I was recently asked in an email whether answered prayer is an indication of God’s will for a particular situation. It was a question that I hadn’t answered before, but I am sure it’s one we all have thought about, so I’m posting my response below:
My first thought in response to your question is: God will never contradict His own moral will, so if He acts to do something, or answers a prayer to bring something about, it would certainly be within His will for you. But then I started thinking more about the question, and I sensed that what you meant was, what if we were praying for something, and it came to pass? Could we take that fact as a sign that it was God’s will that we go in that direction?
The place where I hesitate is: how do we know for sure that God answered the prayer?
For example, say I am praying for a job. I say, “Lord, I really want this job, and I pray that it is in your will to get the job.” The next day, they call me and tell me that I got the job. Did God answer that prayer? It certainly seems likely, but I don’t know for sure. It could be that I was a really good candidate and they loved me. It could be that I was the only candidate. It could be that they took everyone that applied. So if I knew for sure that they were going to pick someone else, and then God intervened and they chose me instead, then I would say, absolutely, that is God’s will and we can see it.
You might be thinking, well, doesn’t God answer prayer through various means? Aren’t those other reasons that you got the job also “answers” to prayer? It depends on your definition of “answer to prayer,” but regardless, we still don’t know for certain that God intervened in some way, so reading into His intention for our lives based on circumstances is very problematic. In fact, we often get ourselves into trouble when we try to discern God’s will based on the circumstances in our life (even though this is one of the most popular — and in my opinion erroneous — teachings found in our churches).
The problem is that we don’t often know for sure what God is doing, or how His providence or allowance might be at work. He is in control in either scenario, but when He merely allows something, it does not mean that He has willed us to do it. He allows us to exercise our free will. We may even make bad choices that are against His will, and He might still allow us to continue through to the end result of those choices. But that does not make it His will for our life.
Think about it this way: I might be driving in my car on my way to rob a bank. On the way there, I am praying, “God, please help me to rob the bank. I hope there is a lot of money there, and I hope that no one gets hurt and they simply give me the money when I get there.” I arrive at the bank, rob them at gunpoint, and it turns out that there really is a lot of money there. They give me lots of money, I leave the bank and no one gets hurt. I’m not even caught. I go home and praise God that He answered my prayer. Did He? It would be very strange to think so, and to think that it was God’s will that I rob banks. That’s why it is so difficult for us to try to discern God’s will by our circumstances. This example may be obvious, but there are so many others that are just as problematic in which random circumstances masquerade as spiritual direction.
So if we knew for sure that it was an answer to prayer, I’d say yes. If we don’t know for sure (which is the case most of the time), we have to remain humble and still confirm that our wise choices are consistent with His moral will as expressed to us in the scriptures.