"There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don't."
– Robert Benchley, American Humorist.
Benchley’s wry comment touches on the truth that most of us do see life in terms of duality: hot and cold, old and young, tired and rested, hungry and full. It’s an attitude that naturally spills into our spiritual lives where we may think in terms of good and evil, saved and unsaved, love and hate – and in prayer – answered and not answered.
I have heard of Christians who are firm believers in the power of prayer who keep a record of their prayers, marking down when they feel their requests are answered or remain unanswered. That may help people remember the many prayers that clearly do get answered in life, but the approach can also hinder our full perception of the power of prayer. When we presume that prayer is either answered or unanswered, we limit ourselves from seeing other possibilities and may even cut ourselves off from a confidence that comes from seeing beyond the black-white dichotomy.
Instead of thinking of prayer as just answered or unanswered, it is often more profitable to think in terms of three answers – all of which are positive: “Yes!” “Yes, but not yet!” or “I have something better in mind!”
Sometimes prayers are answered immediately, sometimes we have to wait to see the positive answer, and other times the answer takes an entirely different form from what we presumed it might be, but the answer is clearly better than what we had asked for. In fact, a prayer can be answered in all of these ways. Think for example of the prayer of Hezekiah, king of Judah. 2 Kings 19 tells us that when Jerusalem was surrounded by an overpowering Assyrian force, God heard Hezekiah’s prayer and defeated the enemy.
That answer was a resounding “Yes!,” and from our perspective the answer was virtually immediate, though God’s help actually came later that night, so from Hezekiah’s perspective, for a number of hours, it may have seemed like a “Not Yet!” answer. In fact, the answer to Hezekiah’s prayer may also be an example of “I have something better in mind!” The king simply prayed for Jerusalem to be delivered from the enemy army (2 Kings 19:19), but he may well have presumed his own army would have to fight to gain the victory. As it was, 2 Kings tells us that God took care of the problem His way, using His power, and Hezekiah’s army did not even have to fight.
So, perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said “Whatsoever you ask the Father in my name He will give it to you” (John 16:23). Remember that Jesus was speaking to his disciples, and not necessarily to everyone when he said that, and we do have to qualify to claim his promise (see our full article “When Prayer is Unanswered”). But if we are doing our part we can be confident in a positive answer whether the answer is immediate, given later, or perhaps different to what we expected.
Serious loss or continuing problems may be hard to understand as positive answers, but they can be. The answer to believing prayer really isn’t an either/or – it’s a situation in which the best answer is always given – whether immediately, at the best time, or in the form of something better in the long term than what we asked.