Does God Answer Prayer? 

Robert Harris
Version Date: September 22, 2013

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Some people ask why God doesn't answer, or doesn't always answer, their prayers. But the fact is, God does answer prayer. In fact, God answers every prayer. If you think about it, though, you can understand why he doesn’t answer every prayer with a “Yes,” immediately. Suppose, for example, that John prays, “Lord, I need rain on my field right now,” and Jim standing ten feet away prays, “Lord, please keep the rain away while we finish putting the new roof on my house.” God isn’t going to answer both prayers with a Yes, right away.  But since he does answer every prayer, the question is, how does he do it? How does God answer prayer?

Here are the answers I’ve seen God give to prayer.

Yes.

This is the answer we all think we want, and are happy to get. God loves to give us what we need, and when our requests align with his will, he often grants the prayer. We’re more likely to get a Yes answer when we study God’s word and come to know his will for our lives and the lives of others.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. --Romans 12:2

And God knows what’s good for us and for those we pray for. And what’s best for us is not always what we are praying for. That’s why all of our prayers should include “if it’s your will,” or “may it be done according to your will.” After all, you don't want to pray earnestly for something, have God grant it, and then you, stunned at the consequences, sit there and say, "But I thought...." If you don't submit everything to God's will, you might end up asking for something not so very good for you but that God decides to answer with a Yes, because it's the only way you will learn.

  And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. --1 John 5:14 (ESV)

Yes, But You Aren’t Paying Attention.

Sometimes God answers our prayer with Yes, but we don’t recognize it because we have a predetermined idea about what that Yes answer will look like. So, when you pray, look around you and think: Did God answer Yes already, and I just need to look around and see it? Is the answer right in front of me if only I can understand it?

    Example 1
I know this is an old, old story that you’ve heard many times, but it’s appropriate here.
 
A man’s house was flooded when a nearby river overflowed its banks during a historic rainstorm, and he was forced to climb onto the roof. As the water rose, he prayed, “Lord, save me. Don’t let me drown.”
     In a few minutes, a man in a motorboat saw him and came over. “Get in,” said the man, “and I’ll take you to safety.”
     But the man on the roof said, “No, thanks. I’m waiting for the Lord to answer my prayer. He will save me.”
     As the water reached the top of the roof and splashed over his shoes, the man saw another boat heading towards him.
     “Jump in, brother,” said the man in the boat.
     “Sorry,” said the man on the roof, his ankles now wet. “I’m waiting for the Lord to save me.” And again he prayed, “Lord, please save me. I need your help now.” But the water kept rising.
     Just when the water was past his waist, a rescue helicopter spotted the man, came over, and dropped a lifeline. “Grab hold of the harness and we’ll pull you up,” said the rescue copter paramedic.
    “No, no, that’s okay,” said the man on the roof.  “God will rescue me. I’m waiting for him.”
     It wasn’t long before the water was too deep for the man to remain standing on the roof. He floated away, got caught in the current, and eventually drowned. When he got to heaven, he met the Lord. “Lord,” he said, with a tone in his voice, “what happened? I prayed to you to rescue me, but you let me drown.”
     “My child,” the Lord said, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What else did you want?”

The point is, don’t be blinded by your own expectations about what a Yes will look like.

    Example 2
Suppose that you pray that you will grow spiritually. When you open your eyes, you see a Bible lying open on the table. Is that the answer to your prayer? Do you resist it? (Think of a friend who comes to you and says, “Please help me lose weight.” You say, “Diet and exercise.” And the friend says, “No, no, some other way.”) Similarly, some of us want to reject Scripture or a specific passage.

Bottom line: When you ask for something from God, be sure you are ready to receive his answer.

. . . praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints. . . . Ephesians 6:18 (ESV)

The Substitute Yes.

Sometimes God’s answer to your prayer is Yes, but it’s something a bit different from what you had in mind. Sometimes he answers the prayer you would have prayed if you had known all the facts or circumstances—or possibilities. Remember that God can see down the road and around the corner, while we can see only what’s in front of us—and that in a mirror dimly.

Example: Your garbage disposal wears out so you pray that you can find a plumber to replace it at a reasonable cost. Instead, God sends a neighbor to you, who installs it free.

…for all things are possible with God. --Mark 10:27b (NASB)

Point: Pray for God’s answer, not necessarily yours. Remember that virtually all problems can be solved in more than one way. Remember, too, that we usually fix on one solution, which we bring before the Lord. But just maybe he has a better solution in mind.

 Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.  –1 Corinthians 13:12 (NLT)

Yes, Plus.

This is the Ephesians 3:20 answer, “beyond what you can ask or think.” God not only gives you a favorable answer, but he does so in a glorious, sumptuous manner.

Example: You pray for God’s help in deciding about which new printer to buy and when you get to the store you find a multifunction machine (printer, copier, scanner, fax) on sale for 40% off.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through His mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.  –Ephesians   3:20 (NLT)

Partial Yes.

When God knows that the best answer is not to grant your entire prayer at one time, he may answer with a partial yes, where some of what you ask for is given and some is withheld. This can occur because God wants to answer the What of your prayer but not the How. In fact, it's a good idea not to give God specific instructions about what you want--as we've said, he already knows. So, instead of, "God give me a raise at my job so I can get a new car," you might pray, "God, I need more reliable transportation. Help me get a new car if that's your will." The answer might not come through a raise.

A type of Partial Yes is the Unfolding Yes, where your prayer is incrementally answered over time. Physical healing is one area where an Unfolding Yes is often given. Preparing yourself--your heart and mind--for a complete answer is another area. It might be that "you can't handle the answer" in its entirety right now. So God in his mercy and grace will unfold it to you over time, as you grow more able to accept it--or recognize it. (See Yes, But You're Not Paying Attention, above.)

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  --Phillipians 4:6-7

Are You Sure?

Sometimes God wants to know if we are really serious about what we are praying for. Have we really thought this request through, or is it something that just occurred offhand and that we will lose interest in soon? Remember that God already knows what we want and what we need, so our prayers are at least in part for our own benefit, to let us and God know how earnest, committed, focused, and prioritized we are. If you are willing to keep praying for something for awhile, God knows then that you are really serious.

Example: You see something desirable at the store (a dress, a hunting knife, a Blu Ray player) and you immediately pray, “Lord, please help me to get that. May it be on sale today.” But then you see something else that you want even more. “Lord, never mind my previous prayer, but please help me get this other thing….” and so forth.

That’s a simple example, but the point remains for other requests, too. If you are praying for something big, such as a change in government in a country where the people are oppressed by a cruel and selfish dictator, you might need to pray for some time and enlist others to join you. If you just pray once when you first hear about the situation, God may suspect you are less serious than you should be. (I'm speaking generally here, because of course, a single prayer can be effective, for God hears all our prayers, short or long, repeated or single. So, for example, if you read about a homeless person on the opposite coast, don't hesitate to offer a prayer for that person.)

. . . as we pray most earnestly night and day. . . . 1 Thessalonians 3:10

The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results.  --James 5:16b (NLT)

No.

Sometimes the answer is No. If your child asks you for a drink from a bottle of Windex, you say No because you know that’s not good for the kid. You wouldn't respond with a Yes if your diabetic child asked for a heavily sugared drink or bowl of candy. Some of the things we ask for we shouldn’t. Sometimes down deep we know we shouldn’t be asking for something, but other times we ask in ignorance. As I mentioned below (No, But You'll Thank Me Later), No is sometimes an answer to rejoice over. Time will clarify. Remember that all relationships are built on trust, so if you want a relationship with God, you have to trust him. And, of course, sometimes the answer is simply a plain, old, inscrutable No.

You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. –James 4:3

No, But Refocus.

God knows when we need to rethink what we are asking for before he gives us a favorable answer. You know the drill: You pray, "Lord, please move this mountain from in front of me," when the Lord is waiting for you to pray, "Lord, help me to climb this mountain."

Example: You pray that God will keep a coworker away from you because he or she is a time robber. The coworker keeps bugging you (in other words, God’s answer is No), until you change your prayer to ask how you can help the coworker no longer need to ask you so many questions. You go to lunch with the coworker, discover some issues, and help the coworker, who now can rely on several others for help (now God answers Yes).

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. --Isaiah 55:9

No, But You'll Thank Me Later.

The longer you live in the life of faith and prayer, the more opportunities you’ll have to look back and thank God for answering certain prayers with a No. Once again, had you known all that God knows, you never would have asked for that request. At the time, it’s disappointing or even incomprehensible when the answer is No, but a few days, weeks, or even years down the road, you’ll see that God really does care about you and that No is the answer you're now glad he gave.

Example: For some reason, this answer makes me think of broken love relationships. People sometimes pray that God will deliver a cetain person into their hands (and hypnotize them into a romantic attachment, too), and when that doesn't happen, they are distraught. But a few years later, when they learn how that other person turned out, they are really grateful for the negative response by God.

Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." --John 13:7

No, And Stop Being Ridiculous.

God can work any kind of miracle he wants, but I've noticed in my own life at least, that he doesn't suspend the laws of physics in order to get me to an appointment on time. Self-indulgent prayers like, "Lord, make Jane love me," or "Lord, take the dent out of the car," or "Lord, don't let this huge piece of triple chocolate frosted cake add to my weight," will very likely get the Stop Being Ridiculous answer they deserve. The same is true for prayers that ask God to help  you sin ("Lord, help me get some cocaine") or indulge harmful behavior ("Lord, make the next store carry the brand of cigarettes I like").

Now, it's not being ridiculous to pray for "small" things. Praying for your stomach ache to go away is perfectly fine; praying for your little dog to get well is fine, too.

"When you pray, don't ramble like heathens who think they'll be heard if they talk a lot.  Don't be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.  --Matthew 6:7-8

Wait.

Sure, we are all impatient to have our prayers answered right away. But for his purposes—and often for our own growth—the answer is sometimes Wait. And it might be Wait a Long Time. Look at some of the Biblical characters—Joseph was in jail for two years before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, and Abraham was a pretty old man before Isaac was born. You’ve heard the old joke, “God give me patience and give it to me immediately.” We live in a culture of instant gratification, so we expect instant answers to our prayers. And often that does happen. But commonly we are asked to wait upon the Lord and his good timing.

And remember that some prayers are answered after the petitioner has joined the Lord. Not every Yes comes in our lifetime. So don't be discouraged just because you don't see a prayer answered while you're still here.

The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.  –2 Peter 3:9

Wait, While I Prepare You for a Yes.

Sometimes we are just not ready for the Yes answer to a prayer. For example, an eighteen year old praying for a spouse might need to wait until their maturity, education, worldview, or economic circumstances have reached a point that will allow a happy, permanent relationship.The same is true about praying for a promotion, move across country, getting elected to the school board, and so forth.

I gave you milk to drink, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it.  --1 Corinthians 3:2a

Here’s Something You Didn’t Expect.

Sometimes God answers a prayer in a completely unforeseeable way. As with  Yes, but You're Not Paying Attention (above), we need to be alert to this answer.

For example. you might pray, “Lord, let me know what to cook for dinner, and please put it on sale at the grocery store.” And then ten minutes later you and your family are invited to a huge buffet at some friends’ house.

Remember when the disciples woke Jesus during the storm that was filling the boat, probably thinking that he might  help bail it out? What was the answer but something they didn't expect?  And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, "Peace! Be still!" And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, "Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, "Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?"   --Mark 4:39-41
 

Here’s Something You Didn’t Even Pray About.

And there is one final answer God gives to prayer, and that’s the answer to a prayer you didn’t think to pray. Sometimes an event will occur (an act of grace) that will be just what you wanted or needed, but you hadn’t thought to pray about it. In hindsight, you say, “Thank you, Lord. That’s just what I would have prayed for if I had thought to pray.” This might be called the advance answer.

Example 1: You want to talk to your friend to patch up a misunderstanding you had, but you’re hesitant because of the argument. While you’re trying to build up your courage, your friend calls you and asks about getting together.

Example 2: I met a friend at a public library recently, just to look around and then go to lunch nearby. Just near the door were several shelves of discard books, for sale for ten cents each. I found three very useful volumes. Now, I didn't pray for ten cent books, but had I thought to pray about it, I certainly would have. But asking God for some books for ten cents each would have been beyond my imagination.

You do not have, because you do not ask.  --James 4:2b

My advice is to pray for everything. Nothing is too small. God is sovereign over all creation. I regularly pray for a safe journey whenever I get behing the wheel. Recently, I prayed that the Lord would help me find the problem with a malfunctioning dishwasher and that the problem would be one of the easier ones to fix. (Prayer answered. Instead of the drain pump, which a diagnostic web site said was the problem 57% of the time, it was a simple clog in the drain hose.)

Final Words on Prayer.

Remember that prayer is talking to God, and it can be friendly, informal, and ad hoc anytime 24/7.  But it’s an action of high seriousness, nevertheless. Prayer is useful for many different kinds of communication with God. You can humble yourself before the Lord and ask for your needs or the needs of others; praise God for his goodness, grace, and mercy; worship him in adoration; thank him with gratitude for his gifts, help, and daily sustenance; confess your sins and seek forgiveness; and listen in quietness for God's direction.

When asking for God’s help, though, it’s important to remember that God is not your butler, at your beck and call to bring you whatever you ask for. He’s not a vending machine that dispenses a blessing when you put in a prayer. He’s not an insurance policy that will keep you safe from all harm. He is your Creator, with a very broad view of his creation. So, when you pray, submit every request to God’s will—if he wills, may your prayer be granted.

Pray without ceasing. –1 Thessalonians 5:17

To read about the what, when, why, and how of prayer, see Some Thoughts on Prayer.
And don't forget to buy the book, A Prayer Book.





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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com