\”If God is so good and loving, if He\’s really there at all, why didn\’t He answer my prayer?\” This question has been asked by atheists and agnostics and doubters and believers and skeptics and observers and disinterested third-parties alike. For some it presents a serious challenge to their faith, or to the possibility of their having any faith at all.
Your grandmother gets cancer. Your husband\’s job is in jeopardy. Your son\’s puppy goes missing. You pray for a certain outcome: let her be healed, let his job be secure, let Fido come back. These are all good things you\’re asking for, surely nothing that could be displeasing to God.
And yet, your grandmother died, your husband lost his job, and Fido never returned. Why? Why didn\’t God grant you what you asked? You wonder: \”Did I not pray right? Did I not pray enough? Should I have said three Hail Mary prayers and two Our Fathers instead of three Our Fathers and two Hail Mary prayers?\”
In such situations, we are distressed. But our distress lies in the fact that our expectations were based in a faulty conception of prayer, of God, and of our relationship to Him.
Think about it. In these cases we are expecting that a certain input (e.g. prayer) should produce a certain output (e.g. our getting what we prayed for). What do you call a thing that invariably produces certain outputs according to inputs? A machine. It sounds like a vending machine: I put in my prayer coin and ask for E7; I want my Snickers bar. Is that really how we think of God?
God is not a vending machine. Prayer is not currency. Our relationship to God is not of master to machine.
God is not a machine; he is a communion of persons. Prayer is not a form of payment, but the language of a relationship. That relationship, between ourselves and God, is not one of master to machine, but one between persons. It is a relationship of love and not of servility.
God is our creator, and He has made us for Himself. Every desire we have is ultimately a desire for that ultimate goodness and beauty and truth and unity that He is. God knows what is good for all of us in our common human nature (since He designed it) and for each of us as individuals (since He knows us better than we know ourselves). So, God\’s will for me is always going to be for my best.
I might think that winning the lottery and being able to bring comfort to my family would be a good thing, but God knows that without the need for work I would lapse into laziness, both physical and, quite likely, spiritual. I might think that this particular job would be perfect for me, but God knows which would make me happier, or which would challenge me more to grow into the person I ought to be.
This is what prayer is about: discerning the will of God and conforming ourselves to His will. We can still ask for particular things, but there should always be an implicit \”…if it be your will…\” inserted into every request. Our goal should not be to move the Almighty to our point of view, but rather to move ourselves to a God\’s-eye view. As one priest I know has said: \”When we pray, God doesn\’t change; we change.\”
In my prayer, I shouldn\’t be trying to convince God that whatever I want is such a good idea and that if He\’d only think about it He\’d agree–what arrogance! I am the one that needs to be moved.
Remembering this can go a long way toward alleviating our distress in these situations. If we think of God as the Father of Love, the Son our Mediator, the Spirit our Advocate, not as a contraption that\’s supposed to spit out my desired result when I put in enough quarters, we\’ll be more likely to make the right response.
When a person does something you don\’t like or don\’t understand, you ask \”Why?\” and it is perfectly good of us to ask this of God. In doing so, we are seeking to know His will, and to conform our will to His. When a machine does something we don\’t like or don\’t understand, what do we tend to do? We shout at it, and smack it, and kick it, and shake it; we attempt to impose our will on it. This is not how we should interact with God, and doing so isn\’t going to get us too far. (Yes, the Psalmist does occasionally speak rather harshly to God in his questioning, but he always comes around and praises God for His goodness.)
Why doesn\’t God answer some prayers? As my dad says, God answers every prayer, just not always in the way you might want. Or, as Brad Paisley puts it, \”Sometimes the answer is \’No.\’\” Persons can say \”No.\” Machines only say \”Out of Order.\” God is never out of order, but sometimes we are. Prayer puts us back in order.