Answered Prayer – A Look Behind the Scenes

By Neil Earle

In his usual charming way, the 20th Century Christian writer C.S. Lewis once penned an essay about having to visit his barber to prepare for a London trip.

As it turned out the London visit cancelled and Lewis decided to postpone the haircut, except...except for the nagging compunction in his brain to “Get it cut! Get it cut! Get it cut all the same.”

Lewis did. He walked into the barber shop and his friend – facing a string of troubles at the time – blurted out, “Oh, I was praying you should come today.” To make it more emphatic – if Lewis had come a day earlier or later he would have been of no use to his barber friend.

Lewis was “awed” by the experience but his agile mind began to work overtime – it might be coincidence, it might be accident, it might be any number of things. Every veteran Christian pray-er can relate to such experiences. This business of prayer is more complex than first appears. How do we know when God is working?

The Prayer Continuum

In our prayer lives we often seem to find ourselves hovering between 1 John 5:11, “If we ask for anything according to his will, he hears us” and Mark 11:24, “whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.”

In the Gospels we see Jesus healing people "according to their faith” and we see him raising dead people who obviously have no faith at all.

This subject is important. It drives straight to the heart of our day-to-day relationship with God. As Lewis wrote, we cannot prove our answers like we can prove Salt = Sodium Chloride.

Prayer is thus sometimes an enigma. For one thing it brings up questions of fate and predestination (Why pray if God knows all?), self versus selflessness (It’s me again, Lord), faith issues (why won’t God respond?) and when do I give up on this (the hard-hearted judge parable).

Christian prayer, of course, is heavily influenced by Old Testament examples. The OT expert Walter Brueggemann states that behind all the laments of Jeremiah, the petitions of David, the great utterances of Isaiah is one solid irrefutable fact: the world is irrational and God is by nature compassionate (Great Prayers of the Old Testament, page xiv). This gave the supplicators of ancient Israel a hopeful horizon upon which to gaze. “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vine,” sang Habakkuk,” though there are no sheep in the pen and cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)

And just for good measure he seals his testimony with: “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my fee like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.”

This driving optimism turns some of Israel’s most searing laments into songs of praise. We see that over and over again in the Psalms which are Israel’s prayers set to rhyme.

Great Moments in Prayer

In the New Testament this relentless confidence surcharges Jesus’ outline prayer. “Thy name be hallowed! Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” Those three forceful petitions are both requests and affirmations. And after alluding to our own daily cares – our daily bread, our need for help against evil – the prayer concludes majestically with a three-fold climax: “For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever Amen.”

Like the Old Testament the New is peppered with prayer. Jesus himself set the example. He looked up to heaven before feeding the 5000. He spent all night in prayer before walking on the water. The early church fills heaven with their confident-filled cry of justice and deliverance (Acts 4). Paul’s letters overflow with requests that are prayers, sublime expressions for the heart that is set free to revel in God and what God was doing in Christian lives: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ the glorious father may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.”

Paul knew that effective prayer was Trinitarian, revolving around Father, Son and Holy Ghost. He ends strongly: “I pray also that the eyes of your heart nay be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:17-18).

Jesus Prays for Us

To grasp more securely what is happening in prayer we could do no better than to study the real Lord’s Prayer, what has been called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in John 17. These deeply spiritual pleas of Jesus during his last night on earth are divided into three parts – prayers for himself (verse 1-5), for his twelve disciples (6-19) and for those of us who came after them (verses 20-26). But note especially that this triple arrangement is leavened with references to “eternal life” and “glory,” themes quickly established in John 17:1-5. Jesus will glorify his Father by fulfilling his commission. He will go through death and out again, a triumph which will reunite him with his Father in glory.

Jesus “looked toward heaven” as he set the theme for this prayer. Consider: His cruel death is a virtually assured fact. Yet even more assured is the Son’s success in bearing faithful witness to the Father through this imminent ordeal of the cross. As Merrill Tenney writes, “The Son glorified the Father by revealing in this act the sovereignty of God over evil, the compassion of God for men, and the finality of redemption for believers” (Expositors Bible Commentary: John, page 162).

The intimate, all-embracing relationship between Father and Son moves out to set up the relationship between Jesus and the Twelve. “I pray for them,” Jesus says (verse 9). And why? To the point that “they may be one as we are one” (verse 11). The heavenly reunion of Jesus with the Father is to include First Century believers in that divine encircling relationship. This special relationship sets the Twelve apart from the hostile world (verse 14). They get to participate in the divine life that is in the Father and the Son (verse 3). The union between the Twelve and Jesus is paralleled by the closeness of the Father and the Son: “For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (verse 19).

With Jesus praying such a prayer we are much closer to understanding Lewis’ dilemma, at last in principle. Jesus’ prayer is about eternal life and ultimate glorification for him and the Twelve. But what about us? Where do our prayer requests come in?

In John 17: 20-26, Jesus extends his prayer to include all of us, we who have been converted by the apostolic message that began in the First Century and now reaches down to us (verse 20). We too are included: “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one. I in them and you in me.”

Of course John 14-16 will explain that all of this is effected by the indispensible work of the Holy Spirit, which is what it means when we say that Christian prayer is Trinitarian. “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world” (verse 24).

What Has God Promised?

It is in this total unity of the believers with the Son and the Son to the Father through the Spirit that we get near to resolving Lewis’ quandary. Colin Brown, the General Editor of the New International Commentary on the New Testament and a Bible teacher of note, has emphasized that God has covenanted to do one sure thing with us. He has promised us salvation, eternal life, full son-ship with Jesus Christ, ultimate vindication for the sufferings we must go through in this world. As it was for Jesus, so it is for us.

By contrast, Jesus has not contracted to remove all obstacles, lift all crosses, and straighten out all circumstances this side of our glorification and union with the Father. That’s why future glory is such a key theme in John 17. “Jesus wanted to include them in the inner fellowship of the Triune God,” Merrill Tenney adds, speaking of present-day believers. “We shall be like him for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2)

Of our ultimate destiny there can be no doubt, but this side of eternity we will have to seek the will and implore the favor of God in prayer as we face the irrational and often brutal facts of human existence. Right now we too sometimes suffer along with the world, as Peter said (1 Peter 5:9). And it is still true that when we are sick, for example, it is a good idea to ask the elders to pray over us and – quite often it seems, in line with James 5:14 orderly formula – we are either healed or we begin to recover. Sometimes, as with Paul and others who are joined to Jesus Christ, that healing is delayed or the answer is No.

C.S. Lewis ended his essay insisting he was not a theologian. Some things about prayer troubled him all his days. But he knew that it was never God’s intention to answer all our prayers…or for us to stop praying. Prayer is one of the spiritual disciplines and is considered a “labor” in Colossians 4:12. Lewis also knew that Gethsemane followed Jesus’ high priestly prayer. The Son’s request to have his cup of suffering taken from him, was not answered. His immediate petition was not answered but his future glorification was assured, just as it will be with us.

Jesus not only won victory on the cross but his glorious ascension included his ability to pray with us and for us as our Intercessor in heaven, even as the Holy Spirit guides our prayers God-ward here on earth (Romans 826). Ultimately all of God’s promises are Yes in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:20). But Christians eventually mature enough to learn to discern what God has decisively promised as a binding guarantee – eternal life – and what he has not.

The discipline of persistent prayer is a part of what the Bible calls the patience and the faith of the saints (Revelation 14:12). So we keep on praying in faith guided by the assurance that in the end we win big, we win it all. Amen to that.