The Scottish minister Robert Murray M’Cheyne (d. 1843) offers four important insights on various ways God answers our prayers. In his Fourth Pastoral Letter, titled “God the answerer of prayer,” M’Cheyne writes:
First, God often gives the very thing his children ask at the very time they ask it.
Second, God often delays the answer to prayer for wise reasons.
Third, God often answers prayer by terrible things.
Fourth, God sometimes answers prayer by giving something better than we ask.
The third one really struck me. He says:
Third, God often answers prayer by terrible things. So David says in Ps. 65: “By terrible things in righteousness wilt Thou answer us, O God of our salvation.” And all of you who are God’s children have found it true. Some of you have experienced what John Newton did when he wrote that beautiful hymn, “I asked the Lord that I might grow.” You prayed with all your heart, “Lord, increase my faith.” In answer to this, God has shown you the misery of your connection with Adam. He has revealed the hell that is in your heart. You are amazed, confounded, abashed. You cry, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” You cleave to a Saviour God with a thousand times greater anxiety. Your faith is increased. Your prayer is answered by terrible things. Some of us prayed for a praying spirit, “Lord, teach us to pray.” God has laid affliction upon us. Waves and billows go over us. We cry out of the depths. Being afflicted, we pray. He has granted our heart’s desire. Our prayer is answered by terrible things.
Read the whole thing here.
Reflecting on this third response, here is the hymn from John Newton that M’Cheyne mentions. There is much here for us.
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”