[ 3 minutes to read ]
We generally consider a prayer unanswered if we do not receive the thing we asked for. Or, we might suppose there are only two answers to prayer—Yes or No. If yes, we have what we asked for. If no, we do not receive what we sought.
Those assumptions are overly simple. The Bible actually teaches much more than that about prayer and the answering of it. I do not propose here to go into a full theology of prayer, but to call your attention to four ways God answers prayer from the Scripture.
- God answers prayer by giving the thing sought for right away. Daniel received this answer when he set himself to pray and beseech the Lord to show him the meaning of the seventy weeks in prophecy. God gave the object sought even before Daniel was finished asking for it.
At the beginning of thy supplications the commandment came forth, and I am come to shew thee; for thou art greatly beloved: therefore understand the matter, and consider the vision. ~ Daniel 9:23
- God answers prayer by withholding the object sought for a time, and then giving it later. Christ told an illustrative parable to His disciples to teach them to pray in light of this truth. He told them about a widow and an unjust judge who refused to relieve the widow. The widow finally received her relief because of her continual coming to the judge. Christ said that men ought always to pray likewise.
And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? ~ Luke 18:7
- God answers prayer by refusing the blessing sought and giving a better one in its place according to His own will. Moses received this answer concerning his request to enter the promised land. It seemed a reasonable request after giving himself in service as he had to lead Israel there. God did not grant this request, but gave him a better blessing instead. He let Moses view the promise land and then took him home to the better country to be with the Lord.
O Lord GOD, thou hast begun to shew thy servant thy greatness, and thy mighty hand: for what God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to thy works, and according to thy might? I pray thee, let me go over, and see the good land that is beyond Jordan, that goodly mountain, and Lebanon. ~ Deuteronomy 3:24-25
And the LORD said unto him, This is the land which I sware unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, saying, I will give it unto thy seed: I have caused thee to see it with thine eyes, but thou shalt not go over thither. So Moses the servant of the LORD died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the LORD. ~ Deuteronomy 34:4-5
- God answers prayer by refusing the object sought and rather giving grace to bear the loss or want of it. Paul received this answer concerning the thorn in the flesh. He prayed three times for it to be removed. God refused to grant the request, but He supplied grace sufficient to bear it in this life. Paul rejoiced at this answer.
And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9
This is one reason why we pray, “If it be your will.” We don’t know the best answer to receive (Romans 8:26). Rather we trust God in faith to do what is right, good, and glorifying of His name.
(This list is adapted from A Token for Mourners by John Flavel)