“the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.’” - Luke 1:13
In the passage above, the angel Gabriel suddenly appears to Zechariah as he was burning incense in the temple. This was obviously a great shock. Perhaps just as great a shock was the message that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son. Shocking because she was well beyond the age of bearing children. Almost certainly Zechariah had stopped praying for them to have a son. Perhaps he had accepted their barrenness as the will of God and had moved on. It would have made perfect sense not to waste any more time in prayer for this topic. Anyway, it would have been painful to keep praying that same prayer that God had refused to grant month after month, year after year. And yet, Gabriel introduced his stunning news with the statement, “Your prayer has been heard.” Prayer? What prayer? Oh yeah, that one… the same one I prayed for decades and God never answered. The one I gave up praying years ago.
The clear Biblical teaching is that God hears ALL our prayers. All of them. And the equally clear experience we all have is a strong pull to doubt that fact. To give up in prayer because we’ve not heard or seen any evidence whatsoever that our prayers have been heard. And so we tend to give up on some prayers and move on.
That happened to me when it came to praying for Nepal. When I was a college student at MIT, I took a prayer card put out (I think) by Operation World for a certain unreached people group in Nepal. The name of the people group was the “Bhotia Tribe”, and in taking that card I was committing myself to pray on a daily basis for that people to come to faith in Christ. And so, for years and years I was faithful to pray for the Bhotia Tribe of Nepal. I am sure I missed some days in praying for them, but that intercession was a part of my daily quiet time and an important part of the rhythm of my Christian life. What is more, I told God I was willing to go as a missionary to Nepal. It was a rainy, dark night on Mt. Adams in New Hampshire. I had graduated from college and was alone on that mountain. I went out of my tent and knelt in the rain and committed myself to Nepal if God willed. And God heard that prayer too.
But as time passed, God led me in a different direction. I met my wife, Christi, and the opportunity came to go to Japan as missionaries in 1993. Over the many years of praying for Nepal on a daily basis, I had never heard anything back. It was like I was shouting into a dark chasm and never heard an echo. Did my prayers do anything at all? In any case, with a new direction—going to Japan—I stopped praying for the Bhotia tribe and focused my efforts and prayers on Japan. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. But that’s what happened. I never forgot about Nepal… but I had moved on.
Some years ago, I went to some website which spoke of unreached people groups, and I looked up the Bhotia Tribe of Nepal. I was curious what had happened with them. I was shocked and embarrassed to find out that, according to that website, there was no such tribe as the “Bhotia”! I did a little more research and came to the same sad conclusion. It was like I had invested for years in a company that didn’t exist. My prayers were like the letters sent by children to Santa Claus which end up in some bin in the central mail depot of the city. Very disappointing!
Well, one summer, my daughter, Jenny, and I had an opportunity to go to Nepal on a short-term mission trip. We would be trekking in the Lower Mustang area of Nepal. I was excited to reconnect with the country I had prayed for for so long, even if the actual tribe I had prayed for didn’t exist (as I thought). While we were there, we had the extreme joy of meeting and working with a godly Nepali Christian named Shangbu (pronounced “Sang-boo”). He was 34 years old and was our guide and translator as we walked from village to village sharing the gospel. He was a strong Christian with a clear love for Jesus and for the people of Nepal. He and I in particular had a lot of time together and he became my mouthpiece whenever I had an opportunity to preach the gospel.
"What is more, I found out that Shangbu had come to faith in Christ in 1993, the same year I stopped praying for Nepal!"
As Shangbu and I were walking along the trail, the thought popped up in my mind to ask him about the “Bhotia” tribe. I pushed it down, not wanting to experience my disappointment all over again. But the thought persisted. So I asked him, “Shangbu, is there a tribe in Nepal called the ‘Bhotia tribe’?” I was nervous as I asked. I could hardly believe his answer: “Yes, that is my tribe! My last name is ‘Bhote’ and so the word is sometimes ‘Bhotia’ or ‘Bhote’”. He went on to explain it was a more general designation for Nepali Tibetan Buddhists in that same region where we were trekking! In fact, we were at that time sharing the gospel with the Bhotia people! So God had answered my commitment to go to Nepal someday and share with the Bhotia tribe! What is more, I found out that Shangbu had come to faith in Christ in 1993, the same year I stopped praying for Nepal!
I felt both the Lord’s encouragement and conviction. Encouragement: “Andy, I heard every prayer you prayed and I answered them according to my wisdom. Keep praying!! I hear everything, and someday the full effect of your prayers will be obvious to you.” Conviction: “Why then did you doubt and stop praying? In fact, why do you doubt prayer as much as you do?”
At the end of the trip, I asked Shangbu to write out a card with three prayer requests for himself personally and three for his people. I have not missed a day praying for those six requests since then.