The Pleasure and the Puzzle of Prayer

By Mark D. Roberts

August 14, 2023

Scripture — Isaiah 38:4-6 (NRSV)

Then the word of the LORD came to Isaiah: “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the LORD, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.”


We will never fully understand why God answers our prayers in the way God does, this side of Heaven, at any rate. Yet we continue to pray, trusting that God knows what is best even if we can’t figure out God’s ways.


As Isaiah 38 begins, King Hezekiah was deathly ill (38:1). In fact, Isaiah came to him with a word from the Lord that Hezekiah would soon die. In response to this bad news, Hezekiah prayed, reminding God of Hezekiah’s own faithfulness. Then Hezekiah wept bitterly.

After this tearful prayer, Isaiah brought a new message. God was going to add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s life! Moreover, God would soon rescue him and Jerusalem from the Assyrians. What fantastic news! How glad Hezekiah must have been and his people along with him.

This story portrays vividly both the pleasure and the puzzle of prayer. God healed Hezekiah, doing that which required supernatural power, in response to Hezekiah’s supplication. This is the pleasure of prayer, when God does wonders because we have prayed. The puzzle comes from the fact that God’s answers to prayer often seem mysterious, even unreasonable. In verse 1 the Lord told Hezekiah through Isaiah that he was going to die soon. Yet, in verse 5, after Hezekiah prayed, God promised to heal him. Why this change in plans? Why did God say one thing yet do another? Moreover, why did God choose 15 as the magic number? Why not give Hezekiah 10 more years? Or 20? Or 30? The answer to these questions is simple: we don’t know. And that can be frustrating.

If you are a person who prays, you have surely experienced both the pleasure and the puzzle of prayer. In a way we will never fully understand, the Sovereign God allows us to participate in the unfolding of God’s own will. Thus, when we pray, we submit to God’s will and, at the same time, tell God what we’d like God to do. Mysteriously and graciously, God receives our counsel and acts upon our requests. Sometimes God says “Yes” in stunning and delightful ways. Sometimes God says “No” in ways that feel puzzling and disappointing. Often God says, “Wait,” which can give us hope sometimes and discouragement at other times.

We will never fully understand why God answers our prayers in the way God does, this side of Heaven, at any rate. Yet we continue to pray, trusting that God knows what is best even if we can’t figure out God’s ways. Later in Isaiah the Lord will underscore our lack of understanding of the divine will: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).


When have you experienced the pleasure of prayer?

How do you respond to the puzzle of prayer?


Talk with a wise friend or your small group about your various experiences of prayer.


Gracious God, your ways are wonderful. And your ways are perplexing. You are sovereign over all things. Yet you listen to our prayers, somehow working them into your plans for the universe. I expect we’ll never quite understand this mystery, at least this side of the age to come. Yet, in faith, we pray, just like Hezekiah. We pray because you’ve told us to do it. We pray because we’ve experienced the power of prayer. We pray because we believe that you take our prayers seriously. We pray because, as we do, we draw near to you, sensing your presence and receiving your peace.

Dear Lord, may I pray with greater faith, greater hope, and greater wisdom. May I submit myself to you as I pray, offering all that I am for your purposes. And, even when I tell you what I want you to do, may I be guided by your Spirit to pray according to your will. Amen.

Banner image by Hans Peter Gauster on Unsplash.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the High Calling archive, hosted by the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: When Prayer Is Hard, Hang in There!.

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Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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