Corinne was someone everyone just loved. She and her family joined St. Francis one month before my family did. We taught Sunday School together. And then she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It wasn't cancer but it couldn't be removed without doing massive brain damage. On the other hand, if it continued to grow it would eventually kill her. Our church, her coworkers and friends did everything we could—raised money for her medical bills, gave their sick days and vacation days to her, watched her newborn second daughter as she went for treatments. And prayed—hard. And God was merciful. The tumor shrunk, its neurological effects diminished, she got to see her daughters grow into their teens. Then about a decade and a half after first being diagnosed, the tumor began to grow again. Nothing the doctors did could stop it. And once again everybody helped her anyway they could. And prayed—hard. I put on our church sign “Pray for Corinne.” I even told God that my kids were adults: take me instead. But this time she did not receive a reprieve. She died. And on top of grief, a lot of people—myself for sure—wondered why God let such a good person die.
And we aren't the only ones who don't get what we pray for. David's first son with Bathsheba sickens and dies despite his anguished prayers. Job asks God for a reason for his suffering and while God speaks to Job, he doesn't give him an answer. And most importantly Jesus in Gethsemane asks God to let the cup of suffering and death by crucifixion pass him by. That doesn't happen.
In today's gospel, Jesus makes a big promise: “Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be open to you.” But we all have instances when we asked God for something, and we do it fervently and persistently as Jesus says to, and yet we do not get what we asked for. How can we square that with Jesus' promise?
In a way it would be easier to deal with this if prayers were never answered. Then we could say that there is no God or that God doesn't listen to our prayers. But we have seen prayers spectacularly answered, and not just in situations where one could say “it would have happened anyway.” We have seen people healed from very serious illnesses. We have seen people in dire personal circumstances get the resources they needed. We have seen people in the process of self-destruction suddenly have their lives turned around.
The problem then isn't so much unanswered prayer but the promise that our prayers will be always be answered, when that is not our experience. How do we reconcile our experience with Jesus' flabbergasting promise?
First a word about experience. Today we exalt personal experience over everything else. “What I experience is the truth,” we say and our culture agrees with us. There is no greater truth than your own experience, we think. This is the real reason people take atheists so seriously today. They don't personally experience God and so it must be correct. Even though their experience would then trump that of the billions whose experience is different. Of course the great majority of atheists (not to mention other humans) have never personally experienced quarks, mesons and Higgs boson particles either but they believe in them, all the while denying that they do so on faith—though it is faith in what other people say they have experienced. In the same way scientists believed that South Korean scientist who said he had cloned a dog. They believed it right up until he was shown to have faked the data. But evidently no other scientist has ever done that!
Even if no one's lying, what you experience and what's really going on can be two different things. My brother is an amateur magician, albeit one good enough to have been president of the St. Louis chapter of the Society of American Magicians. He could have you experience many things that weren't what they appeared to be. He can put a coin in your hand and change it into another coin while you are still holding it. He can chop a head of lettuce in two with a guillotine and then let the falling blade pass harmlessly through the neck of a volunteer. And, yes, he can produce a live rabbit from a a silver platter that was empty of all but a raging fire just seconds before. What you experience will feel real if uncanny. Even if you know they are illusions you will not be able to tell how he accomplishes them. That's the fun.
Not at all fun is when a person with an amputated arm experiences excruciating pain in the absent limb. It may feel like the hand is so tightly clenched that the nails are digging into his palm and the muscles of his hand are spasming. It's no good telling him that it's all in his head. But his very real experience is nevertheless at odds with reality. And neurologists have learned that what often works is to put the present hand into a box with a mirror that makes it look as if the missing limb has returned. They ask the patient to unclench their real fist while looking at the mirror which is creating the illusion that the phantom hand is unclenching. And the pain will cease. But the answer is not that their experience isn't genuine; it's that their interpretation of the experience is.
When we experience what we think is unanswered prayer, the reality may be quite different. As one of the lyrics in Godspell goes, “If you pray a prayer and it's no go, don't come around with I told you so. You got the answer; the answer was 'No.' He heard you all right.” God is a wise parent. He doesn't give his children their every whim. And one moment's thought tells you that when Jesus said, 'Ask and it will be given to you,' he did not mean “if you ask for anything at all.” God is not a genie. If you ask that Brad Pitt drop dead so you will be free to marry Angelina Jolie, do you really think a just God will do that for you? If you ask for all the cocaine you could possibly snort, would a loving God would say “Yes?” Sometimes the answer to a prayer is a straightforward “No.”
And God may say “No” to things which in his wisdom he knows are not good for you. Most people wouldn't mind being wealthy or famous. But those things have destroyed a lot of lives. The heady power that comes with wealth and/or fame has destroyed many a relationship, a career or even a life. Rock stars die young so often that the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap made a running gag out of how many drummers the band had gone through due to increasingly bizarre and drug-fueled deaths. It's not funny, though, that Hank Williams, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendricks, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse and many more will never debut a new album. John Belushi, Heath Ledger, River Phoenix, John Candy, Cory Monteith and countless others will never delight us in a new movie or TV show. There are entire websites devoted to famous people who died too young and the majority did so because of lifestyles made possible by having more money, power and fame than they could handle.
Or God may say “No” because the request does not fit into his plan. Jesus' brother James wrote, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” We are called to serve God. If you were a soldier being sent on a mission and your commander told you that he will give you anything you ask for, you wouldn't for a minute think this meant he'll give you the latest video game or a Rolex watch. You would realize that what he meant by "anything" was “anything you need for the mission.” All indications are that Jesus means the same. His examples are all of basic necessities, like food, or in the Sermon on the Mount, clothing.
Or God may say “No” for reasons which we do not understand. That is at the heart of the book of Job. When God finally speaks to Job, he doesn't give him an answer to why he lost his health and lost his kids for whom Job had made numerous prayers and sacrifices for their well-being. Instead God asks Job questions about how the universe works, as if to say the reason for his suffering unjustly is also an imponderable. Job is just satisfied that God spoke to him. And God expresses his displeasure towards Job's “comforters” for supplying reasons for his suffering that were not given by God. On a less cosmic level, Paul found his proposed missionary work in Asia and then in Bithynia stopped by the Holy Spirit. He was trying to spread the gospel, something you would think God would be all for, but God prevents this for reasons known only to him. God knows more than us and we may not be able to understand the reason, the way a baby cannot understand why his mom lets his pediatrician give him painful shots.
But sometimes when we think God is saying “No” he may be saying “Not yet.” David was anointed king over Israel but had to wait for years, serving King Saul, then chased by him, then ruling as king of Judah before being asked to be king over all Israel. Joseph had dreams of his brothers and family bowing to him. But first he was thrown into a pit. And then sold into slavery. And then charged with rape and thrown into prison. Then he helped Pharaoh's cupbearer and asked him to remember him to his boss. It took 2 years before God got Joseph out of prison and raised him to be Pharaoh's right hand man.
We may not be prepared for what we ask. I originally planned to enter the ministry shortly after college. I became a nurse in order to be able to support myself and my family as I went to seminary. It didn't work out that way. 20 years later I was caught completely by surprise by a renewed call and an opportunity to become ordained. And I think I am a better priest and pastor having had 2 more decades of life experience. God knew I needed to wait. Sometimes we hear “No” when God is really saying, “Not yet.”
Sometimes a prayer that appears to be going unanswered is God's way of saying, “I have something else in mind for you.” Amos was not the son of a prophet or a member of the school of the prophets. He wasn't even an Israelite. He was a herdsman and a dresser of sycamore trees. The kingdoms were stable and peaceful. His prayers were probably for a healthy herd and healthy trees. But God called him to prophesy to the people of Israel who were corrupt, self-indulgent, were drifting from God and his covenant and consequently exploiting and abusing the poor. This did not make him popular, especially with the king and priests of Israel. And it was probably not the life he had asked for.
Moses had been raised as the Pharaoh's adopted grandson. But he found himself a shepherd and he was happy with that. Then God called him to lead his people out of slavery. Moses didn't want this. But God had something different in mind for him.
There is a reason why our chief response to God is faith. We have to trust him, especially when it's hard to have faith, when we ask for something in prayer and the answer seems to be other than “Yes.” If he says “No” as he said to Jesus when he asked for the cup to pass him by, we must trust him to have a good reason. The reason may become apparent later or we might not learn the reason in this life.
When we pray for someone's life, and they die anyway, it's especially important to trust God, to remember that, as Paul tells us, to be absent from the body is to be with the Lord. It's important to know that when they are gone it is not that they no longer exist, but that they are gone as someone on a long journey is gone. We will see them again.
In other cases God might be saying “Not yet,” and so we must be patient for the answer. And he might be saying “I have something else in mind for you.” His purpose for you might also be a surprise to you.
To return to my life, my career looks like a haphazard affair. I went into nursing to be able to afford seminary and then stayed in nursing. Then I went into radio. Finally God gave me a clear call to the ordained ministry. It looks like a zig-zag course to the pulpit. But as a nurse I learned how to talk to and to help people—the mentally ill, the sick, the demented, the dying. I learned that you can't always go by what you read in the textbooks; people and lives are not that easy to categorize. I learned that people recover at different rates and respond to different therapies. I learned not to pronounce a prognosis on anyone; some people you expect to recover get worse and some people you expect to get worse get better. I learned that sometimes you just have to shut up and let people talk out their grief and pain. I began to see the same principles that manifest in sickness and health can be seen in sin and salvation. I saw how important it is for people not simply to say they had faith in their doctor or their course of treatment but to show it by following doctor's orders.
As LPN jobs began to get scarce, I became a radio copywriter. I learned to do research on what business or products I was to write about. I learned to find out not merely what the message should be but what was the best way to express that message. I learned that you have to think of your audience, how will they perceive what you say.(Do they care if a car dealership is an inventory leader or would they respond better if you say instead that they have the best selection of cars in the area?) And I learned to write on a deadline. You don't always have the luxury to wait for a great and original idea. You don't always have the time to make it perfect. I learned to boil down what had to be said into 60 or even 30 seconds. Which means the 15 minutes I usually allow for my sermons is generally plenty of time. Boring people is one of the worst sins in making an ad. And I think it's one of the big things to avoid when preaching.
As it turned out the “somethings else” that God had in mind for me made me a better preacher and a wiser and more understanding counselor.
“Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it!” goes the pop wisdom quip. The thing to remember is that God will not say “Yes” to prayers that are not good for us, even if we want them badly. That's part of his mercy. And while he will not stop us from pursuing wrongful desires, he will put up obstacles. What he won't do, though, is enable us by answering prayers inappropriately. He is a good God and will say “No” or “Not yet” to prayers that are inappropriate for us, for others or for the time and situation, whether of not we like or understand it.
The good news is he will give us what we need both to live and to carry out the mission he has given each of us. He will give us his Holy Spirit, who will equip us in every way to follow him and do his will. He will give us talents and skills. He will put people in our lives to help and mentor and comfort and inspire us. And he will answer our prayers in surprising ways at times. Sometimes he will say “I have something else for you,” an opportunity we never sought or asked for but for which he has prepared us, perhaps without our being aware. Sometimes I think God is like Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid. We find ourselves doing boring or unpleasant tasks, waxing on and waxing off, never realizing God is training us for something seemingly unrelated and much more important. Who'd have thought writing 30 second ads for innumerable seafood restaurants and bars and cleaning up every kind of bodily fluid while dealing with folks suffering from dementia would be such good training for the ministry?
One last point: The verb tense in verse 9 indicates a continuing present action. So what Jesus is really saying is “Keep asking and it will be given you; keep searching and you will find; keep knocking and the door will be opened for you.” That is the point of the parable about the guy in bed and the bread. Not that God is reluctant to give but that he wants to see how much we want what we ask for. How much do we really want the equipment we need to do his will? Enough to keep praying every spare moment? Enough to keep praying for days or weeks or months?
Or are we like the guy who promised to pray for a friend (let's call him Fred), sees him at church, says a quick mental “Dear God, help Fred,” and then goes up to him and says, “Hey, Fred, how're you doing? I've been praying for you.” If you pray like that, you can't really expect God to answer your prayer because your heart is not really in it.
Whether God answers your prayer with a “Yes,” a “No,” a “Not yet,” or an “I have something else for you,” the thing to remember is that God has what is best for you and everyone else in mind. As he says in Jeremiah 29:11, “'For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.'” That's what we need to remember. God has a plan for us, a plan for us to prosper, a plan to give us hope and a glorious future. Knowing that we can act as it says. We can seek him because we know who we will find: our heavenly Father, who loves us and provides for us and who will never say “No” to our needs. And knowing that, we can respond long with Dag Hammarskjold, who said, “For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.”