Do you want a window into the secret fantasies of man? Then peer into the pages of our fiction and fables to see what we deeply desire. If you want an example of this, then look no further than the myriad of characters we have created who can grant us our wishes.
At some base level, all humanity wants things to be done our way and on our timetable. That is why from our childhood onward, we have been told stories of people who can grant us our wishes. Take Santa Claus for instance. The appeal of this round mound of holiday cheer is that he hears our requests then brings us what we want on Christmas morning. There is something about that story that resonates with children (and adults) everywhere. If you are a good little boy or girl throughout the year, then you can expect to get what you want for Christmas. Another example of this is the famous “genie in a bottle.” The story goes that some Persian lamps contain ancient genies who will grant their masters every wish . . . no questions asked. Sure, the limit to the genie is usually only three wishes, but we can all imagine a lot that we might acquire within those three wishes! Physical and financial limitations keep us from having everything we think we want and that frustrates us. So our stories contain characters that can circumvent that reality and meet our every longing.
Because our childhood has been a breeding ground for these fantasies, a part of each of us is awakened when we read in God’s Word that “Ask and it will be given to you . . . (Luke 11:9).” Because of our innate longing to have our desires realized, we are drawn to this passage and others like it with a hope that prayer to the God of the universe might deliver what our childhood storylines could only promise. But our experience many times is at odds with our perception of this verse. All of us have prayed for things before that have not yet turned into reality. This may have left you and me wondering if a prayer answering God is actually real, or if He is just another part of our childhood fantasies. And if He is real, how might we expect Him to respond to our believing prayers?
In answering that question, we must first identify the failed notions of answered requests that are the residue of our childhood fantasies. God is not Santa Claus. Thank God for that. Santa Claus only responds to the requests that he is able to fill. For instance, we allow little Johnny to ask for a toy truck made of plastic or wood because those can be produced in Santa’s workshop, but Johnny is not allowed to ask for a real Ford F-150, for we all know that those are made in Detroit, not the North Pole. In other words, Santa has limitations on the things he is able to provide. Thankfully our God is not like that. There is no arena of life where God cannot act. He can work in areas of physical needs as well as spiritual and emotional needs.
Also, God is not like a genie in a bottle. Thank God for that. The genie of our mythology has a fatal flaw. The genie can only grant that which has been requested of him, even if granting that request will result in harm to the recipient. The genie is not intelligent, it simply is powerful and that combination is never a good thing. In granting the requests, the genie is limited to the imagination and thoughts of its master. God however, has both unlimited power and unlimited intelligence. He is not limited to answering just the specifics of our requests, but He can see beyond the specifics of our request to grant us what we really need.
Realizing how God is better than our childhood myths, we can now approach Him in prayer and thankfully, the Bible has given us several great case studies that give us insight into how God answers our prayers. One of those case studies is found in Acts 12:5-17. In this story, Peter has been arrested and is awaiting execution at the hands of King Herod. The situation is even more dire when we know that Herod had just put to death the apostle James. In the course of just a few days, the early church was faced with the harsh reality that two of their key leaders might be martyred. So what do they do? Acts 12:5 tells us that “the church was earnestly praying to God for him (Peter).” The church in Jerusalem was gathered at Mary’s (the mother of John Mark) house and was praying fervently for Peter. What do you think their specific requests were? The Scripture does not tell us exactly but we can certainly imagine that they might have been praying for God to spare Peter’s life. They might have been praying for his boldness to share the gospel. They could have been praying for King Herod to release him the following morning. They could have been praying for his physical comfort. We do not know for sure. But whatever they were praying, God heard their prayers and was moved to action.
With great detail, Luke tells us how God went to work to free Peter from a very dangerous position. Luke tells us that Peter was guarded by 16 soldiers. He was shackled in chains, and kept in a dark prison cell behind a series of locked doors. None of these limitations, however, were enough to stop the living God from freeing His servant and answering the prayers of His people. Peter is led by an angel past the guards, through the doors and out into the city streets. Before Peter knew it, he was standing outside Mary’s house, knocking on the door and eager to join the prayer meeting for His release! God had answered their prayers. However, what happens next gives us a clue as to the way in which God answers their prayers . . . and ours. Acts 12:13-16 tells it this way, “Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed, she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, ‘Peter is at the door!’ ‘You’re out of your mind,’ they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, ‘It must be his angel.’ But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished.” I believe that this account gives us a good bit of insight into the exact prayers that the people had for Peter. I don’t think that the people were praying specifically that Peter would be let out in the middle of the night, past the guards and through the locked gates. If they had been praying that, then they would have been much more receptive to the possibility that Peter might have been at the door. Instead, they ignored his presence and went back to praying! Only when Peter knocks a second time do they welcome him in!
This account gives me great hope and encouragement in my prayer life. First of all, it informs me that God is not like Santa Claus, only answering the requests that he is capable to fill. God is not limited by anything. Chains, guards, locked doors, and angry kings could not restrict the plans of the Living God. This gives me great hope in my prayer life. It lets me know that there is nothing I can pray for that is beyond the scope of God’s power. No illness is too deadly, no relationship is too fractured, and no opposition is too severe for our God. I can take all things before God in prayer because He is able to work in all areas.
Furthermore, God is also not like a genie in a bottle. He did not merely give them what they asked for, He gave them something better! In the words of Ephesians 3:20, God granted them “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.” He did not comfort Peter, he freed him. God was not contained by the limited knowledge of the Jerusalem believers. He did not do what was good, He did what was best! That gives me great confidence as I approach God in prayer. I do not have to be paralyzed in prayer, fearing that I will pray for the wrong thing before God and be stuck with the consequences of a prayer gone wrong. Whatever the specifics of my prayer, I can rejoice knowing that God will work the best in this situation, not simply taking orders from my limited perspective. God was not limited by the specifics of their requests. He is not limited by ours either.
So we have seen that God does answer prayers, and that He is fully able to do abundantly beyond all the believers could ask or imagine. But why does God not answer all requests in this fashion? In the book of Acts alone, Stephen is martyred in the streets and James was put to death by the sword. Why does God spare the life of one and not the other? Is He only answering some of the prayers? The answer to this question goes back to the heart of the difference between Santa Claus, the genie, and the Living God. In our fantasies, Santa and the genie exist to serve us as master. The Living God exists to be our Master. . . and He knows what is best. As a believer in Jesus Christ, we now have a new desire to be a part of God’s unfolding plan. Prayer is something God has graciously created to help us to participate in that plan.