From 1 John 5:14-15 the Christian learns at least four things about prayer: (1) God hears my prayers; (2) he answers my prayers; (3) this is something in which I can have “confidence”; and (4) the Lord's answers are according to his will, not mine.1
It was probably during the period recorded in Acts 20:1-3 that the apostle Paul produced Romans and 2 Corinthians. Two prayers are mentioned in these epistles which serve as good biblical examples of how prayers are answered.
Paul’s letter to the Romans was written approximately AD 56/57 before he traveled to Jerusalem with a benevolent gift from various congregations. Apparently he had some concerns about what might happen when he got to Jerusalem, but instead of worrying about it he prayed about it and encouraged others to pray for him as well. In Romans 15:30-32 at least three specific prayer requests are made: (1) that Paul may be delivered from unbelievers in Judea; (2) that his service may be acceptable among the Jerusalem saints; and (3) that he may come to Rome with joy. By reading Luke’s historical record of this visit to Jerusalem and subsequent events, we see exactly how these petitions were answered.
According to Acts 21:17-20a, the brethren in Jerusalem received Paul gladly and rejoiced in his ministry. It seems that this part of his petition was answered with a resounding “yes.” However, the apostle’s service was not accepted unconditionally. While numerous Jews in Jerusalem had come to believe in Christ, many of them viewed Paul with suspicion, as though he were a traitor to his nation and cultural heritage. His effectiveness and influence among them, therefore, were compromised by this misguided perception.
In order to show that he had not completely forsaken his people or his past, Paul agreed to carry out a customary ritual in the temple (vv. 20-26). But his attempt to please his Jewish kinsmen led to further complications. He was falsely accused, dragged out of the temple, and nearly beaten to death by unbelieving Jews (vv. 27-33). Fortunately he was delivered from these attackers (vv. 33-34), as per another of his prayer requests (Romans 15:31), yet not without a great deal of distress and suffering. As a result of his arrest in Jerusalem, he was sent to Caesarea (spending two years in prison) and then on to Rome. Paul had prayed that he might come to Rome with joy, but when he finally arrived after several near-death experiences along the way, he was in chains (Acts 28:16).
Did God answer the three petitions of Romans 15:30-32? Apparently so. Did he answer them the way Paul wanted? Apparently not. No doubt Paul desired that his service to the Jerusalem saints would be received without reservation, but it wasn’t. He likely would have wanted his deliverance from unbelievers to be void of pain and distress, but it wasn’t. Surely he would rather have come to Rome as a free man, but he didn’t. Nevertheless, as a prisoner in Rome, looking back on these ordeals, Paul had to admit: “the things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). God’s way may have been harder, but it was so much better.
If Paul’s service in Jerusalem had been accepted unconditionally (as he wanted), the chain of events which eventually took him to Rome likely would not have occurred; consequently so many would have missed out on the Lord’s great blessings through the ministry of this dedicated apostle. The point is, Paul's prayers were answered by God, not necessarily the way he wanted, but obviously so much better than he even knew how to ask.
Another of Paul’s specific prayer requests is recorded in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. He struggled from what appears to have been a physical malady (“a thorn in the flesh”), concerning which he pleaded with the Lord no less than three times that it might be removed. God’s answer was not “yes,” or even a “qualified yes,” but an absolute “NO.” Thus Paul continued to suffer from this infirmity for the rest of his natural life. But notice his attitude. He didn’t cry, “God hasn’t answered my prayer!” He didn’t complain that God’s answer wasn’t what he wanted. Paul graciously accepted this negative response and acknowledged that the Lord’s way was even better than that for which he had asked. This physical “thorn in the flesh” kept him humble, which ultimately contributed to his spiritual salvation (cf. Proverbs 16:18). It caused him to depend more on God and less on self. It made him a much stronger person.
The lesson is simple: God answers prayer. He answers prayer according to his will, not mine. He doesn’t always answer according to my expectations, and his ways are not always the easiest. But I can be assured that his answers are always the very best answers. Even when I don’t get exactly what I ask for, I know that God has something much better in store!
“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
-- Kevin L. Moore
Endnote:1 This is a revision of the original version that appeared in The Exhorter 4:1 (Jan.-March 2000). All scripture quotations are from the NKJV.
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