Fortunately, I don't have everything I want or need. If I had it all, I wouldn't need to ask God to meet these needs. I could do it all myself and I would have it all myself. And I would be missing the thing I need most -- God.
I am a being who is, by nature, incomplete. I have needs that I can't possibly meet myself and so I take those needs to God in prayer. I pour out my needs before God and rely on his power to meet them.
What does God do with my prayers? Well, sometimes and in some very important ways, he has answered them. My wife Nora is the answer to a prayer, a very marvelous answer because she is a far more loving and selfless wife than I deserve. The good health of our children is also the answer to my prayers.
Sometimes the answers God sent were not what I had in mind. I prayed to have the virtue of patience, for example, and God sent me challenges which tried my patience past its natural limit. When I was younger, I once prayed to have a girlfriend and ended up with two. The resulting fiasco led to my doing some necessary growing up. The humorist Oscar Wilde once said, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers." I know what he was talking about.
Yet we can get quite cheesy about the times God does not seem to be answering our prayers. It's as though we expect that when we ask God for something, he should deliver. To be sure, some prayers are selfish. But other times, there's nothing selfish about the prayer and it still goes unanswered. A young child dies of cancer; genocide occurs in Rwanda; a friend dies bitter and angry at the world. All this occurs despite our prayers that things be different.
Why would God say "no" to prayers of this sort? The pat answers to this question -- that we haven't prayed hard enough, that we don't have enough faith, that God is punishing us for our own good -- are deeply unsatisfactory in the face of enormous evil which God "allows" to continue. These answers either insult the person praying or paint God as a heartless ogre. The only satisfactory answer is really no answer. It is that we don't know why God doesn't respond. God is a great mystery and his purposes are more than we can fathom.
In Canada, we have had legal abortion for almost 30 years. This has led to the deaths of more than two million innocent unborn babies. It is a travesty of gargantuan proportions. Tens of thousands of people have prayed for this situation to be reversed. They have said millions of prayers and have engaged in diverse forms of protest and political action. And yet the pro-life movement has known nothing but reverses -- it has yet to win one lasting victory which would result in the saving of innocent lives.
What has happened to all these prayers? Have they evaporated into the ether?
Well, we don't know how God has answered or will answer them. But as people of faith we know that God has not gone deaf and that no prayer is wasted. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).
We can, however, take heart from the collapse of the Soviet Union. For decades, Catholics prayed for the conversion of Russia, with no apparent success. And then, with little warning, first the Soviet empire collapsed and then Soviet communism itself withered and died in just a matter of days. Over the course of world history, there has likely never been such a major empire disappear so rapidly with the use of so little physical force.
We also know, however, about Jesus' unanswered prayer -- how he prayed in the garden for the cup of suffering and death to be taken away from him and how on the cross he felt totally forsaken by God.
The cross is the model for our unanswered prayer. Somehow, our sense of being forsaken by God in our hour of greatest need can be united by God with Christ's sufferings on the cross -- suffering that resulted in the conquest of death and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Can we have the courage to offer our sense of being forsaken up with that of Christ? Can our suffering, united with that of Christ, also lead to the salvation of many?
The Christian prays in hope. Hope for a direct response to our prayers, of course. But also, and especially, in hope of the world to come where every tear will be wiped away and where we will know bliss and peace and joy beyond all our imaginings. This is our inheritance and this where our prayers will find their final answer.
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