the problem of answered prayer

It’s all too easy to get hang-ups about seemingly unanswered prayer. Questions, doubts and all too easy to believe lies about the effectiveness of prayer are frequently expressed even in communities that are devoted to it – like ours – as we wrestle to work out our faith in heartfelt, faith-filled intercession. But what about when we do see obvious change happen in response to our prayers? How do we react then?

opl_CIMG7551_credit chris

This morning we began worship with an extended time of praise and thanksgiving.

We had three items on our board that were answers to prayer, and it felt right to celebrate these – and give thanks to God for them – before moving on to intercede for the day’s headlines.

But there was a challenge – even in the preparation.

These answers to prayer weren’t like the standard ones often on our board… they weren’t about friends getting jobs, experiencing God’s healing or experiencing miraculous provision.

Brilliant as these more usual testimonies are, we’re used to giving thanks for these and recognising them for what they are – demonstrations of a loving and powerful God at work in every detail of our lives and discernable, obvious direct answers to prayer.

Today’s answers to prayer were in one sense bigger.

They were at national and international level.

And that highlighted for us that it sometimes takes as much faith to accept an answer to prayer as it does to ask with confidence in the first place, or to persevere in prayer for the same situation or nation when we feel we aren’t seeing the transformation we’re crying out for.

In January, we wrote about the challenge we face when the answered prayers on our board seem to be for such minor situations in comparison to the needs for prayer displayed next to them. (You can read that reflection here.)

In this previous reflection, we were wrestling with the fact that one of the reasons for this is we don’t often hear the good news that comes back in response to our prayers for global situations.

But there are times when we do hear. And this, it appears, is challenging.

For example, yesterday morning we heard of the abduction of two Syrian Bishops by rebel forces in the north of the country. We prayed very specifically that they would be released that same day. And they were. (We are still waiting for confirmation that they are home safely.)

Why is to so hard to recognise this kind of testimony as an answered prayer? And to give God the praise and thanks due to him in response?

We reflected that it’s for a number of reasons.

One is that we still evidently struggle to believe that the prayers of a small group of people can change things at a global level.

A second is that if we can observe that obviously many other Christians were praying we are prone to further devalue our prayer by assuming it would be arrogant, or incorrect for us to claim some part in God’s work in a situation.

Sometimes, our prayers are so unusual though that we know it might just have been us praying that day – but even then can we really, truly, dare to believe God was actually listening? And has responded? Or are we simply tempted to put it down to co-incidence?

A third – not relevant to the Syrian example – is that sometimes our prayers are very general, rather than specific and traceable. This is not in any way wrong, but it does make measuring discernible impact more challenging in some cases.

And the fourth probably does bring us round to seemingly unanswered prayer again. After all… why this prayer at this time? Why not some of the other things we’ve been praying for?

With some of the prayers, part of us knows an answer to this question. Perhaps with this prayer that was answered, it actually felt different when we were praying it. Somehow we  tapped into what the Holy Spirit was laying on our hearts to pray and we prayed with a new confidence as we agreed with it. It was a prayer that had resonance somehow: one that stood out…

Clearly at the Sanctuary we want to see more and more of these prayers – and their resulting answers – happen. And so we keep asking for God to lead and guide where we focus and what we ask for. We know when we really catch his heart and timing that our prayers have even more power to transform.

But other prayers are answered too… and we want to lift everything on our hearts to God – whether we feel specifically led to or not. Intentionality and deliberate breadth of focus are important values here too.

It all comes back to faith… do we have the faith to come to him? To ask? And to ask again? To believe God is listening? To remember that Jesus is interceding? To stand on previous testimony? To recognise our Father as sovereign, able, active and present? To watch and wait for what he will do?

And then… crucially – to not doubt it’s him when he moves?

Because we need faith to receive answered prayer. Perhaps actually more than to continue crying out when it seems unanswered, for the human heart can’t help but cry out for change.

So let’s ask for this faith.

Because when we don’t receive an answered prayer as what it is we rob ourselves and God.

We lose out on the fresh testimony we have been given to help us have more confidence in future prayer.

We perhaps even silence some later prayers for ourselves and others because we aren’t growing in confidence to offer them.

And we certainly deny Jesus the praise for transforming a situation we lifted up in his name.

Of course, whether we acknowledge God’s work or not it remains. Just like him. He doesn’t need us to give him a pat on the back or to justify his existence.

But it’s life-giving – and what we were made for – when we see clearly and in full that the spiritual realm is the true reality, and that we worship the one who has already won the victory.

To do this requires a constant decision to believe – both as we ask, and as we receive.

Today we’re daring to ask again for more answered prayers.

But now – having learnt yet another lesson in the school of prayer – we’re also asking for the faith to receive them as the miracles they are. And the strength to resist down-grading them to co-incidences…

And, just so know, we’re also feeling challenged to write some new songs and prayers ready to respond in praise and gratitude to these answered prayers when they come. Perhaps unsurprisingly given what we’ve been discussing – there don’t seem to be many that deliberately voice thanks for specific breakthroughs.

Image  credit – ( CIMG_chris)

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