Incredulous Prayer – Answered Unanswered Prayers

We’ve been considering the topic of unanswered prayer.  Why does God not answer our prayers?  We’ve seen many reasons the Bible gives for this: God answers the prayers of his children, prayers prayed according to his will, prayers prayed in faith, and so on.  We’ve also seen that some prayers are answered “Yes!,” but we don’t see the fruit of those prayers yet.  We’ve seen instances of prayers answered only after many askings, sometimes in order to teach us greater faith.

Today we consider another example of unanswered prayer: the prayers we consider unanswered but have actually been answered.  How can such a thing be?  Sometimes we receive what we ask for, but our hardness of heart prevents us from seeing the answer to prayer as an answer to prayer.  Perhaps we pray for healing, and our loved one is healed and we say, “Wow!  Lucky they found the right antibiotic!”  One classic example of an answered unanswered prayer is seen in the narrative of Acts 12.

This story is a particularly dark hour in the life of the early church.  After Pentecost, the church had made a glorious advance.  3,000 were converted in Peter’s Pentecost sermon (Acts 2).  Another 2,000 were added in another great sermon in the Temple (Acts 3).  These two miracles together show a new feeding of the 5,000 miracle – souls feasting on the good news of Christ’s salvation, rather than bread.  Not only conversion, but beautiful community, service, generosity were seen among these early believers, as well as faithful preaching and prayer.

But…the good times didn’t last.  Persecution broke out against the church.  Stephen was seized and stoned (Acts 7), and the attack came to the apostles themselves in Acts 12 – James son of Zebedee (one of Jesus’ three closest apostles) was beheaded by the megalomaniacal king Herod Agrippa I, and Peter himself was imprisoned with plans for his execution.

What would you do if this kind of persecution befell you or someone you dearly loved?  I expect you would do what the church of Jerusalem did.  You would pray.  What else could you do?  You would pray, “Lord, save Peter!  Deliver him from bondage!  Don’t let evil reign!  Set Peter free!  Let him rejoin us!”

And God heard the prayers of his people!  While they were having their extended prayer meeting in the home of John Mark, an angel showed up and freed Peter from his bonds.  Peter makes his way to John Mark’s house and knocks on the door.

No doubt it struck the diligent pray-ers as very rude for someone to knock repeatedly on the door while they were trying to focus on the work of prayer for their imprisoned brother.  They sent the servant girl Rhoda to see what was up.  She comes to the door and hears the voice of…Peter.

But…it couldn’t be Peter.  Peter is in prison.  So Rhoda runs away from…this person who sounds just like Peter.  Rhoda stumbles confusedly back to the prayer meeting.  “Who was at the door, Rhoda?”

“Some guy who sounds just like Peter!”  she says.  But no one believes it could be Peter.  Peter is in prison.  That’s what they were just praying about! – for God to move (miraculously if necessary) to set Peter free from prison.  So it can’t be Peter at the door.  “It must be his angel!” they assert.  Now, I don’t know what kind of theology this statement expresses – the Bible doesn’t provide any teaching about angelic doppelgangers who wander around knocking on the doors of prayer meetings.  It does clearly teach that God hears and answers prayers.

Eventually someone has the good sense to go and open the door and let this deutero-Peter inside.  When they do so they eventually come to the conclusion (despite their lingering reluctance) that it is, in fact, Peter himself in the flesh.

This story is at once humorous and very, very sad.

The whole thing is funny – imagine Peter beating on the door while these people look at each other debating on whether or not it’s Peter’s “angel.”

But the story is also sad.  The very thing that they had asked for had been given, but…they didn’t believe it!  What they asked God to do God did, but they were unable to accept it.  People often try to play off faith vs. reason.  Yet in reality we often persist in unbelief despite overwhelming empirical and rational evidence.  We are hard of heart.

God’s answers are forthcoming, but we fail to believe.  The problem isn’t God’s failure to hear and answer, but our failure to see and believe.