Before a Word is on my Tongue

Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
Isaiah 65:24

A text interrupted Carrie mid-sentence.

You won’t believe this-that was from Tina. Her dad’s insurance just approved their request. The IV drip will be allowed at home.  

Seconds before the text, Cathy had shared a request from Tina. Tina’s father was medically fragile. He’d been diagnosed with pneumonia. Again. Him so weak, it likely meant another dreaded hospital stay.

So Tina asked us to pray. For her dad’s healing, yes, but more that insurance would approve IV antibiotics at home. Tina feared what long hospitalization might mean for his physical and spiritual health.

There it was. Just like that. 

Still. We were just at the pre-prayer share stage. Carrie was mid-stream in her request. We hadn’t even made it all the way around the circle yet.

Would insurance have approved the IV anywayDoes prayer work? Does God grant our requests because we ask?  And isn’t God’s will already determined? 

That little incident drew me back to C.S. Lewis’ essay, “The Efficacy Of Prayer.” You can read the full essay online here. All ten pages are pithy.

Lewis begins with this little illustration:

Some years ago I got up in the morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London.  So I decided to put the haircut off too.  But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help.  The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.  

It awed me; it awes me still. (p. 3) 

Lewis quickly concludes that there is no scientific way to tabulate the success rate of prayer.

But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayer and my visit…

Then he backtracks. The very question, “Does prayer work?” is framed all wrong, he says. As if prayer were magic or machine.

Prayer is either a sheer illusion or a personal contact between embryonic, incomplete persons (ourselves) and the utterly concrete Person. In it God shows Himself to us. 

Petitionary prayer is, nonetheless, both allowed and commanded to us: “Give us our daily bread.” And no doubt it raises a theoretical problem. Can we believe that God ever really modifies His action in response to the suggestions of men?  For infinite wisdom does not need telling what is best, and infinite goodness needs no urging to do it. But neither does God need any of those things that are done by finite agents…

He could, if He chose, repair our bodies miraculously without food; or give us food without the aid of farmers, bakers, and butchers; or knowledge without the aid of learned men; or convert the heathen without missionaries. Instead, He allows soils and weather and animals and the muscles, minds, and wills of men to co-operate in the execution of His will. They have not advised or changed God’s mind–that is his over-all purpose. But that purpose will be realized in different ways according to the actions, including the prayers, of His creatures. (p. 9)

How unfathomable his ways; his purposes beyond searching out! A God who at once knows what you need before you ask, and at the same time tells us to ask. But, don’t tie the bow yet.

On Thursday morning we prayed another prayer. 

In one form or another, it’s a prayer we’ve been praying for years. We pray for pregnancies. For God to be pleased to open long-barren wombs. For Addy it’s been six years, Breanna; four. For Hope; two.

Lewis ends the essay with precious words for us whose requests are refused. While Tina’s request was granted-almost before it was off her tongue- ours is rejected. Are Tina, her dad, some of God’s favorites? Do they court more favor, have more influence at the Throne?

To that, Lewis answers,

The refused prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is answer enough to that. And I dare not leave out the hard saying which I once heard from an experienced Christian: “I have seen many striking answers to prayer and more than one that I thought miraculous. But…as the Christian life proceeds, they tend to be rarer. The refusals, too, are not only more frequent; they become more unmistakable, more emphatic.” 

Does God then forsake just those who serve Him best? Well, He who served Him best of all said, near His tortured death, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” When God becomes man, that Man, of all others, is least comforted by God, at His greatest need…Meanwhile, little people like you and me, if our prayers are sometimes granted, beyond all hope and probability, had better not draw hasty conclusions to our own advantage. If we were stronger, we might be less tenderly treated.  (p. 10-11)

God grants our requests. Sometimes, while we are yet speaking. Sometimes He refuses. Breanna, Ally and Hope- each given one fruit of the womb, no more. That, after repeated prayers.

But the question triggered by Tina’s text- about the efficacy of prayer- what about that? Can we prove a thing would- or wouldn’t- have happened apart from our prayers?

We can’t. And it’s just as well.

For prayer is request. The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course he will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them.  (p. 3)

Rest assured-in granting and refusing our prayers-He’ll withhold no good thing

Infinite goodness and infinite wisdom need no urging.

Still, He listens. 

But surely God has listened; 

He has attended to the voice of my prayer. 

Psalm 66:19