Unanswered prayers

By George Clifford

Benny Hinn, a purported Christian faith healer whose ministry grosses in excess of one hundred million dollars per year, recently held a healing service in Raleigh that thousands attended. Afterwards, the Raleigh newspaper featured a story that did not surprise me. Someone hoping for a healing had attended Hinn’s service but left disappointed. That incident highlights what we already know: prayer is neither as simple nor automatic as a prima facie reading of passages like this one suggest:

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Indeed, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the bishops at Lambeth, and many Anglicans have spent much time praying for Anglican unity, which remains an ever more elusive goal. Globally, many Christians fervently and frequently pray for war to end, a request that would improve the world and keep us or loved ones out of harm’s way. If only life were that easy!

So, what do those troublesome scriptures about the certainty of prayer really mean?

During seminary studies prior to ordination, I learned the orthodox Christian response to that question. God sometimes chooses not to grant our prayer requests because to do so would require God to abrogate human freedom. Sometimes this makes sense. For example, a drug addict suffers the physical, personal, and social consequences of addiction because he or she chose to abuse an addictive substance. The only way that God could end that suffering requires divorcing the action – misusing drugs – from its consequences. Those consequences are generally essential elements of a successful recovery. The addict must hit bottom, or at least an artificially constructed bottom, before intervention and recovery can succeed in freeing the person from addiction. For the addict, the redemptive power of suffering inherently leads to healing.

Generally, I find the explanation of God not granting our petitions to preserve human freedom unsatisfying. Some suffering exceeds any possible redemptive value or other good. Poignant examples of this include genocides like the Holocaust and incurable, debilitating diseases that inflict a good person, innocent child, or entire third world village. Although some good can arise out of such situations, more often unmitigated, non-redemptive suffering continues in the face of persistent, collective prayer. Why would an all-powerful God allow that to happen?

During further studies, I discovered an alternative explanation of continued suffering in the face of persistent, collective, godly prayer. Some contemporary Christian theologians, disproportionately Anglican, propose that traditional ideas about God’s omnipotence are incorrect. Perhaps in creating the cosmos, God lost (or never had) the power to do anything at any time. God must therefore rely upon human cooperation to accomplish God’s purposes on earth. God abhors evil and suffering, but both persist, even after we persevere in collective prayer, because you and I fail to act as God’s hands, feet, and voice.

Attracted to this new understanding of God, I did some research. Only two Bible verses explicitly speak of God’s omnipotence denoting a God for whom nothing was impossible. In Luke 1:37, Mary responds to the angel’s annunciation of her imminent pregnancy by saying, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus saying, “All things are possible with God” (19:26). Like most Christians, I am very skeptical of placing too much emphasis on just a couple of Bible verses. Perhaps both passages reflect a first century cultural and scientific worldview rather than timeless theological insight. I also found that the widespread practice of addressing God as the Almighty might not be a theological statement. Biblical scholars have concluded that ancient Israelites appropriated the term God Almighty, or in Hebrew El Shaddai, from their Mesopotamian neighbors. The Hebrews seem to have used the term to emphasize their monotheism rather than God’s omnipotence.

In this post-Christian era, the Church must bravely and honestly admit points at which traditional conceptions of its faith no longer make sense. We do exactly what the Bible seems to tell us to do. We pray. We pray with one another. We pray according to the mind of Christ. Yet God does not always grant our requests. Not squarely acknowledging these difficulties leads us down the path of Benny Hinn, not of Christ Jesus. Too often, I have heard well-meaning but ignorant Christians tell those who grieve that God did not or will not heal a loved one because God respects human freedom. These words hurt rather than comfort. Dishonest or disingenuous answers to faith’s difficulties only push true seekers further from God.

A power exists that changes lives, a power that turns bread and wine into an encounter with absolute love incarnated in human community, a power that transforms despair into hope, defeat into victory, weakness into strength. When our puny human minds believe that we have successfully packaged that power into a well-conceptualized God, such as the omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent God of Christian orthodoxy, we invariably even if unintentionally imagine an idol. The controversy currently convulsing the Anglican Communion is the living God shattering one such idol as God’s people discover that God does not respect gender orientation any more than God respects race, nationality, or gender.

God’s continuing activity in the world, and God’s open invitation for us to partner with God in that continuing activity, represents the realistic promise of a better future. Prayer makes a difference. The dynamics of prayer may not be as simplistic or automatic as the gospel reading seems to suggest. However, this does not mean that we should cease to pray or abandon our faith. Holocaust survivor Wiesel wrote in his essay, “Why Pray”:

God does not need our prayers. We need them. We need to be able to pray in sincerity and beauty. And the prayer should not be against somebody but always for somebody. That is a true prayer, when it is for some one else, not for yourself.

The Rev. George Clifford, a retired priest in the Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

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