Sometimes life takes us by surprise.
As pastors and wives we are well-familiar with surprises because we often walk with people through those hard ones—that unexpected phone call that gives the shocking news of untimely death or serious accident or a moral failure. What is usually the first thing we do as ministers or as a church when those events happen?
We gather the church to pray. We pray. We pray with the people facing the surprising circumstances and then we wait for God to work.
So why is it, then, when He does work, that we are also surprised? Maybe it’s because He doesn’t always answer our prayers the way we expect (check out my article Prayer with No Results on that topic). And maybe we are sometimes just weary of being too often disappointed so that we give up hope that He will work in miraculous ways.
Still…we half-heartedly pray because we know it’s the right thing to do. Or we do pray with fervency too fearful to hope that the best or even better conclusion could play out.
The early church knew what it was like to pray. I imagine those early believers struggled with all of these emotions, too, from duty-directed prayers to fervent, hopeful but not quite believing ones.
One example in the history of the early church strikes me in particular. God was doing all kinds of miracles and signs through the apostles as confirmation of the truth of the good news of Jesus Christ. They proclaimed this good word with courage but faced opposition, too. The religious leaders filled with jealousy often put them in prison to try to silence them (see Acts 5:12-18).
Of course this didn’t work; they couldn’t help speaking about what they’d seen and heard. Peter especially was outspoken in his proclamation to the point that Herod decided to put him in prison to please those jealous Jews (see Acts 12:1-3).
Suddenly life had taken him and the church by surprise. Or maybe not so much. Going to prison for their bold stand had become commonplace, but whether or not it was a surprise this time, they did what we often do. The church gathered together to pray for Peter. Fervently. (see Acts 12:4-5).
We don’t know how long he was there as they prayed for him, but the exact night when Herod was going to bring Peter forward, God sent an angel who said “Get up!”. At that exact moment his chains fell off from the two guards to which he was chained, and the angel walked him right out of the prison.
Even Peter was surprised after he’d passed the first and second guards and reached the iron gate outside the prison. After all, the gates opened by themselves! Then he and the angel walked out onto the street when the angel suddenly left.
What?! Peter was surprised. He thought he had seen a vision, but God had used the angel to take him right out of a situation that was humanly impossible. Surprise!
Meanwhile…the church was still praying fervently for Peter. Knowing that they were all concerned for him, and surely excited to share his story with them, he went straight to the prayer meeting at Mary’s house (Acts 12:12).
When he knocked on the door and the servant girl Rhoda answered, she was now the one who was surprised! So much so that she ran back to the others without even opening the gate for Peter. While she argued with the others over the craziness of her assertion that Peter was there, he kept knocking on the door. You have to wonder if he was getting a bit nervous, wondering if the guards might come after him soon if he didn’t get safely hidden inside.
Finally the others opened the door, and they were amazed. Surprised. Shocked.
They prayed. They’d seen God do so many miracles already through their very hands and words, and yet…they still were amazed at what He had done.
Numerous times in our pastoral ministry we have seen God answer prayers in amazing ways. Young men healing from serious accidents with few or no repercussions. God providing just the right job opportunities and money to pay outstanding bills at just the right time and place.
He still is a God who likes to surprise us as we pray. I’m glad that He doesn’t stop surprising us even when we fail to believe. And maybe, we’d find ourselves pleasantly, wonderfully, amazingly surprised if we all prayed a little more.
So…next time God surprises you by prayer. Turn that surprise into praise.
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