unanswered prayerA 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 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?


11 thoughts on “prayer…

  1. “What if” prayer is just a way to convince yourself you are helping people without having to go to the effort of lifting a finger? I think that’s an uncomfortable truth that a lot of Christians are not ready to face about themselves. How often do you hear “I’ll pray for you/him/about it/whatever” rather than direct action to confront the issue at hand. Is the church a community of cowards? Is the use (or misuse) of prayer an enabler of fear or even just purely laziness, apathy or disregard for other human beings?

    1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Lyndon. We too often give over responsibility to God too much of what we should be doing ourselves. We also tend to give over to others too much responsibility for other aspects of our lives (government/police/education…the list goes on). Perhaps what we glean from this is that by nature humans are cowards (survival of the fittest?) and that God calls us out of that cowardice to challenge the status quo? Peter Rollins talks extensively about this in his writings – I’d recommend that you have a look (start with Orthodox Heretic).

  2. I’ve often found “we will pray for you” to be a bit of a cop out, when people don’t know what else to do or say, particularly when they don’t want to do anything else to help. I also get tired of hearing “oh answered prayer” when something goes right, yet no one can explain why it is nothing to do with God when things go wrong.

    I’m new to all this though, well I’m not, I was in the Army for years, but I am new to my own Faith, new to actually wanting a relationship with God. I struggle with the traditional (?) idea of prayer though, asking for help, praying for others. I don’t see results, I don’t know if any prayer was ever answered for me. Who am I to question God though? Perhaps prayer was answered, just not in the way I would have expected. I’m alive, I’m safe, perhaps I wasn’t alone..

    We were taught how to pray with the Lords Prayer, is this a structure all prayers should follow? Personally, I’m more comfortable with meditation and the idea of quietening my mind (when mental health allows) to listening, to being open. Perhaps that is prayer?
    This is a difficult topic, but I welcome you bringing it up,thank you for your posting thoughts on this. I look forward to reading comments from others on this too.

    1. Thanks for getting involved! It’s interesting, isn’t it, that perhaps the right answer is to simply stop and try to listen to that quiet voice. I’ve always been rubbish at doing that. Too much buzzing around in my head…to short an attention span…
      We have to move away from trite answers and embrace the possibility of never knowing – and yet still be seeking. At least that’s my experience so far!

  3. I’ve attitude towards prayer for myself has always been that it’s closer to meditation. I talk to got and ask for his help with a situation and the focused time I spent on that problem usually gives me an answer on what I can do to help myself.
    When I pray for someone else it can sometimes have a similar effect in that I come up with a way that I can help that person. If it’s about a situation that I can’t help of change then I have to just trust. When something doesn’t happen I try to make a note about it. Almost every time that I look over my past notes things have improved in that situation.
    I always feel cynical about whether it helps though. This is probably the old atheist side of my brain trying to burst through still, but it keeps me grounded.

    1. That sounds like a great approach David. I think we are the answer more often than we’re willing to accept?

      Keep that atheist part – it helps cut through the crap at times!

  4. Non-Christian writing here (don’t shoot me down guys!) Reading the post with interest, as ever, Martin. I’ve never really got this whole issue really; I guess I always thought it was kind of obvious that many prayers are counter-acting against the potential prayers of others; eg two soldiers on opposing sides of a war, both prayers can’t be answered! And when someone prays for their relative or friend to be spared, if they are dying, this ignores the regrettable fact of the world, namely that it’s overpopulated. (I’m not belittling anyone’s loss of relatives etc honestly, just want to establish that right away).
    A parent listens to their child but doesn’t always grant their desires, as sometimes it’s not possible, or it’s impractical or it’s not the right thing for them. Perhaps same rules apply? We just don’t like thinking of ourselves as ‘children’ do we!
    Perhaps the prayers are just the wrong ones; rather than ‘save X’s life’, maybe it should be just ‘give me the strength to cope with whatever the outcome might be?’.
    I’ll call it a day there….!

    1. That’s impressively orthodox Christian teaching on prayer Lucy! ;0)

      Seriously though there is a lot of sense in these responses. Unfortunately much of contemporary Christianity is deeply individualised (‘personal’ relationship with Jeezusss) and selfish (“answer my prayer NOW”). Hence the exploration of this culpability of not seeking to be involved in the challenges we see around us, just ‘praying’ about them.

      In other words ‘be the prayer’.

      Thanks for stopping by and for a much needed ‘non-C’ voice.

  5. But what if praying is all you can do. I have spent most of the last three in bed due to having M.E. when I say I pray I do. it is not a cop out. It is really hard when you can think of things that would make your friends and families lives easier but you don’t have the energy or the ability to do it. Sometimes giveing that person or situation to God is all you can do. I have seen answers to pray in this time, I have people who don’t have enough work in there diary been inundated with work. There many others too. But in this time it feels like my biggest pray of god heal me hasn’t been answered yet. Do I still believe God heals Yes, Do I still pray Yes. Do I believe god has heard my prayers Yes, do I always feel like I have been heard No. But my beliefs are built on faith and not feelings.

    I think it is a c.s Lewis quote about prayer doesn’t change god it changes us. When we spend time in gods presence, who he is rubs of on us. And that change in us, changes how we see things , how we feel and sometimes what we feel we can do. I still pray because I believe it changes me, the situation and others. Because prayer is about relationship and not just my shoping list of what I want.

    On the other hand I do believe that God uses us to answer people’s prayers. we do if we can need to have an active faitth and being the solution.

    1. Thanks for a really thought provoking response Mamie. I think what you’re saying doesn’t necessary disagree with what Lyndon and I were exploring earlier on. This IS you getting off your butt as you can’t necessarily do it physically but can spiritually.

      Lots to chew on!

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