Christian writer and scholar Karen Swallow Prior posted a recent Twitter thread about a wonderfully answered prayer. After praying to God for specific and pointed encouragement during a difficult time of grief, she found a note taped to the tray table of her airplane seat: a letter of encouragement written and left there by someone she did not know.
I love these stories. Of late, I also find that they leave me particularly reflective.
Growing up as a child, God’s presence in these signs seemed like a daily occurrence for everyone I knew. All the people at my church, my mother and my grandmothers, they all had a story like Prior’s of a time when God clearly, visibly, miraculously answered a prayer or gave an astonishing grace.
Checks from nowhere appeared in the mail after a devastating debt wiped out family savings. The dark spot on a scan disappeared. God spoke through clear and visible signs to those desperate for His help to identify the right spouse, the right house, the right job. He provided assistance through strangers at airports and in the mall, at groceries stores and gas stations, and sometimes right on the front doorstep.
And I can testify to these miracles and answered prayers because I, too, have experienced them.
God literally changed the requirements of a scholarship so that I could receive it to get into the college that changed my life and eventually led me to my Ph.D. He has intervened through strangers and unmistakable events to make His presence known, to guide me, to answer a desperate prayer.
But I would be a liar if I told you those things happened frequently, or that any of them had happened recently.
In spite of my prayers, in spite of the prayers of many, grievous things have occurred. There have been times that I, like Prior, have prayed desperately for specific and pointed encouragement, and did not receive a letter on a tray table. Some prayers go unanswered. One particular spiritual issue, on which I have begged for pointed guidance from God, remains as uncertain as ever it was.
This is not new. This is not surprising. In Scripture, while Christ healed many, we must assume that others were left unhealed. Some still lingered, I presume, by the pool at Bethesda. Under his hands some regained sight and had demons cast away—but likely there were others who did not. I do not know if every martyred Christian, like Stephen, had the beneficence of seeing the heavens open and the Son of Man at the right hand of God.
But this isn’t a depressing thought. Or it doesn’t have to be.
First: I think it’s important that people like Prior, like me, like friends and family I know, share these miraculous stories and answers to prayer when they happen. It’s an encouragement, a praise to be shared, a reminder of God’s presence and His love. When I read her Twitter thread, I thought, “That’s the God I know!”
But we also can, and should, normalize not having these moments: must remember and must share that even if God is not working it out so that encouragement letters are taped to your tray table, He still loves you and cares and is active and present—and is still working miracles, and answering prayers.
Prior says it best in her thread: “Never in my life in all my travels has this happened. And (almost) never in my life have I received the very specific message I needed today.” This intervention is lovely to her because it is unusual, rare, special. She makes it clear that this doesn’t happen for her every day and that she doesn’t expect it to happen every day.
But I think our lives in a culture heavily influenced by the prosperity gospel and secular ideas of merit have led many of us to believe, even if in a sidelong way, that the good Christian life and the good believer ought to be regularly experiencing these sorts of things. That if God isn’t showing up personally to answer your question, identifying which way to turn when you come to decisive crossroads moments, and intervening in shocking ways to answer prayer then He’s either not present or you’ve done something horribly wrong.
That’s not true. But look. I know what it’s like, to feel that God’s not playing ball.
I know exactly what it is to have a sad day and to want that tray-table letter and not to get it. I know exactly what it is to believe that God can remove the dark spot on the scan only to discover that for whatever reason, it is still there and has spread. I know exactly what it is to ask God for guidance on a matter that I think He finds important, to hear nothing, and then have a friend tell me God showed her the perfect church.
I know exactly what it is to, like the prodigal’s brother, watch these glorious miraculous interventions of God and then ask, plaintively, “But what about me? What’s my love to you worth? Where’s my tray table letter?”
Still, I suspect the answer lives somewhere in the way we think about prayers, and grace, and God.
A story I’ve heard goes something like this: an atheist meets a monk. He observes the monk at his prayers and, after, asks incredulously, “Do you really think all that prayer’s doing anything?”
The monk considers. “Brother, you are here and alive, and I am here and alive, and the earth is solid beneath our feet. We’re both breathing. Do you really think it’s not?”
I’ve always gotten a kick out of that notion: that the fervent prayers of God’s people are, somehow, holding the world together, that God’s grace and a thousand answered prayers are manifest in the fact that we’re even still here, speaking, looking at each other. But the story is a good reminder too that prayers are answered in ways we can’t fathom—or ways we outright ignore—or ways we devalue.
When my mother was very ill, and when she died, I kept begging God for help.
Help help help, I begged. Do something. Do anything. If you had asked me then, I’d have said my prayers were going unanswered. Mom stayed sick. I stayed miserable. We all stayed sad. Mom didn’t walk into the hospital and come out with a clear scan. And on my neighborhood walks, as much as I wished it, a perfect stranger didn’t stop me to suddenly deliver a word of comfort from the Lord that hit me like a lightning bolt.
What happened instead was this:
Mom left behind letters, loving ones, to all of the family. And she left instructions: step-by-step letters about every single solitary aspect of her loss that guided us through what would have otherwise been a bewildering and devastating process.
I stayed with my dad for a week after the funeral, and we ate banana splits and watched TV, and learned we still knew how to laugh and give hugs.
My job allowed me the flexibility and the time off to do everything I needed to do.
Somehow, Christmas was still Christmas, even if it was different.
I didn’t experience those things at the time as the hand of God. Didn’t think that it was the Holy Spirit nudging Mom to leave guidance to make it bearable, who pulled back the hurt enough for us to laugh, who provided for all of my external needs so I could focus on sadness and grieving. Who gave us joy when we didn’t think we could have it.
But God was busy. And He is every day, and we are all blessed.
We breathe, we eat. Many of us have food, homes, families who are well. We walk and play. We open the door to a home we own. We can call long-distance family. Tragedies have been averted that we’ll never know about. We have avoided failures, hurts, and sorrows we cannot have imagined for ourselves. We have the right to approach the throne of God whenever we please and to ask for whatever we want. We have God’s attention and affection. We laugh. We find moments of joy in the day. We feel a beautiful breeze. Marriages endure and children grow healthily and happily.
These are the miracles. These are the wonders. These are the answered prayers that we don’t bother to pray because we approach them with a sort of expectation. So it’s not that God isn’t providing wonders, necessarily, so much as that we aren’t attuned to the wonders that are already present. And then, being numb to then, we grow frustrated when there aren’t notes taped to our tray tables and strangers delivering a vital word to us on street corners.
All this to say that I don’t know where you are. Maybe like Prior you have definitely, obviously, miraculously and fantastically heard a word from the Lord or received a critical answer to prayer. Maybe nothing has happened and you’re still asking. Maybe everything seems quiet.
God is speaking, regardless.
God is working, regardless.
But we can fall out of tune, and so can our expectations. Let’s be mindful, where we can.