Every once in a while someone tries to stump me (it’s not that hard). Just ask a stock theological question and watch the preacher flounder. Of course, we ask questions without answers because we are unsatisfied with things like the existence of suffering and evil, and sometimes we just want someone to complain to. The complaint means I have to listen, but I usually don’t have to solve that problem.
A popular question has to do with whether God answers prayer.
If you have prayed long enough maybe you know that the answer is yes. Yes, if you ask something of God it will really happen. Or — you might add the caveat, it will happen, but not in the way you expect. The olympics of equivocation have begun. Eventually the harder questions come. Well, what happens if you pray for healing, desperately and someone you love dies? Or, what happens when bad things occur regardless, and you’re left wondering the use at all? You may have received something like God’s peace that passes all understanding, but that’s not really what you were asking for.
Jesus tells a story about our need for prayer. A vulnerable widow begs an unjust judge for a settlement. And despite a lack of integrity on the part of the judge, justice is granted. Jesus says, just so, will God who is good not answer your prayers?
This is one answer; except that it’s actually a rhetorical question. We assume the answer is yes. We hope the answer is yes.
This story, from the Gospel of Luke, comes with an explanatory note: “Jesus told (his disciples) a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). The story doesn’t really say that God answers all our prayers. It advises us not to lose heart. Why do we lose heart?
We lose heart when we hear words like running out of treatment options.
We lose heart because there is no one with which we can share the deepest parts of ourselves.
We lose heart with the intractable brokenness of the political system that seems to get further from resolution by the day.
We lose heart because there doesn’t seem like anything can make us feel welcomed, or loved, or whole.
If you look at the state of the world, if you look at the state of our lives sometimes, the question might be why we have hope at all.
Maybe it all turns on a question: will my prayer really work? Because if it doesn’t it becomes difficult to not lose heart.
Following God means we often hold two conflicting realities in our heads at the same time. We confess things like we know who God is or what God wants us to do. This sort of knowledge gives us the confidence to pray, asking God for wisdom or vision, guidance or help. But at the same time— and as these prayers show — there is always a part of God that remains hidden, unknowable. This means that often the ways we speak of God are from a posture of humility and unknowing.
The Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon described our perspective on God and this aspect of faith, God’s unknowability, as if we were like oysters trying to understand the ballet. Or, as Augustine put it, thinking about God is like trying to see your own eyeballs. You have a basic understanding of the way things are, but you can’t get to the truth behind it. That alone belongs to God.
The writer Frederick Buechner tells the story of someone questioning a person about his decision to go into the ministry. “’I HEAR YOU ARE entering the ministry,’ the woman said down the long table, meaning no real harm. ‘Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?’”
Buechner writes, “And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else's. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring in the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and could not even name the name for sure.”
Is it an answered prayer? Or a response from God? It’s something, even if he can’t “name the name for sure.”
Sometimes something is enough for lost hearts to find themselves again.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.