How does God respond to intercessory prayer? I haven't seen much fruit from my faithful prayers on behalf of a wayward child, and I'm just about ready to give up. Am I missing something? Should I be looking elsewhere for the answers I need?
To be honest, we don't and can't know exactly how God answers our prayers. That would require a breadth of knowledge and a depth of insight into human relationships and the complexities of the universe that simply aren't accessible to our limited understanding. The likeliest thing in the world is that many of our prayers get answered in ways so obscure and so hidden from our powers of perception that we never see them for what they are.
If there's one thing the Bible teaches us, it's that the Lord seldom acts precisely as we want or expect Him to act. His ways are higher than our ways and His thoughts than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). He has His own plans and His own ways of putting them into effect. To borrow the language and imagery of C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, He isn't a tame God. You and I can't control Him or predict how He will fulfill His promises or respond to our entreaties for His help.
The life of Abraham supplies a good illustration of this. When he was 75 years old, the Lord told Abraham and his wife, Sarah, that they would have a son, and that this child would become the father of a great nation and a blessing to the entire world. Shocking news to an elderly couple who were already past the age of childbearing. Still, Abraham "believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness" (Genesis 15:6). The result? He and his wife waited another 25 years to see the promise fulfilled. And when at last little Isaac arrived on the scene and everything seemed to be going according to plan, God asked Abraham to offer the boy up on the altar as a sacrifice (Genesis 22:2)! What was a man of faith supposed to think at that point?
Then there's the apostle Paul. When Paul wanted to take the Gospel into Bithynia in the northern portion of the province of Asia, the Holy Spirit blocked his path somehow (Acts 16:6, 7). It didn't seem like an answer to prayer at the time; but in the long run it meant that Paul and his team were able to cross over into Macedonia and bring the message of Christ to the continent of Europe for the first time. Later, Paul pleaded with the Lord three times to take some unspecified disease or malady away from him – what he called his "thorn in the flesh." Every time he asked, God said no. But that wasn't the ultimate answer to his prayer; it was only the tough outer shell that concealed the genuine article. The real answer – the sweet kernel within the husk – came to him in a flash of unexpected insight – "My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).
The final example, and the most striking illustration of all, is the Lord Jesus Himself. "He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him" (John 1:10, 11). Why not? Because He didn't meet up to their expectations. For centuries the people of Israel had prayed and waited for the promised Deliverer and Messiah, and when He came they didn't recognize Him. They were looking for a conquering King on a white charger. Instead, they got a baby in a manger and a beaten, bloodied man on a cross. The answer to all their needs was lifted up before them, but most of them didn't have eyes to see it.
Why are we telling you all this? Because we're convinced that your prayers, too, may receive answers so strange and unusual and beyond all reasonable expectation that you won't recognize them when they come. Some may permanently elude your detection. With others, it may simply be a matter of time – lots of time – and some dogged and determined searching in obscure, out-of-the-way corners. God may be doing an amazing work in your child's life without your knowing it. Meanwhile, there are really only two things you can do: "continue steadfast in prayer" (Romans 12:12); and "wait patiently on the Lord" (Psalm 40:1) – for "those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint" (Isaiah 40:31).
If you'd like to discuss your concerns at greater length with a member of our team, don't hesitate to contact us. Focus on the Family has a staff of pastoral counselors who would love to speak with you over the phone.