If the quarter lands heads five times in a row first, it means we should break up. If tails five times in a row, we should not.
It was an anguished prayer. My girlfriend and I had been dating a few months, and the way forward was a fog. Desperate to know God’s will for our relationship, I turned to a coin in my pocket.
Heads. Heads. Heads. Tails. Sigh. Tails. Tails. Heads.
I was a new Christian, gripped by the Bible’s stories of miraculous answers to prayer — and eager for my own. If God answered prayers with seas parting, armies fleeing, fire falling, and prison doors opening, couldn’t he answer me with a flipping George Washington?
I kept at it for a while longer, each flip shoveling another handful of disappointment over my half-buried hopes. I gave up.
You may have never looked for answers to prayer in a quarter; it’s certainly been a long time since I have. But I wonder if you share an assumption that inspired my flip-a-coin prayer — an assumption that still subtly shapes my own expectations for how God relates to us.
Here’s the assumption: in real, bona fide answers to prayer, we are more like spectators than actors. In other words, we expect answers to prayer to feel something like a fireworks display: we pray, take our seats, and then enjoy the show. We all know (or have experienced) stories that follow this pattern. You pray for healing, and the tumor vanishes overnight. You ask for financial provision, and an anonymous envelope appears in your mailbox. You beg for wisdom, and three people offer you the same unsolicited counsel.
And, of course, Scripture brims with spectacular answers to prayer. Moses prays in the wilderness, and water bursts from the rock (Exodus 17:4–6). Hezekiah cries out for deliverance, and Assyria’s 185,000 keel over dead (2 Kings 19:14–35). The early church pleads for Peter’s release, and the chains fall off his hands (Acts 12:1–11).
Sometimes God bares his mighty arm so powerfully that the world gropes for an explanation.
God’s Answers in Our Acting
But what about when you pray and the tumor disappears through three rounds of chemo? Or when financial provision comes after weeks of scouring the web, looking for a new job? Or when you discern your next steps by researching the options and consulting a mentor? Is God somehow less involved in these answers?
David didn’t think so. At the beginning of his reign, he asks God to “bless the house of your servant, so that it may continue forever before you” (2 Samuel 7:29). The answer to that prayer, as the next chapter shows, was not a fireworks display. David did not sit back and watch God destroy his enemies. Instead, “David defeated the Philistines and subdued them” (2 Samuel 8:1); “he defeated Moab” (2 Samuel 8:2); “David had defeated the whole army of Hadadezer” (2 Samuel 8:9).
David prayed for help, and then he picked up his sword and went to war.
But then David wrote Psalm 18, a fifty-verse celebration of God’s answer to his prayers for deliverance. He sings, “I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies” (Psalm 18:3). According to David, it was God who “sent out his arrows and scattered them” (Psalm 18:14); it was God who “rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me” (Psalm 18:17).
What’s going on here? Did God defeat these enemies, or did David? The answer, of course, is both. David acted one hundred percent, and God answered one hundred percent. God did not answer David’s prayer apart from David’s acting; he answered through David’s acting.
I Did It, God Did It
If you’re like me, you may hesitate to sing a psalm of praise when God answers your prayers this way. In your small group or with friends, you wish you could share some real, spectacular answer to prayer — some story of how God acted totally apart from anything you did. But for David, God’s answering through our acting is already real and spectacular. Why do we struggle to see it that way?
In Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis gives one reason:
We profanely assume that divine and human action exclude one another like the actions of two fellow-creatures so that “God did this” and “I did this” cannot both be true of the same act except in the sense that each contributed a share. (50)
We sometimes assume that more of our involvement in an answer to prayer means less of God’s involvement. If we contribute seventy percent toward an answer to prayer, then God only contributes thirty percent. But David and the other biblical authors believed they could act one hundred percent and still praise God for answering one hundred percent.
If someone asked David, “Who won those battles?” he could sincerely say, “I won them.” But he wouldn’t waste a breath before adding, “But I’d prefer to say God won them. It’s God who equipped me with strength (Psalm 18:32), who trained my hands for war (Psalm 18:34), and who made my enemies sink under me (Psalm 18:39).”
When David fought and won the battles, he knew God was answering his prayer. And he thought that kind of answer to prayer was so magnificent it deserved worship.
Let Go, Get Going
So when we pray, we do not let go and let God. Rather, we let go and get going. We let go of the burden by admitting our weakness and trusting a specific promise from God, and then we get going by doing whatever needs to happen for our part.
We pray for opportunities to share the gospel, and then we go knock on our neighbor’s door. We plead for strength to resist lustful temptation, and then we text or call a friend. We beg God to guide us with some hard decision, and then we do not flip a coin, but we research, seek counsel, and think hard.
And then, when God answers in our acting, we make a big deal about it. We marvel that the living God is at work in us both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:13). We praise him for equipping us with everything good to do his will (Hebrews 13:21). We tell “the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation” (Psalm 40:9).
Answered prayer is more than fireworks. It’s also the thrilling experience of God’s answering in our acting. Both types of answered prayer require God’s supernatural help, both demonstrate his power, and both call for celebration (Psalm 126:2).