Prayers and Providence

“I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. May the God of peace be with you all. Amen” (Romans 15:30-33 ESV).

Providence Answers According to God’s Will

We ask according to our will. God’s answers according to his will. Providence is a theological word for how God works in our world; the circumstances and events of our lives. Providence is the expression of God’s will in our daily lives. Paul asked for one thing, but providence gave him something very different.

What happened? Paul takes the gift to Jerusalem. We are not told, but presumably all went well with the church. However, it didn’t go well with the Jewish unbelievers. He went to the temple to worship. A mob scene ensued. He was nearly killed. The Roman cohort saved his life. A plot to kill him was uncovered, and he went by massive armed guard to Caesarea. There he was jailed for two years. Then he appealed to Caesar and his voyage at sea was on par with Moby Dick or Robinson Crusoe. He nearly died. He was shipwrecked. Many other challenges. Finally, he makes it to Rome and spends two more years under house arrest.

Did God answer his prayer to get to Rome and be refreshed by the Christians there? Yeesss, kinda. Eventually. But certainly not the way he hoped for and prayed for.

This is where prayer has to be properly understood or you give up praying. We think the purpose of prayer is get God to do what we want. There is a part of prayer in which God encourages us to ask him for things in prayer. “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2-3). Does prayer change things? From one human perspective, the answer is yes.

As long as we also understand that God’s will is the final say. Isn’t this what Jesus taught the disciples to pray? Your kingdom come; your will be done. My youngest daughter often prays the Lord’s prayer for us as our prayer before a meal. She sometimes gets a little confused and prays, Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. My kingdom come, my will be done on earth as it is in heaven. At least she’s honest. And if we were honest, in our hearts, that is what we are hoping for. We want our will to be God’s will. But then when providence doesn’t answer the way we want, we think we lack faith, or that God didn’t hear us, or prayer is useless.

Was Paul bitter at God for not providing smooth sailing to Rome? No. And we see why here, “so that by God’s will I may come to you” (Romans 15:32). Here is where prayer helps us. True prayer wants my will to align with God’s will. Did God answer the prayer of Paul? For a couple years it didn’t feel like it. Which day or month in the Cesarean jail did Paul think, God, I’m an apostle. There’s so much I could be doing instead of sitting here in this jail. Why didn’t you answer my prayer? I could have been planting churches in Spain right now.

But even Paul’s prayer request included, if it be God’s will. And I’m urging as a church to hold these truths in tension. Pray as if prayer moves the hand of God. And when God moves in a way different from what we want, embrace God’s will as being better than our own. Your kingdom come; your will be done.

How many of us could overcome long-term bitterness in our lives if we truly believed God’s will is better than ours? Even Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would take the terrible cup of the cross away from him. He added, “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Do we find a bitter Savior on the cross? Jesus on the cross and Paul in prison. A messiah and an apostle experiencing providence different from their prayers. Yet they prayed. What did Jesus continue to do on the cross? He prayed! “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46).

Dear brothers and sisters, we do not know the future, and all of us want smooth sailing to Rome. Prayer doesn’t align God with me. It aligns me with God, and since God’s will determines my life, prayer quiets my fears and submits my will to my heavenly Father. A will which Paul describes in Romans 12:2, as good, pleasing, and perfect.

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth, in my day, in this week, and in my life as it is gloriously and perfectly done in heaven. Amen.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2021 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

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