How God Answers Prayer
For man fully to understand God and all His dealings with us is an utter impossibility. “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33) True, but we need not make difficulties where none exists. If God has all power and all knowledge, surely prayer has no difficulties, though occasionally there may be perplexities. We cannot discover God’s method, but we know something of His manner of answering prayer.
But at the very outset, may we remind ourselves how little we know about ordinary things? Thomas Edison, whose knowledge is pretty profound, wrote in August 1921, “We don’t know the millionth part of one per cent about anything. We don’t know what water is. We don’t know what light is. We don’t know what gravitation is. We don’t know what enables us to keep on our feet to stand up. We don’t know what electricity is. We don’t know what heat is. We don’t know anything about magnetism. We have a lot of hypotheses about these things, but that is all.”
But we do not allow our ignorance about all these things to deprive us of their use! We do not know much about prayer, but surely this need not prevent us from praying! We do know what our Lord has taught us about prayer. And we do know that He has sent the Holy Spirit to “teach [us] all things.” (John 14:26) How, then, does God answer prayer?
One way is by revealing His mind to those who pray. His Holy Spirit puts fresh ideas into the minds of praying people. We are quite aware that the devil and his angels are busy enough putting bad thoughts into our minds. Surely, then, God and His holy angels can give us good thoughts? Even poor, weak, sinful men and women can put good thoughts into the minds of others. That is what we try to do in writing! We do not stop to think what a wonderful thing it is that a few peculiarly-shaped black marks on white paper can uplift and inspire, or depress and cast down, or even convict of sin! But to an untutored savage it is a stupendous miracle. Moreover, you and I can often read something of people’s thoughts or wishes from an expression on the face or a glance of the eye. God can in many ways convey His thoughts to us. A remarkable instance of this was related by a speaker last year at Northfield. Three or four years ago, he met an old whaling captain who told him the following story.
“A good many years ago, I was sailing in the desolate seas off Cape Horn, hunting whales. One day we were beating directly south in the face of a hard wind. We had been tacking this way and that all the morning, and were making very little headway. About 11 o’clock, as I stood at the wheel, the idea suddenly came into my mind, ‘Why batter the ship against these waves? There are probably as many whales to the north as to the south. Suppose we run with the wind instead of against it? In response to that sudden idea I changed the course of the ship, and began to sail north instead of south. One hour later, at noon, the lookout at the masthead shouted, ‘Boats ahead!’ Presently we overtook four lifeboats, in which were fourteen sailors, the only survivors of the crew of a ship which had burned to the water’s edge ten days before. Those men had been adrift in their boats ever since, praying God frantically for rescue; and we arrived just in time to save them. They could not have survived another day.”
Then the old whaler added, “I don’t know whether you believe in religion or not, but I happen to be a Christian. I have begun every day of my life with prayer that God would use me to help someone else, and I am convinced that God, that day, put the idea into my mind to change the course of my ship. That idea was the means of saving fourteen lives.”
God has many things to say to us. He has many thoughts to put into our minds. We are apt to be so busy doing His work that we do not stop to listen to His Word. Prayer gives God the opportunity of speaking to us and revealing His will to us. May our attitude often be, “Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth.” (1 Samuel 3:9)
God answers other prayers by putting new thoughts into the minds of those we pray for. At a series of services dealing with the Victorious Life, one afternoon I urged the congregation to reconcile their quarrels if they really desired a holy life. One lady went straight home, and after very earnest prayer wrote to her sister, with whom, owing to some disagreement, she had had nothing to do for twenty years. Her sister was living thirty miles away. The very next morning the writer of that note received a letter from that very sister asking forgiveness and seeking reconciliation. The two letters had crossed in the mail! While the one sister was praying to God for the other, God was speaking to that other sister, putting into her mind the desire for reconciliation.
You may say, “Why did not God put that desire there before?” It may be that He foresaw that it would be useless for the distant sister to write asking forgiveness until the other sister was also willing to forgive. The fact remains that, when we pray for others, somehow or other it opens the way for God to influence those we pray for. God needs our prayers, or He would not beg us to pray.
A little time back, at the end of a weekly prayer meeting, a godly woman begged those present to pray for her husband, who would never go near a place of worship. The leader suggested that they should continue in prayer then and there. Most earnest prayers were offered up. Now, the husband was devoted to his wife, and frequently came to meet her when the meeting let out. He did so that night, and arrived at the hall while the prayer meeting was still in progress. God put it into his mind to open the door and wait inside—a thing he had never done before. As he sat on a chair near the door, leaning his head upon his hand, he overheard those earnest petitions. Later, during the homeward walk, he asked, “Wife, who was the man they were praying for tonight?”
“Oh,” she replied, “it is the husband of one of our workers.”
“Well, I am quite sure he will be saved,” said he; “God must answer prayers like that.”
A little later in the evening he again asked, “Who was the man they were praying for?” She replied in similar terms as before. On retiring to rest he could not sleep. He was under deep conviction of sin. Awaking his wife, he begged her to pray for him.
How clearly this shows us that when we pray, God can work! God could have prompted that man to enter that prayer meeting any week. But had he done so it is a question whether any good at all would have come from it. When once those earnest, heartfelt petitions were being offered up on his behalf, God saw that they would have a mighty influence upon that poor man.
Another way God answers prayer is by helping us in our work and strengthening our resolves. For we can be an answer to many of our own prayers. One bitter winter a prosperous farmer was praying that God would keep a neighbor from starving. When the family prayers were over, his little boy said, “Father, I don’t think I should have troubled God about that.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Because it would be easy enough for you to see that they don’t starve!”
There is not the slightest doubt that if we pray for others we should also try to help them.
A young convert asked his pastor to give him some Christian work. The pastor asked him, “Have you a close friend?”
“Yes,” replied the boy.
“Is he a Christian?”
“No, he is as careless as I was.”
“Then go and ask him to accept Christ as his Savior.”
“Oh, no!” said the lad, “I could never do that. Give me anything but that.”
“Well,” said the pastor, “promise me two things: that you will not speak to him about his soul, and that you will pray to God twice daily for his conversion.”
“Why, yes, I’ll gladly do that,” answered the boy.
Before a fortnight was up he rushed round to the pastor’s house. “Will you let me off my promise? I must speak to my friend!” he cried.
When he began to pray, God could give him strength to witness. Communion with God is essential before we can have real communion with our fellowman. My belief is that people so seldom speak to others about their spiritual condition because they pray so little for them.
I have never forgotten how my faith in prayer was confirmed when, as a lad of thirteen, I earnestly asked God to enable me on a certain day to secure twenty new supporters for missions overseas. Exactly twenty new names were secured before night closed in. The consciousness that God would grant that prayer was an incentive to eager effort, and gave an unaccustomed courage in approaching others.
A pastor in England suggested to his people that they should pray each day for the worst man or woman they knew—and then go to them and tell them about Jesus. Only six agreed to do so. On arriving home he began to pray. Then he said, “I must not leave this to my people. I must take it up myself. I don’t know the bad people. I’ll have to go out and enquire.” Approaching a rough-looking man at a street corner, he asked, “Are you the worst man in this district?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Would you mind telling me who is?”
“I don’t mind. You’ll find him at number seven, down that street.”
He knocked at number seven and entered. “I’m looking for the worst man in my parish. They tell me it might be you?”
“Whoever told you that? Fetch him here, and I’ll show him who’s the worst man! No, there are lots worse than me.”
“Well, who is the worst man you know?”
“Everybody knows him. He lives at the end house in that court. He’s the worst man.”
So down the court the minister went and knocked at the door. A surly voice cried, “Come in!”
There were a man and his wife. “I hope you’ll excuse me, but I’m the minister of the chapel along the round. I’m looking for the worst man in my district, because I have something to tell him. Are you the worst man?”
The man turned to his wife and said, “Lass, tell him what I said to you five minutes ago.”
“No, tell him yourself.”
“What were you saying?” enquired the visitor.
“Well, I’ve been drinking for twelve weeks. I’ve had the DT’s [delirium tremens] and have pawned all in the house worth pawning. And I said to my wife a few minutes ago, ‘Lass, this thing has to stop, and if it doesn’t, I’ll stop it myself—I’ll go and drown myself.’ Then you knocked at the door! Yes, sir, I’m the very worst man. What have you got to say to me?”
“I’m here to tell you that Jesus Christ is the greatest Savior, and that He can make out of the worst man one of the best. He did it for me, and He will do it for you.”
“D’you think He can do it even for me?”
“I’m sure He can. Kneel down and ask Him.”
Not only was the poor drunkard saved from his sins, but he is today a radiant Christian man, bringing other drunken people to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Surely none of us finds it difficult to believe that God can, in answer to prayer, heal the body, send rain or fair weather, dispel fogs, or avert calamities?
We have to do with a God whose knowledge is infinite. He can put it into the mind of a doctor to prescribe a certain medicine, or diet, or method of cure. All the doctor’s skill is from God. “He knoweth our frame” (Psalm 103:14)—for He made it. He knows it far better than the cleverest doctor or surgeon. He made, and He can restore. We believe that God desires us to use medical skill, but we also believe that God, by His wonderful knowledge, can heal, and sometimes does heal, without human co-operation. And God must be allowed to work in His own way. We are so apt to tie God down to the way we approve of. God’s aim is to glorify His name in answering our prayers. Sometimes He sees that our desire is right, but our petition wrong. Paul thought he could bring more glory to God if only the thorn in the flesh could be removed. God knew that he would be a better man and do better work with the thorn than without it. So God said No-No-No to his prayer, and then explained why!
So it was with Monica, who prayed so many years for the conversion of Augustine, her licentious son. When he was determined to leave home and cross the seas to Rome, she prayed earnestly, even passionately, that God would keep him by her side, and under her influence. She went down to a little chapel on the seashore to spend the night in prayer close by where the ship lay at anchor. But, when morning came, she found that the ship had sailed even while she prayed! Her petition was refused, but her real desire was granted. For it was in Rome that Augustine met the sainted Ambrose, who led him to Christ. How comforting it is to know that God knows what is best!
But we should never think it unreasonable that God should make some things dependent upon our prayers. Some people say that if God really loves us He would give us what is best for us whether we ask Him or not. Dr. Fosdick has so beautifully pointed out that God has left man many things to do for himself. He promises seedtime and harvest, yet man must prepare the soil, sow, and till, and reap in order to allow God to do His share. God provides us with food and drink, but He leaves us to take, and eat, and drink. There are some things God cannot, or at least will not, do without our help.
God will not do some things unless we think. He does not emblazon His truth upon the sky. The laws of nature have always been there. But we must think, and experiment, and think again if we would use those laws for our own good and God’s glory.
God will not do some things unless we work. He stores the hills with marble, but He has never built a cathedral. He fills the mountains with iron ore, but He never makes a needle or a locomotive. He leaves that to us. We must work.
If, then, God has left many things dependent upon man’s thinking and working, why should He not leave some things dependent upon man’s praying? He has done so. “Ask, and ye shall receive.” (John 16:24) There are some things God will not give us unless we ask. Prayer is one of the three ways in which man can co-operate with God; and the greatest of these is prayer.
Men of divine power are without exception men of prayer. God bestows His Holy Spirit in His fullness only on men of prayer. And it is through the operation of the Spirit that answers to prayer come. Every believer has the Spirit of Christ dwelling in him. For “if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.” (Romans 8:9) But a man of prevailing prayer must be filled with the Spirit of God.
A lady missionary wrote recently that it used to be said of Praying Hyde that whenever he spoke to an unconverted man, that man was soundly converted. But if he ever did fail at first to touch a heart for God, he went back to his room and wrestled in prayer till he was shown what it was in himself that had hindered his being used by God. Yes, when we are filled with the Spirit of God, we cannot help influencing others God-ward. But, to have power with men, we must have power with God.
The momentous question for you and me is therefore not, “How does God answer prayer?” The question is rather, “Do I really pray?” What a marvelous power God places at our disposal! Do we for a moment think that anything displeasing to God is worth our while holding on to? Fellow Christian, trust Christ wholly, and you will “find Him wholly true.”*
Let us give God the chance of putting His mind into us, and we shall never doubt the power of prayer again.