Have you ever been surprised in an answer to prayer? Perhaps you prayed for something, and were shocked that it actually happened. In the book of Acts Chapter 12, that exact thing happened. Peter is arrested and the authorities were ready to execute him for preaching the gospel. The Church was still in shock from the death of James, the brother of John. They prayed, (Acts 12:5) but knew Peter was likely headed for the same fate.
Yet, in the middle of the night, like a dream, an angel of God frees Peter from prison and Peter decides to visit a group of Christians who at that moment were praying, probably for his release (Acts 12:12). The servant girl is so shocked he leaves Peter at the door knocking and tells the praying Christians who don’t believe her! (Acts 12:15) When they finally opened the door, Scripture says “they saw him and were amazed.” (Acts 12:16)
There is much to love in this story. First, the humor of Peter showing up and being left knocking at the door. But also, it is amazing to see the church pray for something they seemed not to believe would be answered in the way they desired. Perhaps this shows that the strength of the faith of our prayer is not the factor, but the strength of the One to Whom we pray is what counts! Certainly, God does not always answer us exactly how we want. Jesus prays to avoid the cross if possible, praying “may this cup pass from me” but ultimately submits to His Father, that His Father’s Will be done: “not my will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42) Our prayers, for the sake of our good and God’s glory must sometimes be answered: “no.”
That fact, however, should not lead us to abandoning prayer because it would “not change anything.” God is sovereign, yet still God sovereignly decided that prayer would change things humanly speaking. God loves to use means (our confession of faith even says so! WCF 3.1). God does not have to use the means of his Word to convert, yet God uses that secondary means. God also does not have to use the means of prayer to affect events, yet God ordains the prayers and events of history at times to aid our faith, and even advance the gospel. Stephen prayed for Saul, and Saul was converted. The church prayed for Peter’s release, and Peter was released. Hezekiah prayed not to die, and God gave him 15 more years. God answers prayers, for our benefit, and sometimes intervenes in ways that would be different if not for our prayers because God wills that prayer be the deciding factor. Prayer becomes a means of our peering into the graciousness and mercy of a Father who listens to His beloved children.
One such prayer, that changed all of our lives, was uttered by Christ on the cross. “Father, forgive them.” Although God does not answer all of our prayers “yes” he does answer the prayers that are best for us. We can thank God then for a “no,” such as the Father answered Jesus’ prayer that the cup pass from Him, so that God could answer “yes” to the prayer: “Father, forgive them.”