Prayer: who answers whom?

Many Christians say that they pray because God answers prayer. In prayer meetings and home groups, I’ve heard people tell each other their ‘prayer requests,’ which are then addressed to God for God to answer. I was once part of a group that kept a weekly prayer list with two columns. In one column, the prayer requests were recorded, one request per line. The lines in the second column were kept blank until someone could report to the group that God had answered a particular prayer request. The group used this exercise as a reminder that God answers prayer.

At the same time, I hear people questioning whether God answers prayer. I’ve heard questions such as these: “Does God really stick his finger into our lives to change things?” “Why would God heal one hospitalized child, but not the child in the next bed?” “Why ask God if God already knows what we need?” I’ve heard a Christian leader ask, “Because God is sovereign [i.e. God permits, intends or even controls all that happens], what is the point of interceding on behalf of others?”

Although I don’t have ready answers to these questions, two responses come to mind. One, God cannot be proved—nor can faith, hope and love. All these realities, like answers to prayer, operate in a larger sphere than the more limited spheres of statistics and science. Something seems amiss with research that measures health outcomes among people who pray and people who don’t, if that research is intended to prove God’s presence and intervention. Similarly, alongside the Gospels’ reports of Jesus casting out demons, are reports of people in Jesus’ day who considered him to be demon-possessed instead of working in the power of God (cf. Matthew 12:22-32). Even in Jesus’ day, God’s answers to people’s needs were not immediately obvious to everyone.

Two, Jesus teaches that prayer is not a technology by which we can manage our troubles. Before teaching his disciples how to pray what we call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words” (Matthew 6:7). In other words, prayer is not like science and magic, which both claim to manage the forces that dominate and threaten us. God is not more inclined to answer us if we use the ‘right’ quantifiable methods and techniques of praying.

Media_can phoneIn light of people’s questions and Jesus’ teachings, I find that the Psalms offer an ancient and more solid footing for prayer. Instead of starting with the premise that God answers prayer, the Psalms begin with the premise that our prayers answer God. We  dare to pray because God has already addressed us. Anything we might pray—thanksgiving,  request, even acomplaint—is a response to a God who has already spoken.

The first clue to this alternate perspective is in the structure of the Psalms. The Psalms are organized into five books: Psalms 1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150. This five-part structure is an allusion to the Jewish Torah: the first five books of the Old Testament. In other words, the diverse prayers that comprise the Psalms are all offered as responses that are like echoes to God’s previous communication.

Praying in answer to God’s initial word is also highlighted in several specific Psalms. Psalm 1, which helps introduce the entire Psalter, highlights the happiness of people who delight in the Lord’s Torah and who meditate on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2). The entire Psalter is a response to God’s Torah, which provides not merely commands but also stories that teach how to live in covenant relationship with God in this world. Psalm 19 praises God’s stereophonic communication in  nature and Torah. Psalm 119 is an acrostic poem—eight couplets for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—with all 176 verses highlighting the life-giving words of God. In a sense, all human speech and vocabulary is therefore derived from God’s preceding communication to the world.

If prayer is first and foremost a way of answering God, it’s no surprise that many of the Psalms are celebrative expressions of praise and thanksgiving to God. We can thank God as our answer to what God has given us. Those Psalms, however, that voice people’s requests to God are also responses to God. The Psalmists bring their requests in response to what they have previously learned from God: namely, that God is just, reliable, righteous, present, patient, and kind. We can offer our prayers of request in answer to what we’ve come to know of God’s character. Even the Psalms of complaint and lament—the most common type of Psalms—are addressed to God. They are not mere whistling in the dark, but are offered in answer to God. We can cry out even our darkest nights of the soul (as in Psalm 88) as an answer to the God who once spoke but who seems now completely silent to us.

God has already spoken—through nature, through events in history, through Scripture and most clearly through Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-2). Anything we pray is therefore an answer to God. And when words fail us in prayer, God’s Holy Spirit is praying to God on our behalf (Romans 8:26)—once again, God’s words of prayer precede our own.

I suggest that we reconceive our prayers as answers to God, not simply requests for which we want God’s response. What do we say to God both in light of God’s preceding communication and in light of our life’s experiences? Do we praise? Thank? Celebrate? Ask? Plead? Lament? Complain? In whatever way we respond, that is prayer—because prayer answers God.


Discussion Question: How might ‘answering God’ change your experiences of praying—particularly your requests to God?books

Food for Thought: If you’d like to learn more about this approach to praying, I recommend studying Eugene Peterson’s book Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.


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