Often, I will be sitting on my lounge early in the morning to pray and before long my mind has drifted off into some sort of stream of consciousness and I end up a million miles away from where I started. It starts with, I need to pray for my son and ends up wondering why the sky is blue or the moon appears so large when close to the horizon. One of these well-worn pathways of distraction often leads me from a prayer point to pondering what are the actual mechanics of prayer. Maybe you have pondered this as well. How does a thought go from our mind, to the Throne of God and then at some future point returns to us as a miracle, an encouraging word, a job offer, a change in attitude and so on? I find the whole process amazing to ponder especially in the light of prayers that seem to go unanswered.
So, I submit some ideas to you. They don’t amount to a fully-fledged theology of the mechanics of prayer. At points they feel a little proof-texty. They feel like spiritual ponderings to me as there seems to be too much mystery around the subject and the New Testament is fairly quiet on the process for me to proclaim with absolute confidence. Also I suggest that Paul was more concerned that we actually pray rather than think too much about the how things work in the background. However, some thinking around this topic may help us understand the bigger picture of prayer and cause a renewed optimism that will propel us to not give up too early.
In the book of Revelation, John gives us a glimpse into heaven. Yes, the book is full of symbols and images and can be hard to understand but it also has a sense of God pulling back the curtain from the main stage that we can see, in order to spy on what is happening behind the scenes. Along with jaw dropping images of worship around the throne of God there is a curious moment in Revelation 5:8. The image is of the living creatures and elders holding bowls that are full of the prayers of God’s people. It’s tempting to think that once we pray a prayer it disappears. Either it didn’t quite make it through the ceiling or that its way down on God’s to-do list. In actual fact, the very opposite seems to be true. God stores them in bowls and they form part of the ongoing heavenly worship expression. I find it helpful to visualise my prayers in that bowl and wonder what happens then the bowls get full and the Elders present them to God. See, He treasures and stores every prayer no matter how feeble or distracted they are.
The first talk I ever heard on prayer went something like this. God answers prayers with either yes, no or not yet. I was in primary or elementary school and that seemed highly plausible. It seemed to be the way earthly requests work. It passed the common-sense test as well as the lived experience test. However, as I have got older I have tried to find a verse or passage or teaching in the Bible that sums this thought up in one succinct way. Problem was I couldn’t find one. I’m not saying there isn’t places in the narrative in which God answers differently, I just couldn’t find a clear teaching on it. What I could find was some challenging verses indeed around God answering prayers. 1 John 5:14-15 was one of those. Mark 11:24 was another. Matthew 7:11 was another. It got me thinking, what is God says yes to prayers more often than we know?
So, what happens to our answers if God hears, stores and answers ‘yes’ more often than we know? This is where I turn to an Old Testament narrative for answers, so I approach the text with some care, not wanting to read too much into it. The story however has a similar feel to modern life. Daniel has been praying and fasting but getting no answer. Just like you and me sometimes. Then in Chapter 10 something changes. An angel appears to Daniel in a dream and says,
"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.”
The fact that the answer comes in the form of a dream shouldn’t put us off here. It was commonplace for God to communicate in dreams. The angel seems to be saying to Daniel that your prayers reached heaven as soon as you started praying. God answered in the affirmative, that answer was carried by angels, but the angels were engaged in some sort of spiritual warfare to deliver the answer.
This really fascinates me. The idea that God answered but the answer was held up in a battle. Part of the reason I find it so fascinating is that my lived experience of fasting so often follows this pattern. I find it common that most of the time, it is a few weeks after I finish my fast that the breakthrough will come. I can’t tell you the number of times in which I set myself to fast for 21 days or 40 days and nothing shifts during that time. Then weeks later the most amazing answers come. Its uncanny that it happens every time. It makes me wonder if my answers are in deep battle until the angels get the victory.
The idea of spiritual warfare is certainly not a strange one in the New Testament either. Both 2 Cor. 10:3-5 and Ephesians 6 help open our eyes to the unseen world all around us that we contend with. While these passages don’t explicitly say that the demonic realm hold up our prayers, it’s not a hard stretch to see this happening in a warfare context.
Personally, this idea encourages me. It helps me to see that the things I think God is saying No to, might actually be the enemy trying to usurp and say no. In those times I can visualise my prayers in the bowls of heaven and the angels descending to earth with the answers. It helps me to pray without ceasing and follow the example of the persistent widow and keep crying out to God for justice. What helps you to keep praying?