This is the final post in the series on how God answers prayer.
God answers our prayers. But if he simply granted the prayers we actually offer, we might say to Him what St. Teresa of Avila told him when she fell from her donkey into the mud: “If this is the way you treat your followers no wonder you have so few of them!”
As I explained in the previous post in this series, our prayers are always imperfect. We are finite, so we pray in ignorance of the big picture that only God can see. In addition to that, we are fallen. Sometimes our prayers arise from disordered desires and misguided motives.
God hears our needs and our yearning for our highest good clearly and compassionately. His response to our prayers hears through the garbled message we send him to the true petition we only dimly comprehend.
But there is more still to consider when we say that God answers our prayers.
In addition to being finite and being fallen, we are followers: followers of Jesus Christ.
We’ll look at the difference this makes in a moment. But let’s underscore a few things first. We are not autonomous beings.
Whether we are Christians or not, we are radically dependent upon God for every nanosecond of our existence. God literally wills us into being at every moment. Otherwise, we simply wouldn’t be.
In addition, happiness is actually not the point of life. God is not against happiness. It’s a fine thing as far as it goes. But God wants more for us.
He wants us to enjoy perfect reconciliation with him and, as a result, perfect reconciliation with each other. We are broken. Our relationship with our Maker is broken. Our relationships with each other are broken. Our hearts are broken.
Healing all of this brokenness is God’s single-minded purpose. He will let nothing stand in the way of it. Not even our earthly happiness.
So, what does that mean we’re doing on this planet?
Let’s turn to Paul for a minute for an illustration. Paul said that Jesus Christ came to bring the ministry of reconciliation and that we—his followers—are now ambassadors of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:17-20)
Think for a moment about how ambassadors work:
The sovereign selects them and gives them authority to represent them in important matters.
Whatever the ambassador says or does in the Sovereign’s name is in fact done by the Sovereign.
When an ambassador brings greetings, the greeting is delivered.
As Christians we are sent into the world to act as Christ’s ambassadors. In our actions, our words, and our prayers we bring the message of reconciliation.
When we pray, we speak on behalf of the Sovereign who has chosen us and sent us. We are not working on our own.
It’s like an ambassador saying: “I greet you in the Name of the King.” Or, “I claim this land in the Name of the King.” Just saying it makes it so.
We are not telling God how to rearrange the earth to make us happy. We are announcing to the world that God is already at work—through the Cross of Jesus Christ—making the whole Creation new.
And we’re not just reporting. It is God’s will that he does it through our prayers (and actions and words).
Our prayers unleash on earth what God has already begun in heaven.
And here’s the paradoxical thing. Our prayers and words and actions can be misguided or half-hearted or fumbling. God’s promise is this. He will take even our feeblest efforts and use them to achieve his purposes.
Consider what St. Paul says:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)
If we pray something stupid or harmful or short-sighted, God doesn’t use that against us. His loving mercy always takes what we give him in faith and works it for the good he intends for us.
On the Cross, even our sins have become the seedbed of eternal life.
Okay, you might say, then why does it look like so many worthy prayers go unanswered? Children are starving. Innocents die in ethnic violence. Despots oppress whole populations. People we know suffer from disease and loneliness and addiction. We have buried loved ones despite our most fervent prayers for healing.
Our righteous indignation and sorrow and longing are not misplaced. But neither are they signs that our prayers have been for nothing.
Our disappointment and confusion arise because we mistakenly assume that the prayers we utter should work like on/off switches or magic wands that instantly resolve tensions, heal broken hearts, and mend relationships.
We expect earth to be heaven. It isn’t. Not yet.
In fact, God is using our prayers to bring about the perfect reconciliation he promises. But he also teaches us to endure and persevere in faith, for there is much work left to be done.
Consider yourself an ambassador in wartime doing your work in occupied territory.
There are forces at work dead set against God’s purposes. You greet, you plant a flag, and someone rejects the greeting and tears down the flag.
This doesn’t mean that your prayer didn’t work. Your prayer is part of heaven’s gradual recreation of the earth.
And in the end, what God has loosed in heaven will be loosed on earth.
(The image above is Rembrandt’s “Prodigal Son” from this link.)