As Christians, we often talk about the power of prayer. We tell friends, "I'm praying for you" - and sometimes we actually do. We encourage one another with scripture about praying. We record prayer requests, keep prayer journals, and read books on the "Power of a Praying Fill-in-the-Blank".
But do we really get that God answers prayers? Do we grasp that our prayers can change the outcome, can avert tragedy?
Don't get me wrong - God is sovereign and maybe He would have done what He would have done regardless of our prayers. I don't know.
I do know that there have been a few times when God has answered my prayers so powerfully, so immediately, and so clearly that I am simply awed by the realization. I'm stunned by the thought that the God of the Universe, who spoke the world into being, heard our heartfelt cries and met our need.
One of those times was about a year ago - when a tornado swept through our neighborhood while my husband and two young sons were at home. As my oldest daughter and I prayed that God would "change the path of the storm and protect our family," the tornado ripped the empty house across the street off of its foundation and tossed it into the street and then hopped over our house causing no major structural damage.
This week was another example of how God hears and answers our prayers. My father, who is 73 and has had more than his share of medical problems in the past, went to Duke Hospital on Monday for major back surgery. The surgery went according to plans and he seemed to be recovering well the first 24 hours. But as the second day progressed, he developed a complication which is not uncommon following surgery - his digestive system stopped working properly. By Thursday, he was not able to keep any food down and they needed to place a tube to extract the contents of his stomach. Unfortunately, his very strong gag reflex made this nearly impossible and in the midst of their efforts, his vitals dropped drastically. They moved him to ICU, where they could sedate him and get the tube in place.
Within an hour, they called and said the doctor wanted to speak with us. They brought us into a small, private conference room and within a few minutes the doctor and half a dozen other staff members came in, introduced themselves and launched into their explanation. The bottom line was that they believed my father's bowels were perforated, ruptured or necrotic (the tissue was dying). The only means to determine or correct this would be to do emergency exploratory surgery; however, his vitals were so bad, they did not know if he would survive the surgery. They estimated he had a 10-15% chance of surviving and there was a strong possibility that if they got in and found what they anticipated, they might have to simply close him up and let us say our good-byes. I'm thankful to say I've never before had doctors present so grim a prognosis and I hope I never do again.
My younger brother, my mother and I were the only ones there and they said they could give us just a minute with him before surgery - essentially to say good-bye in case he didn't make it through the surgery.
As we hovered by his bedside for no more than a minute or two, I laid my hand on his stomach and prayed. For the doctors - wisdom, skill and discernment. For my father - strength and determination to fight. For my family - strength and faith to trust and praise God regardless of the outcome.
We adjourned back to the 'bad news room' - our private conference room, where we were to be left alone to wait for news. Of course, by this time, I had posted on facebook and mobilized a virtual army of prayer warriors on dad's behalf. My older brother and his wife as well as my own husband arrived. Randy led us in prayer shortly afterward and then, before going into surgery, the doctor stepped in for just a moment to offer the first glimmer of hope. Dad's vitals had strengthened - just a bit. Still critical, but it was an improvement.
An hour or so later, the doctor returned to tell us that their worst fears were unfounded. There was no perforation, no necrosis. Although Dad was still very ill, his numbers were improving. Two days later (Saturday evening) and he is no longer on a ventilator, he's conscious and seems to be out of the woods. He still has a long recovery and rehabilitation for the original back surgery as well as recovery from the exploratory surgery, but God answered all our prayers.
I know that prayers aren't always answered in the way we hope. I know there are times that despite our fervent prayers - joined with the prayers of friends and family around the world - loved ones die. Bad things do happen. I certainly don't believe for one moment that anything about us made our prayers special, made God hear them more, or made them more effective.
This isn't a how-to guide.
But we will never know what prayer God may answer if we never ask. We will never know if our prayer might have made the difference if we never pray it. If we face an impossible situation and we don't pray, we will be forever haunted by the possibility that our prayers would have made all the difference.
"You have not, because you ask not."
Lord, help me to remember your powerful answer to our prayers. Each time a friend shares a prayer request, help me to pray diligently for them. Help me to remember that "the fervent prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective." Thank you, Lord, that you do hear our prayers. That you do answer.