A week or so ago I posted about the desire to explore big questions and asked for some ideas on where to start. Some brave souls responded via twitter and facebook, suggesting some real toughies to get our teeth into.
So…I’m going to start with prayer. Nice. Simple. Erm…
Put simply, the question is that of the problem of evil – if God is all-loving, all-powerful and all-knowing then why doesn’t he answer prayer?
There are lots of good answers given by good people:
- God wants you to take action for yourself
- your prayer will be answered in God’s time, not yours
- the lack of an immediate answer is God developing your patience
- you ask for x and God gives you a chance to be/do x and thus develop it
- the answer is ‘no’
- your prayer conflicts with God’s bigger plan for that person/situation
There are also some spectacularly rubbish answers too (with good, solid biblical references!):
- you didn’t have enough faith (erm…faith as small as a mustard seed…?)
- your prayer was too selfish (erm…selfish for needing help in the first place…?)
- your sins get in the way of God answering prayer (erm…let he without sin cast the first stone…?)
We could also turn to some really important Bible passages for answers – Jesus telling us that if we ask, God will answer (who gives stones to a friend who asks for bread?) or that with sufficient faith we could move mountains. There are plenty more – but there are also plenty of places in the Bible where prayers clearly aren’t answered and the authors wrestle with the feelings of abandonment left by this.
Indeed, this is the problem – if our prayers aren’t answered we might be led to a place where we no longer want to believe in this supposedly omni-everything God. We may become deeply angry with God, feel utterly abandoned and unwilling to participate in a one-way relationship where we spend our lives worshipping and praying and never get anything back.
So where do we go with this?
We’re left with incredible tension between those prayers that are answered and those which aren’t. Prayers for healing, prayers for success, prayers for blessing, prayers for survival. Only last week I saw via facebook stories of miracles happening at a Christian teaching week. Verifiable miracles that can’t be explained away dismissively using scientific reasoning.
Is it some great cosmic game of chance or coincidence where ‘miracles’ happen because statistically something like that might just happen every once in a while? Or a game of russian roulette where if we keep praying enough one of our prayers might just be answered.
I know people who have this going on – they pray for something, it doesn’t happen – they accept that this is God’s will and move onto the next thing. Just because doesn’t answer one prayer doesn’t mean he won’t answer others – so you just keep on ploughing onwards, faithfully interceding.
But what about those who pray for protection and, quite simply, aren’t protected? What about those whose prayers are backed up with their own physical action and yet still nothing? So many possible ‘what abouts…?’
There are also stories in the Bible where humans seem to be able to persuade God to change his mind (Abraham/Moses etc.) and go against the original plan. Remarkably, God is shown up as being less merciful than his human followers!
It’s interesting that when Jesus teaches his followers to pray (the ‘Lord’s Prayer’) he starts with the idea of God’s kingdom coming, of God’s will being done on Earth as it is in heaven. He begins with this radical centring, of putting our own needs and interests after those that will benefit the whole universe. We then move onto our own needs and motivation (‘give us today our daily bread…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…lead us not into temptation and deliver from evil’) before ending on the same note as the beginning (‘for yours is the kingdom…’).
As I’ve explored other religions in my professional life as a teacher of Religious Education I’ve noticed how often the focus of ‘prayer’ is about this idea of centring, or getting our lives in line with the Divine. Seeking to follow the same rhythm, to be ‘at one’ with the universe. Does this wisdom that seems to be common throughout the traditions and across history have something to teach us?
Have we become enslaved by the idea of prayer as a ‘wish list’? Where we have a need for something and we go to God, where we absolve our own responsibility and perhaps embrace a fatalism that says ‘we can’t do anything about it, so why not try God’? Again, I know many who turn this around and say that we must first go to God before trying to do anything ourselves, quoting Moses’ ‘Lord, if you don’t go with us, we’re not going anywhere’ (excuse the paraphrasing!).
Perhaps we have tried to cage God in, tried to make him be our slave by creating prayer formulas that he ‘must’ answer (prayer of Jabez anyone?!). Perhaps we’re trying to tame the untameable? Perhaps we’re missing the point entirely and we need a whole new theology of prayer.
All of this is good – but does it answer the original problem, the big question? Why doesn’t God answer prayer? I suppose the easy way out – which echoes much of my experience of faith – is that I don’t know, and that I’m okay with not knowing. But at the same time I’m not okay with this. I’m not okay that people pray and hear or experience nothing in return, then get told that the nothingness in itself is an answer. I’m not okay that people feel abandoned. I’m not ok that people are pushed into a cycle of guilt, trying to eradicate the ‘sin’ that stops prayer from being answered.
What if God’s big plan is to cut out perceived ‘dependency’ on God and to embrace our own potential as world changers? What if the secret is that we do indeed contain within all our own answers? What if God wants, no, needs us to get off our bottoms to do something about the things we will only pray about without wanting to get our hands dirty? What if that was the whole point of the biblical narrative arch, of God weaning children from milk to solids? What if now God wants that golden rule (‘do unto others as you would have done unto you’) or that greatest commandment (‘love others as you love yourself’) to guide us instead of seeking divine intervention all the time?
What if our prayers for healing actually fall into the trap of focusing on the here and now of physical existence and not on the eternity that is playing out all around us? What if the glimpses we see around us of answered prayers are glimpses of that eternity in action, showing us the potential of ‘your kingdom come’ as opposed to prayers which seek to evacuate us from the reality of human suffering? What if the massive strides forward in medicine and technology were gifts to humanity rather than opportunities to make massive amounts of money?
What if every unanswered prayer is a place where we didn’t (as in the human race) step up to our responsibilities to each other? What if greed and arrogance and bitterness and shallowness and, well, humanity is the problem, rather than divinity? What if we’ve just got our understanding of how the rules work all wrong?
What if our job is to hold God accountable to those promises littered throughout the Bible? What if we are supposed to get angry with God? What if we are meant to remind God what love and grace actually looks like?
Does this let God off the hook too much?
I don’t really know what I’m suggesting here. I’m just wrestling really.
I’m not trying to do God out of a job (or perhaps even responsibility) here. I’m not suggesting God’s not omni-everything, even if I do think that even this concept perhaps in some way comes up short when trying to figure God out. I suppose I would come back to the point that if God wants to, then God can. Or likewise, if God doesn’t want to, then God doesn’t have to. Paul writing to the Romans sums that view up by saying ‘who can know the mind of God?’. It’s embracing uncertainty yet again.
Do I still pray? Yes, but not as I once did. I seem to have lost that vocabulary, that language. But I do sense the importance of a rhythm that connects with God, that aligns my mind and my will with God’s. It’s as if I need to see the world from God’s perspective (that of love and grace) and then act as a response to that view.
Ok. Deep breath.
What do you think?