faq

Picking up a thought from yesterday’s bloggage got me wondering whether we ask the wrong questions and then are surprised and disappointed at the answers we get. Yesterday one of the questions that I suggested is thrown up by the apostle Paul pleading in vain for God to take away the “thorn in his flesh” was ‘why didn’t God take it away?’ It’s a frequently asked question about suffering and unanswered prayer.

pexels-photo-221164.jpegBut it’s a question that can lead to all sorts of unsatisfying answers (I don’t subscribe to any of the following answers, by the way). Some might suggest that God wanted to teach Paul something through his suffering. What sort of capricious God would want someone to remain in pain simply to learn a lesson? Others might suggest that Paul didn’t have enough faith when he prayed. But Jesus debunked that myth when he said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed we can move mountains. (For me the mustard seed measure of faith equates to ‘as much as it takes for us to pray). Others may say that Paul did not pray enough times – he only pleaded three times. But is God really the sort of being who needs lots of prayers before he responds – like a slot machine that asks for more coins before it dispenses a bar of chocolate?

Is it the wrong question because it leads to unhelpful answers?

What if the right question looks at things from a different perspective: ‘why does God intervene in answer to prayers?’ You see when we look at Jesus in the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in our Bibles) we see that (especially in John’s gospel) these are ‘signs’. They point us towards something significant:  they reveal who Jesus is; they help us understand something about human nature; they help us realise that God’s kingdom is much bigger than we could ever imagine; and they help us face our own internal prejudices.

So could it be that when God intervenes in answer to our prayers we should be asking ourselves why he did rather than focusing on the times when it appears that he doesn’t*? What does he want us to recognise, realise or learn because of his intervention? What difference would it make to our faith if instead of asking “why not?” when God appears not to have responded* we ask “why?” when he does?

*I would also want to challenge the notion that God hasn’t responded when he doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we want. Given that we are talking about a relationship with a God who says he is love, isn’t it fair to expect that he will answer – but perhaps we are looking for the wrong answer. Jesus gave us a hint about this when he was teaching about prayer (including giving his famous pattern for praying we know as The Lord’s Prayer):

11 ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’

So when we pray we know that God wants to respond in the best way for us. When we pray we pray “your will be done” and seek to align ourselves with that rather than “my will be done” and try to convince God to agree with us. When we pray we should be asking for him to give us the Holy Spirit to give us the spiritual resources and gifts we need to become the person God created us to be, and to be able to listen to God’s answers. When we pray we should be seeking answers to the right questions.

Be blessed, be a blessing.

how does God answer prayer?

As hinted at in yesterday’s brief bloggage, I want to reflect a little more on how God answers prayer. Let me say right at the outset that I believe he does answer prayer. And yes there are three main ways he answers:

“Yes”

“No”

“Not now”

There is much that could be said in that, and it is a very simplistic analysis of how God answers prayer, but if you think of those as being vast lakes there is much to be explored on the surface, under the surface and around the edges of each of them.

However yesterday I mentioned that I had received good news and that lots of people had been praying that a committee would make the decision they did with the outcome that they did. This leads me to ponder what happened spiritually:

a. They were unaffected and uninfluenced by God – it was simply that they reached a conclusion that I liked. The prayers made no difference.

b. God over-ruled their minds and wills and got them to reach that conclusion in answer to the prayers. The prayers made all the difference.

c. God helped them to think clearly and see all the evidence and reach a fair and just conclusion on the basis of that, which happened to be what I was hoping for. The prayers helped.

d. Variations on those possibilities.

My belief is that c. (or a variation on it) happened. I knew the outcome I wanted, and I prayed that this might be the outcome. But I can’t believe either that the prayers did not matter, nor that they were so influential that God forced people to reach that decision. If it’s the former, then prayer does not matter and we are wasting our time, yet I know from my own life that prayer does make a difference. If it’s the latter then God is showing favouritism, is willing to ignore some people’s free will to benefit others, and I don’t see that in the Bible. So that leaves me with c.

While I (and others) were praying for a particular outcome, I found that as the committee meeting got nearer I could not pray that God would make them give me what I wanted, for the reasons outlined above. Instead I was praying that they would give my case a fair hearing, that they would be given wisdom in how to respond, that they would use their intellect and compassion honestly, that others would not be disadvantaged because a decision to fund an operation for me meant that funds were unavailable for others… and grace for me to accept whatever decision they made.

I think there’s a lot of truth in this clip from Evan Almighty… (Morgan Freeman is God in this wonderful film)

I believe that those prayers were answered, and it reminded me that persistent prayer often enables God to shape our prayers to be in line with his will.

I think this enables us to help God as we pray. There are some prayers God can’t answer. If two or more Olympic athletes pray that they will win at least one of them will be disappointed. But if they pray that they will perform to their best and offer their performance as an act of worship to God, then all the prayers can be answered positively. Perhaps we need to pray first that God will show us what to pray!

Be blessed, be a blessing.