Some will say there is no such thing as unanswered prayer, that's God responses fall into three categories: yes, no and not yet.
While this is a nice neat little package it doesn't help the people who are suffering and not seeing any divine help coming their way. To me, responding to another's pain with a theological category is very much the approach of Job's comforters - their words didn't connect at the heart level and they caused more hurt instead of easing the agony.
An unanswered prayer feels like what it is, a no or not yet, but that doesn't help a person understand why. And there usually is no possibility of getting a response to why unless God grants a special revelation into his inner workings. For the most part we are never granted that kind of look into how things tick supernaturally. So we are left with the feeling of being let down or abandoned or ignored, the same way we'd feel if we asked a friend or neighbor for help and got silence in response.
A "why answer" helps people cope. In its absence all kinds of reasons for silence in the face of our prayers are conjured up: God hates me, God doesn't love me, there is no God, there is a God but he doesn't involve himself in human affairs, I have some great sin in my life that is blocking God's power, I need to fast more, I need to pray harder, there is a special formula for getting God's attention and I don't know it. Books purporting to give you the right theology for coping or the right formula for overcoming number in the thousands.
I have prayed for different things simultaneously and seen some clearly answered and doors flung wide open while the other prayers never appeared to receive any attention at all. After a lifetime of God's selective response and intervention I have come to the conclusion he works from a different clock, a different timetable and a different set of priorities and principles than I do. I have watched good men die and evil men live and later die, never repenting of their deeds, and I know the stock response to this is that God gave the evil man more time in order to give him another chance. But such an answer, which we cannot know is true or not since we are not God, does not deal with the pain of the family that lost a father and husband too soon (from our point of view). The "why" is not answered and the grieving are left to grieve without comprehension.
Yet God chose for it to work this way. Yes, we have The Fall and the sinful human race and Satan and a broken world, none of which was part of the original plan. But still it remains that in dealing with a broken world and broken humans it was God's choice for prayer to work in the fashion we are used to: some answers come quick, some don't, some may not be answered in our lifetime. We are left with believing (or not) in a God of love regardless of harsh realities and we are left with living a life of faith that doesn't dwell on what is seen but what is unseen.
For some the challenge is simply too great in the face of intense and unalleviated suffering and they walk away from God, sometimes for a while, sometimes forever. Others hang on to faith but do it grimly with little joy or celebration left inside. I myself long to consistently live out a third way: life in the midst of the suffering and joy despite the added suffering of unanswered prayer. Sometimes I'm able to do this, sometimes I'm not. Certainly without the help of the Holy Spirit it is impossible to live out the third way of dancing in the dark.
If people are convinced it is all part of God's plan, and that the bottom line of God's plan is love, they gain great strength in the midst of suffering. But this is easier said than done when the suffering is 12 on a scale of one to ten. There is some suffering that seems to be beyond belief. How some rise above it without becoming bitter or twisted can only be explained by a touch from God, a touch they wanted and reached for rather than rejecting it. For those who do not believe it can only be explained by the same touch, whether or not they wanted it or acknowledged it. Sometimes what we really want goes beyond what we say we do or do not believe for God is working with a deep spirit in each of us that expresses the truest of our desires or hopes regardless of what we think with our minds or express with our lips.
I myself, in the midst of prayers I wanted or needed answered yesterday or last year - or almost, it seems, in another lifetime when I was 5 or 15 or 25 - take comfort in the midst of snarls of spiritual barbed wire by the fact that Jesus faced unanswered prayer too, unanswered in the sense that he didn't get the answer he wanted. Three times he asked God the Father to eliminate the necessity of the Crucifixion and three times he did not get the answer he craved. Finally, in an act we are all familiar with, he realized it wasn't going to go exactly the way he wanted, and he accepted and submitted to "Thy will be done" rather than "my will be done." Which did not mean the whip or nails hurt any less nor did it make the Cross any less lethal. It just meant he had fixed himself in God's will despite the pain and the darkness and that he gained strength and a right perspective from that.
In my wrestling with unanswered prayer, I want to be where Jesus was by the time they came for him with cudgels and swords and torches in the night. For my salvation comes from the Cross that Jesus died on. And that Cross came about due to unanswered prayer. I can only hope to God all my unanswered prayer ultimately results in more life, not less, in more redemption, not less, in more of God and God's love in the world, not less.
And that will be the answer for me as it was for Jesus: light shining out of darkness. His Cross becoming Light. And all my crosses becoming light too.