Does God sometimes answer prayers before they’re prayed?

“Liberation of St. Peter” by Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734). Peter was set free from prison while, or possibly even before, the other believers met to pray for his release. Does this kind of thing happen because God is outside of time?

Q. I’ve had the experience of praying for a need and then talking to the individual afterwards to find that the prayer was answered a few days earlier. Kinda interesting in a way; makes me think of our God being outside of time and not limited by it. It would seem to a skeptic that prayer was not needed in the first place and it was going to happen that way anyway but I feel a sense of amazement instead. What do you think? I realize that this is not usual; a need lies before us, we pray, and our prayer is answered in future time (can take years in some cases). I’m also aware of Peter’s release in Acts but curious what I might learn from you.

One possible explanation of your experience is the one you suggest, that God acted in response to the prayer but, being outside of time, was able to implement that response at a point in time prior to the prayer. Another explanation would be that for some reason God stirred up the prayer even though its object had already been realized.

I do believe that the initiative in prayer is God’s. Whether God simply wants to commune with us in deeper fellowship for a time, or whether God wants to accomplish something in partnership with us, He puts what is often called a “burden” on our hearts to pray. When this burden has to do with another person’s need (as in the case you describe), then I believe that God summons us to pray for that need for at least a couple of reasons.

For one thing, at least as I see it, God delights to work in partnership with us to such an extent that He will even choose to answer a prayer in a way that we have suggested, to give us a tangible part in His work. God, being omniscient, knows all possible ways to meet the need, and so is able to see how it can be done “our way” (so to speak), presuming that this path can indeed be followed consistently with His character and purposes. In this God is not humoring us, but honoring us with a genuine part in helping to bring about His purposes through prayer.

Another reason why God would lead us to pray for a need that He already intended to meet—and this is the one that relates more directly to your experience—would be so that when the need was met, it would be clear that God had done it. That way the prayed-for person wouldn’t just be helped practically, they’d also be assured of their Heavenly Father’s love and care for them. This might help explain your recent experience. God might have wanted your friend to know with confidence that He was the one who’d met the need and that He’d done this out of love. That’s the conclusion I’d draw if I learned that someone had been led to pray for me about a situation after it had already been resolved.

The case you mention from the Bible, of Peter in Acts, is similar, except that in that case the prayer was answered right while it was being prayed. Peter was miraculously freed from prison and he went to a house where the followers of Jesus were gathered and were already praying for him. (Depending on how you read the chronology of the account, however, it could even be argued that the angel came and started setting Peter free before this prayer meeting had quite gotten started.) One of the things that gives us confidence that God has done something in answer to prayer is that the answer comes while we are praying. I’d argue that God sends the answer at this time to give us the assurance of His love and care for us and of His involvement in the particulars of our lives.

So the timing of an answer to prayer can accomplish something further beyond meeting a practical need in a person’s life. If the answer comes during or even before the prayer, that’s an indication that it’s truly an answer from God.

And even if, as you also describe, it’s only after much prayer that an answer comes, we should still remember what Jesus said, that we should persist in the confidence that God loves us and is listening. “Won’t God protect his chosen ones who pray to him day and night? Won’t he be concerned for them? He will surely hurry and help them.” Sometimes the needs we’re aware of form only part of a set of complex, long-term, big-picture goals that God is working away at steadily. Once those needs are finally met, we recognize how this necessarily had to be done within a larger context. 

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is a writer and biblical scholar who is also an ordained minister. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the Scriptures that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He has an A.B. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

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