I remember the first time I prayed for something that wasn’t answered. I was four years old. I saw a green Power Ranger watch at the mall. In my mind, there was nothing I needed more.
As I went to sleep that night I closed my eyes and prayed it would be under my pillow the next morning, in true tooth fairy fashion. I don’t recall the exact case I made before God, but I felt strongly enough to remember this twenty-five years later.
It’s no surprise the watch was not under my pillow the next morning. It’s a good thing I didn’t express to my parents how badly I wanted it. A moment of generosity on their part might have reinforced some strange notions about prayer at that point in my development.
I’ll never forget that feeling of, “Well, I guess that’s not how it works.” I’ve felt variations of that throughout my life. Prayer can be a complicated concept when we try to fathom our interaction and even influence on who or what we call God.
For those of you who grew up in a faith tradition, do you recall a time where it seemed simple? God was always listening, concerned with our deepest desires, needs, longings, hurts. God’s response to any petition was simply “yes, no, not now.”
Have you heard the common retorts when questioning the purpose and power of prayer? His ways are higher than ours. God has a plan and a purpose. He doesn’t give us what we want, he gives us what we need.
You acknowledge those things are true, but there is still the nagging feeling in the back of your mind, “Is anyone out there?” The mending of a relationship, physical healing, the ending of suffering—these are good things to ask for but are more often than not met with “no” and “not now.”
And how often are the “yes” answers for far less noble requests? I saw a sign on the back of a truck the other day that read, “This business runs on God’s blessings.” Ask and you’ll receive, name it claim it—they’re all concepts that are easy to accept when they coincidentally result in good fortune.
But why would God inject prosperity into the lives of those business people and ignore the pleas of a single mom who is struggling to support her family, working tirelessly and never seeming to get ahead? Did she not say the right words? Does God not love her as much?
I’ll be honest, the concept of God “answering” prayer challenges me in a very deep philosophical sense these days. Why answer mine and not others? Why answer others and not mine? Why answer any? If some suffering can be relieved, why not all? “How long, O Lord?” the Psalmist questions, too.
Confession—this would typically be the point in the post where I’ve built up enough pain and tension and defined the problem to the point where you’re wondering what the answer is, where to go from here. Then I provide a concise answer, and we all move on. To be very transparent, I really just don’t know.
If I did know, I would probably be an international best-selling author. I haven’t solved the problem of pain. I haven’t worked out the mechanics of the mystery of God’s interaction with our world. But I did recently come across a piece of wisdom that has helped me greatly,
“Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a stance. It’s a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence, and even of enjoying the Presence. The full contemplative is not just aware of the Presence, but trusts, allows, and delights in it. All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so we can be present.”
Richard Rohr writes in his book, Everything Belongs, about a different perspective on the way we primarily think about prayer. The idea of being present resonates with me, particularly when I think about Jesus being incarnated. He didn’t come in a powerful, militaristic fashion to overthrow the oppressive government.
He came in humility to be with His people. He came to suffer, to walk in a human shell, to be limited, to experience pain. To feel loss and to have an upset stomach. To heal the blind but to weep from his own eyes. All of divinity and all humanity resided in one being. Emmanuel—God with us—fully present.
I think one of the “illusions” I am shedding to be present is the idea of prayer as anything but “trusting, allowing, delighting.” There are things I’ve wanted to change. God hasn’t emerged like a genie from the bottle I keep rubbing.
No, God is better than a wish granter, tooth fairy, Santa Clause, Daddy Warbucks. God is God—mysterious, never fully known but only loved, with us, in the stillness when we trust, allow, delight. And to me, that’s better.