In one of my seminary classes, we recently discussed the question, ‘why should God answer our prayers?’ Here are some reflections on the topic:
When we pray, we should give God (whether implicitly or explicitly) a biblical reason why He should answer that prayer. This is not an effort at divine arm-twisting, but a means of appealing to God on the basis of His revealed Word for specific answer to prayer. One type of biblical reason for God to answer our prayers is the promises of God contained in scripture.
The Bible is full of promises. If we are going to claim the promises of God as grounds for Him to answer our prayer, then that opens us up to the potential of abusing the system and claiming them incorrectly. There is a right and wrong way to claim the promises of the Bible.
Many people want to just name and claim biblical promises to further their agenda. However, we must come to a realization that not all promises in scripture relate to us the same. We cannot claim every promise in the Bible for ourselves as is. Why? Because not every promise in the Bible was addressed to us as is. So, for instance, a male cannot name and claim for himself the promise of a Virgin Birth given in Isaiah (Isaiah 7:14) in order to substantiate the belief that he will somehow be with child.
The promises of the Bible do not all apply to the same audience. Who the promise was intended for originally impacts how we can interact with that promise before God in prayer:
- Some promises in the Bible are for all people in general (Romans 10:13—Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved)
- Some promises in the Bible are for all believers in general (Hebrews 13:5—I will never leave you nor forsake you)
- Some promises in the Bible are for specific believers (Matthew 1:23—Promise to Mary that she will bear a son whom she is to call Immanuel)
While the first two categories apply directly to those of us who are in Christ, the third category creates a difficult scenario. Why? We can’t claim promises that weren’t given to us as is. So, what do we do with promises given to other people? Can they serve as grounds for why God should answer our prayers?
Rightly handling these promises begins with understanding them as intended in their original context. In other words, we must begin by seeking to understand the nature of the promise in its original setting to its original audience. Next, we must look to the ultimate fulfillment of the promise in Christ. So, in one sense, we can claim the promise of God to multiply the descendants of Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3) since we are Abraham’s spiritual offspring in Christ.
A practical question that should arise in our minds as we think through this issue is this: what do you do when you come across a promise of God intended for someone else and you have a subjective feeling that this promise which was originally given to them is being allowed by God to be claimed by you in this situation?
In other words, what do you do when someone ‘receives a word from God’ that their ailing mother who has been diagnosed with a terminal disease is going to live? As people who believe in the supernatural power of God, we believe that God does work this way at some times. But how do you approach this type of situation?
At a minimum, when you encounter this type of situation, there must be a certain level of humility. Rather than saying ‘thus saith the Lord’, we should say ‘I think this is of the Lord.’
The problem is that people will often take what they think they hear from the Lord and repeatedly affirm it publicly, especially when they are challenged on its validity. Why? Because they are paranoid it would display a lack of faith if they did not repeatedly affirm it verbally. Then, if they are wrong, their bold, repeated claims make the aftermath that much worse.
We cannot forget that we are fallen followers of Christ. Therefore, we are sinful interpreters of God’s Spirit. If we go beyond ‘I think’ to ‘Thus saith the Lord’, we are going beyond what is wise and could bring damage to the credibility of ourselves and our church.
Another consequence of being fallen followers of Christ is that we are tempted to give ourselves a word from God. We want something so badly that we convince ourselves that it is God’s will for us to have it. The more we want it, the more convinced we are that it is from God. However, the more we want it, the better the chance that we are being deceived.
When it comes to claiming the promises of God originally intended for someone else, there are three ways to respond. To demonstrate this, let’s take the example of a barren married couple who longs to have children. How should they respond to the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah that, though they were barren, they would have a child (Genesis 17:15-21)?
On one extreme is the response of absolute certainty where we assume that if God did it for them, then He must do it for us. Because He blessed them with a child, then He must do the same for us. On the other extreme is the response of absolute hopelessness where we assume that, though He blessed them with a child, there is no way that He will bless us with one.
If those are the two extremes, then what is the middle ground? The middle ground is to use that promise given to someone else in scripture as a basis of appeal for God to do something special in our lives. “God, you have given a child to a barren couple before, will you do it again for us?”
This response exemplifies faith in two ways. First, it declares that we believe that it happened the first time. Second, it declares that we believe that He is still able to do it. Furthermore, it helps to guard us from a broken faith if God chooses not to answer our situation in the same way He did in scripture.
When we use the promises of God as a basis of appeal, we are not asking God to do something new that He has never done before. Instead, we are asking Him to do again now what He was pleased to do before. It leaves us saying, “I’m in the same situation that they were in. you did it for them, will you do it for me?”
Rightly handling the promises of God in prayer is no easy task. But we can truly ‘name it and claim it’ when we use these promises as a basis of appeal. God, you were delighted to fulfill this promise once, will you do it again for me?