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. 

Are so-called miracles actually only things that could happen naturally, as Hitchens argued?

Q. I’ve heard of many seemingly credible instances of God working miracles of healing in our time.  But the late Christopher Hitchens, one of the “New Atheists,” made a point that I’ve wondered about. He asked why, if God is performing these miracles, they only happen in cases that could be explained by natural means. For example, miraculous cures are claimed in situations like cancer, where a remission is possible anyway. But why do we never hear of something like a person miraculously growing back a limb?

The first problem I have with Hitchens’ objection is that it can never be satisfied.  It starts by identifying the limits of what has been claimed as miraculous activity by God, and then insists that if God were real, He would do something beyond those limits.  If we actually did have attested cases of people growing back limbs in answer to prayer, Hitchens would just ask something like, “Why hasn’t God ever turned an 80-year-old back into a 20-year-old?”  Whatever the actual limits of what people of faith accept and claim as miraculous, there has to be something beyond these limits (God can’t have done everything we could possibly imagine), and so an atheist would simply argue that unless God did this or that other thing, God isn’t real.

My next problem with Hitchens’ argument is that the purpose of miracles is not to prove that God exists (even though people sometimes appeal to them as proof).  And so any failure to do miracles of some particular kind does not prove that God doesn’t exist.  The purpose of miracles is rather to proclaim that God’s kingdom is breaking into our world.  When Jesus sent out his disciples to expand his own mission, he told them, “As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons.”

If God really is selective about what kinds of miracles to perform, we might say that God chooses to do miracles that have a symbolic meaning that discloses the character of the kingdom they are announcing.  For example, the healing of lepers sounds the theme of cleansing so closely associated with God’s saving work.  The restoration of sight to the blind speaks of God’s light coming into the world, to enlighten those who are in darkness.  Enabling the lame to walk alludes symbolically to the Old Testament image of “walking” as a metaphor for following God’s ways.  Miracles of these types are all attested in the ministry of Christ and his apostles.

If there is any other kind of selectivity at work in the kinds of miracles God does, one might say, though only from observation, that it appears that in this present world, God has limited Himself to miracles of restoring what is there, rather than of re-creating what has been lost.  And so God might cure a lung of cancer, but not necessarily recreate a lost limb.  If this is so, it may be because a new creation, a re-creation, is coming, and we are all to look forward to that time, in faith and patience, when lost things will be restored.  In the meantime, we are called upon to use all of our compassion and ingenuity to support, comfort, strengthen, and empower people who have suffered losses.  In fact, if we are not out to disprove the existence of God, we can freely see how God is just as much at work through the efforts of people who design prosthetics and perform physical therapy as through more ostensibly “miraculous” means.

My final observation would be that there’s always a challenge that comes along with a miracle, that is, an intervention of God in our world.  The challenge is to recognize that God has done it.  The gospel of John, after its lengthy account of Jesus’ ministry, marvels, “Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.”  So if it were generally true that God intervenes to do things that might happen naturally anyway (like a remission of cancer), this should not surprise us.  This provides a challenge and an opportunity to our faith, and I think this is intentional.

But there are things that help us be confident that God, rather than mere natural forces, have been at work.  For example, it has been observed that we can have confidence that God has answered our prayers through a certain means if (1) the answer comes while we are praying, or (2) if the answer comes when it is needed most, or (3) the answer comes with a special kindness attached, or (4) the answer comes despite great difficulties that make it unlikely, or (5) we receive above and beyond what we ask for.  And if all or most of these things happen together, we are likely to be so convinced that God really has intervened on our behalf that we cease wondering whether this is so, and simply praise and thank God, no matter how skeptical someone looking on from the outside might be!

Should I pray for my children’s salvation if they might not be “predestined”? (Part 2)

Q.  Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?

Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”)  I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.

In my previous post I began to respond to this question by talking about prayer and faith.  Let me now address these two passages from Romans, starting with the one about Pharaoh.

It’s very important to realize that the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart did not determine his eternal destiny—that is, it did not cause him to be “lost.”  Rather, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart with respect to one specific thing: his response to the order given through Moses, “Let my people go.”  (God says to Moses, anticipating in advance the entire sequence I’ll describe in the next paragraph, “I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go.“)

After some of the earlier plagues, Pharaoh promised to do this, but once he was delivered from these plagues, he “hardened his heart.”  Moses even warned him, as the plagues progressed, not to do this again, not to “act deceitfully,” but he continued to break his promises and “harden his heart.”  After a while, God began to harden Pharaoh’s heart himself, in order to fulfill a larger purpose: “The Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh.”  (Pharaoh had first greeted the order to “let my people go” with scoffing, asking, “Who is Yahweh?”  He would find out!)

Not just the Egyptians, but all the surrounding peoples, learned of Yahweh’s reality and supreme power through the plagues that came because Pharaoh first hardened his own heart, and then God hardened it for him.  When the Israelites finally entered Canaan, for example, Rahab told the spies Joshua had sent in that everyone there had heard of what God had done to the Egyptians, and “our hearts melted in fear . . . for Yahweh your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.” 

This awareness helped fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that through him “all people on earth” would be blessed.  Rahab herself came over to Yahweh’s side, and according to the gospel of Matthew, she apparently married an Israelite and through her son Boaz—who brought another foreigner, Ruth, “under the wings” of the God of Israel—Rahab became an ancestress of Jesus the Messiah!

So the purpose of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart was not so that he would be lost, but so that many would be saved, from many nations.  (Conceivably Pharaoh himself could have still come to faith in the God of Israel, though we don’t know whether this happened.)

Paul appeals to this episode as an analogy in the course of a long and complex discussion in Romans to argue that something similar is happening in his own day.  God is once again hardening the hearts of some people in response to one specific thing, not so that they will be lost, but so that many will be saved.  Paul explains that “Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved.”  That is, “salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious.”  God, Paul says, has been restraining the response of Jesus’ Israelite contemporaries to the proclamation of his Messiahship so that this proclamation will be redirected to the Gentiles.  Then, seeing the blessings the Gentiles receive from welcoming Jesus as their Savior will make the Israelites want to do the same.

It is true that permanently rejecting Jesus as Messiah would keep someone from being saved.  But Paul says very clearly that this is not God’s purpose here. God wants “all Israel to be saved” and is hardening some of their hearts in order to bring this about.  Paul makes the statement “God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden” in order to argue that hardening hearts is a means God may legitimately use to reach such ends.  Hardening is not an end in itself, designed to keep anyone from salvation.  I’m not aware of anywhere in the Bible where God is said to harden someone’s heart in order to keep them from being saved.

I believe this includes the other statement in Romans you asked about, which says that God predestined those He foreknew.  It’s important to realize that this statement comes not in the first part of the epistle, where Paul is talking about how we are saved, but in the next part, where he is discussing how we are sanctified, conformed to the image of his Son.”  Note what leads immediately into the statement:  “In all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”  Paul is talking here about how God works in the lives of people who have already been restored to relationship with Him. 

Amazingly, God has been able to experience that restored relationship with us from before all time—He “foreknew” us in the sense of already knowing relationally those who would ultimately embrace his offered love. And in light of this, He has planned all along to bring us into His family, “that [Jesus] might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.”  Once again the goal is to bring people in, not to keep them out.

To state the matter as simply as possible, in this other statement in Romans, Paul is discussing predestination to sanctification, not predestination to salvation.  Once we become part of God’s family, He then works to bring about a family resemblance between us and Jesus.

So once again I would encourage you to pray with faith and perseverance for the salvation of your children.  You cannot be going counter to God’s purposes when you do.

Should I pray for my children’s salvation if they might not be “predestined”?

Q.  Please explain Paul’s statement in Romans: “Those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.” Does this mean that not everyone can be saved?

Later in Romans, Paul says that God will cause some people to refuse to listen, such as Pharaoh. (“Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’ Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”)  I constantly pray for my children, I need to see results, I guess my faith is not strong enough.

To go right to the bottom line first, I don’t think that any of us should conclude, if our prayers for the salvation of loved ones haven’t been answered yet, that God has not predestined them to be saved, but has hardened their hearts instead, so our prayers are of no use.

I’ll address those two statements by Paul in my next post.  They come within a long, complex argument about which there is much disagreement among interpreters. I want to say here that I think we do much better to draw our conclusions about the value and efficacy of our prayers for loved ones from biblical statements that are much clearer and more straightforward, such as what Peter writes in his second letter:  “The Lord . . . is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”  In Psalm 103, David presents a similar picture of God graciously extending salvation:  “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.  He . . . does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.”

So I would encourage you to keep solidly in mind a picture of God as a loving heavenly Father who wants to fold your children in His arms and welcome them back into His family.  Thank you so much for your prayers for your children!  They’re accomplishing far more than you realize.

And don’t be concerned about how much faith you have.  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”  So take the faith that you do have and put it to use in continuing to pray for your children, keeping a picture of our loving God in mind.  You can even thank God by faith for the work He’s doing your children’s lives, even before you’re able to see it. 

It’s been aptly said that faith is like a muscle.  The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets.  And I can’t think of a better way to put our faith to work than by using it in prayer for those we love, asking that they will understand and accept God’s own love for them.

 

What do you think of “pleading the blood of Jesus”?

Q.  What do you think of people “pleading the blood of Jesus” when they pray for someone else?

I’ve heard of people “pleading the blood of Jesus” in their prayers.  But I don’t see this practice described or taught anywhere in the Bible.  In fact, the Bible teaches that the blood of Jesus actually pleads for us.  The book of Hebrews says that Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant” and that his “sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”  In other words, Jesus intercedes for us, and the merits of his blood shed on the cross help make that intercession even more effective.  So I think that in prayer, rather than “pleading the blood of Jesus” for ourselves or others, we might tell God that we are trusting in Jesus’ intercession and in the better, more gracious word that his shed blood speaks on our behalf.

Are there really “prayer bowls” in heaven?

Q. I have been reading on various websites about prayer bowls in heaven, as described in the book of Revelation, and God’s willingness to send resources/power when the bowls are sufficiently full. I would be interested in your view of these passages.

To try to answer your question, I looked around a bit online myself, and found that this idea of “prayer bowls” seems to come from Jentzen Franklin’s book The Amazing Discernment of Women (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).  He writes (on p. 33):

 I believe we do not understand the effect our prayers have in the spirit realm. As I was reading Revelation one day, some verses seemed to leap off the page: “Golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8). “The smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, ascended before God . . . Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and threw it to the earth” (Rev. 8:4-5).
     What a marvelous image! When you pray, you are filling the prayer bowls of heaven. In God’s perfect timing, your prayers are mixed with the fire of God (His power) and cast back down to earth to change your situation Your prayers don’t just bounce off the ceiling; they rise like incense before the throne of God.
     Even if you don’t feel like anything is happening in the natural world, when you pray, you are filling the prayer bowls in the spirit realm. When they are full, they will tilt and pour out answers to your prayers!

Now I appreciate Franklin’s emphasis on the effects our prayers have even when we don’t realize it.  Nevertheless, I see nothing in these passages in the book of Revelation to indicate that once “prayer bowls” in heaven are full, God will send blessings.

In fact, there is no reference to bowls at all in the second passage, just to incense.  And in the first passage, while the bowls containing incense are equated with “the prayers of the saints,” nothing is said about the bowls becoming full and God pouring out power and blessing as a result. This is instead a repeated image of prayer being like incense and ascending to God.

More generally, the idea that we need to pray enough to “fill up the bowls” reminds me of the wrong idea about prayer that Jesus corrected in the Sermon on the Mount: “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.”

Still, I think we can take encouragement from the idea that our prayers do ascend as incense before God; they don’t “bounce off the ceiling,” as Franklin notes, so we should persevere in prayer.  Some of the bloggers who have quoted his comments about prayer bowls have emphasized this as their main takeaway.  D. Delay writes on Called to Stand Out, for example, “The truth is, we’re guilty of not lingering in prayer long enough. . . . It’s not about how many words are prayed or the manner in which we pray, as long as our prayers are heartfelt, faith-filled, and authentic.”

So that is the encouragement I would take from these passages in Revelation.  God hears our every prayer, and so we can and should be faithful to commit all aspects of our situation to God in prayer, knowing that He loves us, He listens, and He will respond in His own wisdom and perfect timing.

Can we really pray with the psalmist, “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord”?

Q.  I find it very meaningful to “pray the psalms,” that is, to read through them and turn them into my own prayers.  But I always balk when I come to places like the one in Psalm 139 where David says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God! . . . Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord? . . . I hate them with complete hatred.”  Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies?  I find it hard to make this kind of thing my own prayer, and I’m tempted just to skip over parts like this as I pray through the psalms.  Is that all right?

Each of the psalms is a complete composition in a specific genre or literary type, and so I would encourage all of us to read, study, and pray each of the psalms in their entirety, without leaving out or skipping over any parts we find difficult.  In fact, when we approach a psalm like Psalm 139 with an appreciation for the literary pattern it is following, the part you (and many others) find so troubling becomes much more understandable. Then I think we do become able to read it and pray it with integrity.

The psalms are of three main types.  Psalm 139 is a “psalm of supplication,” in which the psalmist asks God for help.  As I explain in this post, psalms of supplication are built out of a series of common elements.  Not every psalm has all the elements, and the ones that are used can be presented in a variety of orders, but a basic pattern can be recognized.

Psalm 139, for its part, contains just two of the typical elements of a psalm of supplication. It consists mainly of an extended “statement of trust.”  But at the end, there is a “petition” or specific request for assistance.  This is the passage in the psalm that you are having difficulty with.

We need to appreciate that such a petition may cite reasons why God should help the psalmist, and that these reasons may include a claim of innocence—that is, an “affidavit” that there’s no reason for God to punish the psalmist by allowing troubles to continue or adversaries to prevail, because the psalmist has not been pursuing an evil course.

One variety of this claim of innocence is an imprecation, an expressed wish that God would slay the wicked.  It needs to be understood that in the context of a claim of innocence, within a petition, within a psalm of supplication, the psalmist is actually saying, “God, if I’m really among the wicked myself, then slay me!”

This is what is going on in Psalm 139: “If only you would slay the wicked” is a petition equivalent to, “See if there is any offensive way in me.”  In essence, the psalmist is saying, “So far as I know, I haven’t been choosing any evil path; I’m so sure of this that if I have been, I’m asking you to slay me along with all of the other wicked.  But if there’s anything I’m not recognizing, please reveal it to me.”  I think all of us today could pray a prayer like this with integrity—but with great caution and humility, after serious self-reflection, because it is a very solemn thing to call down the wrath of God upon ourselves if we are being deliberately evil!

One other thing that should help is to recognize what is meant by “hatred” in this context.  It has been aptly said that love is properly not a feeling, but a commitment:  the commitment to act consistently in the best interests of another person.  Conversely, hatred is properly not a commitment, but a feeling.  It is that feeling of strong antipathy towards anything dishonoring to God that makes us want to have nothing to do with wrongdoing and not join in with wrongdoers.  Such a feeling is a valuable protection against temptation.  But if instead we are “out to get” somebody, that is, if we are committed to acting consistently contrary to their best interests, then this is not really “hatred” in the sense that the godly psalmists use the term.  It is instead bitterness or vengefulness—something we cannot in good conscience indulge.

I hope these reflections will help you pray through all the psalms, and Psalm 139 in particular, more meaningfully and wholeheartedly.

This post draws on the discussion of psalms of supplication in Session 2 of my Psalms study guide and the discussion of Psalm 139 in Session 7.

“Praying the psalms” is a time-honored spiritual discipline. In the Middle Ages, beautiful illuminated psalters such as the one shown here (the St. Albans Psalter) were created to facilitate and encourage this discipline.