Every Christian I know struggles with the reality of unanswered prayer. If you don’t, then either (1) you’ve been a Christian for about 10 minutes or (2) you’re lying.

In general, unanswered prayer is a tension we need to accept, allowing it to move us to deeper trust in God and greater persistence in prayer. But in specific cases, there are a host of reasons God might not be answering your prayer.

Here are five reasons God may not be answering your prayers (this list isn’t exhaustive):

1. You are not right with God.

There are many beautiful promises in Scripture that God makes about the power of prayer. But all of them apply only to those walking in fellowship with him. Nowhere in Scripture do we find God say that he will hear and answer the prayer of an unbeliever. Quite the opposite: Psalm 66:18, for instance, says that if we cherish sin in our hearts, the Lord will stop up his ears when we pray to him.

Does God sometimes hear and answer the prayers of unbelievers? Yes, I believe he does, because his compassion and graciousness are astounding. But the only people he promises to hear are his children.

2. Something in you needs to change.

James writes, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3 ESV). In other words, sometimes God doesn’t grant us our request because we ask with the wrong motives. Even if the thing we’re asking for may be good—in its own right—God doesn’t want to honor a heart asking from the wrong motivation.

As an example of this, I was talking with a couple in our church who had an estranged relationship with their son. They had prayed for years that he would change and return to them, and they couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t answer their prayer. But the longer they prayed, the more God revealed to them that they had pushed him away. To reconcile the relationship, God had work he wanted to do in the people praying, not in the people being prayed about.

Unanswered prayer can be one of God’s tools for purifying us. We think we need deliverance from our circumstance. But God knows that what we need most is Christlikeness. To get us there, he often has to tell us, “No.”

3. Your prayers do not align with God’s will.

The prayers that start in heaven are the ones that are heard by heaven. Or, as the Apostle John put it,

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us … and we know that if he hears us, we have the requests that we have asked of him.

(1 John 5:14-15)

Simply put, sometimes God doesn’t answer our prayers because we are praying for the wrong things. And we may not be doing this out of malice, either, so much as out of ignorance. Perhaps we don’t know enough of God’s Word to know his will. Or perhaps we simply don’t have the wisdom to discern his desires for a certain situation.

Whatever the reason, we have to recognize that we aren’t omniscient. If God isn’t answering, we have to develop the trust to respond with, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

4. Your prayer circumvents God’s processes.

This may seem rather obvious, but it’s surprising how rarely people admit it. God has set up our universe to run according to ordered laws. This means that miracles are, by definition, rare. Don’t get me wrong: God performs miracles, and it honors him when we faithfully pray for them. (I continue to do so, and you should, too.) But we have to recognize that prayer isn’t a magic charm that manipulates God.

An example may help here. Americans may not be a people of prayer usually, but we are when our favorite sports team is involved. But let’s be honest: Is God concerned about governing the outcomes of sporting events? I suppose it’s possible (though even then, I doubt he’s as invested as the average UNC student). But coaches generally win games not based on the prayer strategy of their fan base, but by the more mundane method we call “practice.”

Here’s a more spiritual example. What if you prayed, “God, for everyone in Afghanistan, I pray that you would make them believers in Jesus.” That seems to align with God’s will, broadly speaking, but it’s unlikely to be answered just like that. Why? Because it defies the processes God has set in place. God uses his church to preach the gospel. God allows us the legitimate choice in accepting the gospel. And God won’t suddenly suspend those truths because you asked him to “save everyone.”

5. He delays his answer until his return.

I suspect that most of our prayers aren’t as trivial as asking for UNC to win the national championship or as naïve as asking God to save everyone in Afghanistan. Usually, when we are experiencing unanswered prayer, it’s because we are in the midst of intense struggle. Perhaps, as I mentioned above, God has something to teach us in the struggle. But I never want to imply that he listens to our cries of distress with apathy. One of my favorite titles for God in Scripture, in fact, is Jehovah Shammah, “The God Who Hears.”

In the book of Revelation, there is a beautiful image for prayer. God says that “the prayers of his people” are like “golden bowls full of incense,” rising up before him (Revelation 5:8). He stores them up, waiting to answer them when he comes to restore all things.

That means that the prayers you’ve offered for relief, for healing, for restoration—good and right prayers—may not be answered in this life, but they will be answered in eternity. On that final day, God will wipe away every tear from every eye, which means that all of the pain we experience from broken bodies, broken desires, and broken relationships will be mended.

Knowing we pray to a God more compassionate and more powerful than we can comprehend, should we not endure unanswered prayers with patience and hope? “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24).