Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Question of Unanswered Prayer

If you haven't watched last week's “Glee” I’m about to spoil it for you. The show tackled religion, and along with the reviewer for the Onion’s A.V. Club, Todd Vanderwerff, I’d give it a B+. I agree that the song selections weren't the best but the range of viewpoints represented was fairly broad and for the most part, sincerely presented. If nothing else, it was a good starting place for a discussion.

The episode started off with a rather broad satire of the worst kind of religious fervor. Finn makes a grilled cheese sandwich which he burns. In one corner, the burn looks like Jesus. Finn sees this as some kind of sign and prays to “Grilled Cheesus.” Specifically, he asks that they win that week’s football game, especially for his handicapped friend, Artie, who is being used as a battering ram in order to win back his girlfriend. When they do win Finn asks that the Glee Club honor Jesus in its song assignments this week. This immediately splits the club. The Jewish students aren't happy. Nor is Kurt, who points out that most churches don't welcome gay people. And Sue Sylvester, Glee’s outrageous resident villain, reveals that she doesn't believe in God either, because her childhood prayers to heal her older sister of Down’s Syndrome went unanswered. Meanwhile Finn’s prayers to Grilled Cheesus seem to be answered beyond his wildest dreams. But he too has a crisis when his prayer to become quarterback again is fulfilled by way of having the new quarterback's shoulder dislocated. At the end of the episode, only Finn seems to have changed his position on belief, and since he sees a cheese sandwich as a magic genie, that’s an improvement.

(Parenthetically, there is one undeniable miracle in the episode. Rachel lights a candle in the hospital room of a man on oxygen and they aren't all blown to kingdom come.)

The episode does put its finger on a very real obstacle to belief in God: unanswered prayer. How can we trust God when he withholds healing? Didn’t Jesus say that if we ask anything in his name he will grant it? Why don’t we see that more often?

There is a saying that God answers all prayers with either a “Yes,” a “Not yet,” or an “I have a better idea.” To that I would add a “No.” God doesn't give us everything we want. And that's a good thing. Last week we blundered into a very unpleasant verse in Psalm 137. The psalmist is distraught by the exile of his people to Babylon and upset when their captors ask them to sing a song of Zion. He says to those who burned Jerusalem, “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” While one can understand the rage of someone who had lost so much, that is not a prayer we would wish God to answer with anything but a “No.” And in today’s passage from Jeremiah, we have God’s answer. He tells the exiles to settle down and live in Babylon. And they are to pray “on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” That’s the opposite of destroying the babies of Babylon.

Yet there are those who believe that God is a cosmic concierge and prayer is a straightforward transaction. “God, if you give me victory, money, fame, sex, I will give you glory.” It is these “name it and claim it”churchgoers which are the obvious satirical target of Finn’s devotion to Grilled Cheesus. I imagine that the near-collapse of the world's economy has disabused a lot of these people, who felt they were theologically entitled to become wealthy. There is no Biblical basis for believing God will shower riches on all of his followers. 

What is interesting about the Glee episode is that it shows what would happen if the “Prosperity Gospel” did work. Finn gets everything he asks for. But he doesn't much like how he gets it. But how did he think he was going to become quarterback when someone else already had the role? There’s nothing wrong with praying for yourself when you need wisdom or healing or spiritual growth or to have your daily needs met. But when you ask God for a position that is not open or a possession that belongs to someone else, you‘re trying to make him an accomplice in taking it from that person. Who could fault God for denying such selfish prayers?

But the serious side of the episode involved people whose unselfish prayers were not answered. That’s happened to all of us. A friend, a sibling, a parent, or a spouse became ill or injured and we prayed our hearts out. We begged and bargained with God. We offered ourselves in the place of our loved one. But we didn’t get what we prayed for. And we wondered why? Why didn't God save our loved one? Why didn't he grant our prayer?

First, let’s dispense with the idea that God didn’t answer your prayer because of how you prayed. Prayer is not a magic incantation. No specific form of words is more effective than another. True, Jesus says we should ask in his name. But God won’t say "Yes" to a prayer to accomplish something evil just because we tack the words “in Jesus’ name” onto it. That’s because in Semitic thought, one’s name is one’s nature. So asking for something in Jesus’ name means asking in line with his nature. And Jesus’ nature is that of being loving, just and merciful. So asking God to harm others, or take from others, or to do anything immoral “in Jesus’ name” is a contradiction in terms. He will not answer such prayers in the affirmative.

If you are asking somebody to do something for you, it works better if you're in a good relationship with that person. And since prayer is communication with God, if you're asking him for something, it’s better to be in a good relationship with him. That means not doing things that alienate us from him. After all, if someone approached you with a request, while at the same time doing things to damage your relationship, you wouldn't be inclined to grant what they asked. Why should God do things for people otherwise acting against him?

Consider this: would you grant a request  from a person who didn't trust you to keep your word? Probably not. That's why faith in God is important. It’s difficult if not impossible to work with someone who doesn't trust you. People from Nazareth found it hard to believe that Jesus could be anything grander than the small town carpenter's son they knew. Consequently Jesus found it hard to heal as many people there as he had in other towns. When we pray, we need to trust God.

But let's say you do trust God and live a life free from the things that would damage your relationship with him. Does that mean your prayers would always be answered with a “Yes”? Not necessarily. The apostle Paul suffered from something he called "a thorn in the flesh." We don’t know what it was. It could be a physical problem or a moral failing. He kept praying that God would take it away. But God didn't.

More to the point, on the night he was betrayed, Jesus asked God to spare him the suffering to come. Obviously, God did not grant that prayer request, though it came from his son. What could be more important than keeping Jesus from harm? Evidently God’s plan to save the world from itself is.

And Jesus understood that. He ends his prayer with “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” Jesus understands that God’s priorities are not always ours. And he trusts God to do the right thing, even though it might be painful for him. The good of the many, whose sins will be forgiven, are more important than his own needs.

We do not always know why God allows bad things to happen to us or why he does not always grant us what we pray for, even when we are doing so unselfishly. But we can trust that he is working for the long-term good of all, not just the short-term benefit of a few. That may not be comforting when we are talking about averting the death of someone we love. But death is not the end. It wasn't for Jesus. It won't be for those who love and trust him.

That was hard for Roger Depue to accept. While Chief of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, Dr. Depue got into the heads of some of the most evil criminals ever imprisoned. He profiled them so others could be caught. His refuge from the horrors he dealt with was his wife. Shortly after he retired, she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. He devoted his considerable intellectual resources to researching the nature and treatment of her disease but he finally had to agree with her doctors that there was little hope for her recovery. When she died, Depue was devastated. He wept uncontrollably; he went into depression; he raged at God for letting a good woman die. Eventually, his desire to explore the question of good and evil led him to enter seminary and become a brother of the Society of Missionaries of the Holy Apostles. There he wrestled with the fact that God took the most evil act imaginable--the execution of his son, Jesus--and turned it into the greatest good: the redemption of the world. As part of their ministry, Depue counseled men in prisons. Talking with ordinary inmates, not merely serial killers, rapists and child molesters, gave him a different perspective on what made men go bad. These were not people who acted out dark fantasies but people who, often unthinking, made bad decisions. After 3 years, he left the order, determined to shift his emphasis from catching criminals to preventing kids from becoming criminals. He does this through his company, a private forensics consulting group, made up of retired FBI agents, which helps law enforcement agencies solve cold cases, families get closure, businesses prevent workplace violence and schools prevent incidents such as   Columbine, on which he consulted. Depue also does this through volunteering as a counselor to troubled youth. In addition, the former police chief, former FBI agent and former monk and a former nun/clinical psychologist, now his wife, write books on theology together. Depue did not learn why God allowed his wife to die but in the process of dealing with the problem, he found peace and discovered a new and positive  purpose in life. Out of the worst ordeal in his life, he has found tools to help many others. 

Paul, too, learned something from his unanswered prayer. He learned that God’s power could be manifested even in his own weakness. The scariest thing to happen to us is not being in control. But Paul discovered that  God was always in control, even when we aren't and that his strength is sufficient for us.

It’s tempting to turn one's back on God when he doesn't answer our most desperate prayers. It’s harder to continue to trust him. But just as strength is developed through resistance, so too our spiritual lives become stronger when we resist the easy solution of giving up on God and giving in to despair. When faith is difficult to hold onto, I recall the story of Jacob and the Angel of the Lord. Jacob was returning home with his 4 wives and 12 sons and all of the wealth he has earned working for his untrustworthy father-in-law Laban. Jacob was almost back home when he received word that his brother, whose birthright and blessing he stole, was coming to meet him with 400 men. In the dark night that follows, Jacob encountered a stranger in his camp and grappled with him. The stranger tells Jacob to let him go for day is coming. Jacob says he will not let the man go until he blesses him. So the man dislocates Jacob’s hip and renames him “Israel”--"he who wrestles with God." Afterward, Jacob and his brother are reconciled and Jacob's descendants become the nation of Israel.

Sometimes the life of faith involves wrestling with God. And it can be very painful. But the key is not to disengage. Keep saying, like Jacob, “I will not let you go until you bless me.” And the blessing will come. It may not be the answer we are looking for but answers to prayer are often of an unexpected nature. And faith is not only trusting in what is unseen but also seeing what is before us in new and surprising ways and using those insights to take the pieces of our broken lives and build them into something stronger and better for all.     

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