Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about prayer. Prayer is such a mysterious concept. For those who do not believe in God, prayer must seem like a waste of time—a futility or an act driven by insanity or fantasy. Imagine yourself for a second as an unbeliever. You walk by your neighbor’s house on a warm summer evening. You glance in the large window that opens to their dining room, and you watch as they bow their heads and begin to talk to the air. Their dinner is sitting on the table getting cold! Strange if you don’t know what they are doing, right? I Corinthians 1:18 tells us, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” Prayer is essential to the life of a Christian. If one has believed in and accepted the grace and forgiveness of Jesus and has given his/her life to be used by Jesus, that makes one a child of God. Adoption into God’s family makes God our Father. Children living in a family seldom hesitate to ask their dad for something if they want it and think that daddy can provide it. From the simple request of a small child to the more elaborate and expensive of the teenager, children, at least those from healthy families, ask their dads for all kinds of things. When posed a question of want or need, dads have a decision to make. Should they grant the child’s request? And, if so, should it be granted right away? Should they say no to the request or do they need some time to think about it? Perhaps there is a range of other answers within these three possibilities, but it is these main three that have been occupying my mind lately.
As a young girl, I could pretty much count on my dad saying yes to my requests. Looking back, I guess I would have to admit I was a bit spoiled. I was the youngest—the baby of the family. I was also the most compliant—if I was asked to do something, I usually did it right away (at least if the asking came from my dad). I was a straight “A” student without even trying so report card days were never a problem for me. Besides, if by chance I happened to get a B, I needn’t have worried—they were too focused on my brother’s “lack of applying himself” to bother with a little drop in one of my grades. If I went to my dad and asked him for some money because we were walking to the local dairy, he would reach in his pocket and pull out a dollar and give it to me without hesitation. (Yes. One dollar. That was quite a bit of money for a nine year old back then.) My dad loved to say yes to me. There are countless examples in the Bible where God says yes to someone. Hannah prayed to God to bless her with a child. God answered her prayer with the birth of her son, Samuel. The ten lepers asked to be healed and they were healed. Elijah asked God to send fire on a watered down altar to prove to the worshippers of Baal that his God was the only God. God showed up in a big way on Mount Carmel at that request. Just like these Biblical heroes, we all desire to be answered yes when we ask God for something. The reality, though, is sometimes God does not say yes. In fact, there are two other ways God may answer our prayers. It is these two that have weighed on my heart the last several months. It is also these two that have caused heartache and doubt to surface time and time again.
The opposite of yes is no. That’s pretty straight forward. No child—or adult—likes to hear the word “No” in response to something we have desired and asked for. I think back to when my children were little. My husband worked in corporate America. He would leave the house early in the morning and get home in the evening. Eating dinners as a family was important to me, so I would plan for dinner time to be a few minutes after my husband would come home from work. Inevitably, one or more of the children would ask for a snack just before dinner was ready. I would tell them no. They didn’t like that response, but I knew if they filled up on sugary cookies, they would not be hungry for the (somewhat) healthier dinner that would come soon. I also said no to requests that involved candy for breakfast, riding their bike across a busy downtown street, or going outside to play in subzero temperatures with shorts, t-shirts, and sandals as their only attire. In each of these cases, my answer of no was met with groans or complaints. I knew better than they did, though. I knew that to say yes to some things was actually saying yes to harm for them, and because I loved them, I sometimes said no. Sometimes, God tells us no. Jonah asked God to kill him. God said no. Paul asked God to remove a physical ailment—a thorn in his flesh—and God said no. Jesus himself asked His Father if the cup of suffering could be removed from Him. The answer was no—Jesus had to suffer in order to fulfill God’s plan of salvation for His people. It’s never fun to be told no to something we desire or feel we need, yet that is exactly sometimes what God tells us. He knows more than we do because He knows the past, present and future. For the same reason, I wouldn’t give my kids Milky Way candy bars for breakfast every day because I knew eventually that would hurt them—their teeth would get cavities and their bodies would not get the nutrients needed to stay healthy and grow.
Yes and no—two straight forward answers to prayer. One easier to deal with than the other, but both easier to deal with, in my opinion, than the third answer God sometimes gives us. Sometimes, God tells us to wait. Waiting is hard. It is hard for children and for adults. Sometimes my children would ask me to do something, maybe read them a story or help them with a math problem. Sometimes I could say yes and attend to their desire. Other times, though, I would have to tell them, “Wait a minute. I need to _______________.” Maybe my hands were deep in dish water or laundry or rocking a baby to sleep. Whatever the situation, the fact that I couldn’t oblige their request right away had nothing to do with my love for them; it was simply a matter of timing. I needed to finish one thing in order to give my full attention to the thing they were asking of me. God sometimes tells us to wait. In Exodus 2, we are told that the Israelites, oppressed by the Egyptians, cried out to God as they groaned in their slavery. The text goes on to say that God heard their groaning and was concerned for them. (Exodus 2:23-25) It would be several decades and many more hardships later, though, before the people were free from their bondage in Egypt. Paul says in Romans, “…hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has?” (Romans 8:24) The word hope indicates that something different is going to happen. Just as an orphan hopes for a family, a pregnant woman hopes for a healthy baby, and a child hopes for a birthday wish, children of God hope for Him to act. We hope for heaven—our eternal home. We hope for answers to prayer and we hope they are favorable. The thing is, they are ALWAYS favorable. They have to be for all answers come from a God who loves us more than anyone on earth ever could.
I have been praying for some specific things in my life. One is healing. I know God can heal. Scripture proves that over and over. What I need to remember, though, is just because healing hasn’t taken place that is not a result of God not loving me or not hearing me. God always hears my prayers. It is so easy to allow discouragement to set up camp in my heart. Discouragement whispers things like, “See, God doesn’t love you. If he did, He would have healed you by now.” Hmmm. Did I not love my children because they asked for candy bars for breakfast and I said no? Absolutely not the case. I said no because I loved them. Discouragement then whispers, “Well, this isn’t candy for breakfast; this is a legitimate request. How can you serve God when you aren’t physically able to do much?” That’s the one that gets me. I have no rebuttal that would seem to satisfy those to whom the message of the cross is foolishness. I do know, though, that sometimes God says no or wait because He can see the completed puzzle and I just see a few pieces stuck in at random places. I can almost make out a tree or a dog but cannot yet see the forest or the farmhouse that sits on the edge of it. The Bible says God knows no time and that His ways are higher than our ways. I admit my faith is much weaker than I want it to be. That is why I am thankful for the few people who have come alongside me in this difficult journey. They encourage me when I let pain and circumstances cloud my view of who God really is. “The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.” (Psalm 145:9) That’s who God really is. He is good to all. He has compassion for all.
Whether the answer be yes, no or wait, rest assured, God hears AND answers prayers. The problem lies within us as humans—when we don’t get the answer we want, we assume we aren’t loved.