Prayer is utterly profound—the creature piercing heaven with his words. Prayer is a gospel privilege: now reconciled to God, clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, Christians have the freedom to approach their sovereign Savior’s throne of grace, not in cowering fear, but in bold confidence (Heb 4:16). Prayer is a refuge—the weak and lowly coming to the Rock of our salvation (Ps 62:2), casting their cares upon Him, and knowing that He cares for them (1 Peter 5:7). Prayer is a reminder of God’s immanence and care: “The righteous cry, and LORD hears” (Ps 34:17). The wonder of that verse never ceases to amaze me.
And yet, what do we often experience in the Christian life? Unanswered prayer. We ask, and do not receive. We seek, and do not find. We knock, and the door is not opened. At times, heaven’s doors seemed barred to God’s children. Every believer has experienced God saying no to his or her most sincere requests. Abraham, specially chosen to receive God’s covenant, asked for Sodom and Gomorrah to be spared, and yet God sent fire from heaven to destroy the cities (Gen 18–19). David, a man after God’s own heart, was all too familiar with unanswered prayer. He prayed for his son to live, and still God brought death (2 Sam 12:14–31). Paul, that bold and faithful apostle, pleaded for his thorn in the flesh to be removed, and yet God let it remain (2 Cor 12:7–9). Even Jesus received a no from His Father while in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:39–44).
Unanswered prayer is an everyday part of the Christian life. We cry with the psalmist, “O my God, I cry by day, but You do not answer” (Ps 22:2). There are nights when, through our tears, we ask, Where are you God? (cf. Ps 42:3); and mornings when we wonder if the darkness of unanswered prayer will ever lift.
A Story About Unanswered Prayer
Why does God say no to our most sincere requests, greatest hopes, and most heartfelt desires? Why does He not open, when we knock?
Those are the questions that begin the story of Jesus and Lazarus. Mary and Martha ask Jesus to heal their brother, only to hear Him say no. They ask for their brother to live, only to see him die. They ask Jesus to come to their home quickly, only to wait in expectation for days. And yet as the story progresses, Jesus’ no is shown to be what was best for this family. His silence was for their good—a principle that remains true for every Christian who hears no from God.
This story is for all who have ever heard no from God.
Two Sisters Pray
John 11 opens with these words, “Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany” (John 11:1). This is no ordinary sickness. “Sick” (ἀσθενέω) described a condition that utterly devastated the body. We’ve seen this word before. It was the nobleman’s son who was “sick … to the point of death” (John 4:46) and the lame man who was “ill for thirty-eight years” (John 5:5). Lazarus has succumbed to sickness of the most serious sort. Debilitating. Deadly. Terminal. And his sisters knew the prognosis; without supernatural intervention, their brother would die.
And yet Mary and Martha were filled with hope. They knew Jesus—the one who had, for the last three years, shown His power over all disease. Whether it be leprosy, paralysis, a withered hand, a blood flow, or blindness, they knew no ailment was outside Jesus’ healing touch. But their hope was fueled, not only by Jesus’ power over disease, but by Jesus’ love for them. They had a special relationship with Jesus. Jesus loved them, and they knew He particularly loved Lazarus. This is why they began their prayer, “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick” (John 11:3, emphasis added). Though their request for healing is left unexpressed, it was certainly implied.
They knew Jesus’ track record. For years He had healed multitudes, and for the most part they were people Jesus did not know. “Certainly, Jesus will heal our brother whom He loves” was what the sisters thought. In fact, the sisters’ first words to Jesus when He finally arrived in Bethany are telling, “Martha then said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died’” (John 11:21, emphasis added). Mary repeats this in v. 32, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32, emphasis added). Their prayer was for Jesus’ healing presence.
And if you did not already know this story, every indication leads you to believe that Jesus will, in fact, answer the sister’s request.
First, whenever the word sick is used throughout the Gospels, it is always in the context of healing. To the nobleman, whose son was “sick … to the point of death … Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your son lives’” (John 4:50). To the man lame for 38 years, “Jesus said to him, ‘Get up, pick up your pallet and walk’” (John 5:8). In Mark’s Gospel we read, “Wherever He entered villages, or cities, or countryside, they were laying the sick in the market places, and imploring Him that they might just touch the fringe of His cloak; and as many as touched it were being cured” (Mark 6:56, emphasis added). In Luke, “While the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and laying His hands on each one of them, He was healing them” (Luke 4:40, emphasis added). At every point when sickness is mentioned, healing follows.
Certainly Lazarus would not be the one exception to this rule. Would he?
He Whom You Love
But there is a second reason we might think Jesus will heal Lazarus—Jesus loved Lazarus. So special was Jesus’ relationship to Lazarus, there was no need for the sisters to mention his name. Lazarus is simply, “he whom You love” (John 11:3)—one of only two people in John’s Gospel referred to in this way (cf. John 19:26). The sisters had seen the special affection Jesus had for their brother. They knew the unique bond they shared. They were sure Jesus’ love for Lazarus would compel His healing power.
And so, they hoped. They prayed. They pled.
The Savior Delays
And yet what does Jesus do? How does He answer Mary and Martha’s intercession for their brother? Jesus says, “No. I will not heal him. I will not come to you immediately. Lazarus will be the one exception to the rule. I will actually let him die.”
Jesus chose not to speak a word of healing from a distance, like He did for the nobleman’s son (John 4:50). He did not transport Himself through time and space, like He did when He calmed the storm (John 6:21). He didn’t even go back to Bethany with the messengers. He delayed. Waited. Stayed. “So when He heard that he was sick, He stayed two days longer in the place where He was” (John 11:6). It was a delay that lasted four days.
Think of the agony Mary and Martha must have experienced. The sisters wanted Jesus to heal Lazarus immediately, and yet He did not come. Four days of sorrow. Four days of funeral preparations. Four days of tears. Four days of mourning. Four days questioning Jesus’ love.
Why No, Lord?
Why did you not answer my prayer Lord? Why are you not easing my pain? Why are you not taking away my sorrow? I’ve asked with tears. I’ve asked with hope. I’ve asked in faith. I know you have the power to grant my request. I know you love me. So, why have you not moved? Why have you not worked?
We have all asked those questions. And often our search for answers comes up dry. We look for signs, only to be disappointed. We seek council from friends. Yet, we too often forget that answers to these questions have already been given.
Jesus did not leave Mary and Martha in the dark. He sent the messengers back with an important message—an explanation as to why He chose not to heal Lazarus; why He did not grant the sisters’ request; why He let Lazarus die.
And the answer Jesus gives these sisters is the same answer He gives us today. And that is the answer that will be given in part 2 of this article. But for a sneak peak, read John 11:4 for yourself. Also consider this quote by J.I. Packer:
Perhaps he means to strengthen us in patience, good humor, compassion, humility or meekness. … Perhaps he has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps he wishes to break us of complacency or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to himself. … Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling.
 The special nature of Jesus’ affection for Lazarus is further highlighted when you realize John has not mentioned Jesus’ love for anyone up to this point in his Gospel. In John 3, we were told that the Father loved the world (John 3:16). In John 5, the Father loved the Son (John 5:20). In John 8, people loved Jesus (John 8:42). And yet there has not been any mention of Jesus’ love for others. Certainly Jesus loved, but it has only been an implied love. It seems that John has waited for this moment to speak specifically of Jesus’ love for someone. As Lazarus grows ill, Jesus’ love, for the first time, is explicitly stated.
 One day for the messengers to arrive and give Jesus the news. Two days, as Jesus stayed away. And a fourth day for Jesus to finally journey and arrive at Mary and Martha’s home.
 J.I. Packer, Knowing God, 91.