By David Faust
Do you ever wish God would be a little less mysterious? Do you pray for direction but fog still covers the road ahead? Do you wish God would make his preferences known audibly in a clear voice? Do you ask for guidance yet struggle to find your way? Do the puzzles of faith edify you or mystify you?
Acts 12 tells a straightforward story, but it’s filled with mysterious details. The unscrupulous King Herod had Peter arrested and thrown in prison, “but the church was earnestly praying to God for him” (Acts 12:5). Facing trial the next morning, Peter slept while chained between two soldiers, but an angel unfastened his chains and guided the dazed apostle out of the prison. The iron gate to the city mysteriously opened “by itself” (vv. 7-10).
Once fully awake, Peter found the house where the believers were praying, but a servant named Rhoda was so stunned to hear his voice that she left him standing at the door. The same believers who had been praying for Peter told Rhoda she was out of her mind. Undaunted, Peter kept knocking, and his amazed friends finally let him in.
Sometimes God answers prayer in astonishing ways; but his non-answers can be astonishing too. Earlier in Acts 12 we learn the terrible news—recorded unceremoniously and without detail—that Herod had James put to death by the sword (v. 2). James was no minor character. He was the brother of John, a member of Jesus’ inner circle.
Peter lived; James died. Why did God spare Peter but not James? Did God love Peter more than he loved James? Did the Christians pray harder for Peter than they did for James? How did James’s family feel when he was martyred but Peter was rescued?
On one level, prayer is simple: praising God, thanking God for his gifts, interceding for others, asking for wisdom. Even a child can have an ongoing conversation with God. Especially a child can do that.
But on another level, prayer is for adults: aligning our hearts with his will, hearing his voice through Scripture, confessing our sins. It’s some of the most strenuous, perplexing work we will ever do. It requires pursuing God when he seems distant, trusting God when he is hard to understand, and following God where we don’t naturally want to go. A god simple enough to fully comprehend would be too insignificant to worship.
Answered prayers fuel our love for God, but what about the prayers that seem to go unanswered? Proverbs 25:2 says, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.” Some things God simply keeps to himself. We can “search out a matter,” but some answers are beyond our grasp. Like children who trust their parents’ wisdom and goodwill, we cling to the Father with tenacious faith when emotion reaches its limits and reason finds its boundaries.
As Acts 12 draws to a close, Herod dies a gruesome death, but God’s Word continues “to spread and flourish” (vv. 23, 24). Peter’s ministry continues, though the book of Acts shifts its focus to the ministry of Paul, and no further explanation is given for the martyrdom of James.
The mysteries go on—but so does God’s work, and so do God’s people, obeying Jesus’ instruction to “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1).
1. Has God ever answered your prayers with a resounding yes?
2. How do you respond when God says no or when he seems not to answer at all?
David Faust is president of Cincinnati Christian University, Cincinnati, Ohio, and past Executive Editor of The Lookout.
The Lookout’s Bible Reading Plan for January 26, 2014
Use this guide to read through the Bible in 12 months. Follow David Faust’s comments on the highlighted text in every issue of The Lookout.
Genesis 42, 43
Genesis 44, 45
Genesis 46, 47