Amongst committed Christians, it is commonplace to hear the following kinds of claims with respect to the nature of prayers [of petition]:
If we pray in the name of Jesus, God the Father will hear [and answer] our prayer.
If we pray in the name of Jesus and according to God’s will, God the Father will hear [and answer] our prayer.
If we pray in faith claiming the promise(s) of God, God the Father will hear [and answer] our prayer.
It is also commonplace to hear such explanatory comments as the following:
God’s response to our petition may be “yes” or “no” or “not yet,” but he will answer.
Let us now imagine a congregation of say 100 persons and get a sense of the number and variety of prayers offered that ask for something. First of all, take the public worship of this local church. In it there will normally be a form of prayer that is primarily of petition and intercession, where the focus is upon asking God to intervene in situations, to bless different persons and people, to heal the sick, to prosper the proclamation of the Gospel, to edify the church(es) and so on.
Further, together with the congregation speaking to the Master as one body and household, each individual member present on the Lord’s Day also offers from within the assembly his own prayers of petition, for this and for that according to need and necessity.
Then, of course, there are the many prayers offered outside the public worship in the family prayers and individual prayers of the members throughout the week.
The Lord’s Prayer itself used many times also includes several wide-ranging petitions—e.g., “thy kingdom come.”
So, all in all, we are imagining here thousands of different prayers in the name of Jesus addressed to God the Father by people in various stages of Christian pilgrimage and maturity. If we could hear and analyze all these petitions and intercessions, perhaps the majority of them would fit into several basic categories—e.g., for healing of the sick, for children to grow up reverencing and loving God, for evangelism and church growth, and so on.
Here, with the hope of taking forward our thinking I want to introduce an ancient collect, rendered from Latin into the traditional English language of prayer.
“O GOD, our Refuge and Strength, who art the author of all devotion; Be ready, we beseech thee, to hear the devout prayers of thy Church; and grant that those things which we ask faithfully we may obtain effectually; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.” [See further, The Book of Common Prayer, 1662, Trinity XXIII]
From this profound, short prayer I want to focus initially on two phrases: “author of all devotion” and “devout prayers.”
All real stirrings of genuine faith, hope and love in our hearts: all desires and intentions to serve, obey, trust, thank and praise God; and all inward and outward movements towards adoration and worship of God are to be traced to God as their source—that is of the Father working through his Spirit in the hearts of his people. Thus God is the “author of all devotion” (or “godliness”) and, of course, he expects his people to work with him in this matter!
“Devout prayers” are prayers that have their origins in the cleansing and renewing work of the Spirit of the Father and of the Son in the souls of his baptized people. Such prayers are of varying kinds but since they are inspired by God we are to believe that they are actually heard by God.
We are now ready to move on now to reflect on the words: “Grant that those things which we ask faithfully we may obtain effectually.” From this petition we are reminded that there are further, important spiritual additions to what we have already noted (that God the author of true devotion hears the prayers of his devout people) in terms of the answering of prayer. Here the two key words are “Grant” and “faithfully.”
The use of the verb “grant” of God the Father makes clear that none of us deserves, or has a right to anything, that we ask for; rather, it is solely in the goodness and wisdom of God to give it out of pure, eternal mercy. This attitude of deep humility in the devout must be a major part of the ethos of their prayer.
“Faithfully” points to prayer that is not only from Christian believers who trust in God through Jesus Christ, but is also a prayer that is characterized by, and filled with, living, dynamic faith—including often an inner conviction that which is asked for is truly God’s will to give.
In this way and by this form of prayer, the church effectively obtains that for which it asks the Father in the Name of the Lord Jesus.
I conclude by making an observation that addresses the real, daily and weekly pastoral situation, within western churches, that we seem to get more “answers” to prayer that are in the “no” and “not yet” category than the “yes” one.
I suggest that we do not make a sufficiently clear distinction in our teaching and practice concerning petitionary/intercessory prayer between (a) devout prayers being heard by God (the emphasis here is upon God hearing them and being pleased to receive them); and (b) devout prayers that are filled with and characterized by faith/trust being not only heard but also answered effectively by the God of all mercy and grace.
Take prayers for healing of the body offered by a congregation, its pastors or a visiting evangelist/healer. Why is it—and this seems to be true in the West at least—that there are, comparatively speaking, so few examples of genuine healings (whether or not modern medicine is involved) and so many examples of disappointed petitioners? Devout prayers are offered and heard by God, we believe, and these please him, but that is all we can be sure about in any given case, unless there is present (as the gift of the Spirit) the genuine, real prayer of humility and faith.
An example of a prayer that was filled with real faith and expectation of an effective answer is found in Acts 12:6 ff. – the story of Peter in prison and his amazing exit as the local church prayed for his release.
Peter Toon Trinity XXII 2008