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Yes, Virginia, God Answers Prayer

July 20, 2016

We may pray most when we say the least, and we may pray least when we say the most.” St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430)

The most reprinted newspaper editorial of all time was written to eight year old Virginia O’Hanlon in response to her letter to the editor of the New York Sun newspaper in September, 1897, asking whether Santa Claus exists. The newspaper’s response was “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.”

At one time or another, we all ask: “Does God hear our prayers, and if so, does he answer them?” We have the same problems that Virginia had: our culture and friends tell us that because no one has ever seen God, he doesn’t exist; and even if he exists, he doesn’t listen to us or answer our prayers. But unlike Santa Claus, God is real.

The Scripture texts for Sunday show us that God not only listens to our prayers, but he wants us to engage in conversation with him.[1] Abraham participated in such a conversation with God; he came back to God six times to ask him not to destroy the city if a fewer number of righteous people could be found. Each time, God agreed. (Genesis 18:22-33).

This lesson is emphasized by Walter Wangerin, Jr.:“Prayer is communication. We talk with God, not just to him . . . the complete prayer is made up of four acts, four discrete parts, two of which are ours, two or which are God’s . . . First, we speak, while second, God listens. Third, God speaks, while fourth, we listen. If we initiate the first act, God will respond with the second. That is sure and certain. So is the third act absolutely certain to follow the first two, because God’s love promises to speak to us by a Word. . . . But if we have never learned the fourth, if we are too impatient to perform the fourth act, too demanding . . . to watch and wait upon the Lord, then we will never even know that the second and third acts have been accomplished. Without our truly listening, prayer seems to have failed because communication, remaining incomplete, did in fact fail. Learn the circle. Trust in God to listen and to speak, and our own listening will follow as easily as the eyes of a child follow her father.” (Wangerin, Whole Prayer: Speaking and Listening to God, (1998) Zondervan, p. 29). If Abraham had not stopped to listen for God’s response, there wouldn’t have been a conversation.

The gospel lesson gives another example of the importance of the persistence shown by Abraham in the Old Testament lesson. Jesus tells us to be bold and persistent in coming to the Father with our needs, and promises that “Everyone who asks receives; he who seeks find; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”(Luke 11:10).

God wants to guide us in our journey through life. Paul tells us to “walk in him rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (Colossians 2:6-7). We walk with Christ by seeking his guidance, by talking to him. I learned the ACTS approach to prayer—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication—many years ago. But I have recently been reminded of the importance of the thanksgiving component of prayer. When you approach God with a thankful heart, many of life’s challenges result in blessings that far outweigh the challenges. Sarah Young, speaking in Jesus’ voice, says it best: “Thanking Me for trials will feel awkward and contrived at first. But if you persist, your thankful words, prayed in faith will eventually make a difference in your heart. Thankfulness awakens you to My Presence which overshadows all your problems.” (Young, Jesus Calling (2004) Thomas Nelson, p. 181). This is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn–the conversion of anxiety into peace by approaching God with a thankful heart in all circumstances.

Often we think that God hasn’t answered a prayer because the outcome of a problem is not the one we wanted or prayed for. But to presume that we know the best solution to our problems is like a large piece of marble saying to Michelangelo “Use me to create a statue of a bug” when he had David in mind. We need to remember that our minds are puny compared to God’s, and we can’t even imagine how he will use us if we pray “your will be done.” Jesus’ gospel lesson on prayer is recounted by Matthew and Mark as well as by Luke. My study Bible notes that Luke 11:2 (“your kingdom come”) is sometimes translated at “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Most churches follow the Matthew 6:10 version, “your kingdom come, your will be done.”

Father Robert Spitzer writes that “Without a doubt, the most important prayer of all is ‘Thy will be done’. . . If you cannot remember any other prayer, default to this one. Why? Because the will of God is optimally loving, optimally good, optimally just, and [saving] . . . and when the will of God is working through you, you become an instrument of His optimally loving, good, just, and [saving] will in the world; you become the agent of a legacy that will last into eternity . . . If we give our problems over to God by praying, ‘Thy will be done,’ He will bring good for us, others, the community, the culture and His kingdom out of the most bizarre tragic desolate, angering, hurtful, fearful, tempting, and confusing dimensions of our lives.” (Spitzer, Five Pillars of the Spiritual Life: A Practical Guide to Prayer for Active People (2008) Ignatius Press, p. 36).

God will hear our prayers if we turn to him often, persistently seeking his guidance and turning our lives over to him by praying “your will be done,”and thanking him in all circumstances. In her book The Celtic Way of Prayer, Esther de Waal tells us that “The Celtic way of prayer was learned from the monasteries; it was from its religious communities that the people learned to pray. As a result, they learned that there was no separation of praying and living; praying and living flow into each other, so that life is to be punctuated by prayer.” (de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer, (1997) Image Books, Doubleday, p. xi.). We need to reclaim the Celtic approach to prayer and make prayer a part of everything that we do. Brother Lawrence suggests that we turn to God before we begin any task—however menial—and ask him for his help. If we do this we will begin a lifelong conversation with the creator of the universe, and we will be able to answer with authority from our own experience: “Yes, Virginia, God does answer prayer.”

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan


[1] The Scripture texts for the tenth Sunday after Pentecost are Psalm 138; Genesis 18:20-33; Colossians 2:6-15; and Luke 11: 1-13.

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