In thinking about prayer, believers often focus on “answers” to prayer. Indeed, they usually look for specific answers–such as a cure from a disease.
As the Bible shows, it is definitely appropriate to pray specifically. But it’s often thought that if a specific result doesn’t occur, the decision (and often the blame) lies with God, or there is a problem with the one praying–insufficient faith or else words not spoken aright.
The connotations of the word “answer” carry such a meaning of specificity, that the pray-er’s horizons are sharply limited, and cause them to look for efficacy in the wrong places. We limit God’s response to a “yes” or “no.” My wife calls this “toddler prayer,” in which we cannot conceive of anything beyond the black and white, specific, and immediate, “yes” or “no.”
In a study devoted to lament prayers in the Bible, Patrick Miller shows that the prayers do not simply assume that everything is cut and dried, that God either answers prayer or does not. They seek, rather, to evoke a response. Here, the prayer is not just saying, “Thy will be done,” and walking away. That is a far cry from the rich dynamic of relationship. That’s more like playing with a Magic 8 Ball.
Again and again in these lament prayers, the psalmist urges his or her will upon God, articulating what God should do. The potential effect this urging might have upon God introduces an open-endedness into the situation. God will take the human concern into consideration with the utmost seriousness not least of which because He values and honors the relationship so highly. In view of such understanding, it might be helpful to speak of God’s “responses” to prayers rather than “answers.” When this language is used, it may occasion a greater openness into ways in which God is responding to prayers that do not look like specific answers.
We could say that God encourages prayer, evaluates prayer, transforms prayer, and responds to prayer. God uses what God “can” use. God uses what God wills.
Pray-ers are called to release their prayers to God, not to hang on to them, and let God work with them. Thus they may be better prepared for responses that may not look like answers!