There can be nothing more discouraging as a Christian than seemingly having important prayers go unanswered. We have all experienced this at some point in our walk with God and this is possibly one of the areas of the Christian life that is wrestled with more than any other. It can be very frustrating to not fully understand the mechanics of prayer. What is actually happening when we pray? How are our words “delivered” to God? How long does it take to answer prayer? At times, we can all feel like cryout – Has God forgotten me?
There are subtle insights into the mechanics of prayer that can be found in some unlikely passages in the Bible.
An “inside view” of the world of prayer
Daniel 10 describes an amazing account of an answered prayer that gives us a unique perspective into the spiritual realm:
In the third year of Cyrus king of Persia, a revelation was given to Daniel (who was called Belteshazzar). Its message was true and it concerned a great war. The understanding of the message came to him in a vision. At that time I, Daniel, mourned for three weeks. I ate no choice food; no meat or wine touched my lips; and I used no lotions at all until the three weeks were over. (Daniel 10:1-3 NIV)
This was more than just a prayer – this description of Daniel’s prayer life makes most of us feel woefully inadequate! Daniel did not just pray – he also fasted and mourned intensively for a duration of three weeks during which he received no answer from God.
It is after this period of time that an amazing answer is delivered. An angelic visitor is sent to Daniel who proceeds to outline one of the most important and precisely fulfilled prophetic passages in the Old Testament in Daniel 11. However, when the angelic visitor arrives, Daniel is given some subtle information that gives us a great insight into the world of prayer:
He said, “Daniel, you who are highly esteemed, consider carefully the words I am about to speak to you, and stand up, for I have now been sent to you.” And when he said this to me, I stood up trembling. Then he continued, “Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them. But the prince of the Persian kingdom resisted me twenty-one days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, because I was detained there with the king of Persia. Now I have come to explain to you what will happen to your people in the future, for the vision concerns a time yet to come.” (Daniel 10:11-14 NIV, emphasis added)
It appears that when Daniel had first uttered the words of his prayer, this angel was immediately “dispatched” to visit Daniel personally and give him the vision of Daniel 11. However, while the angel was travelling to meet Daniel, he was “obstructed” by a spiritual being called the “prince of the kingdom of Persia” and it took 21 days for the angel to wrestle free of this prince (with the help of another angel, Michael!) in order to appear to Daniel. It appears that the angel would have arrived instantly with Daniel had he not been “withstood” by this spiritual enemy!
This would all be unknown to Daniel at the time who, for 21 days, would have presumed that his prayer had NOT been answered!
“Do not be afraid, you who are highly esteemed,” he said. “Peace! Be strong now; be strong.” When he spoke to me, I was strengthened and said, “Speak, my lord, since you have given me strength.” So he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? Soon I will return to fight against the prince of Persia, and when I go, the prince of Greece will come; but first I will tell you what is written in the Book of Truth. (No one supports me against them except Michael, your prince. (Daniel 10:19-21 NIV)
Before leaving Daniel, the angel says he has to return to fight this “prince of Persia” again before another spiritual entity, the “prince of Greece” comes. Not only this but the angel states he is working alone, except for some much-needed assistance from Michael (Daniel’s prince!).
The passage provides a unique insight into the spiritual world and more specifically into the mechanics of prayer. Daniel’s prayer WAS answered immediately – however, due to an intense spiritual battle, the answer could not be DELIVERED immediately!
This account provides amazing insight into the power and the mechanics of prayer. It appears that our prayers can result in spiritual battles that we are completely unaware of. The existence of the spiritual realm is very real and our prayers are acted upon and can result in titanic struggles in the spiritual world.
Should we all expect a personal visit from an Angel?
This account in Daniel 10 is an exceptional answer to prayer. Here was a man truly devoted to serving God. Daniel is referred to as “a man greatly beloved” (Daniel 10:11) and it is clear from passages about Daniel that he was incredibly faithful to God. It appears that this angel was sent on a very specific mission AS A RESULT of the Daniel steadfast prayer. However, this account is unique in giving us an inside view into what happens from a heavenly perspective when fervent prayers are offered to God. We believe this account demonstrates that prayer results in action in the heavenly realm and that tangible events in our own world are influenced by prayer. However, it is still a spiritual battle that unfolds around us that we are often totally unaware of.
It is VERY rare to receive a direct appearance from an angel! However, we can be CERTAIN that our prayers are heard AND answered even though the answer may be “no” or “not yet”. This passage also reveals that we may also have to be patient to await the delivery of the answer. The spiritual world is very real and the battles fought over us and our prayerful requests are very fierce!
Our attitude to prayer
Jesus Christ did not “advise” us to pray – it was a command! Our prayer life appears to be a powerful weapon in the workings of God’s plan for humanity. Action is effected in the heavenly realm purely on the basis of prayers uttered by the lips of sinful human beings – its amazing, but what a responsibility!
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16 NIV, emphasis added)
In Matthew 21, Jesus gives us another clue that prayer can unlock immense powers:
Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:21-22 NIV)
This primarily applied directly to the disciples, but here is another reminder that our prayer lives can carry potent power depending on the faith we display when engaging in prayerful activity.
It appears that our attitude in prayer is just as important as the content of our prayer lives. This passage in Mark 11 reminds us that we are to display an attitude of forgiveness if we also wish to receive forgiveness from God.
And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25 NIV)
A humble and forgiving attitude will undoubtedly shape the content of our prayers and this, in turn, will help “tune” us into the will of God with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Are we really listening (and looking) for the answer?
Looking back, we are SO pleased that many of our prayers seemingly remained unanswered – if some of our prayers had been answered in the way that we thought best at the time, they would have had disastrous consequences for us as we discover with maturity and hindsight – we very often do not know what is best for us! The fact that we thought they were not answered does not mean there were not answered at all – the reason we thought they were not answered is because we did not get the answer we WANTED or EXPECTED. We imagine this is a common mistake and experience for many Christians.
Are we seeking first the “Kingdom of God”?
There is nothing at all wrong with asking God for things that are important to us. However, it is only right that we are open to receiving more than one answer! If a child asks their parent for a sweet, there are three possible answers: “Yes”, “No” or “Not yet”. Very often, God gives us a “No” or a “Not yet” answer and we conclude that God has NOT answered our prayer as it’s not the answered we wanted. We can have the habit of only acknowledging the “Yes” answers as being from God and resign any other answer into the “unanswered prayer” category!
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34 NIV, emphasis added)
Jesus provides immense encouragement in the “sermon of the mount” by pointing us to for the clear provision for creation evident all around us. The conclusion of this passage is that we should not become derailed or distracted by the cares of the world, but that the furthering of God’s Kingdom should be our top priority and highest motivation. It is not wrong to request practical things of God – other passages clearly encourage us to – however, the overall content of our prayer lives will reveal where our hearts are. Ironically, if we are able to keep our minds focused on God’s will and His Kingdom it is likely we will be less worried about the “earthly” needs and wants around us.
There does not appear to be any particular “formula” to successful prayer. We are not given very specific instructions on how to pray except that our motivation and attitude should display submission to God’s will. However, Jesus does give us advice on prayer in the sermon on the mount:
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:6-8 NIV)
It is always important to remember that our loving heavenly Father knows our needs and wants – part of being in a relationship with God means it is still important to regularly talk to Him, even if it means telling God what He already knows! The above passage instructs us not to use meaningless repetition or superstitious chants. There is always a danger when reciting prayers we use regularly that we forget to engage our minds with the prayer – this makes the act of praying almost worthless!
We are not required to adopt a particular physical position or recite a specific order of words. We do believe there is value in adopting a position of reverence (e.g. on knees) at times when earnestly petitioning God as this helps us achieve a greater focus and demonstrates our attitude of worship. However, this is not necessary (or always practical!). God primarily wants our submission and praise – our posture, attitude and the content of our prayers will reveal whether this is the case. It will be different for each person and often different for each prayer-time.
We are all precious to God
He provides food for the cattle and for the young ravens when they call. (Psalm 147:9 NIV)
God provides for the ravens and hears their cry. As Spurgeon says “The raven is but a poor, unclean bird, whose instant death would make no sort of grievous gap in creation”. So how much more are we compared to a raven?
In Matthew’s gospel another illustration is shown with sparrows:
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Matthew 10:29-31 NIV)
We have been washed by the blood of Jesus, we have God’s Holy Spirit dwelling within us, God even knows the number of hairs on our head! Given that God hears the cries of the ravens, how much more will he hear those who trust in Him? God wants us to call out to him – do you think he would not listen to our petitions after allowing Jesus to die for our sins to restore our broken relationship with Him?
It is essential that we pray from the heart and let the Holy Spirit guide us. Know and believe that we are precious to God and that he wants the best for us – all we need to do is put our trust in our awesome Creator! If we do this and truly believe God will answer our prayer then we could witness God at work through us in amazing ways!
What is difference between prayer and “wishful thinking”?
We are all guilty of “wishful thinking” at times – this can be in the form of daydreaming or “hoping” for something that we can have no reason to suspect will actually happen.
Prayer is very different. For a start, a Christian who engages in prayer believes in a God that IS listening and WILL respond. The Christian accepts the response may not be the response they want, but there is a connection between one entity (us) to another (God) – both of whom are believed to really exist! This is not the case with wishful thinking.
Another difference is that the confidence Christians draw from prayer is the result of a wealth of evidence – there is a multitude of personal testimonies from Christians who have experienced both dramatic and less dramatic answers to prayer. We participate in prayer not just because we should, but because there are so many who have experienced the indescribable power of prayer for themselves.
The practice of prayer is based on a knowledge of who we are praying to, a command to participate in prayer and the accounts of millions who know God answers prayer through experience. None of this is the case with “wishful thinking”. Prayer is used by the Christian with a certainty of response from God, as opposed to a “hope” of response from God.
An amazing true story of an answer to prayer
We recently heard a very encouraging account of an answered prayer where a Christian missionary recounted an experience when delivering Bibles deep in Central Africa:
Many of God’s most faithful servants had to be very patient!
God’s timing is everything. God exists outside our time domain and therefore sees the end and the beginning concurrently. When we petition God, we can only view events from inside the dimension of time and as a result we cannot see God’s ultimate plan in any situation. Many characters in the Bible had to wait a long time for answers to prayer. Moses, for example, had to wait until he was 80 years old before he was to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. David had to endure many years of frustration before he was presented as King of Israel as promised.
God’s timing is not always our timing – God’s will is not always our own will. It is impossible for us in our fallen state to see things from God’s perspective. However, we CAN trust God to honour our prayer lives. Most of us have to admit that our prayer lives are far inferior to many of those described in the Bible. In honesty, we live in a culture that is very lazy and impatient with prayer. It is very inspiring to read some amazingly intense prayers in Scripture to get a flavour of the dedication involved when Biblical characters fully engaged in “seeking first the Kingdom of God”.
We encourage you to look up the following prayers in Scripture:
- 1 Kings 18:36-37 (a simply short simple prayer from Elijah with dramatic results!)
- 1 Chronicles 16:8-36 (a rich prayer of thanks made by King David)
- 2 Chronicles 20:6-12 (a prayer by King Jehoshaphat for divine protection)
- Ezra 9:6-15 (a heartfelt prayer of repentance for mercy by Ezra)
- Nehemiah 9:5-38 (a praise-filled prayer by the Levites holding to promises of God)
- Daniel 9:3-20 (my favourite! A repentant prayer of surrender to God by Daniel)
- Matthew 6:9-13 (The well-known Lord’s prayer…our blueprint!)
- John 17:1-26 (an intimate prayer of the Lord Jesus before his crucifixion)
We love the heartfelt intensity and humble attitude of repentance in these prayers and there are many other examples in the Bible that could have been used. The desperation and determination to submit to God’s mercy and God’s will is very obvious in these prayers. We are certain that if we could use these prayers as templates for ourselves and apply them in the context of our lives, we would see some amazing answers from The Lord!
Strange as it may feel at times, prayer should be a two-way process. We should obviously speak with God, but time should also be spent in thoughtful silence LISTENING for God. We believe God primarily speaks to us through the words of the Bible – very often, God can “speak” to us directly through the words of Scripture and it is staggering how frequently the words we “happen” to read apply directly to a subject of prayer. The Lord’s prayer reminds us that it is fine for us to pray for our needs and wants. God is our LOVING heavenly Father – however, like all good fathers, the answer to our requests is not always “yes”!
We can be certain that when we go to be with our Father in heaven, the heavenly perspective of our existence will be revealed to us and we will be amazed at how effective and powerful our “prayer connection” with God was. We are sure we will regret not devoting much more time and energy participating with our “hotline” to our Creator!
Above all, we must remember to be patient. We cannot see how our prayerful requests play out in the spiritual realm and we certainly cannot see whether our prayerful requests are what is best for us. Never forget that an apparent delay in receiving a clear answer could very well be because of a cosmic angelic battle going on around us! God NEVER forgets anyone – if it seems that we are experiencing a wall of silence in our prayer life, maybe we must pray all the more harder!