How Do We Know God Hears Our Prayers?

I’ve written in a previous post about what it means to pray the “Psalms of Vengeance.” There I drew upon pastor, theologian, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who reminds us that when we pray those Psalms calling on God to crush enemies, break the arm of the wicked, cast out the unrighteous, and other unsettling petitions, we do so with a deep humility, knowing that we pray in union with the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the only one worthy to utter such prayers in full confidence and know their implications. In Bonhoeffer’s words,

Nowhere do those who pray these psalms want to take revenge into their own hands; they leave vengeance to God alone….  Therefore they must abandon all personal thoughts of revenge and must be free from their own thirst for revenge; otherwise vengeance is not seriously left to God….

…All prayers of the Bible are such prayers which we pray together with Jesus Christ, in which he accompanies us, and through which he brings us into the presence of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in and with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.1

Put differently, we might say that Jesus, in the power of the Spirit, “translates” our prayers, and in this way they become the “prayers of the righteous” which avail before God, as James’ epistle describes it.

But this “translating” takes place not only when praying through the Psalms. It is actually always the case that we are praying in union with Jesus and in the power of the Holy Spirit. And it is for this reason alone that we can be confident that are prayers are appropriate, heard, and honored. As Robert Jenson explains,

“Christians dare address God, however others may do it, only because Jesus permits us to join his prayer, appropriating his unique filial term of address and relying on his fellowship in the prayer. We pray to ‘our Father.’ We pray with the one who, by uniquely addressing God as ‘my Father,’ makes himself the Son, and us as his adoptive sibling’s children, of his Father. Just so, we enter into the living personal community between them, that is, we pray to the Father, with the Son, in the Spirit.”2

What a great comfort it is to pray with such fearlessness, honesty, and confidence. For we are not only permitted to pray with our brother, Jesus Christ, but permitted to pray with vulnerability, precisely in our weakest and darkness moments, when all is stripped away and we are bare, helpless, and hopeless. In these moments, we can rest assured that Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, intercedes for us in prayer even when we do not have the right words, the desire, or the strength to say them aloud. In the words of Romans 8:26, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Commenting on this passage, Karl Barth writes:

“We wait. But because we wait upon God, our waiting is not in vain. We look out. But because we have first been observed, we do not look out into the void. We speak. But because there emerges in our speech that which cannot be uttered, we do not idly prattle. And so also we pray. But because the Spirit makes intercession for us with groanings which – since his groanings must be songs of praise – are beyond our competence, our prayers and groainings are distinct from that groaning which is weakness – and nothing else. The justification of our prayer and the reality of our communion with God are grounded upon the truth that another, the eternal, the Second Man from heaven (1 Cor 15:47), stands before God pre-eminent in power and – in our place.”3

The Holy Spirit is the “comforter” Jesus promises (John 14) by being the person and power which draws us into deeper communion with the Triune God, serving as the guarantee not only of our salvation (Eph 1:14), but also the guarantee of our intimate connection with God through prayer, however pious or impious our prayers may seem. How do we know God hears our prayers? Because the God who loves us radically and unconditionally, apart from our apprehension, volition, or effort, is the same God who gathers us to himself and hears our prayers uttered fluently and clearly in the language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

(1) Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge. Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1970.
(2) Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology Vol 1. Oxford, 1997. p 37.
(3) Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 6th ed. Oxford, p157.

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