Johnny, my four-year-old son, put into words what a lot of people believe but won’t say. The other day we were just arriving at home after an outing and Johnny just came out and said, “I think my prayers don’t work or God doesn’t hear my prayers.”
“Why do you say that, Johnny?” Eleanor, my wife, asked.
“Because he leads me in temptation,” Johnny replied matter-of-factly, referring to the line in the Lord’s Prayer – “lead us not into temptation.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I keep praying and praying but every day I’m tempted. Like splashing water in the sink.” (Johnny has had some trouble lately where he spends ten minutes playing in the water in the bathroom sink instead of washing his hands.)
When we recovered from the shock that our four-year-old was doing some decent theological thinking, we had to talk to him a bit and assure him that God does hear his prayers, and that some amount of temptation is just a part of life – that even Jesus experienced it.
But Johnny will have more examples of “unanswered prayer” over time. I have found that the most common ways of responding to that problem are not helpful.
1) “It’s God’s will.” True, some prayers aren’t answered the way we’d like because God has other plans. I could pray to win the lottery and God might know that if I won the lottery I’d become an insufferable materialist (it’s just hypothetical God!) But what about a child dying. What does it mean for that to be God’s will? What about terrorists flying planes into the World Trade Center? Is “God’s will” the right answer there? I don’t think so. At some point, we have to acknowledge that we live in a fallen world and that crummy stuff is going to happen as a result of people’s bad choices and the effects of living in a sin-soaked world.
2) To get around the “God’s will” problem, many people decide that God just can’t be bothered with our affairs. God merely “cries with us.” That is part of what God does, but it’s not sufficient. Now God isn’t powerful anymore. God “can’t” help us. That isn’t biblical! How does that mesh with James 4:2 “You do not have, because you do not ask” or the words of Jesus himself, for example, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” I guess you have to “spiritualize” that. But I don’t read the New Testament that way. I read that we serve a powerful God, indwelt by a powerful Holy Spirit.
3) “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.” I hate that. In much of his teaching on prayer, Jesus tells us to keep coming to God again and again and again. Why would we do that if there’s some simple yes or no answer process? I believe instead that God answers all prayers – sometimes by changing the world and sometimes by changing our hearts. If we keep coming to God long enough, we will stay in conversation with God and in the end, God will either give us what we ask or will change the desires of our hearts to fit with God’s will. That has been my experience. Not that it happens right away. I’ve had things take years before my constant coming to God actually changes my heart. See Luke 11:5-13 and Luke 18:1-8.
If we reject those three statements, we don’t get any easy answers – God wanted it that way, God can’t do anything about that, God said no. We have to deal with the ambiguity and mystery. And it would be unbearable except for one thing… God loves us. God loves us more than we can understand. If we trust that we serve and pray to an infinitely loving God, then it’s easier to live in a world where things don’t work as we think they should. But we’re called to keep coming, to stay in conversation with God, even to wrestle with God! Our God has chosen to be influenced by us – that’s what prayer is – so we might even prevail!
Keep the faith, friends, and trust that the Lord is with us – even in the really painful and messy times. That’s what we plan to teach Johnny as he grows up.