Meeting God in Unanswered Prayer

Someone, apparently a young adult, wrote me recently and asked about prayer.  This person was having a hard time discerning the difference between worry and prayer.  He or she was wondering if prayer, although salutary to ourselves, really does have an effect on those we pray for.  Particularly, this person was worried about and/or praying for his or her parents who seemed to be getting further and further apart.  Did God hear his/her prayers for them?  Do a child’s prayers really make any difference for the parents?
What I wrote to this person is not all that could be said on this matter, nor is it probably the best thing that could be said.  It is, however, what I think; and I hope it was helpful to this young person.  The problem of pain and suffering and apparently unanswered prayer is a great scandal to many, a theodicy, a reason for atheism.  For others, the same pain and suffering and apparently unanswered prayer initiates a struggle with God that results in divine revelation, a Job-like encounter with God that reframes everything.  This has been (and still is) my experience, and so it tends to colour how I see everything.  And so please forgive me if my approach seems too heavy, a lighter touch may indeed be what is needed for many.  But since much of my life has been rather heavy, what I have written seems to me to be about right .
Here is some of what I wrote:
There is a big difference between worry and prayer, although at the beginning they may feel very similar.  In fact, what begins as worry can lead us into prayer.  When we pray for someone or some situation we are worried about, we may begin by trying to tell God what we would like to happen, what we think can and should happen.  But soon we realize that God already knows so much better than we do about what can and should happen.  We also realize that God loves our loved ones much, much more than we do.  God loves and is powerful, but people are free.  People make choices—often not even realizing that they are doing so at the time—but people make choices nonetheless, and God respects those choices.
And so we pray that God have mercy, that God touch the hearts of our loved ones.  God is the only one who has access there, the only one who can touch another person where it will really make a difference.  But still, each one makes choices.  Each of us must humble ourselves and repent when God touches our hearts, but many people just don’t want to do that, at least not yet.
All things are possible with God: that’s what Jesus tells us.  God is able to change hearts and minds, but God does it without sacrificing human freedom.  The great mystery of God’s saving love is that He does what seems to us to be impossible (transform sinful human beings) without violating our free will.  You see one of the many advantages God has over his creatures is that He is outside time.  God has all of the time in the world to work on us—not only in this age, but in the age to come too (at least this is how I have come to understand the prayers the Church teaches us to pray for the departed).  And only God knows how much time and indeed how much suffering or whatever else it is that each of us needs to truly and deeply repent and turn toward Him.  But this is of course difficult for us, especially for those of us who have to watch our loved ones suffer and struggle and generally go through hell not knowing when or how it will end.
Why does it have to be this way?  Why do parents start to resent and hurt each other?  Why do children turn away from their parents? Why do innocent children suffer from sickness or—even worse—from the selfishness and callousness of the adults in their lives?  How is it that people and nations motivated by fear or anger or a sense of righteous indignation think it is okay to drop bombs on other people, or to shoot bystanders, or to  leave orphaned children to shiver in cold tents in refugee camps?  It’s not fair. It’s not fair that God allows apparently meaningless suffering, that the innocent suffer while the manifestly guilty prosper and seem to experience no serious pain at all.  It all seems to be God’s fault, at least this is the argument the biblical Job makes when he tries to put God on trial: How can God let this unjust suffering happen?
If God had not created human beings free, then God would just make human beings do the right thing: but then we would not be human. We would be something else, merely high-functinoing, very skinny and hairless gorillas.  But God did make human beings free.   And furthermore, God did not place each of us on his or her own planet so that each one suffered or benefitted only from the consequences of his or her own choices, his or her own actions.   God placed us all in a community, a world we share together, a world in which the choices of each one effects all of the others.  Not only do my choices and their consequences effect those around me immediately, but my choices also effect those far away and those not yet born.  This is, in part, the purpose of the first eleven chapters of Genesis: to explain why the world is as broken as it is.  God gave mankind a beautiful garden, and mankind chose to live outside it.  God gave mankind life, and mankind has chosen death.  We are all born into a world that has for millennia chosen death, chosen to turn away from God, chosen selfishness over love, chosen self indulgence over self control, chosen to be driven by passionate desires and fear of death.  We are all born into a very sick and broken world.
It seems to me that the real question isn’t, “Why is there so much suffering in the world?”  When I look at the selfishness of my own heart and motivations, I can easily answer that question.  To me, the real questions are, “Why is there any beauty at all?  Why can human beings still experience hope and faith and love in the midst of unimaginable pain and injustice?  How is it that God is able to break through and touch and help those who call out to Him even in the midst of craziness and hellish suffering?”  These are the questions that I can’t answer, at least not without positing a great God who loves mankind so much that even in the mess we have made for ourselves God continues to speak, continues to reach out through what is beautiful, true, loving and peaceful.  These are the great miracles of our world: That God can be found, can be known in the midst of unreasonable and unfair suffering and injustice, even in the pain and confusion of our broken lives, broken bodies and broken minds.  This is the miracle, that where God is, light shines, love happens, hope exists, and yes, even joy is experienced, a kind of joy that weeps and suffers with others, the kind of joy that Jesus experienced when it says of Him, “for the joy set before Him, He endured the cross.”
Forgive me, I seem to have strayed from directly answering your questions, but it all seems connected somehow.  Yes, our prayers change us, but our prayers also change others.  When we pray for those we love, those we are giving into God’s hands, we are praying that God touch their hearts, that God work providentially in their lives and circumstances.  God hears and answers our prayers, but God also works with the human free will of the ones we pray for.  God touches hearts and God works providentially to help and to guide those we pray for into what is salutary, what is good, true, beautiful and loving.  But people make choices (whether or not they realize it at the moment) and choices have consequences (whether or not they are seen or realized at the moment). But even these choices and their consequences, as painful as they may be, are also used by God to open our hearts and turn us to Him.  This is why we have to commit our loved ones to God.  (As it says in the Divine Liturgy, “Let us commend ourselves and each other and our whole lives unto Christ our God.”)  We pray and God touches hearts and people change—in as much as each one is willing to be touched, willing to be changed.
There is no way to strong-arm God, to make God do what we think is right.  Faith means trusting even when life doesn’t make any sense at all.  Faith means believing that what is seen is not all that is, that God is indeed doing all that can be done to save and help us, that despite the craziness, insanity and pain, God is near.  And living in this faith is the Christian life.  This is the life in Christ, the crucified life in Christ, the life of both death and resurrection in Christ.
Fr. Michael

6 comments:

  1. Hello Father. I am very grateful for your posts/blogs…so please keep them up! I have a question for you that I am struggling with. Often times, I wonder if I have ever had a truly genuine and REAL relationship with God. It saddens me, given that I am an active servant in the church, to have such thoughts. After all those years praying and being involved in the church…it hurts me deep down to question if I have ever had a genuine relationship with God that felt real and not just something in my head. I sometimes wonder and say ‘Is this just a feeling? Is it just my mind? Is it at all possible for God to communicate with me and have a real relationship with me outside of myself? If not, how can I truly know that it is real and genuine (from Him)?’

    Do not get me wrong. It’s not like I don’t pray and ask…I do. I just don’t want it to be a feeling or something that comes to my mind. Part of me wants it to be a little ‘outside of me’ or external if that makes sense. Yes, I do realize that we have the Holy Spirit who guides us and leads us but how can I truly say that it is God and not just a good feeling or thought? Prayer often feels like a one sided conversation (how long do I have to wait to really hear Him?). I know we say that prayer is simply just to be aware of God and His presence but that does not seem to be enough to have a real relationship (at least not for me). I feel like I’m one of the few that cannot recall a moment that I know for sure is real with God. Part of me knows that I have had real intimate moments but the other part is trying to probe and question them. It really hurts me and probably hurts or offends God that I feel this way. I can imagine Him saying “After all this time I have been with you, have you not known me Anthony?”

    Yes, I know that the scripture is another means of communication and it is something I do read. However, I am not sure if its recommended to go hunting and skimming through the word of God until you find something that you ‘helps.’ I have done that before and it didn’t seem to work. Not that I cant use the scripture to help me (I know of all people that there is power in those words) but I’m not sure God wants me to do it that way…. but I could be wrong. Maybe this is God’s way of saying, “I want you to try harder to find me…I want you to put more effort in seeking me.” Then I wonder, how long did St. Moses the strong toil before he finally was led to a monastery? There seem to be countless stories of saints and average people who have had God enter into their lives just because of their sincerity…why is it that I feel left out? Sorry for rambling.

    1. Dear Anthony,
      One of the great philosophical questions is: “Is it all just in my head.” You ask that question about your relationship with God, but we could ask it about all of reality as we experience it. This question is part of what makes a movie like the Matrix so compelling. However, I don’t want to go into philosophical arguments—they of all things we experience in our heads are most unreal. What I would like to point out is that God condescends to us and then calls us to grow or learn to know Him more as He is. What I mean is that our relationship with God is always growing, which means that what seemed so certain to me yesterday may now be clouded in doubt because God is leading me to know Him better. St. Paul says it this way, “when I was a child, I thought as a child…but when I became a man I put away childish things” (1Cor. 13:11). Or Job, after his trial, says of the change in the way he knew and perceived God, “I had heard of you with the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you” (Job 42:5). Fr. Stephen Freeman (and others) says that sometimes we have to become agnostic before we can have real faith because the way we have come to know and relate to God, while appropriate for one point in our spiritual journey, needs to be taken away from us so that we can come to know God more clearly as He really is and as God has intended for us to know Him. This is why “dark night of the soul” theology (as it has come to be known in the West) is so important to those who “press in to know the Lord,” to quote the prophet Hosea (6:3). In the Orthodox tradition there is no “Dark night of the soul” theology per se, we rather speak in terms of withdrawal of Grace and the need to call out to God more fervently for mercy in times when He seems distant. I don’t know if God is saying to you “try harder.” He might be saying “try different,” or “hang in there,” or “seek help,” or “repent,” or “humble yourself and accept your spiritual poverty so that you might receive the Kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). And I agree with you that “hunting and skimming through the word of God” is not a helpful approach (although I highly recommend a regular reading regime that emphasizes first the Gospels, then the Psalms, then the epistles, then the rest of the Old Testament). But probably the most important thing is a flesh and blood spiritual mentor. This is the Orthodox way. However, in North America it may be very difficult to find. We begin, of course, with our priest and do our best to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit in this man—whether or not we think he is very “spiritual.” However, if that relationship is not helping you, then spend the time and money visiting monasteries and other potentially holy men and women until you find someone who does help you. It may take years and years. In the mean time, believe that God is using the priest you have now—even if it seems as though God is using him mainly to irritate you. This too may be for your salvation. Sometimes what is keeping us from knowing God very well is our insistence that we already know what God (and God’s representatives) are or should be like.
      Well Anthony, I imagine this is not very helpful. Perhaps it is just annoying. But it is the best I have.
      Fr. Michael

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