WHEN GOD ANSWERS PRAYER
A Thwarted Rape
Prayer is Like Love
"Late on a black, noiseless night in upstate New York, a Los Angeles journalist decided to take a shortcut home, up a steep, unlit path. Then she heard steps behind her, faster than her own. An instant later the man was upon her, tightening her new striped scarf around her neck, then ripping off her pants. At home, her mother woke from a deep sleep, seized with fear that something terrible was about to happen to her eldest daughter. The mother immediately knelt down beside her bed and prayed. For 15 minutes she begged God to protect her daughter from the nameless but real threat she felt her daughter faced. Convinced she had won God's attention -- and protection -- the mother returned to bed and a sound sleep. Back on the stony path, the would-be rapist suddenly ceased his assault. He cocked his head, almost beast-like, the woman recalls, and fled down the hill" (Newsweek, March 31, 1997, "Is God Listening?", pp.45-46).
Prayer, like love, is one of those elusive phenomena when it come to not only explaining how it works but claiming that it does work. Most people believe in love, but trying to prove that love exists by some sort of scientific, empirical method, is not too easy. Every one knows that they have thoughts but how can you prove they exist, especially when they are invisible? Is invisibility any criterion for proving that something does not exist? We all know the wind exists not because we can see it but because of its effects on things visible, like the leaves on a tree. We may not be able to map out the structure of the wind in any particular place any more than we can map out every thought or emotion, but only a fool would deny their reality. Of course, not every movement of the wind is necessarily detected or even detectable any more than we can be sure that every prayer has an effect on God. But we have enough evidence -- if it is evidence we are seeking -- that much prayer is effectual, sometimes dramatically, as with the example cited above.
I must admit that I have struggled a great deal with prayer over the years trying to understand why an omnipotent God would actually require it of us. For most of us it is done as a matter of faith because the One who commanded it has given us evidence in other areas of our spiritual life that He is real and trustworthy. Thus for most the practice of prayer is a matter of faith.
Everyone Prays at Some Time
Particularly striking to me, however, is how natural prayer is to us, even to the die-hard atheist or agnostic in times of trouble. Where has this "naturalness" come from? Is is a fruit of evolutionary behaviour, as the secularists would have us believe, or is it something deeply implanted into our soul which we bring with us into this world?
I believe that our mortal life is a bit like a love affair, a tragic one that can have a happy ending if we will just look in the right places and exercise some trust. Everybody who has been in love knows what it like when two lovers are separated, especially if it is in a life-threatening situation like war. Many a faithful wife has waited in hope and longing for the return of her soldier- husband, believing sometimes against all the odds that her man will return even when reported missing in combat. Some, it is true, give up.
Birth is a Love Affair
Our birth into this world, I am firmly convinced, is like such a love affair; this time, though, God is the metaphorical husband and we are the metaphorical wife. Or better, He is a loving, supporting Father watching over His sons and daughters who, in this life, are in a battle zone where Satan is the temporary lord. In difficult circumstances our hearts naturally and spontaneously turn to our Father, our love for whom is embedded in our soul-natures, but our memory of whom may be lost from inadequate contact on our part. Prayer is therefore the natural response of a son or daughter to his protector and maker.
The Purpose of Life
But why are some prayers heard and some not? Or perhaps we should ask the question: why does God apparently not respond to our prayers especially when the need is great? Though the Bible answers these questions not everyone is prepared to accept them because they are not the answers they want to hear. For them our Heavenly Father is but a suggar-daddy to answer their every whim, just as many children selfishly look upon their parents as providers of pocket-money, toys, shelter, and the other physical necessities of life and nothing else. They forget that life here on earth is a little more complex, just as they forget that parents have an even greater duty to mould children in the thoughts of God. They forget, or do not otherwise know, that the prime reason for us being on earth is not to pursue the pleasure principle but to refine our characters through obedience to heavenly principles that are at variance with those which the fallen lord of this world wishes men and women to espouse -- a variance which creates a conflict situation. The earth is a spiritual (and often physical) war zone. As the soldier is not allowed to pursue the pleasure principle as his primary goal in a wartime situation, so we, who are in a spiritual wartime situation, are not supposed to forget that we are here to overcome the inherited fallen tendencies of our ancestors, Adam and Eve, and to struggle until we have accomplished it. A soldier is on a war-time footing until the enemy is defeated and he is decommissioned by his government. For us, our decommissioning takes place in heaven after we have passed on
War zones are not places of order, calm, justice and decency, though some of these may be found from time to time. Neither is this earth from the spiritual perspective. We have the assurance of God from His Word that He is intimately conscious of everything we think, feel and do. He says that He even notices when a humble sparrow falls out of the sky. He also knows our every motive for praying. He knows when we are sincere and when we are not. He knows what will benefit us and what will not. He knows how much we can endure and promises not to stretch us beyond our abilities to cope with tragedy and trial or resist temptation. He knows, moreover, why we are here far better than we do, what we need to learn, and what circumstances -- good or evil -- will best progress us.
A man who therefore prays for dozens of expensive cars and lovely women is unlikely to get a response from God. He is, however, likely to receive a response from the dark forces that operate on the material plane, unless God is personally intervening to ensure that these self-destructive wishes are unfulfilled. Satan is permitted to act only so far as his devilish works will, in the long run, progress a soul, such as bringing him to repentance, teaching him endurance, patience and long-suffering, or any other characteristic that will enable him to be free of the domination of his soul by lower forces and bring him into a love relationship with God.
God is Omniscient
If these things are true, and God is omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), without the need of external agents, why does He involve humans in intercessory prayer and even angels? Why do they have a rôle? How do these fit into the overall equation?
As should by now be obvious, the equation of life is not a simple one. God's agenda is more complex than the one we would like. In many ways, even adults have a childish view of things and would like prince and princess stories that, though they are beset with troubles, have an happy ending here and now and, preferably, quickly. We fail to understand that we all have different, though overlapping, missions in this life. Because our individual development means that we must interact with a lot of people, and because our created nature is to form relationships with other people, we are not simply a collection of individuals with individual needs but collections of interacting individuals and groups of people. We are born into family relationships which are, in many instances, more important than individual ones. Just as individual atoms have specific properties, so do collections of atoms -- molecules. We are, in short, here to progress not simply as individual beings but as family units and other social units, including national units. Life is infinitely greater than the sum of the parts of any one individual.
Life is More than Individuals
What I am trying to convey here is the sense that not only are individuals eternal but that family units are eternal as well. These family units may well be our own biological families (particularly the marriage relationships) as well as the Church family. We are not only preparing to live with God in eternity but with each other too. We were not created to be alone. Just as a soldier must cooperate with his platoon or regiment in battle, so we too must cooperate with our spiritual platoon (local congregation) and regiment (church denomination) in the spiritual battle against sin. The prayer requests of individuals must therefore not only include the needs of ourselves but of those with whom we are associated by covenant and in fellowship. One of the things we learn down here on earth is how to sacrifice with unconditional love for others. We learn how to be constructive, to use our biological, financial and spiritual resources wisely, and especially our time. Salvation is both individual and corporate. We are supposed to be working out, not only our own personal salvation in fear and trembling, but the whole of the Body of Christ's.
Now not all those who pray are saved in the sense of having received the New Birth and who are walking in the commandments. Many belong to false religious systems or believe in no God at all. Many, if not most, are in rebellion and only call out in prayer so that they can live another day to continue in their sinning These, and those in their environment, God uses to gently lead them in the direction that will lead to salvation, if they will accept it. And their prayers will be answered, therefore, according to the various needs they have -- or ignored if they are destructive.
When Prayers are Not Answered
Does God answer prayers that are not for our good? Sometimes, in order to teach us an object lesson. We know this is true because He taught the story of the prodigal son who asked for his inheritance. His wish, though destructive in the short term, was granted, in order to bring him to repentance and new life. Thus sometimes prayers are answered in a roundabout sort of way. It would have been better, of course, if the prodigal son had prayed to be faithful and remained under the employment of his father, who is a type of God.
So why is, for example, intercessory prayer important? What if there is nobody to intercede? What, for example, if the young journalist had had no mother to pray for her? Though we cannot answer these questions directly I believe we can, on the basis of our understanding of he nature of God, come up with some reasonable answers.
The Need to Bless Others
I will give you an illustration. There was once a Christian who was having mechanical difficulties with his car. He knew how to repair it and so didn't need any help. He had mentioned the problem to a neighbour who offered to help out. The car owner politely refused but the neighbour was very insistent. But he was adamant, becoming more and more irritated that the neighbour was being so pushy. The neighbour gave up in the end. During his prayers that same evening God spoke to the car owner and told him that he had been wrong to refuse his neighbour's help. Though the car owner didn't actually need any help the neighbour needed to help. His need was to do a work of kindness.
We all need to give. Now this is an unusual story, perhaps, for some. But if you think about it it is not so strange. We all need to feel of some worth. We need to be able to help and bless others in order to fulfil an inner longing to serve. We may not approach the matter in the right way, as the neighbour didn't, but the need exists anyway. The Christian should have been more sensitive to the Spirit and allowed the neighbour to help him. But he didn't and the man went away feeling a sense of worthlessness.
In this mortal sphere we need to overcome and do good. We need to do good to fulfil a basic Christ-nature in us. If God were to intervene in every situation like a doting Father we would never have the opportunity to do good, grow, and become holy. Therefore God bequeaths us the opportunity to act for Him as His representatives for God, even to allowing human agents to be moved by the Spirit to pray for a daughter in danger. God could have intervened but He chose to work though an intermediary. God reveals Himself in possibly the most important ways though other people.
Angels exist as helpers in this earth life. There are plenty of them. They are servants par excellence. We too are supposed to be "angels", placing ourselves in situations -- or allowing ourselves to be placed in situations by God -- in order to be a blessing for others. This tendency on the part of God to work through agents is no better illustrated in the event of the incarnation, when God came down as a lowly man in order to effect an atonement. This is he way God is. This is the way He works. We are made in his nature-image and therefore have the tendency to do the same things.
God as Parent
Now every parent knows that as a child grows up he must intervene less and less in order to allow the child to mature and become an independent adult himself. A mother, for example, who keeps her son imprisoned in her apron strings, making all his decisions for him and never allowing him to work problems out, becomes emotionally and mentally stunted. God could intervene if he wanted to but the result would be spiritual babies. He therefore grants us our freedom, letting us go, so that we may choose to return to Him if we want to.
Most of you who are parents or have been teenagers (and that's probably all of you reading this!) that teenagers go through a process of rebellion where, like the prodigal son, they throw away common sense and try to make it through life making their own decisions based on their own limited perceptions of right and wrong. They make a lot of mistakes, often get badly hurt, but usually return to the values of family and society in their early twenties, or sooner. It's a phase, and it passes. Try to shackle a teenage and he will usually become more rebellious unless he is making a conscious effort to walk the path of Christian discipleship.
The Adam-Nature: An Eternal Teenager?
I believe that our walk in this life is not unlike the teenage stage of our eternal development. New Covenant Christians believe that we grew up spiritual in a pre-mortal existence in a loving, safe and trusting environment in the presence of our Heavenly Father. But God, knowing that we could not progress further in such an environment, gave us the choice to come down to earth to experience what it is like to be separated from God and to choose he right of our own free will away from the protective custody of heaven. The teenage years of mortality are, I believe, I kind of recapitulation of this process, a "drama within a drama", if you like. It is a reminder to us of celestial processes and serves to throw a mirror up so that we can see how we who were once teenagers ought to be behaving towards our own teenager sons and daughters.
Prayer: Communication and Intervention
Into this picture of life we must inject the concept of prayer. Prayer is about communication and intervention. As parents our children ask for help and, sometimes, intervention to, for example, rescue them from an economic disaster they have created, or perhaps a difficult relational entanglement. Sometimes we cannot help (because, for example, we have no money) or must not help. Sometimes we must watch as our child makes a disastrous error and suffers the consequence, desiring with all our hearts to intervene but knowing that we cannot. We see this pattern again as we reflect on the Father looking down upon His Son on the Cross of Calvary undergoing the most excruciating suffering that has ever been known, or will ever be known. We try to understand how He held Himself back from intervening. But He withheld Himself. And we see Him listening to His Son, crying our in the depths of His soul, "O God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" And for Christ, it felt as though His Father had deserted Him in the intensity of His suffering. But He was no forsaken.
Now what would have happened if the Father had broken down and taken Jesus off that Cross? WE WOULD BE UTTERLY LOST IN OUR SINS. Who can fathom it? Yet it is the truth. Jesus' prayer was HEARD but IGNORED. But surely God has to hear a heart-felt prayer? Would you leave your son and watch on as He was murdered before your eyes if you had the opportunity to intervene? NOT IF THE TWO HAD AGREED BEFORE HAND NOT TO.
A Horrible Story
I read not so long ago the heart-rending story of a Christian who was brutally tortured in communist Romania. He refused to deny Christ. Then the worst thing happened that could have happened. The communists said they would torture his friend in front of his eyes if he did not deny the faith. His heart was torn in all directions, as would anyone's. But his friend said: "No matter what they do to me, you must not deny the Lord." The two entered a covenant together. The man watched as his friend's eyes were gorged out, his tongue cut out, and as he was mutilated to death. Horrendous though this was he knew that he had his friend's agreement not to deny the faith and that enabled him to hold out. Without that agreement he does not believe he would have managed.
Now the Father and the Son were agreed as to the atonement before Jesus was born. They had a mutual covenant. Christ agreed to do this work. And it was because of this that the Father was able to endure the agony of seeing His Son suffer so terribly.
The Covenants We are Under
Now we, friends, are under similar agreements. We knew, before we came down to this earth, some of the things that would happen to us. We had the choice to refuse and to walk an easier path. But we also saw how suffering and hardship would, in the end, bring us joy, just as Christ's suffering has brought Him the joy of seeing souls redeemed. Thus, hard though this may be able to grasp, Paul agreed before he was born to suffer in his ministry and to eventually be beheaded. Cain agreed to be murdered by his brother Cain. Martin Luther King agreed to be assassinated, and those who were to become the core members of this New Covenant Church of God agreed to be persecuted in 1995-6. We did not necessarily see the whole picture but agreed to it to one degree or another. How much I do not know. We agreed who would be our marriage companions, who would be our parents, who would be our children. THERE WAS A FULL CONSULTATION. Some refused and were given different though less sanctifying life circumstances. And some even rebelled completely against God and became the demons who were thrown down with him to the earth to be a plague on mankind.
This is a big picture, isn't it, and we have barely traced out its outline. The point I am trying to make is that the reasons for the circumstances we may find ourselves in may not be clear now but they will be clearer later. Not every difficulty is, of course, designer-planed by God purely for our spiritual betterment. Much of it is because of our refusal to obey the truth. And when we so rebel, God's protection departs from us, even though He is watching, and feeling, and caring, and yearning for us to come back. To be just, He is bound by certain laws. When we obey them -- such as accepting Christ as our Saviour in faith and walking the patch of discipleship -- He is able to put forces into operation that He could not otherwise have done.
Making Sense of it All
I don't know if the reporter was a Christian. Her mother seems to have been, or at least had a strong belief in God. Here there might have been a case of one with greater light and faith intervening on behalf of one who did not, as Christ did for all of us. It may have been that the daughter, upon hearing of what her mother did, came to faith, and that this was the reason the mother was called by God to pray in the middle of the night. Or there may have been other reasons. Probably there were multiple reasons -- maybe the terror of that experience was to remind the reporter of just how serious a matter salvation is and of the very real need to do all one can not to enter that place called hell. Perhaps it was a picture of hell for her. Perhaps she needed the contrast of that horror plus the grace that came later in salvation to be a witness to others.
What about faithful Christian women who are raped or otherwise brutally abused? What about innocent children who are abused, and the unborn who are murdered in their millions? What are they supposed to get from all of this? Where is the love and justice in all of this?
I'm sure you've asked such questions and I'm sure some of you reading this may have concluded that either God is not omnipotent or that He doesn't care, or that He is bound by the laws He has established not to intervene, or some other argument. Hard though it is, understanding the death of a child in a road accident as being God's way, however seemingly uncompassionate, of ending a person's mortal probation, a time period agreed before birth. But what of a small child that is tortured, sexually molested and then brutally murdered? What of that?!
Our minds begin to overheat in such meditations -- we just can't take it, if we have an ounce of humanity left in us. We are so revolted that we can't cope trying to work it all out. And if it's someone near and dear, rationalisation may quite simply be out of the question in the trauma of the moment. We have, when reviewing such situations, two choices -- we either choose to continue believing that God is love and that there is an explanation we don't as yet have, or we choose to believe that God is evil, or we choose to disbelieve that God exists, and that it is as the evolutionists have always taught us. If we choose the latter two we will never get the answers. Here our faith is being challenged, and it is at this cross-roads that many are put through their severest trial and lose faith.
Experiencing God's Love
For those of us who have experienced God's love -- and that is many -- we know in our heart of hearts that God not only would never be the instrument of such evil but that he thoroughly and absolutely HATES it. So what is the explanation of it? Does this invalidate the other suggestions we have made about pre-mortal covenants?
Group Action and Free Agency
If we are to solve the puzzle of this apparent dilemma and challenge to the credibility of God's nature, we must first of all recognise that this world is ruled by Satan. He is its prince and master because the people down here have almost universally rejected God and consented to Satan's rule. This state of affairs, though repugnant to God, exists with His permission for no other reason that to preserve our free agency. Free agency is not just a matter, however, of the individual, but of the collective society as a whole. Famine and poverty exist not because of single selfish individuals but because of the collective selfishness of groups or people and even of whole nations. The concept of "you reap what you sow" applies to individuals as well as groups. And groups effect individuals.
If we took covenants to regulate our individual conduct on earth then it seems reasonable to me that we also accepted the consequences of group action on our free agency. In school it sometimes happens that a whole class is punished for one one person when the guilty party does not own up. Clearly if, for example, a government makes a bad decision, or the democratic will of the people elects a bad government, then it is going to effect the good and the bad alike. The German people voted in the nazis in 1936 and the Russian workers and peasants conspired to overthrow one evil system in 1917 and put in its place another evil -- if not more evil -- one.
We are commanded in the Scriptures to obey legally constituted government even though sometimes we may have to disobey it in order to obey the law of God (like preaching the Gospel where it is forbidden). That clearly means we must be willing to submit to unrighteous government and sometimes suffer for it. You will remember the degeneracy of the city states of Sodom and Gomorra where sodomy was not only legal but also expected. Sometimes we must endure the most horrible suffering for no apparent reason at all simply because Satan is the master of this world and God can only intervene up to a certain point -- meaning, that if the collective will of a people is so steeped in wickedness that, unless their is faith, He cannot break in. Not because He cannot break in but because He has limited Himself --prevent Himself from doing so -- in order to preserve other laws that guarantee the freedom of men and women.
I admit that this does not always sound a convincing argument but it is the only one that I can come up with which is consistent with Scripture and what I, personally, know about the love of God. There is, however, a way to override this self-limitations that God has imposed on Himself by getting groups of prayer warriors together to punch, as it were, a hole in the protective shield of evil so that God's power can flow through to those who cannot help themselves like small children or adults totally enslaved in the deepest of sin. In saying this, I probably run the risk of committing some heresy or other concerning the sovereignty of God but I think we have the right to explore and try to answer questions which for many are a matter of life or death.
In Imitation of Christ
We should note that Jesus Himself prayed for His disciples -- constantly, and on the eve of His crucifixion. Even as He was dying on the cross He was praying for His enemies. Whatever the answer to some of the most vexing questions that are likely to be asked is, we can be assured that there is a purpose in everything, even if those purposes are presently impossible to fathom in our finite and far-too-quick-to-judge limited minds.
Clearly prayer is needed. Many of us are inexplicably sometimes called to pray for someone because there is a need. There is no doubt that there is some sort of partnership with God taking place; what is not true, however, is that God cannot do it without us. He can. But were He to do so, He would deny His own nature and make us aliens to Him, creatures totally unlike the Creator. It is bad enough when people create an image of God based on their own fallen natures and suppose that He is devilish in some way, but it would surely have been infinitely worse if God had ceased to be like us. And He proved that likeness by incarnating as Jesus Christ.
I believe the partnership theory because I see it in reflections here on earth. I see how parents who, though they could do everything themselves, devolve more and more responsibility upon their children so that they can grow up to be like themselves and to hold that kind of intimate fellowship which only grown-ups can hold. I believe God is doing that to us too. And I see evidence of this when I look at Moses "persuading" God not to destroy the Israelites when they rebelled in the Sinai. Indeed, I see many times where God seemingly "changes His mind" in response to the prayerful petition of a holy servant. It's as though He is setting His servants up to allow them to think and act as He does. He is granting us something of Himself in making Christians partners in the redemption of the world.
To my mind, this is an extraordinary act of grace on His part because I fully aware of the enormous gulf that exists between sinful man and a Holy God. But He seems to do this consistently. He is, in short, giving us the sort of responsibility which most people, who want to remain as infants, will always refuse, as the Israelites refused at Mt.Sinai when he offered to talk to them as He talked to Moses.
Awakening from Complacency
If this is true -- and with the passing of time I am more and more convinced that it is -- then there is a very real need for us to awaken from complacency and get into action. For if we are not partners in some sense then we have no other responsibility than to sit back and let Him act in a fatalistic sort of way. I have done a lot of "sitting back and waiting" in my life and during those times have usually witnessed little happening. If we wish to see things happen we must put out our foot and start. What have you been praying about? For God to restore a broken relationship? If so, what have you personally done about it? Or have you been sitting back just "waiting for something to happen." The chances are it won't. Maybe you are waiting for help out of a desperate financial situation? What have you been doing -- waiting for the clouds to part and money to pour on top of you through, maybe, the death of a wealthy relative, or winning a horse race? It won't usually happen that way. Those who succeed in this life are usually those who pull them up by their own bootstraps; and when God is with them, they will succeed.
I must admit I have surprised myself in some of the things I have written in this article because I did not plan it to unfold in this way. Though God does intervene dramatically sometimes, you must admit that this is the exception rather than the rule. As I look at the lives of those who have spiritually stagnated over the years I see, more often than not, it is because they are waiting for God to intervene without them doing anything themselves. And often there is an element of laziness. Both the Bible (e.g. 1 Thes.4:11; Eph. 4:28; 1 Tim.5:13) and the Olive Branch teach the importance of hard work:
I believe that the Lord answers the prayers of those who put their feet forward in action, or who are at least willing to once they are sure about the road they are supposed to take. In the meantime, if we want our prayers answered clearly, let us be about the building of the Kingdom.
"Hard work enobleth the soul and the fruit of hard labour is its own reward, saith the Lord...hard work is a joy unto the godly but a curse unto the idle and reprobate. I, the Lord, never cease to work, and shall not rest until the work is done and Zion is at peace" (NC&C 180:1,4-5; also see 207:202-204; 214:68-72).
This page was created on 7 April 1998
Last updated on 7 April 1998
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