For the jillionth time someone just said, “God always answers prayer: yes, no or wait.” My experience and my Bible both reject that simplistic, self-centered view of prayer.
In the first place, it is not necessary for Jesus’ promise of answers to mean that an answer is “fulfillment.” In the second place, everything about prayer is about submission to God’s sovereignty before anything else.
When anyone asks me, I tell people that prayer is not an order to Amazon, guaranteed to be “fulfilled.” I am no authority, but the idea that the sovereign God is going to respond to my prayer the way I might answer a multiple choice question on a quiz is completely at odds with everything I have learned about God. When God promises to answer prayer, he does not promise that we can manipulate him till we get what we want.
In fact, one of the most important changes we experience when we get to know God in a close relationship is the change in what we want. We are born wanting to be the center of everything, but when we get to know God deeply, we begin to start wanting outcomes that are not about us. In my experience, this sort of change is a blessed outcome of prayer. I pray for something to happen, and I might pray about this outcome for a long time. According to the “yes, no, or wait” theory, God’s failure to say “yes” is interpreted as either “no” or “wait.” According to my experience, God is actually teaching me something that will ultimately change my prayer. He didn’t refuse me. He actually paid close attention to me.
Here is an example.
Peter wrote that we are to pray for our governmental leaders. I do that. When I see that one is doing wrong (way too common) I pray for him to do right. When a bad leader is in office, I pray that God will work in his heart to make a better leader. I pray and pray and pray for outcomes that will be good for our country. I have prayed such prayers for Barack Obama, because I believe he is the worst president in the history of the world.
I have never yet seen any evidence that Barack Obama was moved by God to amend his bad behavior or his bad attitudes. Does that mean that God refused to speak to Barack Obama? To believe that would be presumptuous in the extreme. Yet, if I prayed for God to speak to Barack Obama about his failures, and Barack Obama did not change, then I must ask if God is saying “no” to my prayer, or if he is saying “wait.” He certainly is not saying “yes.” If I believed that God answered prayer by “yes, no, or wait,” my train of thought would be focused on what God was doing to make my request happen.
In fact, God was doing nothing of the sort. In fact, God was working in my heart. In fact, God’s agenda was quite different from mine, and God observed that I was being arrogant and self-centered. I wanted Barack Obama to act differently than he does, and I asked God Almighty to use his power to bring about the changes I had in mind.
What was God actually doing all this time? God was working in my heart. I can’t speak about what God is doing with Barack Obama, but I know what God is doing with me. One morning, as I prayed that Barack Obama would change his ways and do the right thing, I found myself praying this prayer: “Please forgive Barack Obama for all the evil he has done.” Whoa! Did I say that?
God asked me to pray for Barack Obama’s forgiveness. My first thought was to ask why Obama should be forgiven, and God’s response was, “the same reason you need forgiveness.” Barack Obama and I both need forgiveness for our sins before almighty, totally righteous God. It was a humbling thought. I was so angry with Barack Obama over his arrogance and presumption that I failed to notice my total inattention to God’s main thing. God’s main thing is not good government, important though it may be. God’s main thing is that everyone be cleansed of sin. I was so busy trying to change Barack Obama that I forgot that God’s main thing is to save Barack Obama from Satan. I was praying for a magical outcome in Obama’s behavior instead of praying for Barack Obama to be rightly related to God. I couldn’t even wait for the Holy Spirit to do what the Holy Spirit does; I was giving him his marching orders. I was very busy telling God what I thought good government looked like, telling God how to make Barack Obama into a better president, when God thought that outcome was trivial compared to Barack Obama’s need for forgiveness and grace, just like me. He let me prattle on for days while he continued to lead me and teach me and work in my heart until he finally led me to pray, “please forgive Barack Obama for all his sins.”
This is not the only time God has done this sort of thing. I had a fractured relationship with my mother, and one day I went to her pastor to talk about the problem. He was generous with his time, and kind in his responses. He even asked questions. Finally, he asked, “Could we pray together?” I bowed my head, and he began to pray for both me and my mother. It all felt good to me. Then he said, “Would you like to pray, too?” I began to pray, and I complained about all the hurtful things in my relationship with my mother. When I had exhausted my list, I started to pray for my mother to change, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “Please help me to see my mother as you see her, Lord.” Whoa! Where did those words come from? God was answering my prayer, not with “yes, no, or wait,” but with new insight. He answered my prayer, “Please make my mother treat me better,” by saying, “Start looking at the world from my point of view.”
That is why God asked me to pray for Barack Obama’s forgiveness. God wants me to pray about the world from his point of view. God wants me to see Barack Obama, and my mother, and the whole world, the way he sees it. When I change my view, then I pray differently. God didn’t fulfill my request. God didn’t deny my request. God didn’t even defer my request. God simply led me to a moment of personal transformation and showed me how things look from his side of the matter.
Prayer is God’s great gift to us, and I give thanks every day for the privilege of prayer, but I have learned that the blessing of prayer is not so much what I get as it is what I learn. When God promises to “answer” my prayer, the “answer” is not often the “fulfillment” I might have anticipated when I bowed my head. I am learning that the best way to pray is to begin the way Jesus taught us—focus first on the Father and his worldview.
“Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6:9-10
Then, from that perspective, all the other issues look very different.
To declare that God always answers prayer with “yes, no, or wait” is to say that prayer is about what I want. Prayer is not about me. Prayer is about God.