As I noted in another post, On Suffering, we Christians must suffer. It's the terrible part of being a Christian. In fact, a person doesn't have to be a Christian to suffer; all people suffer, Christian or not. That a good God allows His beloved creatures to suffer is the standard complaint of atheists, their common rationale for being atheist in the first place. This seeming contradiction between an omnipotent good God vs the evils His beloved creature endure every day is called the Problem of Evil by theology. In that other post, I proposed a few thoughts on the subject. Today, I want to focus on a particular aspect of that topic: Why doesn’t God answer my prayers? I’m in need and He ignores me.
7 Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Mat 7:7-8)
This promise of Our Lord in His sermon of the mount would seem to imply that I need but ask Him and all I ask will be granted. Because God is, after all, a genie, a fairy godmother, at the beck and call of every person. The omnipotent creator of the universe lives only to serve your whims; that’s what Jesus meant, right? Of course not. Jesus’ promise above is qualified by context; He goes on to say:
9 Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! 12 So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets. (Mat 7:9-12)
Our Father in heaven will give us good gifts, not anything we ask. Now, consider what God might think is good, from His point of view. His focus is on our salvation, not our natural joys in this world. (footnote)
An excellent Scriptural text on this subject is given by the Apostle James:
1 What causes wars, and what causes fightings among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? 2 You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. 4 Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. 5 Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, "He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us"? (Jas 4:1-5)
Here we have the clear answer as to why God does not answer our prayers: because we are asking for something that is not good – at least from God’s perspective. It is our inability to understand what is good that leads to unanswered prayers, and, in fact, to all other evils, such as wars, murder, etc. What we ask in prayer is usually something we want to “spend on our passions.”
Now at this point you may question this line of reasoning. After all, you may say, I just prayed for a little girl to be cured of her debilitating disease – how can this be related to my passions? Why didn’t God cure her as I asked? First, why did you ask for her cure? Because of your empathy; you hate to see others suffer. Believe it or not, empathy is an animal passion; you didn’t like how you feel about her suffering. Second, what is really best for the little girl? If we’re honest, we must say we don’t know. God knows, though.
Now, this does not mean that a Christian should be cold-hearted, should ignore our legitimate feelings, should refuse physical help to those in need. We are called, in fact, to help others even at the expense or ourselves. In fact, James makes this point elsewhere:
27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (Jas 1:27)
(Honestly, if you want to understand what it really means to live the Christian life, just read James’ epistle; he is direct and blunt and by the time you’re done, you will realize exactly how badly you’ve been doing it.) Anyway, our task as Christians is to help those in need, those who suffer. But that does not mean that God will answer our prayers; we still lack understanding and we are still too worldly in our outlook.
Let’s look again at our quote above from James 4. In verse 4, James calls us, “Unfaithful creatures!” In fact, the Greek text uses the word adulterers. James says we are adulterers. Why? An adulterer is a married person who cheats on his or her spouse. We Christians are essentially married to God; we are in a covenantal relationship with Him. But, we can cheat on Him; we can turn our hearts from Him to the things of this world. Now employ the adultery analogy here: Ask your spouse for something that you want to spend on your lover. Do you think your spouse will give you what you ask? Not likely.
Now let’s look at verse 5; it quotes a scriptural text that, in fact, occurs nowhere in Scripture. It may not even be meant to be a quote. Anyway, we want to know what it means here. The literal translation from the Greek is: “Jealously he loves the spirit which dwells in us.” The inference is that God is a jealous spouse and our relationship is of the spirit; he will not tolerate our adultery with the world and the things of this world. When we ask for worldly things, we are rejecting His love.
A common response to God’s rejection of our prayer requests is to turn our backs on God, to get mad at Him and stop talking to Him. Christians do this every day. God is quite used to it. It’s OK to get mad at God; it’s a feeling born of emotion and is part of our animal nature. We have two natures, though, and our goal as Christians is to let the spiritual side have the upper hand. We do so by self-denial, by self-giving, by loving spiritual things over worldly things. God, in turn, also wants us to achieve this goal and He helps us by denying us the worldly things that we claim we no longer love, but in fact still do love. His support in our Christian goal comes across as indifference to our (worldly) prayers, but He is actually answering our chief prayer: intimacy with Him. As St. James says, we pray wrongly. So the Spirit of God within us prays on our behalf for what is good.
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. 27 And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. 28 We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him. (Rom 8:26-28)
Footnote: If I may be permitted a brief tangent: the atheist claims that because the good God does not help those in need, then perhaps there is no good God at all. However, that is not the complete logic of the atheist. The atheist actually claims that because the good God does not help those in need in the way that the atheist would help them, then perhaps there is no good God at all. The truth is that an atheist is, at heart, a worldly person who thinks only in terms of temporal joys and sufferings. Their start point is that only the physical exists; their argument, then, necessarily precludes the possibility of spiritual goods, for which suffering might be the key.(back)