You would think that prayer is one of the truly simple ideas in the Bible. We have needs, we ask, God supplies. Problem is, it doesn’t always work that way. It would be easier—in a way—if God never answered prayer. Then we would at least know where we stand. We could worship and honor God in song and prayer. Many of the prayers in the Psalms are there solely to praise him. So, if God never answered prayer, our problem would be much simplified. If he answered prayer all the time, our problem would be even easier. Although it is hard to imagine what the world would be like, much less what any one of us would be like, if every prayer of ours was answered.
The Dean of Christian Apologetics, C. S. Lewis, put his finger on it in a short essay titled Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without an Answer. It is those prayers that ask for something of God—prayers that offer a petition—that pose the problem. For sometimes they are answered, sometimes dramatically, sometimes (let’s face it) they are not, and sometimes the answer is,
No. Sometimes they are answered in such a way as to leave a person wondering if God answered the prayer, or if they just got better.
I pray God will forgive me for suggesting that there is what appears almost a random quality in the answers to prayer. Mind you, I am certain that God answers prayers and intervenes in peoples lives. I am just as certain that he doesn’t do it all the time and every time. And I am nearly as certain that we can’t discern the reasons for it. Let’s begin by looking at a curious situation that appears in some manuscripts of the Gospel of John, chapter 5.