Unanswered prayer: a thorn in theology’s side

Every branch of knowledge has its ongoing problems. Philosophy has the free-will problem, economics has the gambler’s fallacy, physics has the problem of why there are three space dimensions but only one time dimension. Sociology, mathematics, astronomy – they all have a proverbial thorn in their respective sides.

Theology is no different; it has its thorns as well. One of them is the problem of prayer. If God exists and knows all things, why pray at all? Won’t he do the good thing, whether I ask him or not? And more troublesome still, if I ask him to do a thing that is clearly good – heal a child of some awful disease, for example – why does he sometimes not do it?

I ran into the problem of prayer not long after I became a Christian. My grandfather, who lived five doors down, was dying. I had spent many Friday nights at his house, and spent many Saturday mornings watching westerns with him on TV. But my grandfather didn’t just watch westerns, he was a western. He was born in the Indian Territory in 1889, the year of the Oklahoma Land Rush. He rode horses and worked the oil fields and followed the harvest. He had fired my imagination and filled my young mind with images of the old west.

And in 1973 he was dying. I prayed earnestly that God would heal him but he didn’t and I couldn’t understand why. A few years later when our first son was born prematurely, his lung collapsed and he was moved to the neo-natal unit of a larger hospital. When I asked his doctor if he would be alright, he answered: “I can’t tell you that.” I prayed earnestly again, and our son recovered and grew into a strong, intelligent and kind man.

Why answer one request and not the other? And why, if a request is clearly meant to bring good – to land a job that will pay the bills, or to overthrow the dictator who kills innocent men, women and children – does God sometimes refuse to answer?

It would be silly to think that I could solve a problem over which thoughtful men and women have puzzled for generations in the space of a column. I hope rather to point in the direction of some possible answers, for those who care to explore further on their own.

The problem of unanswered prayer might be somewhat alleviated by considering God’s purpose for making a world in which people experience need and are compelled to pray. Answers may not be all – or even primarily – what God is after. The chief benefit of prayer might be that it brings God’s children into communication with the Father who loves them and wants them to know and love him.

That idea that God is a father is also helpful. If we only talk about prayer in religious or metaphysical terms, its simplicity and value remain hidden from us. As soon as we realize that prayer is a child’s request to a loving Father, a new outlook on prayer becomes possible. When a child asks a parent for something he or she really wants, even a good thing like a snack, the loving parent may say no because there are other goods the child needs more at the time.

A child may ask for five dollars to go the matinee. The movie may be a good one, but dad says no because there is a better good to be had. He may be building the child’s confidence and self-esteem by having him earn his spending money. While the movie is a good that might last for two hours, a work ethic is a good that can last a lifetime.

A loving father cares about his child’s entire life, not just one incident, and so sometimes he refuses a heartfelt request. This was the Apostle Paul’s experience. He repeatedly asked for relief from a terrible burden, and God repeatedly said no. Yet he gave him another and greater good that helped him bear the burden, a gift the apostle did not ask for, but came to cherish.

As soon as we see prayer as a request from a child to his or her father, we realize how likely it is that Father knows things and longs for things that his child cannot yet understand. Sure, he will sometimes say no; not because he doesn’t care, but because he does.

First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 1/24/15

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2 Responses to Unanswered prayer: a thorn in theology’s side

  1. Tim Pennings says:

    Why write a column giving the same Sunday Schools answers that never satisfied in the first place? The way to understand unanswered prayer is to think of God as being a father? Really?

    Instead of giving all of the obvious answers to that, let me request that we be adults for just a couple minutes. Let’s not be afraid to ask hard questions. Here it is: Why assume that there is a personal God who is answering prayer in the first place? Are you able to entertain the possibility? If so, then consider this: How many soldiers came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with some part of their body missing – – an amputated leg or arm or hand or finger. Thousands. If there were a personal God who answered prayer, would not at least a few of these receive an answer to prayer to have their body made whole? Just a few? Maybe just 5? 3?

    The assumption that there is a prayer-listening, personal God leads to the kind of confused thinking that you had in your column. Accept that your grandfather died and your child lived just because! Not as cozy, but has more integrity.

    • salooper57 says:

      Tim, thanks for taking the time to read the column and respond. I respect your position, but disagree completely. The “problem of unanswered prayer” is a small part of a big picture, which cannot be isolated from its context.

      People have looked at that context from different perspectives – that would certainly be true of you and me. But we should remember that many intelligent men and women, from Socrates to Augustine, from Acquinas to Duns Scotus, and from C. S. Lewis to Peter van Inwagen have found evidence for a benevolent creator – one who hears prayers without being bound by them. In a debate about the existence of God, the problem of unanswered prayer is a red herring.

      If you aren’t familiar with the philosopher William Lane Craig, you might check out his site: Reasonable Faith.org. Many people have trouble seeing how faith could be reasonable, but it is often because their education or their experience of the Church (sadly) has led them to believe that faith is an enemy of reason.

      As regards the idea that belief in God is cozy, one must also consider the possibility that disbelief in God also has its appeal. If God does not exist, I get to decide what is right, moral, obligatory – I become my own moral compass. And I do not have to answer to my maker and judge.

      Best to you,
      Shayne

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