We had only been there for a few minutes when a sudden movement of my cold left hand sent my loose engagement ring sliding effortlessly from my finger. Time seemed to stop briefly as it paused in mid air before sinking into the sand without a trace.

What was I to do? I knew for certain the ring must be buried in front of me but was scared to move for fear of losing the right spot in the featureless sand. If we had a colander, maybe we could try sifting the sand in the hope of coming across the ring? Sifting Manly Beach with a colander and a child's spade was an ambitious project indeed but, under the circumstances, there seemed to be no alternative.

We gathered the girls around and each of us prayed that God would help us find the ring. Then my friend left to search for the colanders, triumphantly returning a short while later with two-- quite an accomplishment in a seaside shopping area.

We made a grid pattern in the sand in front of where I was sitting and then carefully "spaded" each square into the colander before the girls took the sifted sand away. Despite a new prayer being said with just about every spadeful, square after square was carefully searched with nothing more valuable than an old drink can being found.

This whole procedure was taking forever and, being midwinter, the sun was soon dropping low in the western sky. What else could we do? I simply couldn't walk off the beach and leave my ring there. But we had looked everywhere and found nothing. Why wasn't God answering our prayers?

Noticing a movement nearby, we looked up from our sifting to find a curious man approaching us with his wife and teenage children trailing behind him. When he spoke, we knew at once that he was an American. He told us he was attending a conference at a nearby hotel, then asked if sifting sand was a traditional Australian beach activity. Of course, we told him the whole sad story, adding that it would soon be dark and the ring would be lost forever.

He seemed a kind man who obviously wanted to help but what could he do that we hadn't already tried? "I'm a Christian," he announced, "would you mind if I prayed about it?"

Of course we didn't mind--but we had just spent four hours praying exactly the same prayer. Would God answer his prayer when He had studiously refused to answer ours? The nice man drew his family around us and we all prayed together. Then as we watched, he bent over, slid his hand into the cool sand and lifted it up so we could see what was there. In the middle of his hand, surrounded by a few grains of sand, was my engagement ring.

What joy! What excitement! After teary hugs of thanks and cheery goodbyes, I stopped and thought. What exactly did he have that we didn't? After all, we had been praying for hours and hours. How come God answered his prayer but didn't answer mine?

It took awhile to work it out. It was all to do with where we were looking. I was so sure the ring had flown forward when it slipped from my finger that it didn't occur to me that it could have gone in any other direction. In fact, it had somehow landed behind me. We could have looked forever and never found it but God knew where it was. He guided this Christian man onto the beach to the patch of sand where it lay hidden--to the first handful he picked up.

Even when we are determinedly on the wrong track, God is still there, working things out for us.

If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. Jeremiah 29:13.

Elizabeth Yap is married with two teenage daughters and lives in Sydney, New South Wales.