Does God answer only trivial prayers?

Recently wildfires raged in the relatively Adventist communities of Angwin, Deer Park and St. Helena, California. These communities include Pacific Union College, St. Helena Adventist Hospital, Deer Park Elementary School, and Elmshaven, the last home of Ellen G. White, Adventist visionary and one of the church’s founders. General Conference president, Ted Wilson, tweeted his concern and particularly requested prayer that Elmshaven would be spared from the flames on account of its historical and spiritual value. With the exception of a couple of secondary buildings at the elementary school and the hospital area church, the above institutions were spared. The Ellen G. White Estate in Silver Spring, Maryland tweeted its gratitude for the “miracle” that flames burned all around Elmshaven, but did not harm the property itself.

We, of course, do not know for sure whether the survival of Elmshaven was due to direct divine intervention, but it is certainly a possibility. But many Adventists expressed outrage at this claim in the face of so many Adventists losing their homes in the area. At the time of writing, no member has lost their life, but the loss of property is reported to be significant. The claim that God has acted to spare a historical building while not acting in response to many heartfelt prayers elsewhere was painful to many. What do we make of this reality? Did God answer only a relatively trivial prayer? Was Elmshaven spared primarily because of the courageous work of many firefighters? Or was this a coincidence that should simply have been accepted as such? It is hard to know. But it is likely that many members in the area, praying out of genuine need, were questioning why their prayers were not answered.

A young pastor in his first month of ministry re-connected with a newly baptized member of his church at camp meeting. She had walked in the door of the church without warning a few months before. Being raised in a broken, alcoholic Adventist home, she was not a novice to the Adventist Church, but had had no connection with it for a number of years. As her life apart from God spiraled into chaos she remembered church as a child being a relatively safe and happy place. So one day, in a place far from home, she had made the decision to return.

A couple of weeks before camp meeting, the young pastor was assigned to the church as an intern pastor and got to witness Susan’s baptism. So when she approached him at camp meeting with a request to talk, it was not a surprise. They walked down to the boat dock at the camp and sat down to talk. After some generalities, she suddenly turned the subject to her baptism.

“I need to be baptized again,” Susan said.

“Why would you say that?” the young pastor replied.

“Because there are things in my past I didn’t tell the senior pastor,” she responded.

Realizing that this was not a conversation to have in a public place, the young pastor suggested that they walk down a nearby trail along the wooded shores of the lake to a large rock where they could be away from prying ears. In years past he had actually built that trail as a teen-age summer camp worker. When they arrived at the rock she began a tale of woe; there were many things that she had done and that had been done to her. Whether or not she need to be baptized again, it was clear that she had rejoined the church, but had no idea about personal salvation or a living relationship with God.

While he had had college training in theology, the young pastor had never led anyone to Christ. In his mind he turned over the various strategies that he had learned in class and in church seminars. Doing the best he could to lay out a biblical approach to connecting with God he led her into the “sinner’s prayer.”

When they were done, Susan said, “That’s it?”

“That’s it, God loves us and is very merciful. He accepts every sincere soul that reaches out to him. He has cleaned the slate and this is the first day of the rest of your life, a life of walking with God,” he assured her.

Susan did not seem sure whether to believe him or not. Just then, they were startled by a sudden clap of thunder. This was unexpected. It had been a sunny and pleasant day up to that point. A moment later a total downpour ensued. Susan and the young pastor retreated under the largest available tree, but it was to no avail. In a couple of minutes they were totally soaked. But instead of being miserable, Susan’s face was shining with joy.

She looked at the young pastor and said, with delight, “I’m being baptized again!” Any doubts she may have had a moment before were gone. The arrival of the rain shower was just the sign she need to truly believe.

What do you make of a story like that? I know that it is true, because I was that young pastor and that was my first “lead someone to Christ moment”. Did God actually bring about that rain shower or was it just a coincidence? When I think about all He would have had to do in order to make that happen, one wonders why He would do it for a relatively trivial result. And what about all the people who might have been inconvenienced by rain shower? Which brings me to the question that is also the title of this blog: “Does God Answer Only Trivial Prayers?”

The Bible tells us that our God is a God of love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8, etc.). He is more willing to give good gifts to His “children” than even the most loving earthly father is (Matt 7:7-11). To put it in other words, God enjoys showering His beloved ones with little gifts. Just to say “I love you.” And I believe He loves to do this in some of the most personal and practical ways imaginable. Perhaps you’ve just lost hope of finding a parking spot in time to meet a critical appointment. You send up a desperate prayer and suddenly a space appears. A worried mother wonders where her boy is and sends up a quick prayer. Just then the phone rings and she discovers all is well. Or you survive a harrowing experience and discover later that several friends felt impressed to pray for you at exactly that time. Millions of believers around the world have experiences just like this every day. It is reasonable to suggest from this that God is real and that He loves to make His presence known to those who are open to it.

But just now the skeptic in you is saying, Wait a minute! Are you trying to tell me that God manages the comings and goings in every parking lot around the world just in case one of His followers needs a spot at the last minute? If prayer is sometimes timed to remarkable events, what about all the times when people pray and “nothing” happens? What about all the real heartaches in this world that are met with silence? What about women who are raped and their cries for help go unheeded? What about men who contract terminal cancer in the prime of their life and feel as if their prayers go no higher than the ceiling? What about parents who pray for wayward children and go to their graves without a clear response from God?

These objections have serious weight. Believers often fail to realize how trivial their experience of God’s presence may seem to others who have suffered deeply in this life. Our glib expressions of how God is working in our everyday lives can be like a knife in the heart to someone experiencing the absence of God. We must never forget that the absence of God in everyday experience can seem the norm to most people. It is even something Jesus experienced when He was on the cross (see Matt 27:46 and parallels). In spite of the deep intimacy with God that characterized every day of Jesus’ ministry, in the 24 hours before His death Jesus experienced increasing darkness to the point where He could no longer see the Father’s reconciling face. The withdrawal of a sense of God’s approving presence caused Jesus the deepest anguish (see Desire of Ages, page 753). To experience the silence of God, then, is no indication that a person is actually forsaken by God or is an incorrigible sinner. But at times like that it can feel as if God answers only trivial prayers.

The story of Job may also be instructive here. Job’s experience makes it clear that there is no answer to most of the specific objections raised above, at least in this life. The tragedies in Job’s life were certainly unexplainable in earthly terms. They came from “nowhere” and made no sense to him. They had to do with complexities in the larger universe that Job never came to understand. The fascinating thing is that even when God came down in person to talk with Job about these issues (Job 38:1 – 41:34), He never mentions the real reason for Job’s suffering, a reason the reader of the story is allowed into (1:6-12; 2:1-7).

From the book of Job we discern that there is a cosmic conflict in the universe that affects all that we do and all that we experience. God’s actions are sometimes limited by larger considerations in that conflict, things we may never understand until eternity. Perhaps God’s intervention in Job’s situation would have upset the whole space-time continuum of the universe in a way even quantum physicists could not understand. In other words, God cannot explain what we cannot understand. What we do understand is that larger divine interventions can change things in a way that causes collateral damage at unspecified times in the future. Major actions of God have ripple effects in the lives of many people and their descendants over decades and even centuries. As those ripples play out in the course of history, they can have consequences that we cannot foresee but God in His infinite wisdom can. He may understand that the good we hope God will do in the present could cause even greater harm than His silence in answer to our prayers.

There is an interesting biblical illustration of this. It is the story of Hezekiah as told in Isaiah 36-39. Hezekiah was one of the most faithful kings in the history of Judah (2 Kings 18:5-6; 2 Chr 31:20-21). He was faithful to God in his personal life and devotions. He expanded the borders of the country. He restored the temple that had fallen into ruins. He restored the priests and Levites to their regular services. He restored the feast days. He removed the rival altars around Jerusalem. He ordered the “high places” of rival worship all around the country to be destroyed. He destroyed the idols and images that the people had come to rely on. His prayers protected Jerusalem when it was surrounding by overwhelming Assyrian forces. It would be understandable, therefore, for people to think that Hezekiah’s premature death would be a tragic thing for the nation and a mistake for God to allow. I can almost see the ancient bloggers and pundits questioning God’s character in relation to this development. But it was not to be.

When the time came for Hezekiah to die, he pleaded bitterly with God on the grounds of his lifelong faithfulness (Isa 38:1-3). If anyone ever were deserving of a positive answer to prayer, it would be Hezekiah. And God came through for him in stunning fashion. God not only granted him an extension of fifteen years of life (38:5), he provided assurance that this would happen through a major astronomical token (38:7-8– how Hezekiah came to have this experience is not explained). Everyone seemed to have gotten what they wanted from God. Yet during those extra years two things happened that undid all the good that Hezekiah had done during his lifetime; the visit of the Babylonian envoys (39:1-8) and the birth of his son, who became the evil king Manasseh (2 Kings 21:1-9). In the context of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan major interventions in people’s lives are very complicated. The ramifications are usually way beyond our understanding.

Having said this, I still want to argue that a believer’s experience in a parking lot is not necessarily imaginary. I cannot explain the timing and the effort involved in God’s actions. But I do believe that God would answer every prayer in a positive manner if pleasing us were the only consideration. If finding someone a parking space or timing a phone call will not upset the space-time continuum of the universe, why wouldn’t a loving God intervene? If a woman makes a full commitment to Jesus just as a rain shower happens to be passing, why wouldn’t God arrange that if the stakes were low enough? I guess what I am saying is that the lower the ultimate stakes, the lower the potential consequences of any particular divine intervention, the more likely that a loving God can use the circumstances of life as a token of his love. We serve a God who delights to please His children whenever so doing would not cause harm to anyone.

Having said that, those of us who have experienced this kind of intimacy from God need to be careful when and how we share such experiences with others. Our well-intentioned testimony can do harm even when God’s gift did not. While we should rightly acknowledge the small tokens of God’s favor in our lives and rejoice over them in the right circumstances, we need to also be aware of how often our testimonies cause pain.


2 thoughts on “Does God answer only trivial prayers?

  1. Mike Hansen

    I read a book by a rabbi, “Business Secrets From the Bible” and in it he says there is no such Hebrew word for “coincidence.” The chapter is entitled, “If There Is No Hebrew Word for Something, Then That Something Doesn’t Exist.”

    In the brief paragraph about the word, he says, “What we think of coincidence is usually nothing more than God camouflaging His purpose” p. 257.

    What do you think of this?

    Reply
    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      It’s a nice thought, but is perhaps a little too deterministic for me. I do not believe God micromanages every detail. I believe God gives freedom to think and to do and enjoys watching the outcome of our choices (at least when we don’t seriously screw up). But I could see that statement being encouraging to some.

      Reply

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