Prayer is Enigmatic
Prayer is enigmatic. We saw an example of this last week in Ruth 3. In this chapter, God uses people to answer to their own prayer requests. We saw this with Naomi and Boaz. Naomi asks God to provide “rest” for Ruth (Ruth 1:9); God uses Naomi to provide “rest” for Ruth (Ruth 3:1). Boaz speaks of God “spreading his wings” over Ruth (Ruth 2:12); God “spreads his wings” over Ruth by means of Boaz (Ruth 3:9).
Another example of the mystery of prayer (this time from outside of the biblical text) goes like this. Let’s say you’re running late to work. As you drive, you see a traffic light ahead. You subsequently think, “God, give me a green light.” The motive behind the prayer is to arrive at work on time. That motive, however, is not verbalized. Now let’s say the light turns red. Bummer. “God didn’t answer my prayer,” you think. Nevertheless, somehow, you arrive at work on time.
In this situation, God did not answer your specific prayer request—getting a green light. However, he did answer the unspoken motive behind the prayer request—arriving to work on time. How are we to interpret such situations?
God sometimes answers the motive behind a prayer request and not the explicit request. I take this to be an implication of Rom 8:26–27. In this passage, Paul connects our lack of knowledge in prayer with the truth that the Spirit prays for us, according to the will of God, with inexpressible groanings. Often when we pray, we don’t know what to say. The Spirit does, though.
I might pray, “God, give me a green light.” This prayer seems best to me in the moment, but I still don’t know if this is the right prayer. For some reason, this request is not God’s will and he thus says “no” to it. Nevertheless, in his infinite providence, he says “yes” to my unspoken request to arrive to work on time. Based upon Rom 8:26–27, I interpret this unexpressed motive as the inexpressible prayer of the Spirit. Through my ignorant prayer, the Spirit correctly prayed according to the will of God.
God is amazing. His judgments are “unsearchable.” His providence is “inscrutable.” (Rom 11:33). We do not know how God will work through our prayers. The possibilities are infinite. We are not called to fully understand but to persist in prayer. Continue to pray, knowing that God responds to prayer as he sees fit.