Updated: Jan 12, 2022
Around here, we've been talking a whole lot recently about prayer.
One of the questions about prayer that has been bouncing around in my head is this: how do we know whether or not our prayers are being heard? How do we know if it's working or not?
The doctrinal answer is this: by the divine gift of true faith we know that our prayers are heard, and we know that we will receive the thing for which we have prayed.
The Scripture text that teaches this is 1st John 5:14-15. It reads like this, "This is the confidence that we have in Him, that, if we ask any thing according to His will, He hears us: and if we know that He hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of Him."
But isn't it possible for us to be sure about a thing, but also to be in error? Certainly! This is part and parcel to being human. In other words, if we are convinced that we know God's will concerning the thing about which we are praying, then of course we will consider our petition heard and granted (even if such is not the case). At least, we will have such confidence IF we truly believe the promise of John's 1st epistle. But Satan is a great deceiver. He transforms himself into an angel of light and convinces many that his words are God's Words (2nd Corinthians 11:14 & 1st John 4:1-3).
So, it would appear that being instructed thoroughly in the principles of God's written Word is a key component in this matter. We know that faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Romans 10:17). But that's not all we need to know. Knowledge—if it stands alone—only serves to build our ego and bog us down with pride (1st Corinthians 8:1). We have to actually exercise ourselves in the principles we have learned (1st Timothy 4:7). In fact, if we aren't practicing them, we actually haven't learned them after all and so we surely don't really believe them (James 1:22).
It seems obvious then that the key to this whole scenario is KNOWING AND DOING God's will.
Now, much of His will has been revealed to us in black and white on the pages of the Holy Bible. I heard a preacher once say that 95% of God's will for our lives is revealed in the Scripture. If that's true—and I have a hunch that it is indeed true—then there is no reason to pray and ask what we should do in those circumstances. We should certainly be praying about them, but our prayers might serve us better if we would pray for strength, power, zeal, courage, compassion, and blessing AS WE OBEY God's will rather than pretending that we don't know what His will is.
"Oh Lord, should I do this kind thing, or no?" Well, yes. We have been commanded to be kind (Ephesians 4:32) and to do good for others whenever we have the opportunity (Proverbs 3:27 & Galatians 6:10). So, asking if we should or shouldn't do it really doesn't make a whole lot of sense, does it?
Other examples: It is God's will that we avoid sexual sin and that we always express gratitude (1st Thessalonians 4:3 & 5:18). It is God's will that we forgive, that we honor our parents, that we obey our leaders, that we love our spouse, that we help the poor, that if we wear His name we also honor His name with everything that we are and do, etc.
These kinds of things are enough to keep us quite busy. And indeed, if we are constantly occupying our time with these things, we open ourselves up wide to God revealing the remaining 5% of His will to us: (who should I marry, what career should I pursue, where should I live, should I pray first or read my Bible first, etc.?)
We preachers sometimes speak of God leading us to preach on this thing or that. And doubtless God does lead us. But even in this matter (where we would expect that we need to pray for direction), much direction has already been given to us in the Word. We are given the spectacular example of the Apostle Paul who preached the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:27). So we should surely be praying, but again it may be that prayers for boldness, courage, power, affection, clarity, and such would serve us far better than just prayers for direction. I need only to walk with God moment by moment in faith and obedience and as I do that to also ask myself, "What have I not covered yet in the preaching of the Scripture?" and, "Concerning the people to whom God has called me, what are the relevant spiritual issues that need to be addressed?" This strategy is a safe and powerful one.
I think of the words of Abraham's oldest servant. When He went out to get a wife for Isaac, he prayed to the God of Abraham. In fact, he even prayed for direction. But consider his own commentary about how God worked in his situation: "Blessed be the LORD God of my master Abraham, who has not left destitute my master of His mercy and His truth: I being in the way, the LORD led me to the house of my master's brethren." (Genesis 24:27)
Surely that is the key to spiritual confidence in prayer. In the words of John H. Sammis,"As we walk with the Lord in the light of His Word, what a glory He sheds on our way! While we do His good will, He abides with us still, and with all who will trust and obey."
Still, there is the timing element to the answers that God gives to our prayers. Even when we are in His will and praying in accordance with His will, there is no guarantee that the answer will come at the time or after the manner that we suppose or desire. Jesus prayed that He would be delivered from death (Hebrews 5:7). And, He was delivered. The deliverance came 3 days later though. His deliverance came in the form of His resurrection, not in the avoidance of the cup of death altogether.
We're studying the book of the Revelation right now on Sunday mornings. This past Sunday we read about how the saints around the throne of God will be holding "...golden vials full of odours, which are the prayers of saints." (Revelation 5:8). What prayers could those be? Could it be that these are the prayers of all the saints from all time, including those from Abel the son of Adam and Eve all the way down to the last convert to come to Christ before the rapture? If so, that's quite a delay in answering. But God's promises are sure no matter how much time has passed (2nd Peter 3:8-9).
The prophet Daniel prayed and got an answer... 21 days afterward (Daniel 10:12-13). Actually he was heard the moment he prayed, and the answer was dispatched (via an angel) right away. But, Daniel didn't get the news of the answer until 3 weeks later!
To the unspiritual mind the whole prayer thing works like this: if you really believe that what you pray for will happen, then it will happen. It's "the power of positive thinking," right? And there are even some "proof texts" that can be used to draw such a conclusion (James 1:5-6 & Matthew 21:21-22). Without other passages of Scripture to inform and complete the loop on this teaching, we would have to conclude that our faith is really supposed to be in our faith. That should sound very strange and even ludicrous, but it's a very common perspective in today's superstitious atmosphere. But it's clearly wrong.
Our faith is not in our own faith; our faith is in God. Most specifically, our faith is in God through Christ. It is Christ's person and work that we rely upon when we exercise our access to the Father. It is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ that makes any legitimate prayer possible. Old Testament saints were given their answers based upon the fact that Jesus was coming to make a way for them. New Testament saints are given our answers based upon the fact that Jesus has already came and has made a way for us. But in every case, it's all about Jesus.
And that's were we end up once again. When I ask myself, "Is my prayer working, or not? Are our prayers working, or not?"—ultimately I'm really asking whether or not I am truly aware of God's will? And connected to that, I'm asking whether or not I am "on board" with what God is doing and what He wants me to do? Then there is one more degree to consider: am I engaged in His plan and purpose; am I happily and actively compliant?
Truly, when we surrender our hearts, minds, and schedules to the Savior, the prayer mystery largely disappears. What I really mean is that the practical mystery of prayer fades, but a new mystery takes over. Rather than being confounded and mystified by the nature of prayer, we will become amazed and impressed with the mystery of God Himself. Whatever He has called you and I to do is certainly significant and can be deeply surprising at times, but it's nothing compared to the nature of God Himself.
I want to graduate from asking if my prayers are working or not. I want to live by faith in submission in such a way that answered prayer is truly a forgone conclusion and assumption. I want to walk with God as did Enoch, Noah, and Paul. I want to live each moment in light of the fact—not the question—that God is working. Not, "Are our prayers working?" but instead, "Our prayers are working because God is working and we are just cheering Him on."
I think of Jesus' prayer outside of Lazarus' tomb. He prayed before Lazarus was raised, "Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I knew that You hear Me always: but because of the people which stand by I said it, that they may believe that You have sent Me." Jesus knew the Father and relished the moment of His glory being exposed. How precious! How special! What an example for us all.
God is working. Yes, He is. Let's just get in on it. He doesn't need to be persuaded or controlled, manipulated or appeased. Jesus has done all that needs to be done. Now we enter into His work as recipients of His great grace and as worshippers assembled to celebrate His marvelous majesty.
Now, that's where it's at!