Why aren’t all our Prayers Answered the Way we Want?
Scripture tells us to pray to God because He wants to have a personal relationship with us. As our heavenly Father He loves us and wants our love in return. In short, through prayer God ushers us into His world and we invite Him into ours.
Through prayer God wants to guide our lives, give away His power, partner with us in His work in the world, and comfort us in our sorrows: but He never insists on doing these things if we refuse His advances. God is a reluctant intervener and He woos us and then waits. Waits for our response. And then waits some more. He won’t barge in without our acceptance of Him. The kingdom advances through grace and freedom. And we have been given the freedom to do whatever we want.
As our Father, God creates us in His image! Because God has free will He creates us to have free will also. We are not robots but are free to open our lives to God and allow Him to lead us and we are also free to keep our lives to ourselves and shut God out. By opening a door to the Lord’s call we allow the Holy Spirit into our lives. One of the names of the Holy Spirit is “Counselor” and when He comes into our lives, among other things He acts as our counselor.
We know that a counselor communicates subtly, and that is what our Holy Spirit does. Scripture says that He goes about feeding ideas into our minds, inspiring us to choose better, sensitizing us to another’s need, leading us gently into the truth. Our free will is always left in tact. Although this partnership with God may not appear to be dramatic from the outside looking in, having the Holy Spirit in our life makes it possible for believers in Jesus to become close to Him.
Here are a few things that the apostle Paul said about how it is when we open up to God and submit to His Spirit coming into our lives. “It is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose.” (Philippians 2:13) “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) This partnership between God and his followers binds so tightly that it becomes difficult to distinguish who is doing what, God or the human partner. God has come that close!!
If this sounds a bit mysterious that is because it is. Prayer and our relationship with God is a mystery. According to Scripture it seems that God wants to do much of his work in the world through us humans. God could have set up creation with very different rules. He could have decided to override our errors and intervene spectacularly. To do everything Himself and leave us on the sidelines. Or God might have, as the deists believe, set the world in motion and then gone away leaving us to take care of everything by ourselves. If God did everything leaving us out or if we did everything leaving God out then prayer would become irrelevant.
But instead God has relied on human partners to do His work and to advance His kingdom and that is wonderful and exciting but it can get messy sometimes! God does little on earth without the likes of you and me. Scripture says that we are Christ’s body on earth – His hands and feet! And that is one of the reasons we have this marvelous mysterious gift of prayer.
Prayer is not just placing orders for goods and expecting God to be the big bell boy in the sky who delivers what we asked for! Yes, Scripture tells us to “Ask and it will be given, “Seek and you shall find, Knock and it will be opened to you,” (Matthew 7:7) We are to ask in “Christ’s Name” and we are to know that our timeless God who sees the bigger picture may answer our prayers in ways that we can’t imagine. We can stomp our feet and get discouraged with prayer and with God because He doesn’t answer the way we think He should or as soon as we want. Or we can trust God no matter what and keep believing that He is answering even though His ways are a mystery to us. .
Yes, how God answers prayer is a mystery and we don’t know how to unravel the mystery! We read a story in Scripture that hints at this mystery - these built-in limitations in prayer! In Luke 22:31 we read that Jesus informs Peter that Satan has asked to sift him as wheat, - in other words Satan wants to try to undermine Simon Peter’s faith. (Peter’s name was Simon until Jesus gave him “Peter” as his new name.) But Jesus tells Peter that He will pray for him that his faith will stay strong through Satan’s testing.
We wonder why Jesus didn’t put his foot down and just say “No” to Satan. Why didn’t Jesus just deny Satan’s request to test Peter! Or why didn’t Jesus miraculously give Peter the strength so that he could withstand the sifting? Instead Jesus prays that Peter’s faith will not fail. And even after Jesus prays for Peter’s faith not to fail, it fails three times when Peter denied Jesus three times after He was arrested!
Satan’s asking Jesus for permission to test Peter is very similar to Satan asking God for permission to mess up Job! Satan tells God that Job only worships God because God has given Job so many blessings. If those blessings are taken away from Job, Satan tells God that Job will curse God to his face! (Job 1:9-11) God allows Satan to work some mischief with Job but forbids him to take Job’s life. And then God waits to see how Job responds. Will he fail or pass the test?
Peter and Job both get caught up in a drama of spiritual warfare so outside their realm that neither I am sure could fathom it! And we cannot fathom these things either! Because we read that Satan asked to mess with Peter and Job, could he ask to mess with other believers too? You and me? It’s a great puzzle that we cannot even begin to understand! Our place is to trust God to answer our prayers anyway He sees fit and know that He can work things together for good, even though it may not seem good to us for the time being.
Philip Yancey writes: “Why does God “sit on his hands” while Satan works mischief, while evil tyrants oppress good people, while a traitor delivers God’s own Son to the enemy? The Bible draws a strong contrast between the freedom-crushing style of evil and the freedom respecting style of good.” Philip Yancey, Prayer, Does It Make Any difference? P. 84-85.
Yancey writes: “”Why does God so rarely step in and bring miraculous intervention to our prayer requests? Why is suffering distributed so randomly and unfairly? No one knows the complete answer to these questions. For a time, God has chosen to operate on this broken planet mostly from the bottom up rather than from the top down – a pattern God’s own Son subjected himself to while on earth. Partly out of respect for human freedom, God often allows things to play out “naturally.” Pp. 87
Jesus’ prayer for Peter shows this same pattern. Satan gets his way with Peter and sifts him like wheat. Peter had been pushy, enjoyed picking fights and he denied Jesus three times. Did some of Peter’s negative behaviors get sifted away when Satan tried to shake him up? Did he learn lessons during times of trouble that he never learned when things were going good? And were Jesus’ prayers for Peter effective after all? It looks like they were! We read of Peter’s life after Pentecost and Peter was a changed man! He was one of the humble leaders of the new Christian church and he no longer ran away from suffering for the cause of Christ.
Scripture says that Jesus is in heaven praying for us, his followers. As Jesus once prayed for Peter, He is now praying for us. Scripture says that He is “at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us”. (Romans 8:24) That should be a great comfort for us.
Scripture promises that this pattern of God working in the background and not always stepping in and answering our prayers with power and miracles – this pattern is only temporary! When Jesus comes again things will be different. With His overwhelming power our victorious Jesus will overthrow evil and Satan and there will be no more sin or sickness or sorrow or death and all of our prayers will be answered! I can hardly wait!
Some of the ideas in this blog are taken from Philip Yancy’s book, Prayer, Does it Make Any Difference?