Most days, I post about Pursuing Prayer from the “praying” end…how do I pray, what attitude do I have about praying, why do I pray, etc.
Today, I want to explore the “responding” end…how do I know when God is answering my prayer, or what he’s asking me to do in response to his will? While I don’t have a complete answer, I do want to share some wisdom– some from experience and some from Biblical principles and others’ testimony.
Isaiah 55:8-9 English Standard Version (ESV)
8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. He plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm. William Cowper
It often surprises people to learn that “God works in mysterious ways” is not actually in the Bible. God’s ways are NOT our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts, but his answers to prayer are not obscure and unknowable. God does not delight in vexing us and making us guess and second-guess his will. It would be easy if God always answered our prayers with a flashing neon sign that gave a simple, one-sentence directive– “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning.” “Click your heels together and say, ‘There’s no place like home.'” “Hakuna Matata.” But pithy platitudes and easy answers are not God’s way, either. God created each of us as a unique reflection of his divine image– his answers will be uniquely designed to fulfill his will and meet our deepest needs, not always in ways we expect or understand.
So how do we discern God’s will when there is no neon sign or simple answer to our prayers? Here are a few guiding principles:
- God will NEVER answer your prayer by contradicting himself or compromising his holiness.
- God will not answer your prayer for money by giving you an opportunity to cheat or steal. He will not answer your prayer for a husband by throwing you into the arms of someone else’s.
- Just because God doesn’t send a lightning bolt or physically stop you from doing something doesn’t mean that he has given his OK. If he ALLOWS you to sin, that doesn’t mean that he APPROVES of your sin or that it is his answer to your prayer.
- God will never ask you to do harm to yourself or others as an answer to your prayer. Vengeance, sacrifice, atonement, and retribution are the province of God alone. I believe that God asks us to be vigilant in defense, and allows us to take up arms in defense, but to initiate a feud, to seek personal vengeance, or to act out vigilante justice is to flout both God’s authority and the authority of the powers God has set in place over us.
- God MAY use circumstances or people to answer your prayer. But the same principle above applies– circumstances that lead to sinful actions are NOT God’s answer to your prayer; people who advise you to do what you know is contrary to God’s holiness are not sent from God– no matter how appealing the prospect, no matter how powerful the person or persons. That being said, God may choose to use the most unlikely of persons or events to bring about a resolution to your need–LET HIM! Don’t judge a gift by the size, the shape, or the wrapping paper!
- God may use time to answer your prayer. I prayed for a husband from the time I was a young girl– I married at age 46. Waiting doesn’t mean that God has forgotten about you; it doesn’t mean that you aren’t worthy of an answer or ready for an answer– sometimes your answer isn’t ready for you! There are two caveats I want to share from my own experience of waiting for an answer:
- Don’t give up! God knows the desires of your heart– but keep praying anyway. Well-meaning people will say awful, hurtful things– that you aren’t praying enough, or praying the “right” way; that you must be hiding un-confessed sin; that you need to try some other way to get what you want, or to hurry God along. In my case, I had people trying to fix me up, suggest dating services, remind me that my “clock” was ticking (it was broken, but they didn’t know that), or suggest that it just wasn’t God’s will that I marry, and I should pray for him to take away the desire for a husband. Listen to folks like this (if you must) with half an ear and less than 10% of your heart– let them cause you to re-examine your heart and your desires, but don’t let them cause you to give up or doubt God. That was not their intention, but it can often be the result of their ill-considered words.
- Do the next right thing. Doing nothing while you wait for the perfect answer gets you nowhere. Wringing your hands and pacing gets you nowhere. God wants our trust and our obedience. As we wait for more specific direction, we need to trust that doing the next right thing IS the RIGHT thing to do. This was the hardest lesson for me, but the one I most needed to learn. So while I waited, I moved ahead step-by-step. I made a lot of friends, gained a lot of experiences, and learned about marriage by watching the examples of others (both good and bad). I got involved working with children, first as a secondary teacher, and then as a librarian. I got to spend nearly thirty years of my working life surrounded by young people. I got to laugh with them, love on them, mentor them, dream with them, discipline them, and cry over them (and send them home). I didn’t just “settle for” a single lifestyle– I learned to embrace it. I learned to be grateful for the wonderful opportunities I had as a single woman, and to anticipate the changes that marriage would bring, should it come along. I learned that marriage should be a means to an end, not the end itself– that marriage done right is not about my growth and fulfillment; not even about his growth and fulfillment; but about OUR growth together and toward Godliness.
- Trust “that voice in your head”– not the one that speaks out loud and gets you strange looks–but your God-given conscience, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. “That still, small voice” is often the most personal way God speaks to us. In my own life, it was taking the risk to leave a career I loved (teaching) to reach for a deeper dependence on God. I left the security of my teaching position for three part-time jobs (at one point), no health insurance, and a move to a new community where I knew virtually no one. I had other choices, other more appealing options, chances to reconsider. I wasn’t being pushed out of teaching–in fact, I left just as my options at the school were opening up for bigger and better things. Yet I felt compelled to leave. I had no safety net waiting– I ended up in libraries, but that wasn’t my original plan. There were many people counseling me to reconsider– and their reasons were compelling. But as I stood firm, other voices came along to encourage me. I believe they were sent by God to confirm that this risk was from him and for my good.
- Don’t trust “that voice in your head”–No, I’m not trying to confuse you or contradict what I just said. But this is another caveat (see above). We are told to “test the spirits”, and sometimes, that voice in your head is NOT the Holy Spirit. In the case I mentioned above, I had to follow all the other principles of discerning God’s will. In my case, leaving teaching did not violate God’s holiness or come about because I wasn’t willing to follow God’s leading–I wasn’t leaving teaching to try my hand at a get-rich-quick scheme, or because I had lost my desire to work with students, or had lost faith in God’s sovereignty in my life. God DID use circumstances and people to confirm my decision and help me grow through the experiences that followed. God used time to help me transition from schools to libraries, and prepare me for other opportunities, including short-term missions trips and marriage. I can’t even begin to list all the ways I tested and examined what I felt God was leading me to do before I made the leap. That much testing may not always be necessary, but we need to be careful not to rely on our own understanding (Proverbs 3:5-6), but to Trust in the Lord with all our hearts. He WILL direct our paths when we do that.
- Finally, Pray for it– pray for discernment, for wisdom, for strength to do the right thing! Won’t God DO IT!