It was a life-changing event in my childhood. On our way home from a family vacation in Wisconsin, our family was in a serious car accident. A severe skull fracture, vomiting, and hemorrhaging accompanied my Mom’s condition as she fought for her life. It was a big grow-up experience for me as an 8-year-old. Awaiting the arrival of the ambulances to the scene of the head-on collision, I began to pour out my heart to God, begging him to save my mother’s life.
My mom later wrote about it in a message she shared with many women’s groups saying, “Never have I heard a child agonize with God like that, begging him to spare my life. And I was so glad that I had taught my son to pray.”
I’m not sure that I can fully explain why prayer “works” sometimes and in other cases we don’t get the desired outcome. There seem to be some external conditions that can temper the outcome of our prayers.
Our Caution—Asking for Something with a Selfish Intent
Do you remember when James and John approached Jesus with the audacious request, “Lord, would you grant us whatever we ask?” They felt entitled to this blank check appeal focused on satisfying their personal requests. It was selfish. It cautions us to do a self-inventory on the things we ask of God in prayer.
We can be like the young woman who prayed, “Lord, I’m not asking for myself . . . but please give my mother a son-in-law!” That’s still more of a personal request than an intercessory appeal, isn’t it?
James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3).
Our Response—We Have a Role to Play in Answered Prayer
While traveling in Israel recently I stood at the site believed to be where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount. In that classic message, he offered the directive, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7, 8).
Jesus suggested that we have a personal responsibility to take action. Ask, seek, and knock are verbs. They are action words. If we want more of God’s gifts, discoveries, and open opportunities, we have a role to play in the process.
Some have interpreted certain prayer passages to mean that believers possess an unlimited ability to “name it, claim it.” Proponents point to a verse like, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” (Mark 11:24).
But what is often overlooked is the implication from the context that Jesus was speaking to his apostles. He offered them a specific promise of prayer power not provided to all others. I fear it is a presumptive interpretation for us to extend that complete coverage to all believers, throughout all time.
Our Motives—and Obedience Matter to God
“Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him” (1 John 3:21, 22).
David, the psalmist king of Israel reminds, “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). When we want the same things that God wants for us, he can freely give us what we desire.
Right motives, in keeping with his will, cause him to hear our requests and can posture us to receive God’s good gifts. This appears to be a timeless principle for today.
“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14, 15).
When my Mom was seriously injured in that car accident so long ago, God was gracious and gave us a 48-year extension on my mom’s life. When my mom died a few years ago, I prayed for her to regain her health. This time she didn’t recover, but passed away that night. I accepted it. Even a prayer aligned with faith and the right motives doesn’t always ensure the desired outcome. We make our requests to God and trust his infinite wisdom to guide to the best outcome for all.
We ask for the Lord’s will to be done. We seek his will, although we may not know what his ultimate will is. We knock on the door of Heaven with bold requests. Then we submit to the sovereignty of our Father. As Jesus articulated in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not as I will, but as you will.”
Our Urgency—Is Sometimes Rewarded by a Special Answer
The Hebrew writer commanded, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:16).
A tragedy visited our church when the 13-year-old grandson of a member died suddenly in a boating accident near his family’s vacation cabin. Further compounding the grief and preventing closure was the fact that his body had not yet been discovered and retrieved from the deep lake. A team of 40 volunteer divers worked the lake during daylight for one day, then a second day with no sign of the young body. I planned to go to the lake the next afternoon to spend some time with the family. I awoke early that third morning grieving and unable to sleep.
A strong compulsion seemed to direct me to go to the lake first thing and not wait until afternoon. I followed what I believed to be the Lord’s leading and drove to the lake. By cell phone, while driving to the lake, I canceled two previously scheduled morning appointments. I arrived, embraced the devastated grandparents who ushered me into the kitchen, and immediately asked me to pray specifically for the divers to quickly find their grandson’s body.
For the next 5-10 minutes we agonized with God and boldly approached “God’s throne of grace” to beg for his help and healing. Before I could say “Amen,” while still praying, we heard a knock on the screen door. It was the leader of the diving team. He said simply, “We’ve just found Billy’s body.” I was glad that I had been able to express my love by listening to the nudge of God.
Sometimes our urgency is rewarded by a special answer. Extraordinary outcomes do occur just like with Elijah.
“Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17, 18).
Prayer is a lot like electricity. Even though I can’t fully comprehend or explain how it works, I’ve seen it at work. I use it. I rely on it. I believe in its power. Life is better when I have electricity. Just because I can’t give as good an explanation of electricity’s power as Thomas Edison might have provided, that doesn’t discourage or prevent me from harnessing its power each day in my life.
We have at our disposal the same power through prayer promised to us that Elijah possessed. With a greater gratitude, let’s use it well and use it wisely.
Jeff Stone is in his tenth year as lead minister at Bright Christian Church in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. He and his wife, Johnnie, are parents of three adult children and two granddaughters.