How do you know if God has answered your prayer?
In last week’s blog post, we saw that one error we can fall into as Christians is to believe that God has answered our prayer and given us the good for which we have asked when he hasn’t. Circumstances might line up in remarkable ways after we pray for something, but such does not necessarily mean we have God’s provision (yet). We must investigate further to see if what has appeared in our lives after prayer actually aligns with God’s will as expressed in the Bible.
This week, we’ll consider the opposite error: believing we don’t have an answer to prayer from God when, in fact, we do.
Just a Coincidence?
Sometimes we might pray for something, and then, when we receive it, we doubt that God has actually provided that good thing in response to our prayer. For example, you might pray that your friend would recover from illness, and then, when your friend does recover, you say to yourself, “Well, did God really act in answer to my prayer? I mean, my friend was already starting to feel better, and most people recover from illness even without prayer. So, who’s to say that God did anything? Maybe my friend’s recovery after my prayer was just a coincidence.”
Unfortunately, we humans never get do-overs for specific situations in life. This means that, when it comes to prayer, there is no way for us to test in a given situation what would have happened if we had prayed or not prayed. How can we ever be certain, then, that receiving what we prayed for is God answering and not just some happy but non-supernatural coincidence?
There is only one answer: the Bible! We Christians have come to know that the Bible is the true and divine word (1 Thess 2:13), and God tells us in his Bible that he acts to give his people good in response to prayer (Mt 7:7, 11). Therefore, when you receive the good for which you have asked in prayer, you can know on the authority of God’s word that what you have received is not coincidence but the loving hand of your Father. And after all, is anything really a coincidence when the whole universe is sustained by God’s command (Heb 1:3; Ps 104:1-35)?
As to whether God still would have provided a specific good thing without prayer: that we cannot know. What we do know is that God invites us to participate by prayer in bringing about his good will and that, sometimes, we miss out on his good because we do not pray (James 4:2-3; 5:16-18). Ultimately, faith in God and his promises is how we know that God answers our prayers.
Painful but Good Providence
Actually, faith in God and his promises is also how we know that God has answered our prayer when the outcome of a situation is painful. Let’s pretend again that you pray for your friend to recover from illness, but, contrary to your expectation and desire, your friend does not get better, but worse, and even passes away. Surely this kind of situation is an example of God not answering your prayer and not giving you the good thing for which you have asked…or is it?
One of the prayer principles from the Bible I emphasized in Sunday’s sermon is our need to pray biblically. We must pray according to the truth of the Bible and in the way the Bible itself teaches us how to pray. This means not only that we should pray variously, reverently, boldly, persistently, and innocently, as we discussed on Sunday, but also that we should recognize the greatest goods we are after in prayer.
Ultimately, if we are praying rightly, we are not simply after pleasant circumstances but God’s glory and that which leads to the lasting soul-profit of people (Ex 33:18; John 17:3; Phil 3:8-14; Ps 119:71). We do not always know how these two great goods might be best achieved. Therefore, when we pray, we ought to pray with the heart understanding and even the spoken admission, “My God, glorify yourself in this situation and do your people true good, even if it’s not in the way I prefer. Not my will, but your will be done.” (cf. Jn 12:27-28; Mt 26:39; Phil 1:19-20)
When these high-level prayers (for God’s glory and his people’s eternal good) surround and permeate low-level prayers (for specific needs and desires in our world), we can know that God always answers our prayers. For God has sworn always to glorify himself and do his people good (Ps 46:10; Isa 42:8; Rom 8:28-30). Even when a specific answer is painful and the opposite of what you express desire for in an earthly sense—like God taking instead of healing a loved one—you actually still have the two greater goods for which you prayed. You may not be able to see or understand how the particular answer from God glorifies him and does you and others good, but you can still know it. How? By faith: faith in God’s good character and in God’s sure word.
True Christian faith will always stand out in the world, even when it comes to prayer. The world may see the pleasant circumstances we experience after prayer as mere coincidence and the painful circumstances we experience after prayer as proof of God’s apathy or non-existence. They may therefore see us as naïve and ridiculous in our devotion to prayer. But we see reality clearly because of God’s trustworthy word. We know both that our God is in the heavens and does whatever he pleases (Ps 115:3) and that God is pleased to always answer his people’s prayers (Jn 16:23-24, 26-27). By faith we trust that our God always answers our prayers with good. We don’t want to misunderstand that good by using prayer to justify foolishness, but, certainly, we want to worship him for that good and give him thanks (1 Thess 5:18).
Psalm 84:11, For the LORD God is a sun and shield;
The LORD gives grace and glory;
No good thing does He withhold from those who walk uprightly.
Questions to Consider:
1. Do you give God glory for gracious circumstances and answered prayer, or do you attribute the good you experience to yourself and mere coincidence?
2. Have you struggled to see a specific answer to prayer from God as good? How does your perspective need to change (Eccl 3:11, 14; Mt 23:12; 2 Cor 12:7-10)?
3. How might God’s refusal to regard the request of someone walking in sin (Ps 66:18) or to provide something desirable before the proper time (Hab 2:3-4) be considered a “good answer” to prayer?