Prayer is tough, isn’t it? Not simple, quick prayers, the kind you pray before meals—those aren’t that hard. But praying consistently and fervently takes discipline.
One of the reasons it’s hard is that we wonder why God sometimes doesn’t answer the way we want him to. As I struggle with this I keep being drawn back to a statement I read in Tim Keller’s new book on prayer: “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows” (p. 228).*
That’s pretty insightful, I think, and we’d do well to mull it over for a while. Truth is, prayer isn’t a simple, I-ask-and-God-gives-me-what-I-want kind of thing.
Sometimes I wish that’s the way it was, because I usually think I know what I need. I’d like for God just to see things the way I see them and do them the way I want them done. I’ve also found that my requests almost always involve asking God to take me down the road with the least amount of pain or difficulty possible.
And then there are some verses that seem to suggest that God might do whatever we ask:
“Ask, and it will be given to you . . . For everyone who asks receives . . .” (Matt 7:7,8).
That sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?
Or this one:
“You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jam 4:2).
Taken together—and out of the context of the whole Bible—someone might start thinking that all you have to do is just ask for whatever you want. God becomes the magic genie who grants the request.
But if you’ve been praying long, you know it doesn’t work like that. Either God isn’t listening, or he’s got some other agenda in mind.
Of course God does have an agenda, and that’s where the statement from Keller helps us. God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.
I had a professor once who referred to God as the “One who knows the end before the beginning begins.”
That’s what makes him uniquely qualified to answer our prayers according to his own agenda—his plan that is nothing less than working things out for his glory and our ultimate good (cf. Rom 8:28). Sometimes that’s hard to swallow when we’re hurting, but knowing that God isn’t just flippantly dismissing our requests because he doesn’t care helps us to submit to his will . . . and keep trusting him.
In fact, we wouldn’t want a God who could be manipulated into doing whatever we wanted, would we? That kind of God would be something less than the One we worship.
So keep praying, and keep praying big prayers, but be thankful that the God you pray to will answer according to what he knows to be best.
*Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God. New York, NY: Dutton, 2014.