Does God Answer Our Prayers?

Personal note from author:

This post is from the book Betting on Jesus – Chapter 9.  It is the process I went through to seek out my own answers on the matter of prayer.  The process of discerning truth on the matter of prayer, and whether or not God answers our prayers, was a tedious one requiring a lot of thought, and a lot of research.  The only source we have for learning how to pray is the Bible, and that is where I went for my answers.  The answers may not be the ones you are looking for, but if we follow God’s instructions, and if we take into account his disclaimers, we can eventually come to a point where prayer does work for us.  

The first thing that comes to mind is how preachers deal with this subject.  For the most part, they say God does keep His promise, and that prayer is answered.  They then say that when we ask God for something, and He doesn’t give it to us, that in itself is God’s answer.  Sometimes preachers will say that God delays giving it to us, which doesn’t mean prayer isn’t answered.  And, other times they say God denies our request because what we ask for is not good for us.

I am fine with that if I can find evidence of these disclaimers in scripture, but I can’t.  Consider these words from Jesus:

Luke 11:1-13

Teaching about Prayer

He was praying in a certain place, and when He ceased, one of His disciples said to Him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.”

2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:

Our Father, who is in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us each day our daily bread.  4 And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

5Then He said to them, “Which of you has a friend and shall go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine on his journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give you anything’? 8 I say to you, though he will not rise and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as much as he needs.

9 “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened. 10 For every one that asketh receiveth, and he that seeketh findeth, and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.11 “If a son asks for bread from any of you who is a father, will you give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will you give him a serpent instead of a fish? 12 Or if he asks for an egg, will you offer him a scorpion? 13 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?”

I don’t read a single disclaimer in those words from Jesus.  Everyone who asks receives are the words Jesus uses.  Yet we know that is simply not the case.  Who among us has had every prayer to God answered?  If that isn’t true, then it is untrue – a lie.  And, if Jesus is God the Son, doesn’t it then follow that God has lied?   And, if that is the case, then how can we trust the words of the Bible?

Clearly, I need to again ponder the meaning of those words.  I am momentarily at a loss.

Well, a few things do come to mind.  The first one is the Lord’s Prayer.  What does Jesus tell us to pray for?  The only thing Jesus mentions in the Lord’s Prayer that would be of a material nature is “our daily bread.”  The rest of the Lord’s Prayer deals with giving God his due, acknowledging that his will be done, and telling us to forgive those who are in debt to us.  We are praying for the strength to follow the ways of God, not the ways of the world with one exception – “our daily bread.”

And, the rest of the passage speaks of bread as well.  Are we correct when we interpret any of these words to be a promise that we can have whatever we want if we just ask for it, or is the proper interpretation that if we pray for sustenance God will provide it?  Seriously, aren’t we again extrapolating here by extending the words to mean more than they do?  Read it again, and then decide if Jesus is suggesting that praying for anything we want is his message, or if his message is that our prayer for sustenance will be answered.  The Lord’s Prayer only deals with God giving us sustenance – that is food – and nothing else that would be of a material nature.

Another thing came to mind – when we do pray, how often do we pray as Jesus told us to pray?  You are having a problem – maybe an issue with health, an errant child, a wayward husband, or an issue with money.  You think prayer will help, and so you form your own words – words that ask God’s help in resolving the issue.  But, seriously, how many times do we give the slightest thought to the Lord’s Prayer?  I know I’ve only prayed the Lord’s Prayer in church – never in my bedroom at night as I was pleading for assistance on a matter I was dealing with.  And, there is a reason for that – I don’t want God to help me to be a righteous person in His eyes, I want Him to solve my problem.  Sort of a one sided deal isn’t it?

Let’s look at this verse from Matthew:

Matthew 21:18-21

Now in the morning as He returned to the city, He became hungry. 19 When He saw a fig tree by the road, He went to it but found nothing on it except leaves. He said to it, “Let no fruit ever grow on you again.” Immediately the fig tree withered away.

20 When the disciples saw it, they were amazed, saying, “How did the fig tree wither away instantly?”

21 Jesus answered them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but also, if you say to this mountain, ‘Be removed, and be thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.”

Here we see that Jesus is telling His disciples that they will be able to do things through faith that are inexplicable in the real world – things like commanding a mountain to uproot and cast itself into the sea.  Additionally, we again see that the passage starts out with a reference to sustenance which seems a common thread on scriptures pertaining to prayer so far, but the thing that comes to mind for me is again one of context, and it relates to who He is talking to.  He is talking directly to his disciples – not to a crowd of regular people.  Are we in the right to extend the meaning of those words to include anyone other than the ones He was talking to?

I think the first mistake most make when reading these words is to equate the performing of miracles with the answering of prayers.  Granted, Jesus does say that whatever you ask in prayer, if you believe, you will receive.  But, there was an underlying consideration here – Jesus was about to ascend to heaven, and His disciples were about to take over the works He started.  They were eventually able to perform the same types of miracles Jesus had performed.  These miracles are recorded in the Book of Acts.

Jesus is saying to the disciples that if you attempt to perform miracles, if you have faith that you can do it, you will do it by praying to God.  In Acts we see a supernatural event occurring where the Holy Spirit ascended on them in a very physical manner:

 Acts 2:1-4

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like a mighty rushing wind came from heaven, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 There appeared to them tongues as of fire, being distributed and resting on each of them, 4 and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to speak.

Most of us don’t have that sort of thing happen to us do we?  Here is Peter healing a man who had been lame from birth:

Acts 3:3-10

Now Peter and John went up together to the temple at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer. A man lame from birth was being carried, whom people placed daily at the gate of the temple called Beautiful to ask alms from those who entered the temple. 3 Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. 4 Peter, gazing at him with John, said, “Look at us.” 5 So he paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

Then Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” 7 He took him by the right hand and raised him up. Immediately his feet and ankles were strengthened. 8 Jumping up, he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God. 9 All the people saw him walking and praising God. 10 They knew that it was he who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what happened to him.

In Acts 19 we read of the miracles performed by Paul:

Acts 19:11-12

God worked powerful miracles by the hands of Paul. 12 So handkerchiefs or aprons he had touched were brought to the sick, and the diseases left them, and the evil spirits went out of them.

Clearly, if Jesus was speaking specifically to the Apostles – and He was – then are we correct in assuming that what He was saying to them included mankind as a whole?  One thing we do know – the Apostles were able to perform the same types of miracles as Jesus, and no one since has been able to do so.  It is also interesting that the miracles referenced in the passages in Acts were miracles of healing.  Peter even mentioned that he had no silver or gold suggesting that perhaps bestowing material gifts on those who asked were beyond his purview.

Here again we see Jesus granting power to His disciples who would eventually become His Apostles as they took over the work of Jesus and gave birth to Christianity:

John 15:5-8

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, bears much fruit. For without me you can do nothing. 6 If a man does not remain in me, he is thrown out as a branch and withers. And they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. 7 If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it shall be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit; so you will be my disciples.

I can’t fathom how Jesus could be clearer than He is in John 15.  He is telling His disciples that they can ask whatever they desire, but only on the condition that they remain in Him, and He remains in them.  He goes on to say “without me you can do nothing.”  He ends his words by stating that what they will do will bear much fruit and glorify God the Father.  And, they did bear “much fruit” as they gave birth to Christianity.  They also used their power for the purpose Jesus explained, and none of them abused those powers by using them for personal gain.  In fact, they remained so into Jesus that all of them but John were martyred for their loyalty to Jesus.  That is the context we need to consider when we read the words: “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, you will ask whatever you desire, and it shall be done for you.”  Despite this very clear message from Jesus, there have been many an occasion where I have heard a preacher use those words to suggest that they apply to all of us.  I don’t buy it.  Do you, now that you’ve taken context into account?

We have two choices when reading these words in John 15, either Jesus was speaking to His disciples, or Jesus was speaking to the world.  Keep in mind, at this point there was no church as the day of Pentecost had not arrived.  A clear meaning in this context – at least in my opinion – is that Jesus was explaining to His disciples –and soon to become Apostles – that when the time came for them to take over they would be able to perform the same kinds of miracles that He had performed, and for the purpose of demonstrating to the world that they had power, and from God.  And, consider this, did Jesus ever perform a miracle that extended beyond sustenance or healing of one’s physical afflictions? To the best of my knowledge, the answer to that question is no He didn’t.

Every time I go down a path like this where I am searching for clarity, and searching for truth I have no idea where I am going.  I am telling you the truth on this.  Yet, as I progress through the process of investigation I am able to explain the Bible in ways that make sense.  First, let’s be honest – we just can’t do this sort of stuff.  And, again if we are honest, our constant pleading in prayer for a miracle usually doesn’t produce fruit.  Dial-a-prayer religion pretty much doesn’t work in the real world.

Here is the question we need to answer – are the references to prayers being answered in the New Testament pertaining to everyone, or just the disciples of Jesus who are about to give birth to Christianity?  What evidence do we have that sheds light on the subject?  Well, if we are to believe the Bible, we have evidence that after the day of Pentecost the Apostles did indeed perform Jesus-like miracles.  We also have no indication that prayer works today, at least in the sense that we can just ask for what we want and God will give it to us.

Here is what James has to say about unanswered prayers:

James 4:3

And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong–you want only what will give you pleasure. 

Here is what I have to say regarding my own experiences.  There have been numerous times throughout my life where I felt great anxiety over my future.  In some instances – more than I care to think about – my worst fears came true.  Yet, at no point did I have a problem with sustenance.  In other words, I always had a warm bed to sleep in, as much food as I cared to consume, clothes to wear, and a vehicle for transportation.  Whether it was God looking after me to the extent the Lord’s Prayer says He will, or whether it was something else I don’t know.

Also, regardless of my efforts to pray for some sort of divine solution to a problem, those prayers were never answered.  Mind you I don’t ever pray for material things, but I do on occasion pray for wisdom when I am experiencing problems, and even then prayer seems to produce nothing.

However, when I just choose to surrender my problems in faith, and with no preconceived ideas on what the future will hold, things do tend to work out.  It seems the harder I work to control an outcome, the less control I have.  Here’s what James has to say on the matter of facing many trials in life:

James 1:2-4

 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 

Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

Are those words speaking of lacking anything in the world, or are they speaking of lacking the things we need as we move on after the death of our physical body?  So much of the Bible is interpreted in ways that suggest we can use God to better our worldly condition.  I disagree.  If we read the Bible for the purpose of finding scriptures that will help us in our worldly life, we run the risk of misinterpreting the words of the Bible.  Something as simple as the Lord’s Prayer should inform us, and what the Lord’s Prayer states we should pray for are as follows:

  1. Feed us.
  2. Forgive us for sins.
  3. Help us to avoid future sins.
  4. Help us to forgive those who sin against us.

And, James tells us the reason our prayers go unanswered is that we pray for things that will give us pleasure.  The Bible simply doesn’t support the notion that we can pray our way out of our troubles, nor does it support the notion that we can pray our way to wealth and happiness.  If our objective is to discern truth, and use that truth to make the right wager on the matter of choosing to bet on God and Jesus, then using the fact that our prayers go unanswered as proof that God lied, and therefore betting on God and Jesus is the wrong bet – is flawed logic.

To the contrary, on the matter of prayer the Bible once again focuses on our life after death, not our present day life.  Even the power of prayer granted to the Apostles wasn’t used for personal gain in a worldly sense, rather it was used to demonstrate the awesome power of God, and to drive people to Jesus so they may have everlasting life.

So far everything we’ve discussed suggests that life on earth is a testing ground, and nothing more.  And, if we can just grasp the idea of eternity we should be able to understand that.  One wonders if a lot of church goers are only interested in learning of how to have a better earthly life, even as it seems clear the Bible is intended to teach them how to live an earthly life in a way that gives them an eternal life in heaven.

Still, there are other instances where men seem able to perform great feats, and all due to God bestowing a power on them that seems sufficient to defy the physical laws of earth.  How about when David defeated Goliath, or the things Moses did in the Book of Exodus.  Or the many things Daniel was able to do including seeing into the future.  And, we also have Samson, a man of unique strength, and a warrior who couldn’t be defeated regardless of the odds against him.  In fact, all the prophets were able to see into the future.  Should we assume that we can do these sorts of things if we, through our prayers, connect to God?

Well, as Jesus said, what is impossible for man is possible for God so I suppose one could find himself in such great favor with God that he would bestow some sort of power on him if he asked in prayer.  We need to investigate further.

Keep in mind, my purpose here is to approach the subject matter from the standpoint of a research analyst, or an investigative journalist.  And, in explaining my approach, I made note of the fact that on occasion my mind draws a blank.  My response at those times is to walk away for a time to allow my mind to rest.  In this case, I chose to move on to another subject having hit a brick wall.  However, in the process of reading scriptures on other subjects, I came across this passage from Luke:

Luke 18:1:8

And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint; 2 Saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man: 3 And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.  4 And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, though I fear not God, nor regard man; 5Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.  6 And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith. 7 And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?  8 I tell you that he will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless when the Son of man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?

More on that in a moment, but what I find particularly interesting is this – when I decided these words needed to be included in the chapter on prayer I went back to read the chapter to determine where it should be inserted within the text I had already completed.  When I got to the end I found that I hadn’t closed the chapter, although I had forgotten that I had left this chapter incomplete.  What I found at the end were several notes I had written to myself – other areas I needed to investigate.

Obviously, I hadn’t felt the subject was complete for some reason.  We have discussed thought in a previous chapter, and made note of the fact that we really don’t have any science that explains how we can create a thought.  We just don’t know how that works.  Given that truth, I proffered an explanation – there were 4 places thoughts come to us from:

  1. From within – that is, the information that is stored in our brain, our hard drive if you will.
  2. Through our limited access to a universe of thoughts that exist in the ether.
  3. Through a demonic force – Satan.
  4. Through the Holy Spirit.

Thought is one of the areas we have made virtually no progress on in terms of understanding.  Science has left us with nothing.  And, interestingly, the only way we can move forward on this subject is through the process of thinking on it, pondering the problem, opening our minds to plausible theories that we can pursue.  In other words, if we hope to answer the question of how we think, we must necessarily think about it.

Furthermore, thought just doesn’t seem to have a physical world quality to it, and science is limited to the physical world.  It is a phenomenon that we can observe, but it seems to have virtually no physical qualities suggesting that the answer to how we think resides in a dimension outside those we experience in a physical sense.  If that is true, and it certainly seems to be true, then anyone who would choose to summarily reject my theory on the matter would be of the type that would insure that we never discover this great mystery.

Moving on, it seems that Jesus does tell us that our prayers are answered.  He uses a parable, that of an “unjust judge” and a widow who pleads her case to the judge.  The woman demonstrates a quality of persistence, and although the judge at first lacks empathy for her and merely dismisses her, due to her persistence the judge finally grants her request, and for the simple reason that the woman had become a nuisance, and the only way to get rid of her was to give her what she asked.

Jesus then goes on to say that God will likewise avenge the elect who plead with Him day and night, and do so speedily.  Faith does indeed seem to be a consideration here.  One would not plead to a God that he didn’t think existed, and one that he didn’t think had the power to honor his request.  I find it interesting that persistence is a focus here.  The reason is straightforward.  If we have little faith we may offer up a prayer once, maybe twice, but when it goes unanswered we might just throw in the towel and move on.  Persistence on the other hand demonstrates faith.  If we keep asking it is because we believe in two things:

  1. God exists.
  2. God can answer our prayer if He chooses to do so.

In a sense we are honoring God through our persistence.  And, that seems to matter a lot to God.  Remember how He responded to Job.  He made it crystal clear that Job knew nothing, and that He – God – knew everything.  And, maybe the faith in this case doesn’t have to do so much with the idea that you believe your prayer will be answered as it does with the idea that you believe it can be answered if it is God’s will to do so.

We also see persistence being a point of focus in Luke.  Jesus spoke these words immediately following His recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke 11:

Luke 11:5-8

Then He said to them, “Which of you has a friend and shall go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine on his journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not trouble me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot rise and give you anything’? 8 I say to you, though he will not rise and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will rise and give him as much as he needs.

Persistence in prayer is a reoccurring theme in scripture.  God’s will also seems to be a big component in the matter of granting prayer requests.  We certainly see emphasis on God’s will in the Lord’s Prayer – “thy will be done.”  And, we also saw God’s will in the matter of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane saying, “Father, if thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.”

At the least, I find myself better informed on the matter of prayer.  My observation from a worldly perspective is that God rarely answers prayer.  And, when we assume the Bible is telling us we have the power to see all our prayer requests granted, and rely on scriptures that deal with Jesus telling His disciples they would have great power through prayer, we are taking the matter out of context.  Jesus was turning the reigns over to his disciples – commanding them to go forth, and to spread the message.  That they did, and they were able to do as Jesus stated – that is, they were able to perform Jesus-like miracles.

So, some of the scriptures pertaining to prayer are not those we should rely on.  However, there are other scriptures pertaining to prayers that seem to pertain to all of us.  More importantly for me, it fits with my world view.  In other words, answered prayers are not that common.  On the other hand, we do have some evidence that prayers are answered, albeit, almost all of it is anecdotal.

Should we discount anecdotal evidence?  Wikipedia explains the limits of anecdotal evidence in terms of its reliability:

Anecdotal evidence is evidence from anecdotes, i.e., evidence collected in a casual or informal manner and relying heavily or entirely on personal testimony. When compared to other types of evidence, anecdotal evidence is generally regarded as limited in value due to a number of potential weaknesses, but may be considered within the scope of scientific method as some anecdotal evidence can be both empirical and verifiable, e.g. in the use of case studies in medicine. Other anecdotal evidence, however, does not qualify as scientific evidence, because its nature prevents it from being investigated by the scientific method.

Logic would suggest we have no choice in terms of accepting anecdotal evidence as there is no other form of evidence to exam.  I can observe empirical evidence, but how does one observe the answering of a prayer.  To do so would mean that you would have to observe my thoughts.  I guess it is also possible that you could listen to me speak a prayer out loud, but we find in Matthew an instruction to pray in private:

Matthew 6:5-8

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.  But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him.

Certainly, if we are to take these words in Matthew to heart it would preclude a test of the efficacy of prayer based on observing a group of people who utter the words of the prayer out loud.  Furthermore, it is still a matter of our thoughts which are not always expressed in our words.  And, there are so many other things that would preclude us from doing a scientific study on the efficacy of prayer.  As Jesus said to Satan, “Thou shall not tempt the Lord, our God,” and the mere process of setting up a test to validate the effectiveness of prayer clearly falls into that category.  We are still left with anecdotal evidence it seems.

We are making some progress, but I found a contradiction that bothers me a little.  In Matthew, we see Jesus saying that when we pray we should not use “vain repetitions,” but in Luke are we not instructed by the parable of the unjust Judge and the widow to persist in prayer?  The widow kept coming to the Judge with her complaint until she wore him down.  And, in Matthew we are told that the Father knows your needs even before you ask.

It seems there may be just one path to God and heaven – that being through Jesus – but there are many paths to God when seeking him out in prayer.  I admit that I am struggling here.  I am no longer suggesting that prayer is not answered, although I see very little in the real world to suggest it is, but I am simply not coming up with any sense of clarity on what one should do to gain God’s grace when seeking Him out in prayer.   If I could define the rules perhaps I could then satisfy myself that the reason we see so little evidence of prayer being answered is that we do not, or perhaps in some cases, cannot meet the requirements.

Here is where I am at this point:

  1. Don’t pray for worldly things that merely give you pleasure.
  2. Pray with faith in the fact that God exists, and that he has the power to answer if he chooses.
  3. If you feel that your prayer request is just, then persist with your prayers.
  4. Pray with total humility as Job did, fully recognizing your insignificance relative to God.
  5. Don’t try to impress God with your rhetoric – i.e., “vain repetitions.”
  6. In all prayers do as Jesus did and concede that God’s will is what shall be done.

It would be highly presumptuous of me to even begin to assume that I have that list right.  Some say the Bible was written in a way that the average person can understand.  I’ve heard young-earth creationists argue that the word “day” in the creation story in Genesis must mean what we all think it means as the Bible was written for man to understand.  I emphatically disagree.  The more one studies the Bible the more questions come to mind.  I consider myself exceptionally well versed in the field of economics, and I have had a number of people, after reading one of my articles, come back to me and ask if I can explain what I said in layman terms.  In other words, I work in a field that is highly esoteric for the average person.  And, I have also delved into the field of science with a desire to understand what I read on the matter.  I admit to experiencing great difficulty in this area.  That said, there is nothing I find more difficult to understand than the Bible, and it is hard for me to think that it was written with the intent of making it easy for people to understand.

That in itself may seem to lack justice.  How are we to adhere to rules and laws if we don’t understand them?  Of course the Bible speaks to that subject as well.  Here is what we are told to do in Joshua:

Joshua 1:8

This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

I suppose we will never get to the point where we can be certain that we are interpreting the meanings of scriptures accurately.  That said, I sense that the mere effort to do so pleases God.  I also sense that He would rather we not be so presumptuous as to declare with certainty we are interpreting a passage correctly.  Humility seems gravely important in undertaking this pursuit.  And, to the extent God is pleased with our efforts, it seems reasonable to me that the prospects of seeing our prayers answered go up dramatically.

Our objective is to build confidence in the bet – that is betting on God and Jesus – and I can only speak for myself.  I find a number of things that suggest prayer is not answered, and yet I have satisfied myself to a degree that we can have our prayers answered if we can reach a point where we understand what God wants us to understand.  I also think that the large majority of us fall well short of that lofty goal.  For me, perhaps the most significant revelation of all is the need for humility in my life, and I suspect that applies to many of us – perhaps most of us.  If you think about it, humility is indeed a hard thing to achieve.

It is perhaps easy enough to find things we do well, and to compare ourselves to those who don’t do as well in those things, and by doing so become puffed up with pride.  And, for most of us I would bet we do that sort of thing a lot – that is compare ourselves to others for the purpose of elevating ourselves in our own eyes.  Can we train ourselves to do the opposite?  Is it useful to understand how totally insignificant we are to a God who created the universe, and all the things that are in it.  Can a genius with an IQ of 180, when compared to a moron with an IQ of 70 really feel justified in his sense of superiority when compared to God?  The gap between the genius and the moron is infinitesimally small when compared to the gap between the genius and God.  The gap is so small in fact that it may not even be visible to God.

We are indeed a self-absorbed society, and we probably don’t even recognize that truth most of the time.  As is my nature, I googled “how difficult is it to achieve humility.”  This story found in an article entitled The Challenge of Humility by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat seems to put the matter in perspective:

A story is told about a man who asked his rabbi why people couldn’t see the face of God. What had happened that they could no longer reach high enough to see God?

The rabbi, a very old man, had experienced a lot in his life and was very wise. “My son,” he said, “that is not the way it is at all. You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad this is, but it is the truth. Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face-to-face.”

One final observation and we will move on.  As Jesus gives His disciples the Lord’s Prayer, and then comments further on the matter of prayer, He finishes His words with this statement:

If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?

He says how much more the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit.  Why does He say “give the Holy Spirit” here instead of “give you?”  The choice of words is both subtle, and ambiguous – at least to me.  I guess prayer’s power is manifested through the Holy Spirit, although I had never thought of it in that way before.  In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus starts with “Our Father who is in heaven” – we are being instructed to pray to God, not the Holy Spirit.  Yet the answer to our prayers – if we receive an answer – seems to be delivered by the Holy Spirit.

I am struck by the thought that the Holy Trinity clearly has a power hierarchy with God sitting at the top, and all things then emanate from him including the power He gives the Holy Spirit to help you through prayer.  Could it be that even when God is in accord with our prayers, we may still not receive the benefit due to our lack of connection to the Holy Spirit?

I have made this point several times, but will do so again.  When we reject the Bible on the basis of our perception that the words it contains are not true, it may well be that the words are perfectly true, but our understanding of those words is severely lacking. And that may well be due to the intentional ambiguity of those words.

In every case in the Bible we find a filling of the Holy Spirit is that point where those blessed by God receive their power.  It happened to Jesus, it happened to his Apostles, it happened to King David, it happened to Samson, it happened to every single person depicted in the Bible who was blessed with exceptional powers I think.

On the website http://www.gotquestion.org this question is asked and answered – “How Can I Be Filled with the Holy Spirit?”  The answer makes a distinction between being indwelled with the Spirit and being filled with the Spirit.  Indwelling, according to the answer, is bestowed on all who profess their faith and belief in Jesus as their Savior.  It would appear the power coming from an indwelling of the Spirit is limited.  We discussed this in the previous chapter, and my conclusion was that the Holy Spirit was there to guide us and comfort us if we were aware of the thoughts that come into our minds that are of the Holy Spirit – that righteous voice that tugs on us to do what God wants us to do when confronted with a choice.  There is no miraculous answering of prayer as a result of the “indwelling” of the Holy Spirit it would seem.

On the other hand, being filled with the Holy Spirit is another matter.  The question that comes to mind is this – are there things we can do to achieve that state of “being filled.”  Well, we find these words in Ephesians 5:

Ephesians 5:18-20

Don’t get drunk on wine, which produces depravity. Instead, be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: 19 speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; 20 always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; 21 and submit to each other out of respect for Christ.

The got questions website offers these words in answer to what is required to be “filled” versus just being “indwelled:”

We should be so completely yielded to the Holy Spirit that He can possess us fully and in that sense, fill us. Romans 8:9 and Ephesians 1:13-14 states that He dwells within every believer, but He can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30), and His activity within us can be quenched (1 Thessalonians 5:19). When we allow this to happen, we do not experience the fullness of the Spirit’s working and His power in and through us. To be filled with the Spirit implies freedom for Him to occupy every part of our lives, guiding and controlling us. Then His power can be exerted through us so that what we do is fruitful to God. 

Here we go again with what is “fruitful to God.” I guess if we are to possess the power of prayer by being filled with the Holy Spirit, it means that we can only do so for the benefit of elevating God in the eyes of those who witness our spirit filled power.

In Thessalonians we find these words from the Apostle Paul:

Thessalonians 5:14-22

Brothers and sisters, we urge you to warn those who are disorderly. Comfort the discouraged. Help the weak. Be patient with everyone. 15 Make sure no one repays a wrong with a wrong, but always pursue the good for each other and everyone else. 16 Rejoice always. 17 Pray continually. 18 Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 19 Don’t suppress the Spirit. 20 Don’t brush off Spirit-inspired messages, 21 but examine everything carefully and hang on to what is good. 22 Avoid every kind of evil.

We are warned not to suppress the Spirit in this passage.  This is totally consistent with what I have been saying about that inner voice – that is, He really will talk to you if you let Him.  And, the passages also tell us what we must do to be “filled” as opposed to just having an “indwelling.”  The first implies a power we can access.  The second says that power resides with us, but also that it is on us to tap into it.

Obviously, I can’t offer compelling evidence at this point, as I haven’t reached the point where “being filled with the Spirit” occurs, and if I were able to offer evidence it would be nothing more than anecdotal evidence anyway.  That said, the prospects of reaching that “filled with” point fascinates me, but also brings up in me a slight desire to stick to the familiar – the old me.  The point is I am kind of comfortable with the old me, and also a little tentative about what the new me might be like.  What in the world would a HUMBLE me feel like I wonder?  Or a submissive me, a passive me?

I am certainly none of those things – rather I am the classic Type A personality.  In an effort to define Type A traits I googled the subject.  The essay I read offered a test to determine whether or not I am Type A, and sure enough I am.  After completing the test I got this response:

I‘m Type A

The theory describes a Type A individual as ambitious, rigidly organized, highly status conscious, can be sensitive, care for other people, are truthful, impatient, always try to help others, take on more than they can handle, want other people to get to the point, proactive, and obsessed with time management. People with Type A personalities are often high-achieving “workaholics” who multi-task, push themselves with deadlines, and hate both delays and ambivalence.

Doesn’t that describe a man who is “of the world?”  Well, for the most part it describes me, and I am quite honestly a little fearful of letting that person go.  Yet, it would seem I need to do just that if I hope to achieve that state of “being filled” that promises me access to a power outside myself.

As I have said repeatedly, betting on Jesus is no small thing.  I suddenly think I am for the first time in my entire life beginning to understand what “being born again” means.  Again, that ambiguity, that subtleness that permeates the Bible.  Billy Graham used to say “you must be born again,” and I kept wondering – for about 50 years now – what the hell does that mean?

Well, it needs to be taken much more literally than I ever understood.  It means striving in every way to stay connected to that voice that rests on your shoulder that guides you if you listen.  But, apparently it also changes you in a very profound way, and a way that many of us never realize.  We are comfortable with the way we are, and frightened of what we may become.  Frankly, I like the idea of being in control on a personal level although, if I am willing to admit the truth, I am really not in control.

And, it also adds a new dimension to the idea of surrendering yourself.  That means being submissive, and you have no idea the negative thoughts I have about submissive people.  Weak comes to mind, and I like strong.  And, in the blink of an eye I hear these words, and I am not lying –

So you really think Jesus is weak?”

Certainly something to consider, and perhaps that is when we really see prayers answered.  One thing for sure, writing this chapter has indeed been a fascinating and enlightening experience.  In that sense I have fully met the goal I set out for myself at the beginning.  So, is prayer really answered?  Well, perhaps it is after all.  One thing seems apparent – proof of prayer not being answered as the Bible claims it will be may be true, but it is only when we do all those things that are required of us that we can assert that as being a fact that invalidates scriptures, and there can be no question that I have fallen well short of doing those things that are required.

My primary goal in writing this book is to raise my level of confidence in the idea that the Bible is God’s divinely inspired Word, conveyed to all of us through men who were chosen by God.  In order to meet that lofty demand – that is the Word of God is set forth in the Bible, and the Bible is the inerrant Word of God – it is necessary that I satisfy myself that what the Bible says about prayer is consistent with what we see in the world we live in.  What I find is this – men (often times those whose life’s work is to preach) tell us things in the Bible about prayer that are simply false – that is, what they say the Bible says is not always what the Bible says.  I am sufficiently convinced of that fact at this point to declare that the Bible is not where we find the error – rather it is man’s inability to discern the truth regarding what the Bible promises us on the matter of prayer.

One thought on “Does God Answer Our Prayers?

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