One of the most mysterious subjects of the Christian faith is prayer, particularly regarding how it works, and how it is answered. Many unbelieving people simply cannot entertain the logic of prayer. It is clearly something that must be experienced very personally. But, how does prayer actually work? How is it answered? There is probably no simple or succinct answer. But, let me take you into one way how prayer is answered from my own personal experience.
I've prayed recently, for several weeks in fact, for an extra portion of epieikes (pronounced epee-aa-kes), the character quality of spiritual forbearance, gentleness, and reasonableness, which Paul talks about in Philippians 4:5 and 2 Corinthians 10:1. What led me to this prayer is I recognised within myself a lack of gentleness and grace in certain situations--to not endure situations patiently is to fall short as a Christian; it is God's will that all Christians grow and mature in epieikes.
I focused on the meaning of the word, journalled about it, set daily goals, and finally, asked God, not once, but several times over several days and even weeks. Before long I felt his presence helping me in situations where my patience was tested. I felt a peace that transcended my own understanding. I understood it as God helping me; answering my prayer.
Yet, I was not being given more patience to be gentler; but, I was prompted or reminded and made more aware when I needed to be gentler and more reasonable. Then it seemed to be more simply a matter of my will; did I want to decide in that moment to be gentler and more forbearing? The answer was of course "yes," as I'd resolved to cooperate with God. There is no better feedback than getting through a challenging situation successfully. This is how God answers prayer; he goes through the challenge with us. His Spirit then encourages us and we grow in confidence and we're better prepared for the next challenge.
Our faith is summarised by a relationship with the one and only living God: 1) him talking to us, mainly through his Word, and what that says to our minds and hearts--and it's us listening and obeying; and 2) it's us talking to him, in reverence and in wanting to please him by wanting him to fashion our characters closer to his--this is freedom because it is freeing ourselves from ourselves and our selfish desires.
On the subject of need, it is said by the apostle James,
"If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded (literally 'double-souled') and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord." -James 1:5-8 (NRSV).
We see God at work in prayer when we're seeking to join with his agenda and we're willing to do our 50 percent by being fully committed to the goal. God will always grant us an affirmative answer if we're praying in line with his will and we're willing to make the right decisions in cooperation. I think this is part of the intent of John 15:7 where Jesus says, "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you." (NRSV) We only see prayers go unanswered or answered non-affirmatively when they go against the grain of God's will. We also must remember the 'what' and the 'how' are also different. God might grant the prayer, but how he'll do it and when might not always match with our expectations--yet God's purposes and reasons are always perfect.
God knows what is best for us. He won't give us things that are not good for us. Praying for a Mercedes Benz, as Janis Joplin sung about cynically only days before her death, is futile as it's not in line with our best, spiritually. Prayer is a spiritual medium for spiritual reasons for spiritual gain. It never works materially--that would be luck. And luck has no science or logic to it, and it definitely has nothing meaningful to say regarding spirituality.
Jesus said finally (from The Message paraphrase),
"Don't bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This isn't a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we're in. If your child asks for bread, do you trick him with sawdust? If he asks for fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? As bad as you are, you wouldn't think of such a thing. You're at least decent to your own children. So don't you think the God who conceived you in love will be even better?" -Matthew 7:7-11.
God wants what is truly best for us, even though we might not understand at the time. Isn't it ironic what Jesus said next... "Do to others what you would have them do to you." (v. 12)
And, now, what should we pray for?
Copyright © 2008, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
Steve Wickham is a safety and health professional (BSc) and a qualified lay Christian minister (GradDipDiv). His key passion is work / life balance and re-creating value for living, and an exploration of the person within us.
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