About a year ago I found myself chatting with my wife about the topic of God seemingly not answering our prayers. As we sat in the kitchen of the house we were renting at the time, we somehow managed to have this serious conversation in the midst of her homeschooling our five-year-old as well as working part-time for Panera Bread and me working 20 hours/wk at the Boys & Girls Club, 10 hours/wk for a church I was regularly doing interim preaching for, 10 hrs/wk for the Kalamazoo Gazette, 20 hrs/wk writing for Sonlife, and the whole business of looking for a full-time job in the process (which is a full-time job in itself). It was this business that brought up the topic of prayer.
Person 1: "Does God even hear our prayers anymore?"And it was in that conversation that my thoughts on prayer became larger than the singular way I'd often thought about it. I'd heard (as you may have) that "God always answers prayer, and sometimes it's with a 'yes' and sometimes it's with a 'no.'" I do believe that, but I also think sometimes God answers prayer with a response of, "That reminds me of something totally unrelated that I'd like to put into your life."
Person 2: "What do you mean?"
Person 1: "Why hasn't He answered our prayers yet?
Person 2: "How do you know He hasn't?"
Person 1: "What do you mean?"
Person 2: "We have no idea how our life would be different if we weren't praying."
Person 1: "I still don't know what you mean."
Person 2: "We keep wanting God to answer our prayers with a final answer, but what if he's been answering our prayers with short-term answers? Like how pray all the time for God to provide for us, and somehow we're in this house and are able to work."
Person 1: "So you're saying that none of that might have even happened if we hadn't been praying in the first place?"
Person 2: "I'm saying I don't know how God chooses to respond to our prayers, but just because the big answer hasn't happened yet it doesn't mean that our current set of circumstances aren't any less an answer to prayer. If we hadn't been praying all this time maybe we'd be somewhere else with a whole different set of circumstances."
Three examples from the life of Paul:
- God says "YES": Paul is in prison and the believers pray for his release - and suddenly he is released through the divine intervention of an earthquake. (Acts 16)
- God says "NO": Paul is struggling with "something" and asks God to remove it from him... but the Lord refuses. (2 Corinthians 12)
- God says "THAT REMINDS ME OF SOMETHING TOTALLY UNRELATED THAT I'D LIKE TO PUT INTO YOUR LIFE": Paul and Barnabas head into Jerusalem to tag-team some theological consulting to the church there. This goes well - slam dunk for the Team... God answers their prayers. Only some time later when they talk about a second tour they get into this debate about whether or not John-Mark should go with them. The situation never gets resolved, so they split - Barnabas and John-Mark become a team while Paul and Silas are the second dynamic duo. So while the original prayer and intent was for the church to receive the strengthening it needs, it gets that - now in the form of two groups of two instead of just one. The ministry of God doubles, even though it wasn't their intention... something divisive becomes something productive because God is involved, showing once again how He is up to things that involve us and yet are beyond us. (Acts 15)
Back to a year ago, I truly believed God had led me and my family to the city of Portage, Michigan to plant a church. I never did get a tax ID for the thing or have the first public service of a local church, but we sure did join God in loving people their next steps into this Kingdom. This includes at least four families who are now plugged into God's family who weren't before, as well as some pretty cool connections through my part-time jobs that allowed the Church at large to get resourced and inspired. I think of Eddie, Jared, Lavelle, Mark, Beth, Adolfo, Christine, Cory, Kelly, Aaron, and many others... so just because things didn't turn out the way I'd prayed, doesn't mean things didn't turn out the way I'd prayed.
Yes, I wrote it that way on purpose - read that again.
Here are four brief journal entries of mine during that season of 2006:
- 5/28: There is an amazing church in our community that I really see great potential in. What does that mean for our church plant? Are we supposed to just join them in their thing or become partners through us doing our thing? And is it really anyone's thing other than the Lord's?
- 5/29: A church plant from the ground up at this season of life would be detrimental to my family. It's a no-brainer not to do it. Also, it's amazing how whenever my wife and I watch the season ending episodes of The Apprentice we discover things related to my profession. Two years ago I got the boot out of youth ministry; last year I found out a church in Wisconsin I was one of the final candidates for and hoped to go to picked someone else over me; this year it's this paradigm shift. Maybe I should go work for Trump... maybe I already have.
- 5/30: It's awesome to see my wife heal.
- 5/31: God has saved me not for anything I've done or will do but because of his grace and purpose.
In hindsight, I see it all so clearly now. But then... not so much. Let's just say I have a much greater respect for what I don't know than what I do, and that includes how God is answering prayers I haven't yet even realized I've already unconsciously prayed a novel's worth about.
So I'm not sure if I've answered the question, Scott... but that's my best swing at prayer today utilizing my past, present, and future context. Let me know what else we should explore on this matter.