A man dropped by the office in an East Vancouver parish to ask for prayers for Jenny Lee. The pastor agreed, and prayers were offered for Jenny Lee at all the Sunday Masses.
The following week the priest asked whether they should continue to pray for Jenny Lee, but the man said there was no need: Jenny Lee came in first at Hastings Racetrack.
It’s not a bad joke, but prayer is actually no laughing matter. In fact, few things bother Christians more than unanswered prayer.
“Why doesn’t God answer my prayers “is probably the hardest question I get asked. And it’s tough to answer, because the Bible suggests that God is just waiting to answer our petitions. That seems very clear in today’s Gospel, when Jesus says “Ask and you shall receive.” It’s one of our Lord’s most consoling promises.
But it’s not very consoling if your prayers aren’t getting answered. You’ve prayed for a year for a new job, and you’re still unemployed. You’ve begged God to heal a loved one, and she’s still sick. You asked that your husband would recover, but he died.
What does God’s Word say in these tough circumstances? Does Jesus mean what he says—does he really care?
These are valid questions, and no-one needs to apologize for asking them. Because, on the surface, it’s very difficult to square “everyone who asks receives” with the evidence all around us. Bad things do happen to good people, to people who pray faithfully; we see it all the time.
To some extent, unanswered prayers are part of the mystery of the Christian life. Not every problem has a neatly packaged solution. As St. Paul says, we see now “indistinctly, as in a mirror”; at present we see partially, and only in the Kingdom will all be made clear. (1 Cor. 13: 12)
To help us understand why we don’t get everything we ask from God, let’s think about a world where he did do everything we ask of him. What would that world be like?
To start with, prayer would be very, very scary! There’s an old saying “Be careful what you pray for; you just might get it.” Imagine if you were sure to get it: you’d be in the driver’s seat. You’d be the one who knows best. In fact, the world would be in the hands of millions of mini-Gods, all of them quite sure of what they, their loved ones, and their communities needed most.
I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t want that much responsibility when I prayed.
It’s a less important point, but everyone getting everything they asked for raises some logistical issues. What if a parishioner whom I’ve treated badly prays that I get moved to Bella Coola at the same time someone I’ve really helped is praying I stay forever? What if two students pray hard to win the same scholarship?
Or how about this? If today’s Gospel were as simple as it sounds—if Jesus meant to tell us plainly that we’ll always get what we want—faith would be replaced by pure commerce. The Church would be a spiritual Walmart. Place your order, and wait for delivery. There would be no more disciples, just consumers. Who wouldn’t be a so-called Christian if that healed every illness, fixed every flat tire, and warded off death until nobody cared anymore?
Those of you with families know the harm that is done when parents give children everything they want. God our Father knows this, too. Like children, we don't always know what is best for us, and getting everything we want when we want it will do us no good at all.
These are important arguments, but nothing’s more important than the mystery of the Cross. Jesus gave us the perfect example of the ‘unanswered’ prayer. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he asked the Father to take away the cup of his passion. As we know, his suffering and death followed anyway. But we can call Christ’s prayer “unanswered” only if we shut the Bible on Good Friday. On Easter Sunday, the Father answered the prayer of the Son like no prayer has ever been answered, before or since.
The mystery of the Cross helps us understand our own so-called unanswered prayers. What we mean is that they weren’t answered according to our timetable but according to God’s plan, which doesn’t depend on watches or calendars but rather extends into eternity. I shocked an audience once by starting a talk with “God isn’t perfect.” Before they could convict me of heresy, I added “He has no sense of timing.”
The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes. A literal reading of today’s Gospel—or of other similar passages in Scripture—just isn’t possible. After all, for almost two thousand years Christians have been pondering the words of Jesus—words like if you had the faith of mustard seed you could move mountains, ask and you shall receive—without receiving miracles made to order. And yet we’ve continued to pray, and continued to believe.
The only explanation is that we’ve come to understand, in faith, that God answers prayer not according to human thinking but as supreme and sovereign Lord who is all-knowing and all-loving, and capable of bringing very great goods—goods as absolute as our eternal salvation—even from the greatest of sufferings or the greatest of evils.
If God allowed me to ask him one question, I wouldn’t waste it on why he doesn’t always answer prayer the way I think he should. I’d be pretty sure what he’d say: because I’m God, and you’re not.
It’s not the easiest answer to swallow when we’re afraid or sorrowing, but it’s an invitation to faith and trust that comes from a Father who knows what we need most.