BY DREW O’KANE
I guess we all know somewhere, in the back of our minds, or some remote corner of our hearts, that God answers prayer. It’s the sort of lesson that gets drummed into us in Sunday school, church, and Bible study. And we believe it, for the most part. Not without reason, of course. We look around at the Christian community that we have about us, and see their prayers being answered. But then again, maybe I should say, we believe God answers in a particular way – in fact, in a direct way.
We, like most people, prefer to pray for manna, and then have it rain on our heads the next morning. There is a pleasing order to this, and a sense of satisfaction, too. One might almost say that it gives us a sense of control. We prayed, God listened and answered. End of story.
We pray for all sorts of things this way. We pray that our grandmothers will be healed of their cancer. We pray that we will get good grades. We pray that we will get over our ex-boyfriend/girlfriend. We pray that we will find true love. We pray that we will be safe. We pray that our friends will be safe. We pray that we will follow Christ’s example in our lives. And really, in all honesty, all these prayers are worth praying.
Perhaps I have given the impression that praying for these sorts of things is wrong, or somehow not pious enough. We should ask for things from God. It shows us, if we notice, where exactly we fall in terms of the “chain of command” of the universe, and ultimately who is in charge of it all.
And looking at this so far, nothing seems all that bad. We ask, God answers.
Then God Answers
But what about the second bit? The answering bit.
I suppose I could start ranting about how we have a fallen, human, selfish perspective that can’t see very far past the end of its nose and we have no business praying in any way except that “Thy will be done,” for that is the only right and proper way.
But that’s not what I’m going to talk about here.
God does answer our prayers. And yes, sometimes He does answer them in that way. But that is fairly rare, if we were all honest with ourselves.
So, how does God answer our prayers, if not directly?
Most of the faithful seem to agree that God speaks and answers us in several ways: His Word, prayer, and community. Given a survey of those three, generally agreed avenues for God to work in (and I know that I am ignoring some of the more unusual avenues such as visions, dreams, voices from heaven, etc., which for the most part, very few of us have experienced), most people would tend to say that God’s revealed word is probably the most influential in our lives, and is the most direct.
Here yet again, we encounter this desire for direct answers. God’s word speaks directly to us about our lives. We can’t sleep with our girlfriend until she’s our wife, we can’t murder people, we can’t steal office supplies, we need to assist the poor and underprivileged, and so on. No mystery.
As I pointed out, we prefer to pray for manna and then have it rain on our heads the next morning. We wish to have our miracles come to us unadulterated, clearly acting on our expressed need. We want what we asked for to be solved, with no strings attached.
Sharpened by Community
And so we come to community, which is probably, in my opinion, the most present and effective means of God answering our prayers. And I do not mean this in the sense of how people might think.
When most people think of Christian community, we tend to think of a pillar of support, comforting us in our sadness, being a shoulder to cry on, and repositories of advice and experience. But this isn’t the only way.
We pray for patience. And we expect God to gift us with patience. We expect, whether consciously or unconsciously, to wake up the next morning and be able to listen to the most mind-numbing chatterboxes we know of and bear through it. What we get is community. A community that demands us to be patient. Friends who irritate us beyond belief sometimes, and force us to be patient. And by the Grace of God, we realize this.
We pray for freedom from addictions. And we expect our fleshly desires to disappear. We expect to wake up the next morning and breath in the air of liberation from fear, shame, and guilt over what our lives seem to be chained to. We get a community. We get friends who accept us, yet demand better from us. We find people we admire for strength. We find people who rub salt on our wounds. And all these things strengthen us to overcome.
So community is God’s answer to our prayers. But it isn’t the answer we expected, nor probably desired. Community is perhaps the most indirect answer God has given to us concerning any of our prayers.
What was unspoken in our prayer was that we wanted the least painful process God could give us. And community is hardly that. It is a process, painfully slow at times, by which God shapes and molds us, and answers our prayers.
This, then, is the heart of prayer and community. While we pray for miracles, we forget that God is refining us at the same time. He does not solve our problems. That doesn’t seem to be the point of salvation. At the heart of salvation is redemption, and at the heart of redemption is refining. In the midst of our struggles, in the midst of our suffering, in the midst of our fervent prayers that life would somehow become easier, God answers. God answers us by refining us to be His people, in the midst of very bad circumstances. He makes us shine in darkness, and by refining us, makes the world around us more like His Kingdom.
It should all be our prayer that God gives us the patience to stay within community, and we should let Him answer this prayer. Because, while it might not be quite the direct answer you wanted, it will be the answer that you needed.