changer. There are certain people that come into the world that are destined to change the world. Our family is the family of worker bees in the hive. And we know this, and we don't necessarily look for the big things, but we do appreciate the daily comforts that we have. We're the disciples that weren't mentioned in the Bible, the crowds that follow Jesus and follow His commandments but didn't get the spotlight, that's us. And we're okay with that now. And we're happy with the things that we have. We have three healthy children, we have enough for our needs. And enough for an occasional want, and then it's good enough for us. And we love each other as a family and we will do anything for each other. And we know that we're there for each other every day. And then God has our backs. That is a lesson I got from the unanswered prayer.
That was Juan.
We first featured Juan's story in our "This Is the Gospel" video series back in 2017, I think. And it was really fun to revisit the details and learn more about how he came to understand the gift of his unanswered prayer.
History demonstrates a really cool trick that many of us already kind of do unconsciously as we hit new roadblocks in our journey towards eternity. It's called cognitive reframing, and let me give you a little crash course. In the same way that buildings have a frame that determines the shape of the rooms we live in, many of our beliefs and attitudes act as the frames that determine the shape of our testimony. So when we choose to renovate our homes or reshape our testimony, sometimes we have to make adjustments to that frame. And how we do that might look different for each of us. But in all cases, it's a choice, a gift of our agency.
For Juan, the remodel started with the idea that God doesn't keep his promises and all that bitterness that seeped into his heart every time he drove by that Chick-fil-A. But then with time and a gentle nudge from heaven in the form of a vinyl sign that showed him that maybe his perspective could use some adjustments, he chose to review, to repent, and to take stock of his framework about tithing and about prayer. The result was a totally new perspective, a reframing of, "God doesn't keep his promises," into, "The promise was not to grant my wishes, the promises to pour out blessings that he knows I need."
You know this reframing, this is hard spiritual work, my friends. Some of us are naturally gifted at it, and it just flows from us. But the rest of us, like me, well, reframing takes time. And it takes humility, and it takes practice and sometimes a lot of help from above. But the good news that we saw in Juan's story is that reframing is a skill that can be learned and mastered in this life. And it's a skill that will help us to draw closer to our Father in Heaven, even in the midst of our trials.
This idea of reframing reminds me of one of my favorite lessons from one of my favorite gospel teachers. S. Michael Wilcox wrote a book called, "When Your Prayers Seem to Go Unanswered," and it's a short little gem from the Time Out for Women classics. So some of you actually may even remember this TOFW presentation.
In this book, he masterfully shows us so many ways that we can reframe our belief about God's seeming silence. And I don't have time to tell you the whole book. It's so good, but the part of his message that has been rolling around in my heart today is this, quote, "Occasionally answers aren't given, or the blessings we desire don't come, or the trials we bear continue because there is no place in our hearts for God to put the answer we need. Life must carve or hollow out this place. The very experiences we are going through helped to create these holding places, yet he still hears our prayers and promises the resolution will come in time."
This concept of time and experience carving out the holding place is so beautiful to me. I often think that if the Lord had granted my petitions and shown me the reasons and purpose for some of the most painful unanswered prayers when I was in the middle of begging for understanding, my heart might have been too smooth, to free of the friction necessary to hold the truth in its place. I needed that time, and, frankly, I needed the heartbreak to crack open space for that new perspective. And when the time was just right so that I could see the answer from all sides in its new home in my renovated heart, that's when the understanding came. And isn't it so amazing to see the creation of that holding place in both of the stories that we heard today?
Beyond the anger and the fear, the resentment, that feeling of unfairness and blame, beyond that lay a new way of seeing the world and God's goodness. But first, Anna had to step out of her comfort zone and into her mission to teach others about the power of prayer and the plan of salvation. And Juan had to step into fatherhood and out of his truck to witness what Brother Wilcox calls the given good from God instead of the expected good. With each step, the holding place was being hollowed out of the studs of their hearts, so that they could reframe their experience with God and His love for them. And if like Anna, the full answer to our heartfelt prayers have not yet found their way to us, well, I have to quote Brother Wilcox again, "May we have the patience to wait for life, measured by the wisdom of God, to carve the holding places in our hearts."
Today, I wish you patience, my friends. There are so many questions that God has yet to answer, but the promise is that he will answer them.
That's it for this episode of "This Is the Gospel." Thank you to our storytellers, Anna and Juan, for sharing their stories and their wisdom. We'll have more info about each of these storytellers, including a link to Juan's original "This Is the Gospel" video and Michael Wilcox's his book "When Your Prayers Seem to Go Unanswered" in our show notes at ldsliving.com/thisisthegospel.
You can find more of the good stuff by joining us over at Instagram and Facebook at thisisthegospel_podcast. All of the stories in this episode are true and accurate as affirmed by our storytellers.
If you'd like to become one of our storytellers, the best way to throw your hat in the ring is through our pitch line. We find so many of our stories like Anna's from the pitch line. We listen to every pitch and we love to hear how the gospel of Jesus Christ is transforming your lives. The best pitches are going to be short, sweet, and have a clear sense of the focus of your story. You'll have three minutes to pitch it when you call 515-519-6179. So come prepared.
And listen, while we can't get back to everyone who calls the pitch line, please don't give up hope. If you haven't heard from us yet, it can sometimes take months and even years to develop just the right theme for your story.
This episode was produced by me, KaRyn Lay, with story production and editing from Erika Free and Kelly Campbell. It was scored, mixed and mastered by Mix at 6 Studios and our executive producer is Erin Hallstrom. You can find past episodes of this podcast and other LDS Living podcasts at ldsliving.com/podcasts.