One autumn day in 1981, I prayed three requests to the Lord.
My father was a chain smoker. People he worked with who also smoked had said to me, “He smokes so much that it even makes us sick.” I prayed the Lord would stop him from smoking. For the whole of my 28 years I had hardly seen him without a cigarette. I imagined he would die of lung cancer.
My wife’s father was an alcoholic. Her family had suffered a lot because of his drinking. That fall, we were expecting our first child and we were especially sensitive to the effects of his drinking. I prayed that the Lord would deliver him from his drinking.
A couple we were close to was having marital problems. She was a Christian and he was not. The activities that he was involved in were detrimental to their marriage and there seemed little hope that they would make it. It was difficult for Shannon and me to watch the pain this caused between them and with their children. I prayed that the husband would become a Christian.
I had faith that God could answer these three prayers. I confessed that I did not have faith that he would, but I wrote in my journal, “Where else can I go with these prayers?”
I used to believe that God answers prayers in one of three ways. He says “yes, no, or not yet.”
Within a month of these prayers, my dad, in sudden great pain, collapsed at work with a perforated ulcer. He almost died on the way to the hospital. He never smoked again. We just celebrated his 88th birthday this past May. God said “yes.” I said thank you.
In January, when our son Jesse was born, Chattanooga and other cities in the Southeast closed down because of a severe ice storm. My mother-in-law was with us, but my father-in-law was iced in at home alone for almost a week – the beginning of what would be detox and 30 years of meetings in Alcoholics Anonymous. He stopped drinking, and every year that we celebrated Jesse’s birthday, we also celebrated another “chip” for Shannon’s dad. God answered “yes.” I said thank you with raised hopes for our friend.
One day in that same year, the husband called and asked me to lunch. We had been together at community events, but this was a first. He began our lunch by telling me that he knew that I had been praying for him, and shared that two days before in the office of a local pastor he had prayed to surrender to Jesus Christ. God had answered “yes.” I was overjoyed.
…what I am learning about God and prayer is that he loves me, knows what is best for me and those for whom I pray, and that he is answering “yes,” even if I’m disappointed.
Why do I tell you these stories? Since that time I have learned a lot about prayer and a whole lot more about my Father in heaven. At a dinner for my second son’s college graduation, Covenant College professor Steve Corbett said something profound about prayer which helps me when I don’t see God’s hand in answering prayer as clearly as I did that year. He reminded us that God is sovereign. The Heidelberg Catechism states: “God’s providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.” And he reminded us that God loves us, proven by the death of Jesus on the cross exchanging his righteousness for our sins so that we would belong and live with and for him.
Then he posed this question, “So, if we believe these two truths, shouldn’t we believe that every answer to our prayers is ‘yes’?”
I have prayed many prayers since that autumn day in 1981. Most have not been answered as clearly. I used to and still do struggle with the way God seems to answer or not answer some of those prayers. Yet what I am learning about God and prayer is that he loves me, knows what is best for me and those for whom I pray, and that he is answering “yes,” even if I’m disappointed. I can trust him. And I am thankful.
“Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:9-11
Recommended reading on prayer:
A Praying Life by Paul Miller
Prayer by Tim Keller