This is the third post in a series about how God answers prayer.
I grew up with a speech impediment. Born with a cleft palate
, I was physically incapable of making the “s” sound.
The repair required two surgeries, but I received only one of those in my infancy. When I was in my early twenties, a surgeon completed the repair and I uttered normal speech for the first time.
Years of garbled speech gave me various challenges, but it also provided me with an illustration for prayer. When I spoke, most people had difficulty understanding me. I could not make myself clear.
Some found it difficult to relate to me, because it is awkward to be forever asking someone to repeat himself. (My rough edges didn’t help much either, to be honest.)
But there were people who had a knack for understanding me with apparently no extra effort. They could hear through what I garbled to the meaning I wanted to convey.
That is the analogy I want to convey. Our prayers are garbled speech. We cannot make ourselves clear. God can and does respond to our meaning even when we fail to make our own message clear.
Before going on to explain, I want to underscore that this analogy has a very serious limit. When I spoke to others as a young man, I knew very well what I was trying to say. My speech way garbled. Not my thoughts.
By contrast, our prayers often arise from limited perspectives, distorted desires, and confused thinking. When we consider intercessory prayer to be our crying out to God, then we should see that our speech is garbled at many levels.
Nevertheless, God hears what we mean—he hears the genuine needs and longings that motivate our prayers—and responds with a resounding yes. God always answers our prayers. But we have to be clear about who we are as speakers to catch a glimpse of how God always answers the prayers of the faithful.
There are three things to remember about us. We are finite. We are fallen. We are followers of Jesus. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
We are finite. God created us with the gift of intellect. But our reason is not infinite. We cannot know everything.
Even our biggest big picture is only a partial perspective on the whole of creation. We may glimpse God’s plan for each life and for the destiny of the creation in outline, but the details remain clouded in mystery.
Think about what God said to Job
when Job challenged Him to explain suffering:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:4-6)
Our prayers are always offered from a partial, imperfect perspective. Intercessory prayers bring our deep needs and tender longings to God.
But because we are finite we may not clearly discern how to meet our needs and satisfy our longings. We may even have trouble identifying the true nature of those longings.
God has an acute sense of hearing. He hears our prayers more clearly than we are able to plead them. He addresses the needs we bring to him even when we ask for things that would not in the end do us any good. God does the good for us that we don’t know how to ask for.
Sometimes, in retrospect, we can see that God’s apparent refusal to answer our prayers was in fact a “yes.”
A friend of mine was unemployed for about a year. He prayed fervently, and other members of the church prayed for him regularly. Early on he had several job interviews in his chosen field, but they went nowhere. Soon there were no more interviews.
It began gradually to dawn on him that his spiritual issue was not his unemployment. He had spent his life working for all the wrong reasons. His career had been a means to justify his own existence.
In the midst of his unemployment, he came to see that his infinite worth derives from the Cross. Not his achievements. When this realization took firm hold of him, he received a job offer in a filed that I’ll simply describe as a servant ministry. He’s never been happier.
This is a happy example, but not every apparently unanswered prayer receives a retrospective explanation.
Many of us are left aching from a broken relationship or the loss of a loved one. Acknowledging that we are finite will does not diminish such struggles, but it does give us a framework for persevering in hope by relying on God.
In addition to being finite, we are fallen.
God created us in his image. In part, this means that God created us to desire and to will the good in a way that resembles him. In other words, the original plan was that our prayers would reflect God’s purposes for his Creation.
As children of the fall, we bear the marks of Adam’s fateful decision. We, as it were, inherit faulty spiritual DNA. To use Augustine’s
notion, we are inhabited by disordered loves
. What we want, what we crave, can be debasing to others and destructive of ourselves. Even when we think that it is good!
Neither baptism nor a conversion experience completely restores us to our original state. What theologians call sanctification happens gradually over time. The Holy Spirit transforms us (often in the midst of prayer itself) into the image of Christ for the most part in baby steps.
So, we once again find ourselves offering garbled prayers to God. We sometimes bring to God things unworthy of God and his kingdom thinking that we are bringing something good.
Offering examples of this sort of prayer can be a little tricky, so I’ll play it safe and make reference to a ghastly prayer from the Psalms. Listen to the prayer offered by those suffering through the Babylonian Captivity
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Ps. 137:8-9)
Some say, “Be careful what you pray for.” In other words, God may grant your destructive request, so watch out!
But the contrary is true.
God will not dash their little ones against the rock to satisfy their disordered desire for vengeance. Instead, God hears in their harsh words and in their tortured passion their deeper cries for deliverance and justice.
And God gives deliverance and justice. He brought the Israelites out of Captivity and restored Jerusalem.
God can hear through our garbled prayers to the desires and loves that we were originally designed to have. God says yes to these loves. Every time!
Finally, in addition to being finite and being fallen, we are followers: followers of Jesus Christ. This will turn out to be even more important than being finite and being fallen. And we’ll turn to it in the next post.
(The image above is Gerrit Dou’s “The Prayer of the Spinner” found at this link.)