Sunday, January 22, 2012

Unanswered prayer

In response to my earlier post, What is Prayer, a reader queried: “Might it be that petitionary prayer is one of the means by which God gives what we need? Jesus seems to acknowledge as much - ‘Ask, and you will receive’ and ‘You have not because you ask not’?” (Matthew 21:22; John 16:24)

Unanswered prayer poses real difficulties for believers and offers opportunities for non-believers to challenge the faithful.

For example, why do Christians ever die of famine, thirst, or easily treatable diseases? If Christians rightly understand the gospel’s record of Jesus’ teaching on prayer (we do not have because we do not ask) in a simple, straightforward manner, then hungry, thirsty, and sick Christians would never die from any of those causes; food, drink, and healthcare are all needed for life. Similarly, early Christians would not have died as martyrs (at least most of them); assuredly they prayed, as had Jesus, for it not to be their time to die.

One resolution of the apparent contradiction between the gospel’s promise of answered prayer and observing Christians dying because they lack what is needed is that God, for God's reasons, wills the death of those individuals. It is their time to die. I find this impossible to accept. God does not give life to watch humans suffer; dying from hunger, thirst, and treatable diseases are all horrible, easily avoided deaths.

Another resolution of the apparent contradiction is to recognize that God works in only certain ways in the world. Perhaps God in the act of creation surrendered some of God's omnipotence to empower God's creatures. The book of James seems open to this: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on pleasures.” (James 4:3) Perhaps God refrains from acting to preserve space for human autonomy. I find this latter option impossible to accept. Surely, a loving God who could act would do so in the face of massive human suffering.

Another possible resolution lies in living with an unanswered question, acknowledging that God's ways are not human ways and therefore unfathomable. I’m too intellectually curious and alive to find any satisfaction in this option, though I readily admit that my speculations and theological musings may not have moved in the correct direction.

Yet another possible resolution lies in contextualizing the gospel record of Jesus’ teaching that people do not have because they do not ask. Perhaps the teaching applies only to those things that people can expect God to provide and not to those things that people should provide. The reason that Christians (and others!) die of hunger, thirst, and easily treatable diseases is that God's people have failed to exercise proper care and responsibility for one another.

Encountering God in prayer is real. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to conceptualize prayer as if God were a heavenly vending machine: deposit the right number of prayers, correctly phrased, with the appropriate ardor, and God will deliver what one asks. Life repeatedly demonstrates that prayer does not function in that manner.

There are no easy answers to the problem of unanswered prayer. But ignoring the problem, or denying that the problem exists, makes religion less credible and deprives the believer of an opportunity to plumb the depths of the mystery that is God.

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