5. The Comfort Of Answered Prayer
The experience of answered prayer is a strong confirmation that we are on the right track to the Kingdom. It has to be admitted that God is quite capable of deceiving the wicked that He is on their side when in fact He is against them. Christendom is full of such people whom God has deceived, often by appearing to answer their prayers when He is in fact only confirming them in their own deception. And yet there is also the very real Bible teaching that answered prayer is an indicator of our acceptable fellowship with God. Assuming that you do experience answered prayer, it has to be decided by each of us whether God is deceiving us or confirming us in the knowledge of His salvation. The evidence that the experience of answered prayer is an indicator of God's pleasure with us is quite compelling:
- " These things have I written unto you...that ye may know that ye have eternal life...and this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he heareth us" (1 Jn. 5:13,14). Answered prayer is the confidence that we have eternal life. Answered prayer means that our joy will be full (Jn. 16:24).
- God's face looks at the righteous if He accepts them (Ps. 11:7; 13:1)- and God turning His face toward men is a very common idiom for Him answering prayer (e.g. 1 Sam. 1:11). Thus acceptability with God and Him answering our prayers are related.
- Conversely, unanswered prayer is associated with God's rejection. " If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Ps. 66:18). Thus Nehemiah pleaded for God to unstop His ears and hear the prayer of the repentant remnant (Neh. 1:6).
- Coming before the throne of God in prayer (Heb. 9:24; Ps. 17:1,2) is the language of the judgment seat. If we become before His throne and are accepted, it follows that this is a foretaste of the outcome of the judgment for us, were we to be judged at that time. The Kingdom prophecy that " Before they call, I will answer; and while they are yet speaking, I will hear" (Is. 65:24) is applied to us now (Mt. 6:8)- as if answered prayer is a foretaste of the Kingdom life. In the grace of Christ, we can have a certain " boldness" in prayer (Heb. 4:16); but we will have " boldness in the day of judgment" (1 Jn. 4:17) in the sense that the attitude we have in prayer now and the experience of the Lord we know now will be that we have in the day of judgment. If He is no more than a black box in our brain we call 'God' or 'Jesus', if for all our Christianity we haven't known Him, so it will be then as we face Him.
- " Thou answerest them, O Lord our God: thou wast a God that forgavest them" (Ps. 99:8) again associates forgiveness / acceptability with God and answered prayer.
- Answered prayer is paralleled with being given the Holy Spirit (Mt. 7:11 cp. Lk. 11:13). The prayer of the Philippians for Paul is likewise linked with " the supply of the Spirit" (Phil. 1:19). These passages therefore teach that having spiritual fruit is associated with answered prayer (Jn. 15:16), as is the possession of the Comforter (Jn. 14:14; 16:24 are in this context). Many passages imply that God's hearing of our prayers is proportionate to His perception of our spirituality. He will not respond to the prayer of those whose way of life is contrary to His word: Ps. 66:18; Pro. 1:24-28; Is. 1:15; 59:2; Jer. 7:16; 11:14; 14:10-12; 29:12; Lam. 3:8,44; Mal. 1:7-9; Mk. 11:25; Jn. 9:31; James 1:6,7; 4:3; 1 Pet. 3:7,12. But He will hear the prayer of the righteous; and 'hearing' is an idiom for 'answering', it doesn't just mean that God takes cognizance of the fact the righteous have prayed: 2 Kings 19:20; Mt. 7:7; 18:19,20; Jn. 14:14.
- Both David and Christ panicked when they felt their prayers weren't being answered; they felt that this meant they had sinned (Ps. 22:1-4; and consider too 17:15; 24:5; 27:4,8). Clearly they understood answered prayer as a sign of acceptability with God. Christ knew that God always heard Him (Jn. 11:42). When apparently God didn't hear His prayer for deliverance on the cross, He for a moment supposed that He'd sinned and therefore God had forsaken Him.
- The parable of the friend at midnight is surely to be interpreted like this: Friend coming = unexpected crisis; going to friend to get loaves = going to the Father in prayer; fact it is grossly inconvenient (children sleeping etc.) suggests that only because they are good friends will the man get up and give his friend the loaves (Lk. 15:5,6). This very nicely describes the way in which our answered prayers (for others' needs, in the parable) are a statement of the degree to which God counts us as His respected friends. And it explains why the Lord implied that the more we respond to others’ requests, the more God will respond to ours (Mt. 7:10-12)- because our requests will increasingly be for others.
- Christ is a mediator between God and His people. The fact He mediates successfully for us means that we are His people. We know not what to pray for, but the Lord Jesus intercedes for the right things for us. Often we may pray for something, not receive it, and yet receive what is clearly Divine intervention in another way. This is proof that our prayers are being heard and Christ is mediating for us, even if we don't fully know God's will. Therefore this is proof positive that we are God's people.
- Experiencing answered prayer leads us to be more prayerful; it’s part of the upward spiral of the spiritual life. “Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I call upon him as long as I live” (Ps. 116:2).
In the same way as answered prayer reflects God’s pleasure, so prayer which God doesn’t respond to at all is one indicator of His displeasure (e.g. Saul’s experience in 1 Sam. 14:37). This isn’t to say that when we don’t receive the answers we expect, then God hasn’t responded. There’s a difference between God responding to prayer and God answering prayer as we expect Him to answer.
The experience of answered prayer is therefore part of the upward
spiral of confidence and spirituality experienced by the believer.
The opposite is at times also true- unanswered prayer can be a sign
of God’s displeasure (e.g. 1 Sam. 14:37), just as answered prayer
reflects His pleasure. But of course we have to be careful here-
for unanswered prayer isn’t always a sign of Divine displeasure.
The Lord’s experience on the cross is the most eloquent of such
The upward spiral of answered prayer is referred to in Ps. 116:2:
"Because he hath inclined his ear unto me, therefore will I
call upon him as long as I live". The experience of answered
prayer inspires us to pray yet more. "What things soever ye
desire, believe that ye [did] receive them, and ye shall have them"
(Mk. 11:24 Gk.) can be read as meaning that we should remember how
we received things in the past, and therefore we should have faith
that the things we now desire really will be likewise granted. It
is for this reason that the prayers recorded in the Psalms constantly
look back to previous experiences of answered prayer as a motivation
for faith and Hope: Ps. 3:4,5; 44:1-4; 61:5; 63:7; 66:18-20; 77:4-16;
86:13; 94:5,7-19; 116:1; 120:1,2; 126:1,4; 140:6,7. Jeremiah likewise
(Lam. 3:55,56). And even the fact other believers had received answers
to prayer inspired David's faith in prayer (Ps. 74:11-15; 106).
" Nevertheless" , despite the fact God answers prayer,
" when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith?" (Lk.
18:8). The implication is that the experience of answered prayer
ought to develop faith, but such will be the spiritual
perils of the last days and the lack of serious prayer, that there
may well be no faith in the final generation. Answers to prayer
are described as “great and mighty things, which you know not” (Jer.
33:3)- i.e. the very nature of answered prayer is that it is above
all we ask or think (Eph. 3:20). It leads to a sense of wonderment
with this God with whom we are in relationship. And answered prayer
is indeed part and parcel of a living relationship with the Father
and Son. Consider the context of the Lord’s comment that where two
or three are gathered together, He is in the midst of them (Mt.
18:20). It’s about two or three being gathered together in united
prayer and receiving the answer (Mt. 18:19). Receiving the gift
of answered prayer is paralleled with the personal presence of Jesus
in their midst. Answered prayer is part of His presence with us.
Probably all readers will now be in a state of doubt; because they will know the experience of answered prayer, but also that of unanswered prayer. But let's remember the above reasoning; answered prayer really does indicate our acceptability with God. The unanswered prayers must therefore be the result of:
- Prayer being answered in ways we do not perceive, or having an answer which will only much later be revealed. Elijah's prayer of 1 Kings 18:37 will only be answered when Elijah comes in the last days (Mal. 4:6). Zacharias and Elisabeth must have considered their prayers for a child unanswered; and yet they were answered, much much later in their lives. Daniel prayed for three weeks for the decree to be given to allow Judah to return from Babylon; from the first day he prayed this, his prayer was heard, but the answer wasn't made apparent for three weeks (Dan. 10:3,12,13). The Lord Himself prayed that more labourers would be sent forth into the harvest (Mt. 9:37), but the real answer only came in the sending forth of labourers by the Father in the post-resurrection dispensation (Mt. 20:1). The Lord said that whatever we say “in the ear in closets will be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Lk. 12:3). The reference to “closets” takes us back to Mt. 6:6, where He uses the same word to speak of how we should pray in closets and then we will be openly rewarded by the Father. The ‘open reward’ is clearly in the Kingdom (Mt. 6:4,18; Lk. 8:17; 1 Cor. 3:13). Could this not be saying, then, that in the Kingdom, the answers to the prayers we are now making will be openly proclaimed to all from the housetops? Hence there is an awesome connection between our feeble words of prayer now, and the nature of our eternal existence in the Kingdom.
- Praying for the wrong things, i.e. those things about which we do not know God's will for sure.
- Praying without faith, without really intending to receive the answer.
There is yet another window on unanswered prayer. The Lord felt made as if He was going to walk further on the Emmaus road, in order to provoke the two disciples to beg Him to abide with them; He appeared to be asleep during the storm on the lake, to drive the disciples to an ever greater urgency of appeal to Him. And the two miracles in Cana feature the same basic pattern of someone coming to Jesus with a request [on both occasions, having just returned to Galilee]; Jesus appearing to indirectly refuse the request, leading to the person persisting in asking; and then, the Lord gives them what they asked for. The apparent lack of response was in each case in order to develop in the person a deeper sense of their desperation, a more focused faith. The lack of immediate response was from God’s love, not His indifference. For the Father and Son have hearts that bleed for humanity, and would never be indifferent to our cry.
There is much guidance in the Psalms about unanswered prayer. In the midst of complaining to God about the pain of unanswered prayer, the Psalmist in the very same breath is still praising Him and believing Him. “God whom I praise, break your silence” (Ps. 109:1); “I say to God my rock, Why have you forgotten me?” (Ps. 42:9).
Yet all this said, the agony of unanswered prayer remains to some extent one of the mysteries of spiritual life. From our human point of view, the agony remains. We can seek to understand God's point of view on it, but for us, unhealed bodies and broken lives remain, for all the faith and seeking to discern God's will in the world.
There is the repeated Bible teaching that what we ask for, we will receive. God hearing prayer is an idiom for Him answering it; and this is not just the inference of an isolated verse. Consider the parallelism of Ps. 6:8,9:
" The Lord hath heard the voice of my weeping
The Lord hath heard my supplication
The Lord will receive my prayer" .
Hopefully we will all have had the experience of a crisis where we have prayed, really prayed, and the answer has miraculously come. Yet this is what real prayer is; and yet we simply can't sustain the intensity. The only real way out is to fall back on the fact that the Lord Jesus intercedes for us with that kind of intensity (Rom. 8:26). We have shown elsewhere that Biblical prayers rarely request things; if we ask according to God's will, we will receive (1 Jn. 5:14); and yet if God's word dwells in us, we will ask what we will, and receive it (Jn. 15:7). Thus if our will is purely God's will, we will receive answers to every prayer. That our will can be God's will is another way of saying that our spirit can be His Spirit. This is why several passages speak of how God's Spirit witnesses with our spirit (Rom. 8:15,16,26; 1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13). It's why the early church sensed that not only were they witnessing to things, but the Holy Spirit of God also (Acts 5:32; 15:28). His Spirit becomes our spirit.
And yet our will is not yet coincidental with His; even the will of the Son
was not perfectly attuned to that of the Father (Lk. 22:42; Jn.
5:30; 6:38), hence the finally unanswered prayer for immediate deliverance
from the cross. Yet as we grow spiritually, the will of God will
be more evident to us, and we will only ask for those things which
are according to His will. And thus our experience of answered prayer
will be better and better, which in turn will provide us with even
more motivation for faith in prayer.
Prayers Answered By Grace
All this said, the ways of God are more profound than to operate
in such a way that the righteous have their prayers answered and
the wicked don't. There are examples in Israel's history where unspiritual
Israelites prayed to God in crisis and God heard them- and this
answer to their prayer was intended to show them His grace, and
thus to lead them to repentance. Solomon foresaw this when he spoke
of how Israel would "turn from their sin because you answer
them" (1 Kings 8:35 RVmg.). This grace of God in answering
sinners would be so that God could "teach them the good way
wherein they should walk" (1 Kings 8:36).
Sharing The Answers To Prayer
Share with others the joy of answered prayer. Perhaps the 'answer'
is never fully complete, or realized by us, until we share it with
others. The Psalms are full of this- a declaration of what God has
done in response to prayer, and then a sharing of this with others:
"O Lord, you have brought up my soul from the grave, restored
me to life... Sing praises to the Lord, O you His saints... Come
and hear, all you who fear God, and I will tell you what He has
done for me" (Ps. 30:3,4; Ps. 66:16). Appreciating this actually
leads us to recognize before praying that the answer to
the prayer will in some sense be for the benefit of others; we are
setting ourselves up as a pattern to others. Thus Hannah speaks
of how "my strength [horn] is exalted in the Lord", and
then sees this as a sign of what God will do for Israel through
the line of David: "He will exalt the power [horn] of his annointed"
(1 Sam. 2:1,10). The inspired editors of the Psalms perhaps had
this understanding- thus a prayer of David in Ps. 25 appears to
have had a final verse added to it, to make it relevant to the deliverance
of all Israel. Ps. 51 speaks of David's repentance and desire to
build a temple, and yet the final parts of the Psalm appear to have
been given special reference under a later hand to the repentance
of the exiles issuing in their rebuilding of the temple. As Paul
makes explicit in 2 Cor. 1:4, if we suffer anything, it is so that
ultimately others may be comforted in our comfort. True
Christianity, authentic relationship with God, simply can't be lived
out in isolation, with us asking God for things and Him giving them
to us just for us. We need to discern how others will be
affected by our experience of answered prayer, and bear this in
mind when formulating our prayers. And all this is surely the answer
to the cynic's complaint that prayer is essentially selfish. It
can be, it too often is; but Biblical prayer is not at all. In words
which need reading twice, Elizabeth O'Connor drives the point home
in Journey Outward: "If engagement with ourselves
does not push back horizons so that we see neighbours we did not
see before, then we need to examine the appointments kept with self.
If prayer does not drive us into some concrete involvement at a
point of the world's need, then we must question prayer... the inner
life is not nurtured in order to hug to oneself some secret gain"
(1). The Psalms have all this as a major theme. Thankfulness to
God for answering prayer is to be expressed to others (Ps. 22:22;
109:30), indeed, the whole world should be told (Ps. 57:9; 18:49;
22:27; 96:1-3). Sharing the news about answered prayer is therefore
part of our witness to the world. Our witness is not just a presentation
of theological truths to them- it's actually a sharing with them
about our prayer relationship with God.
(1) Elizabeth O'Connor, Journey Outward (New York: Harper
& Row, 1968).