Arts and Culture

The Subject of Apparently ‘Unanswered Prayers’

Fourth in a series

Reflecting on my experience of reading Learning to Pray, the new book by Father James Martin, S.J., I have become aware of how different sections of the book appealed to me in different ways. I initially decided to read the book because I desired to learn. That desire was fulfilled countless times as I learned both from Father Martin’s vast experience and his insights into prayer and also from the numerous authors he quotes throughout his book.

“None of us know how prayer works for the simple reason that none of us are God.”
(Photo: CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Reading Learning to Pray was like encountering a library of books about prayer, each author offering vital insights. At times while reading the book I was informed and inspired and at other times I was provoked and challenged. Never did I find the book boring.

Often I was moved to think through my own view of prayer, what I thought about prayer, whether I did or did not agree with what Father Martin had written. That was especially true while I was reading a section devoted to the questions surrounding prayers that seem to go unanswered.

The section of his book that Father Martin devotes to what he calls unanswered prayer is the one section that I might disagree with at least slightly. The reason that I write ‘might disagree’ is because prayer is so mysterious that if Jim and I sat down to discuss what he refers to as “unanswered prayers,” I might discover that we really don’t disagree.

Jim writes the following:

“One of the most important questions in the spiritual life is: What happens when we don’t get what we pray for?…

Before answering that question, we have to ask other questions: How does prayer work? That is, how does God hear our prayers and how does God answer them?”

The short answer is that we have no idea. None of us know how prayer works for the simple reason that none of us are God.

Yet Christians and Jews have always believed that God hears our prayers. The Psalms speak of God as the ‘one who answers prayers,’ and Jesus asks us to express our prayers to God. This is a constitutive part of the Jewish and Christian tradition. And to use some simple theology, if God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving Creator of the universe, it is surely not beyond God’s capacity to hear our prayers all of them. Our human minds, however, cannot comprehend how this can be, or what it means.” (pp.108-109)

The possible difference between Jim’s view of “unanswered prayers” is that I do not believe that there is any such reality as a prayer that is unanswered.

God is all ‘yes’ in relation to us.

Obviously, some of our prayers are not answered in the way that we would like them to be answered, but I believe not only that they are in some way answered but however they are answered is better than the way we wanted to be answered.

I am going to use two examples to try to make a little more clear what I am claiming. Let us imagine that I am praying to teach a special course at St. John’s University and I want to teach the course from the highest motive: I really believe that the way I will teach the course will profit the students a great deal. Let us also imagine that I am praying for someone who is seriously sick and her illness seems to be devastating her family.

Imagine that I do not get chosen to teach the course and the person for whom I am praying does not get well. I believe that, though my prayers were not answered in the way I desired, they were answered and answered in a way better than I had desired. Can I explain how they were answered? No. Can I explain why I think they were answered in a way better than I hoped? I think I can. Everything I believe about God tells me that there cannot be a prayer that God does not hear and there cannot be a sincere prayer that God does not answer in some way, and the way is better than I had hoped.

It is not unlikely that in praying sincerely for the course and for the sick person my relationship with God was deepened. I did not get the course but I did get God! Though the person who is ill does not regain health, who can guess how God will use my prayers for the person who is ill?

As millions and millions of prayers are offered to God, in His infinite love God answers every single one. I think God wants everyone to be in a deep relation with God. None of those millions and millions of prayers are wasted.

I guess the bottom line is God is Love and always wants what is best for us. That does not solve the mystery of prayer but it should help us to trust and hope.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.

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