I am utterly confident that prayer works, but am far less certain about how prayer works. God invites and commands us to come to him with our petitions, our requests. He promises that he hears them, that through the intercession of the Spirit he perfects them, and that it is his joy to answer them. He gives us the things we long for, though not always in the way we ask and often not in the time we ask. Still, he is a God who hears and answers prayer.
I understand that much, but not a whole lot more. Like all Christian parents, I pray for the salvation of my children. Let’s say I pray for the salvation of my child 5,000 times or 10,000 times over the course of his life. Then one day my child becomes a Christian by putting his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. God has answered prayer!
But is he responding to a certain one of my prayers, either the first one or the last one or another one I made along the way? Or is he responding to the quantity of my prayers, as if I’ve now prayed enough times that I receive what I’ve so long desired? Or maybe he is responding to the earnestness of my prayers as they’ve grown sufficiently pleading and sorrowful to have gained his ear. I just don’t know how all that works. I’m quite sure I don’t need to. I just need to know that I ought to pray and that it is God’s joy to answer prayer.
I’ve been thinking about all of this in a very precious context—the context of my wife. Aileen is a Christian and has been since we were 19 years old. But there’s no obvious earthly reason that Aileen should be. While she had a safe, stable, loving childhood, it was completely non-religious. When I met her as a twelfth-grade high school student she had never read a Bible or heard any of its stories. She had never set foot in a church. She had never heard anyone pray or heard a Christian song or listened to a sermon. She wasn’t an unbeliever because she had rejected the gospel but because she had never heard it or had opportunity to believe it. Then my mother took her out for breakfast, shared that gospel with her, and encouraged her to respond to it. She did immediately, confidently, and irrevocably. In a moment Aileen became a Christian, her life transformed, her eternal destiny fixed at the very first hearing of the good news. She was and remains the only practicing Christian in her family—direct or extended.
This is a wondrous thing that makes sense only in the context of prayer. Someone must have been praying for her! How else can we explain it? Why else would God have so suddenly and unexpectedly plucked her out for himself? It must have been prayer.
I have spent a lot of time wondering whose prayers were answered in her salvation. I’m sure I prayed for her a bit after meeting her as a high school student, but probably not much. Surely my parents had been praying for my future spouse since my childhood, though only as a stranger they would someday meet. Was it people in her neighbourhood who prayed for her and pleaded with God to extend his salvation? Was it a local church who perhaps prayed their way house by house? Was it a stranger in a distant land for whom the Lord had somehow brought to mind a pretty brown-haired girl in Canada who knew there just had to be more to life than this and who needed to hear the gospel just once? I don’t know, of course, and don’t know how I ever could know. It’s a line of enquiry I’ll want to pursue with the Lord one day. I know I’m not capable of unraveling the whole tapestry God has woven, but I’ve got a theory.
Much of Aileen’s family emigrated from Scotland a decade before she was born. She was and is my Scottish girl. And Scotland has a special Christian heritage. Though such days have long since passed, it was was once a bastion of Christianity, a bright light in a dark, dark world. At one time it counted among its citizens a great many believers—believers who prayed. They prayed for themselves and their families and they prayed for their nation and its people.
They prayed for the present and the future, for generations alive and generations still to come. And I just can’t help but wonder if her salvation was the long answer to one or many of those prayers. I just can’t help but wonder if many, many years ago a Scottish family pleaded with God to extend his salvation to their children and to their children’s children. And maybe, just maybe, God answered that prayer in her salvation. Maybe, just maybe, he continues to answer it as our children now hear that gospel from her lips and as they accept it in repentance and faith. Maybe, just maybe, God will make it all clear in eternity and I will be able to thank those people for being faithful Christians who faithfully prayed.