This week, several difficulties and tragedies in the lives of our school family have caused me to reflect on the magnificence of God, working through prayer. This week’s verse in the 52 Weeks series is Proverbs 3:5-6, part of which tells us to trust in the Lord with all of our heart, and lean not on our own understanding. It may be that in no other area of our lives do we view something so supernatural from such a human, natural perspective as we do prayer.
After all, when we ask someone for something, they tell us one of three things: either “yes”, “no”, or “maybe”. We almost always ask for something that will, in some way, benefit us. The hearer almost always understands exactly what we’re asking in the way we ask it. We usually get one of those answers immediately, and then we deal with the response, either by accepting the answer or by trying to manipulate a different outcome.
This is almost completely not how it works with God. When we pray, so often we think about it as God and me – a two-way transaction. But, we often forget that we are part of an amazing, interconnected worldwide community of believers. God uses me to perfect other people. In saying “yes” to my prayer, He is simultaneously saying “no” or “not yet” to someone else. A friend of mine brought this home to me the other day when he was sharing that he and his community group were praying that one of their friends who needed an emergency transplant would receive a new liver. They were praying, as God encourages us to do, to save their friend’s life. But, in order to grant that prayer in the way they prayed it, God would have to take someone else home, or let them die, maybe someone whose community group is simultaneously praying that he or she will live. When you take that simple connectedness, and multiply it by the millions of people in the world, all crying out to the Lord for strength, for wisdom, for healing, for salvation, for deliverance, and for dozens of perhaps less noble requests, it is simply mind-boggling to imagine that God has such sovereignty over reality that He can respond to these prayers in coherent, interconnected ways. And, as I’ve written here before, He’s doing all of that at the same time He’s commanding each of our hearts to beat, our lungs to draw in air, planets to spin on their axes, and stars to be born and die.
Tim Keller has said that God answers our prayer in the way that we would pray them if we knew all that God knows. I would add, and if we truly desired all that God desires. I think this idea is what Paul was capturing when he encourages us in Romans 8 that “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” In some amazing, awe-inspiring way we don’t understand, perhaps the Holy Spirit takes our prayers, prayed in human weakness and ignorance, and translates them, if you will, in such a way so they become what our redeemed, glorified, fully-God knowing selves would have prayed, if only we knew how.
So, when we say God didn’t answer our prayer, or didn’t answer it in the way we wanted Him to answer it, we may need to think that through. Is He really delaying the answer because answering it immediately would inhibit my interconnected brothers or sisters from having their prayers answered right when they need it? Maybe in God’s perfect, intertwined web of humanity, the answer to my prayer just isn’t ripe? And, He knows that in the meantime He’s giving me exactly what I’ll need to serve and thrive in the New Jerusalem for eternity- patience, perseverance, grit- all that fun stuff that we can’t learn except through sometimes painful endurance.
Maybe, when I think He didn’t answer my prayer in the way I wanted Him to, my skewed perspective is the issue. Maybe, when I see Him face to face one day, I’ll look back on my prayers as I prayed them and God’s response in the same way I look back at my parent’s refusal to let me eat that chocolate bar at Six Flags that was literally as big as my arm when I was a kid: from eyes that see more clearly, seeing that I didn’t really want what I was asking.
When I consider the magnificence of prayer, and the Prayer-Answerer, I am grateful that it’s not up to me. And so, I pray away, asking with love and faithfulness and abandon, knowing that my Father loves me and delights in my asking that way, and that the Spirit isn’t going to let me mess it up.