In Sunday school I used to teach, I always started with prayer requests. Some were big, some were small. And my seminary-trained brain often dismissed some as just silly. From prayers for weekend plans to remain intact despite oncoming thunderstorms to requests that God delay the birth of a child to the weekend for the sheer convenience of it, I’ve rolled my eyes quite a bit. And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I roll my eyes at myself too.
Whenever the check engine light kicks on in my car, I’ll mutter a prayer that it’s just a leaky vacuum hose that’ll miraculously seal back up in a day or two. Or if my youngest son starts sniffling, I’ll silently entreat the Almighty that, even if everyone else ends up with a cold, he’ll spare me. But then I’ll stop, and in my highfalutin piety, I’ll remind myself that God has much larger priorities in this world than my comfort and convenience.
And that may be true. It may be that my instinctual prayers betray a selfishness in me that I need to address, rather than expect God to buoy up my laziness. But sometimes the Bible offers us glimpses into the character of God that stop me up short.
There once was a widow who had no money. She had two young boys who ate like, well, boys and could hardly afford to keep food on the table. To make matters worse, she was also in debt. The world had been unkind to the poor woman, taking not only her husband but also leaving her in the lurch for lunch money.
So she did the only thing she could think to do. She went to God. Well, not precisely to God, but she went to God’s prophet. We have the story in the book of 2 Kings 4. The woman approached Elisha—renowned prophet of God who’d single-handedly toppled dynasties and defeated entire armies—and begged for help.
I’ve read the story a dozen times and taught it in the same strange-prayer-generating Sunday school class I mentioned earlier. But it wasn’t until recently that something caught my attention. The woman’s problem is a small thing. Sure, she was in trouble. She was afraid the creditors whom she owed money would take her sons to work off the debt. It was an understandable fear, but one that wasn’t entirely justified.
The Israelite legal system allowed for the paying off of debts through labor. God set up those laws through Moses. It wasn’t ideal but it wasn’t inherently wrong either. But for the woman—whose name we’re never given—it was a big deal. Her husband had been a prophet, a servant of God. He’d not been wealthy by any measure (even in the Old Testament, ministry wasn’t a high-paying career). She stood to lose the two people she had left.
Now, Sunday-school-teacher-me would be tempted to say that sometimes that’s how life goes. Sometimes we have to endure hard things. Sometimes we have to be willing to trust God through the tough times. Sometimes we have to recognize that our convenience and our comfort and our control isn’t as important as our loyalty to God.
But the woman in the story did none of that. Instead she goes to God through his prophet and asks for help. And God answers her through Elisha. The prophet who summoned legions of angels to fight world powers and who healed lepers by word of his mouth didn’t dismiss her request as petty or lame.
Instead, he stopped and gave her directions and performed a miracle (2 Kings 4:1–7). In obedience she went and filled bucket after bucket of oil from a small vial—enough to pay her debts and live on with her sons.
The story ends there. The author of 2 Kings moves on to other stories of Elisha and the nameless widow fades into the background. But the inclusion of that small-but-big answered prayer challenges me to reconsider how I think about the God we serve.
What if God does care about the small things in my life? What if does want to—sometimes—step in a solve a seemingly insignificant part of my seemingly insignificant life in an over-the-top way? What if God’s love drives him to want to answer his children’s prayers extravagantly?
If the widow in 2 Kings sat in my Sunday school class and prayed that God would somehow cancel her debts so her sons didn’t have to go work them off, I’m not sure how I’d respond. My American do-it-yourself-ness would likely scoff, but God didn’t. God simply said, “Okay.”
Because God has compassion on his people. He sees us in the whole mess of our lives where the obedience is mixed in with the selfishness and sometimes he says, “Okay. I’ll do it.” And when he does, those are the answered prayers that most show his kindness and compassion. The ones that don’t seem necessary or important. The prayers he answers just because he can. Who am I to tell him he can’t?