Does God answer prayer? Most of us don’t struggle with that question too much.
Hmmm. Maybe we don’t struggle with that question quite enough.
Most of my life, I’ve heard well-meaning Christians spout that God answers prayers in one of three ways: Yes, no, or not yet. That sounds good. It even sounds logical.
But, is it biblical? And how much should this really matter to us anyway?
God’s Positive Answer to Prayers
Prayer projects faith on God, and God on the world. ~E.M. Bounds, The Necessity of Prayer
God’s positive answers to prayers are easy to see, perhaps mostly because we like them and want to see them.
- In Joshua 10, Joshua asks the Lord to hold the sun still to aid them in the battle with the Amorites. And God said yes, and the sun stood still for about a day (Joshua 10:1-15).
- In Nehemiah 1, Nehemiah asks God for favor in asking King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the wall. God said yes, and the King even provided supplies for the journey (Nehemiah 1-2).
- Three of the four Gospels tell the story of Jairus, a ruler of the synagogue, who asked Jesus to heal his dying daughter. And God said yes, and the daughter was healed (Matthew 9:18-26, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 8:40-56).
But Sometimes, His Yes Includes a Waiting Time
Other times, God said ‘Yes’, but it seemed like a ‘No’ because the person had to wait.
- God promised Abraham descendants as numerous as the stars, but his earthly eyes never saw its fulfillment (Genesis 15:1-6).
- I wonder how many years Hannah prayed for a son before God gave her Samuel. Her torment and earnest prayers lead me to think it wasn’t a short time. (1 Samuel 1:1-20).
- Multiple times in the Old Testament, the Israelites cried to God for rescue, but they waited in their turmoil, often for many years (Exodus 2:23-24, Judges 6:1-14).
- Mary and Martha called for Jesus to come to their dying brother, Jesus’s friend. Yet He delayed, and Lazarus died (John 1:11-44).
And Sometimes, God’s Answer to Prayer Is No
The answer we least like is when God says ‘No.’ But, as I looked at the times in the Bible where God clearly did not do what the person was asking, I saw two patterns emerge.
1. God’s ‘No’ was in direct response to disobedience.
- God told Moses that Moses could not enter the Promised Land because the leader had dishonored God in front of the Israelites (Numbers 20:2-12).
- King David’s child with Bathsheba dies in 2 Samuel 12:7-23 as a result of David’s sin in striking down her husband and taking her as his wife. David never took one moment to consider the ripple effects of his actions, neither through his own household nor through the surrounding areas.
We struggle with a child dying as a penalty for the father’s sins almost as much as we struggle to understand why, after decades of faithful service, Moses would be denied even one footstep into the Promised Land.
But why? Our struggle suggests that we think God is unfair, but I think the issue goes deeper. Our mouths say that God is holy and hates sin, but when it comes to His judgment, our hearts are quick to demand mercy and whitewash mutiny.
2. God’s ‘No” sought to reframe the person’s thinking
Two disciples, James and John, and their mother came to Jesus to ask for the prime seating spots in heaven, to Jesus’s left and right (Matthew 20:20-28, Mark 10:35-45). While Jesus didn’t tell them ‘No’ directly, He let them know this wasn’t His decision to make. Then he challenged all his disciples—both the bold ones asking for favor and the indignant ones listening behind them—to think bigger. Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.
Luke 18 1-8 contains the parable of Jesus about a widow begging for justice from a judge who refused to hear her. Finally worn out with her persistence, he gives in to her. Jesus ends with the question: When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth? We must ask ourselves if our faith is merely in a god who acquiesces to our every whim, or if our faith can thrive even when God says ‘No.’
The apostle Paul talks about a thorn in my flesh in 2 Corinthians 12:7. While most of us decide that any injury or infirmary is inconvenient or disadvantageous, God reveals a deeper purpose to Paul. He shares that God told him, My power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore, Paul humbly accepted and boasted in the troublesome affliction.
Doubts should never be cherished. ~E.M. Bounds, The Necessity of Prayer
In our very finite thinking and limited view, God seems to say ‘No’ a lot. But often, that ‘No’ answer is really a ‘Not yet’ or a ‘Think differently’ rather than an outright ‘No.’
Our perspective on God’s answers becomes critically important to our faith. We must guard against our enemy planting doubts. It can be tough to remember God loves you when someone you love is in great pain or dying. We may wonder if God listens when a storm wreaks havoc in our lives or enemies threaten to take everything away.
But our enemy also seeks to steal and destroy. Only God brings abundant life (John 10:10).
It would be well, if all of us were to stop, and inquire personally of ourselves: “Have I faith in God? Have I real faith—faith which keeps me in perfect peace, about the things of earth and the things of heaven?” This is the most important question a man can propound and expect to be answered. ~E.M. Bounds, The Necessity of Prayer
I’ve been using my prayer journal now for two months, and I’m amazed at the difference it makes in my life! While I would have said before that God answers prayers, a quick look through my journal shows, God answers prayers!