Expect Beautiful Answers to Prayer

When seeking direction from God, when trying to discern his voice, look for beauty. Don’t go by your own personal definition of beauty, however. Learn, instead, to recognize the beauty of God’s ways. As you do so, there are lessons to draw from creation itself.

A Scientist Looks at the Epistle to the Hebrews

In 2006, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland held a conference titled The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology. (The book based on the conference has the same title.)

John Polkinghorne’s contribution to the conference was a paper titled “A Scientist Looks at the Epistle to the Hebrews.” He began by finding common ground in Hebrews 8, which compares the earthly tabernacle of Moses to the tent not made with human hands, the heavenly version.

Hebrews 8:5 say this about the priests serving in the temple on earth:

They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.”

At first, Polkinghorne suggested, this verse might seem irrelevant to the scientific approach. Scientists are concerned with the observable world, and seek to study it objectively. What interest would they have in the idea of an unseen, perfect pattern that lies behind this reality?

A lot. In fact, this is what physicists have learned to look for. They seek to discover unseen equations, or patterns, that govern the seen world. Furthermore, they have come to expect these equations to have a kind of beauty to them. Polkinghorne explained:

It is a recognised technique of discovery in fundamental physics to seek theories whose mathematical expression is in terms of what the mathematically aware can concur in recognising as beautiful equations. (Mathematical beauty, like most other forms of beauty, is easier to discern than to describe adequately, but it involves qualities such as economy and elegance and what the mathematicians call “being deep”; that is, profound consequences are seen to flow from a seemingly simple initial starting point.) This reliance on mathematical beauty is no aesthetic indulgence on the part of the physicists, for more than three centuries of experience have shown that it is precisely theories with this property that will prove to be the ones whose long-term fruitfulness persuades us that they afford verisimilitudinous accounts of physical reality.[1]

Polkinghorne then gave this example to illustrate the importance that scientists place on mathematical beauty:

Paul Dirac, one of the founding figures of modern quantum theory and undoubtedly the greatest British theoretical physicist of the twentieth century, once said that it is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment! Of course, he did not mean that empirical adequacy was a dispensable property for the physicist. If at first sight the predictions of a theory did not appear to agree with experimental results, that was undoubtedly a setback, but it need not necessarily be fatal. Maybe one had not found the right solution of the equations, or maybe the experiments themselves were wrong – one has seen that happen more than once in physics – so there was still some sort of residual hope. But if your equations were ugly … well, it was evidently hopeless. The whole history of physics testified against the possibility of your being right. Dirac made his own very great discoveries by a lifelong and highly successful quest for mathematical beauty. He once said that it was a very profitable religion to hold.[2]

If scientists can have such confidence in the beauty of math, what about those who know the God behind the math, the builder of the perfect tabernacle? I think we can expect God to answer our prayers with a kind of mathematical beauty. I also think that if we learn to appreciate this kind of beauty, we will get better at recognizing God’s leading and direction in our lives.

With that in mind, let’s take another look at Polkinghorne’s brief description of mathematical beauty.

Three Qualities of Mathematical Beauty

In the quote I shared above, Polkinghorne gives a brief description of mathematical beauty. Here it is again:

…it involves qualities such as economy and elegance and what the mathematicians call “being deep”; that is, profound consequences are seen to flow from a seemingly simple initial starting point.

If God answers our prayers with a kind of mathematical beauty, and I think he does, then these three qualities can help us to recognize his answers when they come.

Economy

Don’t expect God to waste words. Answers to prayer sometimes come by events, sometimes in words. When they come in words, listen for God to speak with an economy of words, and don’t add your own words.

Eve is often given as an illustration of this. In the Garden of Eden, God’s instructions were not to eat the fruit of a certain tree. When the serpent asked Eve what God had said, she told him the instructions were not to eat the fruit or touch the tree. If she had been asked again, maybe she would have said, “And were not supposed to look at it either!”

Eve is just a famous example. We are all subject to the same temptation.

Many answers to prayer involve wordless spiritual perception. People call this by different names: discernment, impressions, being led, a still small voice. God sometimes gives us answers that we put into words—our own words. Herein lies the temptation to elaborate.

Edit instead. Don’t edit God. Edit yourself as an interpreter of the leading of the Spirit.

Don’t misunderstand God’s economy of words, either. He has no shortage of things to say. He doesn’t guard his words like a stingy person guards money. That’s not economy; that’s greed. Instead, look at it this way: As a dancer doesn’t make unnecessary moves, so God doesn’t use unnecessary words. And this brings us to the next quality of mathematical beauty.

Elegance

An elegant mathematical proof is neat and precise. We can say the same about God’s answers to our prayers, whether they come by words, events, or unspeakable spiritual blessings. Look for God to answer you with elegant precision.

It helps if your prayer requests are specific. Know your own need, and make it clear. This will help you to recognize the answer when it comes.

It’s not that God won’t answer general prayers. He will. You can simply say, “Help me, Lord.” He will send help. But will you recognize it when it comes? Praying with precision prepares you to recognize the answer.

Effective Simplicity

Polkinghorne describes mathematical beauty as being deep, by which he means that “profound consequences are seen to flow from a seemingly simple initial starting point.”

Expect this from God.

This is a reason we often miss God’s answers to our prayers. They appear too simple. We are looking for something bigger or more impressive.

Expect answers that seem simple at first. Don’t discard them in search of something more complex. Meet simple commands with simple obedience. Receive simple blessings with simple thanksgiving. You will find an effectiveness in God’s simplicity.

The proof of the answer will be in your obedience to it. That’s when the “profound consequences” will begin to flow.

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[1] Richard Bauckham;Daniel Driver;Trevor Hart;Nathan MacDonald. The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Kindle Locations 1418-1423). Kindle Edition.

[2] Richard Bauckham;Daniel Driver;Trevor Hart;Nathan MacDonald. The Epistle to the Hebrews and Christian Theology (Kindle Locations 1415-1418). Kindle Edition.