Unique Answers to Prayer
Read Psalm 3, Acts 12:5 & 12, 2 Corinthians 12:8-10
Although we are assured of the fact that our prayers will be answered by the God to Whom we pray, the answers He gives are not always those we expect. While the answers are at times exactly what we had expected, at other times His answers are quite different. These things may not be overlooked because, when doing so, many have suffered grave spiritual injury. One may easily conclude that our prayers have not been answered even though God has answered them clearly.
David's Requested Deliverance
Psalm 3 does not belong to the list of the well-known Psalms. But, the whole Bible speaks to us and we are often able to learn a great deal from those parts which are not familiar to us. Psalm 3 was written when David was fleeing before his own son, Absalom. This was one of the most difficult times in the life of this saint of God. His own son rose up against him! He began to complain in this Psalm that the adversaries were many. This is surprising because David was very popular and "had stolen the heart of all Israel." But, it again revealed to him that we could not depend on man. These adversaries taunted him by saying that there was no help for him in God. It seemed as though they might be right. Had God forsaken him? His faith was indeed put to the test. He also knew that his own sins had made him deserve all the punishment which came.
Despite the taunts of his adversaries, David still had confidence in his God. God was a shield about him. He was safe. God was his glory. He cried to Jehovah in the midst of all his troubles. Of course! Where else could he turn? The Lord would answer him. He was so confident of the Lord's protection that he said he would lie down to sleep and rest. Surely, he didn't have to be afraid. Faith had no fear. What a wonderful peace of heart and soul was his when he again placed his full confidence in his God.
The request he made to his God according to the need of the hour. He cried out: Save me, oh God. The dangers were real. He asked that God would do the same to his present enemies as He had done to former ones. "Smite them, Lord. Hurt them, slay them. Make them helpless." If God did these things for him, his throne would again be secure and he would be able to lead God's people as in the past.
God heard his prayer and did according to all that David had asked of Him. That was the difficulty! If all his enemies were to be slain, if they were to be hurt and made helpless, Absalom would be among them! That was not David's wish! No, he had commanded his generals to deal kindly and gently with his own boy because he loved him. Now he had prayed for deliverance, and that meant the death of his own son. His prayer was answered but David had not counted the cost of this prayer.
Everywhere the Scriptures teach us that prayer is not cheap. When our Lord instructs His people to pray: Thy Kingdom come, it means that their own little kingdom will have no place and that they will have to sacrifice everything for the coming of His Kingdom! Men must reckon with the effects of their prayers — and then pray earnestly. David had not thought of the answer to his prayer bringing him the greatest sorrow in his life. Yet, he prayed properly! This son was a rebel. He had not only defied his father but also the God of Israel.
Incidents of unique answers to prayer are many. However, I will limit myself to the naming of only two more.
In Acts 12 we read of the great difficulties which began to come on the church of the New Testament. There was an attempt by secular leaders to put a stop to the spread of Christianity. Herod, a grandson of Herod the great, had seized the Apostle James, the brother of John, and had killed him. He had to be somewhat careful because the populace was fickle and it was difficult to say whether this kind of action would win approval. In line with all the Herods, he wished to have approval of the people above all. When he saw that this action against the Apostle James met with the approval of the majority of the people, he went to the top and arrested the leader of the Apostles, Peter. The time was not convenient, but later he would bring him out to the people and pass sentence on him.
When Peter was arrested the church had come together to pray. It was not necessary to state the purpose of their prayers because obviously they had come together to pray for Peter's release. There was a real danger that if Peter should also be put to death, the church would be wasted.
Peter was guarded as though he were a hardened criminal. There were irons on his arms tying him to the arms of the soldiers on each side of him. There were two more guards at the gate and then a heavy iron gate. This prisoner must not escape. He endangered the rule of Herod and his accomplices, the Pharisees. Despite the fact that he was so heavily guarded and that he would be sentenced the next day, Peter fell sound asleep! Here we find a man so at peace with his God that his imprisonment did not keep him awake (Psalm 4:8).
An angel came and awakened Peter without disturbing the guards. He led him out of the prison and now, finally, Peter began to realize that he was not dreaming but that he was actually free. He at once went to the home of the mother of John Mark because he knew this was the place where the people of God would be gathered.
Now followed a strange scene. They were still in prayer (vs. 12). There was a knock at the gate. The slave girl, Rhoda, recognized Peter's voice, but didn't open the gate! She went to the rest and interrupted their prayers to tell them that Peter was standing at the gate, and they didn't believe it! What they had prayed for so long and so earnestly had come to pass — but, surely, it couldn't be true! They suggested that Rhoda was out of her mind. They speculated whether it might be his angel(!) Finally they went to the gate and admitted the Apostle!
How could people be so unbelieving? Did they have no confidence in their God when they prayed to Him? Often they didn't. Then why pray? Even the hearing of Peter's voice did not convince them. He had to come into the house so that they could really see him before they would believe. They were no better than Thomas: "Unless I place my fingers in the nail wounds and unless I lay my hand in the wound in His side, I will not believe!" We are to pray confidently because God is not only able and willing to hear us, but He will do even far more than we could ever ask or think (Ephesians 3:20). Let His people never think lightly of the power of prayer! By this episode, no doubt, the people were strengthened in their faith and could now return to their place of meeting and give thanks for all that God had done.
When the Answer is "No!"
In 2 Corinthians 12 the Apostle Paul gives us an insight into some of the difficulties under which he labored. He had been given a tremendous task to do. He had to bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the heathen nations. This would demand all of his strength. But, He was handicapped by what he called "a thorn in the flesh." Many have speculated about the nature of this "thorn", but, that's what it remains — speculation. He did not tell us what it was. However, it was a very troublesome thing which made his life far more difficult. He even called it a "buffeting of Satan." How could he carry out the assignment his Lord has given him with this thorn in his side? He prayed, "Lord take it away."
His prayers had often been dramatically answered. Opening was given him for the preaching of the word where none seemed to exist. He lived by prayer. He counseled others to "pray without ceasing" and, no doubt, followed this maxim himself.
However, even though he prayed three times that this thorn might be removed, it was not. God was not unable to remove it. This thorn was left to safeguard him from pride. He must never come to the conclusion that he had been able to do all this work in his own strength. God must have the preeminent place! Therefore, he must not talk about the removal of this thorn again.
Instead of removing the thorn the Lord assured him that His grace would be sufficient for him. What an answer! He meant grace in the very broadest sense of the word as the reception of that which was not merited. That grace of God would overcome all the difficulties caused by this thorn in the flesh. His strength would be made perfect in weakness! The instrument which He would use for the conversion of the heathen, Paul, must never get in the way. The instrument must have a secondary place so that the power of God would be praised (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Many would have concluded that, under the circumstances under which Paul labored, they would rather have had the thorn taken away than receive a sufficiency of grace! Paul did not come to this conclusion. First he thought that that thorn had to be removed for him to do the work to which he was called, but now, when he received the fullness of grace he was satisfied. He did not mention that thorn again. God had provided a better answer for him than the direct answer to his prayer would have been. He needed that sufficiency of grace much more than the riddance of this thorn. And, indeed, God's grace was sufficient! Paul hereby learned to evaluate life in a different way than he did before.
When it became evident to him that this was the final answer of God he said that he was able to glory in his infirmities! What a statement! Glory in one's own weaknesses? Christ's power would cover him as a tent and he would be able and willing to spend himself completely for that Savior!
How rich is the grace of God! Although we may be convinced that certain things must be given us or removed from us, what more is necessary than the grace of God? These are unique answers — but they teach us a great deal.
Questions for Discussion:
- Psalm 3 is not well known. What does the study of this Psalm reveal to you about the riches of God's word? Is it a good practice to read the familiar passages of Scripture again and again and neglect the other?
- Do you think that God's grace was also sufficient for David when he prayed for the defeat of his enemies and as a result lost his son?
- Why are we surprised when our prayers are heard and answered? May we pray for the seemingly impossible? Did the early church do this?
- How could Peter sleep when his circumstances were so desperate? Did he know he would be released? Cf. Daniel 3:17-18.
- Paul certainly needed all his strength to carry out his task. Did Paul ever convert anyone? Do the evangelists today convert anyone? Who converts?
- Do you think the promise of sufficient grace would be interpreted by many as a disappointing answer to a specific prayer?