'Ask, and it will be given to you'
God’s answers deal with the what and the how and the when. And the how can surprise us.
We often stopped praying because the outcome seems decided, because too many days or months or years have passed. Many a time, the doctor’s report, or the negativity around us keep us from hearing Jesus say, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7)? Discouragements and distractions, which come in many kinds and ways, often keep us from praying. But there are certain things in life that will not change unless we kneel and plead with our Father in heaven.
When Jesus says, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer (Mark 9:29),” he knew so from personal and persistent experience. Some oppression will not lift without prayer. Some wounds will not heal without prayer. Some trials will not end without prayer. Some sins will not die without prayer. Some relationships will not mend without prayer. Some things will not change— things we desperately want to change— unless we consistently and persistently humble ourselves, kneel, and plead with our Father in heaven. The all-wise, all-loving, all-powerful God has chosen to do much in the world through our prayers, because prayer is part of his precious relationship with his children and exalts him as the listening and answering God.
In one of the great tragedies in all of Scripture, David’s son Absalom has exploited his father’s love and conspired against him. Now the rebellion has grown strong, and David is left with no option but to flee Jerusalem in hopes of living to fight another day (2 Samuel 15:14). As he retreats, weeping as he goes, barefoot, with his head covered in shame, it gets worse. He learns that his most prized advisor, Ahithophel — whose counsel “was as if one consulted the word of God” (2 Samuel 16:23) — has joined Absalom! (2 Samuel 15:12). Yet in this most desperate of moments, when David could have crumbled, or wallowed in self-pity, his reflex is Godward. He breathes up a prayer: O Lord, please turn the counsel of Ahithophel into foolishness. (2 Samuel 15:31)
Humanly speaking, David’s prayer seems utterly unlikely, if not impossible. None was wiser than Ahithophel. One might as well ask for the sun to stand still as to pray for Ahithophel’s wise counsel to turn into folly. Yet these are the very moments for which God has given us prayer! He opens his ear to his people. Not for calling down more comforts for an already cushy existence, but precisely for the times when life and death are at stake.
Prayer is not an exercise in naming ahead of time what already seems to be the natural course of action. Prayer is not for making an educated guess out loud to God about what seems to be unfolding already. And it’s certainly not for advising God as to how things should go, as if he needed a counsellor (Romans 11:33–34). Rather, prayer is for turning the tide, for changing the seeming course of history. Prayer is for desperate times and dire moments, when we’re backed in a corner — when humanly speaking, the desired outcome, and what seems to be our last chance, is painfully unlikely to unfold. Prayer is for God to intervene because without the interruptive fingers of Providence reaching down into the details to disturb what seems to be, from our vantage, the natural course of action, we are doomed. But if he is God, and if he is listening, and if he acts, then we have a fighting chance. Cause and effect do not carry the day. God does. So, David prays.
No sooner has David prayed than Hushai the Archite, who is loyal to David, meets him with torn coat and dirt on his head in mourning (2 Samuel 15:32). David has prayed for Ahithophel’s counsel to turn sour, but now David also acts in faith. He sends Hushai to feign fealty to Absalom, serve as a spy, and perhaps even “defeat for me the counsel of Ahithophel” (2 Samuel 15:34).
Hushai goes, and like Ahithophel, is received into Absalom’s conspiracy. One of the first orders of business is whether to chase David down and overtake him as he retreats. Ahithophel speaks first: “Pursue David tonight . . . while he is weary and discouraged” (2 Samuel 17:1–2). Per normal, this is wise counsel. “And the advice seemed right in the eyes of Absalom and all the elders of Israel” (2 Samuel 17:4). The great sage has spoken, and this looks like a done deal. And such will spell the end of David — were it not for Hushai, who then speaks: “This time the counsel that Ahithophel has given is not good,” says the mole. He then paints David not as the weak and discouraged man that he is, but as mighty, enraged, and expert in war. And God does the unthinkable: he turns the hearts of Absalom and all the men of Israel to say, “The counsel of Hushai the Archite is better than the counsel of Ahithophel.(vv14)” What!? This is a stunning turn of events. An impossibility, apart from God. Only God himself can turn the hearts like this. And so, 2 Samuel 17:14 adds the explanation, “For the Lord had ordained to defeat (frustrate) the good counsel of Ahithophel, so that the Lord might bring harm upon Absalom.” No one could have seen this coming. Even David did not at the time of his prayer. Hushai’s deceptive word carries the day, the dominoes begin to fall, and it soon means the end of Absalom, and salvation for David.
David prayed one seemingly impossible prayer, took a modest step in faith, and trusted God to work salvation for him. And God answered him in a way different and better than he had asked. In his commentary on 2 Samuel, Dale Ralph Davis observes, ―No sooner does [David] pray than Yahweh begins to answer his prayer — and that in a way no scriptwriter could have guessed. Our prayers deal with the what; God’s answers deal with the what and the how and the when. And the how can surprise us.‖
Our God delights to free us from being the author of our own stories of salvation. When we pray, it is not our job to foresee how God might bring out the rescue and lay out the details for him, even as often as it is our instinct to do precisely this. Fortunately, even as we try to counsel him, our Father in heaven is patient. He endures our folly. But he also wants to free us from feeling we need to give him directions.
Prayer can turn the tide and change the seeming course of history. Our Father loves to hear our requests, and outdo them. God loves to answer better than we ask. He knows. “Your Father knows” (Luke 12:30). We do not. “We do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26). His judgments are unsearchable; his ways, inscrutable (Romans 11:33) — which is all the more reason to ask him.
So, what hasn’t yet changed in your life because you haven’t yet prayed? Just pray!