the pain and the puzzle

Prayer; a lot’s been said about it. Some of it rich and deep. Most of it well meant. Frankly at the moment none of it seems to help.

In my ruminations about prayer I’m at the stage where I believe that prayer works through love. Now by prayer I’m more in the region of the asking kind rather than the adoring kind. And I think that the asking and answering works through love because I think God works in the world through love. So where love happens God is happening in someway.

What do I mean by love? Well God defines what love is. God is love. What does it look like? From God’s actions in Jesus and the trinitarian reflections on who God is I draw out three features of love.

  • Acceptance of the other
  • Reaching out to the other
  • Giving oneself to the other

When this happens God happens. So Jesus says when two or three are gathered he is there. And the church is known to be Jesus’ disciples when they love each other.

So God is most present when love in some form is happening. And this is probably how prayer ‘works’. So the love that we have for others will be the engine through which the Holy Spirit moves.

A lady in church said about her husband getting a job within a week of being laid off. She said that God was good and in control. We’ve heard countless stories of healings, how God has provided the money and even how God without even us asking prevented our loved ones from getting on that ill-fated train. And here comes the pain and the puzzle. Why does God answer particular prayers?

We assume that God is all loving. So why are only some prayers answered? There are loads of people still sick, the rich and the powerful defecate on the poor. One has to assume that the vast majority of prayer requests go unanswered. Various answers have been given for this.

One is that God’s scheme is different to ours. On one level this is cheap rationalisation but yet on another this is profound. On the cheap rationalisation level this God’s scheme or God’s ways being different has been used in insensitive and oppressive ways.

Eg. ‘Why are those people so poor and looked down upon?’;  ‘Oh it’s God’s mysterious ways.’

Why does he have polio? yadayadayada

When people started actually exploring and experimenting they found that they could actually fight against injustice and disease. God’s mysterious ways now was interpreted as human evil and natural disaster.

I can accept that God works differently but to glibly answer a problem someone has with – ‘God’s mysterious ways’ is I feel, an insult to God and to that person.

Another reason given is God’s timing. Again possible but it doesn’t really help the kidnapped little girl who got murdered.

Various other reasons are bandied about all in an effort to protect God’s reputation and more importantly the Christian’s spirtual reasoning reputation.

My problem is not with unanswered prayer. The world is what it is and God’s kingdom is slowly but surely taking root in it. My confusion is with answered prayer. Most answered prayers seem to be pleasant surprises or oddly coincident but good experiences or a satisfactory resolution to a difficult situation. Are these answers to prayer?

The sceptic of course rationalises towards the obvious sense based explanation while the believer rationalises towards the mighty hand of God explanation. The concept of God’s immanence kind of marries the two explanations by showing God working through the processes of creation but if that is the case then it seems fairly hit and miss and random.

So there you have it. I don’t get prayer. I still do pray though. But increasingly I listen to my hollow words with a sinking feeling as words dribble out of my thoughts and lips floating down to join the dust in carpet.


6 thoughts on “the pain and the puzzle”

  1. I don’t completely get prayer either. I don’t think I know how to do it well but I find it somewhat easier to see what Jesus did with prayer. Beyond this, I’m confused to ‘answers’ or ‘silences’ or ‘non-answers’ to prayer.

    I know through prayer Jesus drove out demons, through prayer and giving thanks he multiplied food. He prayed for our salvation and protection but I find it intriguing that He prays for God’s will in His life on earth. He clearly knew what God’s will was. And He would ideally have embraced it without discussion (since the Cross seemed to be a plan laid out before Creation) – why suddenly say ‘take this cup’ & ‘but not my will’?

    ‘Not mine but yours’ – I think you can see the love of giving yourself up here as well. Love not just for humanity but for the Father. Not the sentimental, gushing sort of love but the love that embraces pain and death for the sake of the other. But the honesty of it all seems to come forth through praying those words.

    So maybe our prayers are on the side of asking, wanting, wishing… but so were Jesus’ prayers sometimes. ‘Your kingdom come’, ‘your will be done’, ‘lead us not,’ ‘deliver us’ ‘give us’ – all these phrases seem to desperately ask God to come through, to act, to love. So maybe prayer is a way to break the communication barrier with God and to seek what we need through the one relationship that we believe to be different from others.

    And maybe saying ‘your will be done’ knowing you have to embrace a terminal disease, an unloving spouse, or an awful job is just another way of giving yourself away for God’s will to take root in your life and world for purposes we may only discover on the other side of eternity?

    1. Well written! You are right that if we are talking within the Christian framework then we have to see what Jesus does. But again the ‘ýour will be done’ has been used in oppressive ways. And it seems to diminish human agency. When slavery was fought against people were preaching that slavery was God’s will. But someone somewhere fought against it. So where exactly do we say your will be done.

      I am intrigued by what you said about breaking the communication barrier. I would like to believe it. At the moment I don’t know what I believe.

      BTW I don’t believe Jesus automatically knew from his birth about the cross. I also don’t believe that the cross was a plan before creation. So I would see Jesus request as an honest plea which he then waves as he remembers his vocation.

      1. Thank you 🙂

        Much foolishness and oppression has resulted from the perpetuating of human will under the guise of divine ordinance. I think that this can lead us to believe that either the human will is corrupt and therefore can never adequately perceive divine ordinance or that divine will is always perpetuated by humans efficiently.

        We know human nature is corrupt but when subdued to God it is capable of transformation. It is through this renewed person that God can reveal and carry out his will.

        To your point of when exactly do we say your will be done, I again look to Jesus and the prayer he taught us to pray.

        Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

        And so his kingdom which is at hand comes and with it his will is also accomplished. Before all this is our relationship – father and child. I think it precludes our ability to accurately perceive his will. We might still fumble and mess up but that ought not to make us wary of approaching God and seeking his will. After all who except Jesus didn’t mess up.

        I do think prayer breaks a communication barrier because it is an attempt to relate. I think the choice to attempt is enough. Without words, with tears or groans or a different tongue – whatever the means – the attempt is enough. After all, healthy communication is an indicator of the health of a relationship. Which is also why silence baffles us.

        Personally, I know the times I don’t want to pray are mostly when I want to run away from what I think God wants or don’t want to forgive or love. But I think attempting a feeble prayer when I least want to is the only way to not only completely feel the sense of shame but also deal with it completely in the presence of God. It is both painful confession and humbling grace – this relating through prayer.

        When it comes to silences, we believe Jesus also faced it on the cross. Silence has it’s place in a relationship. I think we use it to produce guilt or hurt within human relationships and assume that God has the same use for it. I think the Bible places God’s silences in context and yet leaders, prophets, apostles abound in it’s pages. God is not silent forever. Jesus comes as his word to us – the barrier is broken forever. We pray in his name and are heard.

        I don’t think God’s will diminishes human agency at all. In fact, our prayers reveal our needs, fears and desires. One of the most challenging books I’ve read this year is called ‘becoming the answers to our prayers’. Painfully practical, this book clearly outlines the mandate of carrying out God’s will in an impoverished, weary world. The fact that God chooses to incorporate humans in his plan of redemption is a huge emphasis on human worth and dignity. Quite possibly our needs for self worth, dignity and love are met when we choose to start living by his will and following his ways.

        I don’t think Jesus knew from birth but he does predict how he will die to prepare his disciples. At the time when he was praying he did know that he would die.

        Also 1 Peter 1:18-25 does talk about Christ being chosen to die before creation. I think redemption was planned before sin entered. It follows, since God is omniscient.

        So perceiving God’s will through prayer is one thing and carrying out his will through prayer is another thing. Both are challenging and transforming.

  2. From a methodological point-of-view, I think it’s quite important to care about BOTH unanswered prayer and answered prayers. To figure out how prayer works, i.e. to begin to understand the causal elements at work, we need to look at both phenomena, lest you fall victim to a kind of selection bias. This goes to your point: “The sceptic of course rationalises towards the obvious sense-based explanation while the believer rationalises towards the mighty hand of God explanation.”

    Therefore, the skeptic you describe shows an observer bias that goes as follows: “Look at the number of cases of unanswered prayer. Prayer doesn’t work.” The believer shows similar observer bias, saying, “Look at the prayer god answered last week. Prayer works.” Both are “rationalising” to suit their world view, you say.

    But that creates something of a straw man, especially as far as the skeptic is concerned. I would say that the rationalist/empiricist would say: “Here are cases of prayer that have been answered. Here are also cases of prayers that haven’t been answered. What can we learn about prayer from them both? Are there other causal explanations for the phenomena we have witnessed?” I myself have not done such a study, but I suspect that the empiricist’s answer would agree with the skeptic’s. That doesn’t mean that each skeptic’s position is based on “rationalising” you describe. Instead, it could easily mean that, having begun with an empiricist’s approach, they are now skeptics.

    1. That is true and that is why I said that she would go for the sense based explanation in terms of cause and effect and only what is seen or measured can be trusted. That would imply that what is seen and measured is all there is. It also implies that effects have causes and vice versa. This is all quite Newtonian. And interestingly enough the empiricist holds on to a Newtonian view of the world subsuming most parts of her life. This in many ways disregards Quantum physics and Chaos theory where things seem to be quite different.

      So as much as I currently go more for the empiricist view I have to say that it is an impoverished one and one that is as imprisoned as the believer’s.

  3. Vincent Brummer’s book What Are We Doing When We Pray? is a useful read if you can get hold of a copy. It’s been a few years since I read it, but he really does seem to tackle all the philosophical issues around prayer quite well.

    Otherwise I think it’s entirely possible to get too hung up on the whole issue of (un)answered prayer. Worrying about prayers being answered is unhelpful, in my opinion, because it appears to presuppose that prayer can be turned into a technique: once we’ve analysed which prayers were answered and which were not, we can now identify the ‘causal’ elements that made the answered prayers ‘successful’. I’m thoroughly against seeking techniques in Christian life (and I know you are against it, too).

    I guess I conceive of prayer as presenting people or situations before the Father in the name of and alongside Jesus, trusting that the Spirit is at work to clear the communication channels. And just as I want change in situations, there are also changes in me as I realise that precisely what I pray for isn’t necessarily what I should be praying for. The example I often use is that when I was single, I used to pray that certain girls would like me – but there’s every chance that these girls were praying that I wouldn’t like them! What’s God to do, eh? So perhaps a significant element in praying is simply to learn how to express ourselves appropriately in prayer.

    Anyway, that’s all I’ve got to say!

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