When Prayers Go Unanswered


  • Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank all the participants in this study and the domestic violence organizations that helped in recruiting them. He would also like to thank Deborah Carr, Jeff Kidder, Kristin Myers, Adam Slez, Elizabeth Schewe, Laura Olson, and the anonymous reviewers for all their comments and suggestions for improving this article. This study was funded in part by the University of Wisconsin Department of Soeciology and the Constant H. Jacquet Research Award from the Religious Research Association. The author is solely responsible for all interpretations and errors.

Correspondence should be addressed to Shane Sharp, Department of Sociology, Northern Illinois University, 908 Zulauf Hall, DeKalb, IL 60115. E-mail: shanesharp@niu.edu


Many Americans believe God answers prayers, but scholars know little about how individuals handle situations in which they perceive that prayers have gone unanswered. Using data from an in-depth interview project with current and former victims of intimate partner violence, I argue that perceived unanswered prayers cause challenges to belief systems that elicit attribution processes—or cognitive processes through which individuals try to explain the causes of actors’ behavior—whose outcomes are explanations for why God did not answer their prayers. I find that the outcomes of these attribution processes are God-serving justifications, or attributions of God's perceived unanticipated or problematic behavior that define this behavior as appropriate to the situation. God-serving justifications for unanswered prayers fall into three types: (1) appeal to higher loyalties, (2) affirmation of benefits, and (3) denial of the pray-er. I conclude with a discussion of the implications and limitations of the analysis.