We have all been in a place where we have wondered, “God, why did you not answer my prayers?” It’s difficult to humble yourself before an almighty God and ask for his hand to intervene. And in some ways, can feel as if prayers evaporate into nothingness. But what is prayer really?

C.S. Lewis in his essay titled The Efficacy of Prayer writes, “For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them.”

The difficulty is accepting that prayer is a request to God. If God so chooses to not answer our prayers, then who are we to question his decision? But this reality is not satisfactory for most. That is, not all unanswered requests are as petty as “Give me a promotion” or “Bless me with a new car.” There are some request that are worth asking and, in many cases, worth answering like when a child is sick or someone is being wrongfully accused. How then can we reconcile the tension between pure hearted request that go completely unanswered? The obvious resolutions are either accept it or abandon our request, but this does not prove anything. If we abandon prayer, then we are potentially giving up something that is essential to the Christian life, yet if we accept prayer blindly, then we are at risk of spending a lifetime participating in a practice that does not even matter. We must understand three key elements to prayer.

1. Prayers are more than words

We use words to communicate, which is why it is important to know how to arrange words together to communicate clearly. This seems rather obvious, but with all the clutter of words in the world, it can be difficult to find value in communication. However, what makes words truly powerful goes beyond the arrangement and into the convictions of a person. If someone gives a speech and has no conviction or passion for what she is saying, then the words, no matter how beautifully arranged, become meaningless (see Matthew6:7). If there was actual power in the words alone, then we could hire someone to pray on our behalf for better results in life, but that would mean prayer was no different than an incantation.

2. Not all prayers should be answered

A world where all prayers were answered would be utter chaos and full of impossibilities. Multiple people would ask for the same hand in marriage or ask for contradicting results. A criminal would ask for mercy and his victim for justice. What could be done in situations like this? It is a good thing that prayers are not all answered, because not everyone should have what they want—no matter how hard they may ask.

It is a good thing that prayers are not all answered, because not everyone should have what they want—no matter how hard they may ask.

While this may be obvious, what are we to do with passages of Scripture that seem to promise whatever we ask? For example, Mark 11:24 says, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” This seems like a golden ticket to have your heart’s desires, but common sense tells us that there must be more to this passage, right? Well, there is. Understanding Scripture is not complicated, but it does require work. That is, it takes time to understand the heart of God. If anyone were to read Mark 11:24 in isolation, they’d think God was a liar since their wishes were never fulfilled. We should read the entirety of Scripture in order to understand its intent.

3. Prayer is a partnering with God

If not all prayer can be answered, then what kinds of prayers are answered? In my own personal life, I had a prominent leader in the Christian community tell me that the more “righteous” I am before God, the more likely my prayers would be answered and used James 5:16 as a proof text. In his mind, it was an equation where righteousness equals answered prayers. But tell that to a Christian mother who is in the middle of a miscarriage, or a person who is battling a disease. I know this well, as my own sister was told this during a difficult pregnancy that ultimately ended in miscarriage. Again, this is a misinterpretation of Scripture. No one can be more righteous than another; you’re either righteous or you’re not. And as Christians, we are all equally righteous because our righteousness comes from Christ alone–without him, we are all unrighteous (Romans 3:10).

God does not need us to fulfill his purposes, but through our prayers—and actions for this matter—we get to participate instead of spectate.

The kinds of prayers that are answered are the ones that align with God’s will. This makes sense. If God is sovereign, good, and orchestrating the world, then it follows that he would grant prayers which align with his purposes. First John 5:14 says, “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” God, therefore, allows us to be a part of the process, to join in to praying for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But why pray if God is going to do it anyways? Because God does not need us to fulfill his purposes, but through our prayers—and actions for this matter—we get to participate instead of spectate.

Prayer is not just meant to be a gateway to have God grant our every whim, but an intimate line of communication to share our burdens and have God bear them with us. Through prayer we can hit pause on life and connect with the God who controls it all. However, there is one prayer that will always be answered: no matter what we face, God will be with us and help us through it. And the fact that an almighty God would come down and be with us should encourage gratitude in our hearts.