Does God really answer prayers? Is the whole business about God simply a coping mechanism for people to get through tough times? While it might be nice, does it really make a difference to believe in God, pray to God, or do what the Bible says? Yes, is my obvious answer, but maybe not in the cliché ways people often expect from a pastor or believer. Here's why...
There is nothing magical about God. Believing in God does not instantly fix your problems. He never promised this. Prayer is misunderstood because many people think it is about asking God to fix our problems. Prayer is about transforming humanity. Often we are our own biggest problem, and prayer helps us to change in the ways most needed. Prayer helps align our motivations, character and decisions with God's. God hears our struggles and often calls us to be part of the solution to those problems.
Elisha the prophet once heard a plea from a woman who was out of options (2 Kings 4:1-7). Her husband died and left her and her sons in debt. Creditors were coming to take her sons into slavery since she could not pay. Elisha, speaking under the inspiration of God, asked her what she had. All she had was a jar of oil. Elisha put her and her sons to work to help solve their problem. He told her to gather as many jars from their neighbors as possible and fill each jar with the oil she had. The oil miraculously multiplied and filled all the jars they brought. While the multiplying oil was a miracle, the gathering of jars and the pouring was simply obedience and hard work. We have to be obedient to what God calls us to do and work hard. This is often how God brings solutions to our lives. The story seems to imply that the oil would have kept flowing as long as they kept bringing more vessels. Only when they stopped bringing vessels did the miracle cease. In other words, we have to do our part and let God do His part.
Faith is not a cost-benefit analysis. The woman obeyed God without knowing how things would turn out. She did not ask Elisha what would happen if she collected the vessels and pour the oil. She did not know exactly what the plan was before she embarked on the journey. This is evident in her choice to ask Elisha what to do after she filled all the vessels. Certainly, she knew the value of all that oil, but considering the miraculous way in which the oil came to her, she dared not to assume what God had planned next. She could have simply gone and sold the oil herself without asking, as this would have been a logical answer to her financial woes. Yet, she understood that since God had brought her to this point, she had better find out where He would take her next. She obeyed the first set of instructions, and then she went back to God for the next step.
Too often, we only want to do God's will if we can see the payoff. We, of course, will assume God is going to answer our prayers in ways that make sense to us. We may assume that God defines success our way. Therefore, we often try to get ahead of Him. Yet, His Word is a lamp unto our feet, and lamps only give you enough light to see the next step or two, not a mile ahead. We cannot always know what the results or payoff will be when we are obedient; we just need to obey and trust what God says.
There is nothing superficial about God. In this story of the widow's oil, the woman had to empty all that she had to experience what God wanted to do in her life. Olive oil was a valuable commodity in the ancient world. She had to pour out her one valuable possession to experience God's blessing. This was a sacrifice and no small thing. God does not call us to a superficial faith. He calls us to put our money where our mouth is.
This woman and her sons had to go to their neighbors to get vessels. This socially indebted them to the neighbors and the community. This was a social risk and put the woman in a humbled position even more than being a widow in that culture. Yet, this is what God told her to do through His word (given by the prophet). The thing God called her to do was not a superficial expression of faith, but a sacrificial expression of faith. She had to sacrifice her oil and put herself in social debt to her community. She did all of this without any guarantee or foreknowledge of how things would turn out. God calls us to authentic faith, not merely superficial platitudes and comfortable expressions. Faith is a surrendered trust.
God's scope is not limited. This woman is able to sell the jars of oil to pay off her debts and enough is left over for her and her sons to live on. Presumably she would have sold some of the jars of oil to the very neighbors from whom she borrowed the vessels. She took from them empty vessels and returned vessels full of value. This miracle not only impacted the woman and her sons, but her whole community. Her debt was not only to the creditors who were on their way, but to the community who gave vessels to her. She likely gave them their vessels back at a discounted rate, which in their culture put the neighbors in social debt to her.
The whole community was impacted by this miracle. While we are not told the lasting impact this story had on the woman and her community, the point is that God impacted them all in the answer to this woman's request. When we pray for solutions to our problems, we need to be aware of how God will impact those around us in the situation. We need to be open to how He will work though and in others in our struggles and blessings to impact others.
God still works in our lives today. I have to include the word "today" in that statement. While we can agree with Bible stories and teaching, in our heart of hearts we do not really believe God still does things like the Bible reports Him doing. The only thing keeping us from experiencing God's work in our lives is our disobedience and lack of trust. If we are willing to trust His leading, we will overflow with testimony of how God has changed our situations and lives, how He has changed us. Yes, He even brings the miraculous into our midst.