There are some who speak of “unanswered” prayers. We understand what they mean, but the terminology leads to a flawed idea. For the child of God, reborn by grace through faith in Christ, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, there is no such thing as “unanswered” prayer. There are just some times that the answer is “no”.
Paul experienced this himself. And remember that this was a man highly favored by the Savior, used in remarkable ways, and more zealous than we may ever be this side of heaven. There was some sort of affliction that he was enduring, something that he called a thorn in his flesh. We don’t know exactly what it was, and theories range from a besetting sin to a kidney stone. Whatever it was, Paul prayed “three times” (i.e. many times) for God to remove it. Here was the outcome in 2 Corinthians 12:9:
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.
This was the Savior talking to Paul. The phrase “he said” could be better translated “he has said”; in other words, it is the final word.
We don’t really know how He said that to him, but He did. And His response to Paul’s request was “No. My grace is enough for you. You don’t need me to remove this from you in order for you to lead My people well. I am giving you everything that you need and don’t deserve. And you know why? Because my power shines forth in your weakness. When I do my unbelievable work through a weak man in his weakest, my glory shines forth.”
And Paul’s response was excellent. Once he understood the reason for the thorn, not only did he stop requesting that the thorn be removed, but he started delighting in his weakness, because in his weakness, he was a backdrop to the delightful power of Christ.
Arguably, Paul’s prayer was not bad. He probably wanted the thorn removed so that he could be a more effective workman and leader in the church. But in this case, this “good” request was the wrong one, because God had something greater planned.
Christians pray for good requests all the time, with the help of the Holy Spirit. And sometimes, our prayers are met with “no” or “not right now”. We pray for the swift end of ISIS. We pray for the eradication of the murder of billions of babies. Good prayers. No. Not right now. And our response can either be to harden our hearts against God, or we can rejoice in our sufferings, rejoice in the “no”, because we know that what God has planned, whatever it is, will show His power in our weakness. And His grace is sufficient for us.