God is listening, sounds like something your mother told you when you were young. More than motherly advice, the truth of that statement gives us hope. Because God is listening and because he cares and is so powerful, we can be sure he is up to something in this world. The vast majority of competing voices that are trying to shape our thinking, our worldview, and our faith tell us different. When the world looks at tragedy, suffering, and death more often than not the conclusion reached is that God couldn’t be listening because if he was listening, things would be better than our experience allows.
We experience this same tension when we pray for godly things over and over but don’t seem to get any response. It wasn’t that we prayed for a new car or a bigger house so we could “do more entertaining.” What do you do when you don’t have an excuse like, “Maybe God is trying to teach them something from this?” Like times when prayers for the life of an innocent child go unanswered or for a lost loved one to be saved? It is easy to buy into the idea that God really isn’t a good listener.
Learning from Jesus:
Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane has a lot to tell us about God’s listening to and answering prayers. He prayed,
“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” – Matthew 26:39
God answered his very own Son, “No” on this one. Then he prayed,
“Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
God answered, “Yes” to that one. So in the very same prayer by his very own Son, God answered Yes to one thing and No to another. How can we expect anything different for ourselves? From this story we learn that God is not always going to give us a “Yes” to every prayer but we still know that he is listening and is going to do the right thing at the right time. “No” doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. Clearly God was listening to Christ. Clearly no one was more righteous or deserving of a “Yes” from God than Christ. And still the answer for part of his prayer was no.
Learning from Hannah:
In 1 Samuel 1 we find Hannah in anguish. God had closed her womb so she had no children. She wept. She couldn’t eat. She prayed and pleaded with God for a son. The answer was “No”. But that wasn’t the end of the story. She took it up a notch. By going to Shiloh where the tabernacle was, she went to God’s house to see if she could catch him at home and get his attention by praying there. Still the answer was “No”. But that wasn’t the end of the story. No wasn’t the final word.
I firmly believe there are times God doesn’t answer a prayer because he knows we aren’t ready for the answer. From Hannah’s story we learn three things that help us ready ourselves for God’s answer and remind us that God really is listening to our prayers:
1 – Ask for peace – Eli tells her that God has answered her prayers so she could go in peace (1:17). When we pray for something over and over with the anguish of Hannah, what might happen if we asked for peace from God over the matter? What if the realization that God is listening brought us so much peace about the matter that we might be ready for his answer, even if it is not what we had hoped? When Hannah found peace over this situation, God came through.
2 – Put self aside – Have you ever prayed with selfish motives? How did that turn out? We want this or that or things to be a certain way. How often do we stop and ask if that is really how God wants it to be? Do you think God is more likely to answer a selfless prayer or a selfish one? If God really answered all our selfish prayers would we be better Christians and better people for it or worse ones? In 1:11 she does the totally selfless thing of telling God that if he will give her a son, she will give him right back to God! I would have a tough time doing that.
3 – Maintaining our faithfulness – Hannah made good on her word (1:22). Do you know how old Samuel was when Hannah dropped him off at the temple? It says she didn’t do so until after he was weaned. That means it wasn’t until after she got him on more solid food and off breast milk. That was probably around age 3. Can you imagine dropping your 3 year old at the church and just leaving him there? Okay…bad question. Have you ever wondered how Eli felt about her dropping a 3 year old off at his place? She could have rationalized a way to give him to the Lord, at home. But she didn’t. She did what she said she would do.
None of these things are big enough to leverage God to move or twist his arm into listening or answering our prayers. These things are not about dialing in the God antennae just right to get a favorable reception for him to hear us. These three things are about readying ourselves for God’s answer more than about getting the answer we want. God cares and he is listening to our prayers. It may be no today but no doesn’t mean God isn’t listening. It just means that is the best answer for us at the time. We will never have all the answers. We will never have God personally assure us that he has heard all our prayers. But we can have faith to know he cares enough to listen.
I think Psalm 10 really sums up our experience very well. It starts with this verse,
“Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” – 10:1
after all the trouble found in 10:2-15 the psalm ends with this verse,
“You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry, defending the fatherless and the oppressed, in order that man, who is of the earth, may terrify no more.” – 10:17-18