Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Why Doesn't God Answer Prayers?

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 11:1-13:

Today in our series of looking at our why questions we tackle the question that most Christians have asked at least at one point in their life, “Why do my prayers go unanswered?”  It’s a question that we ask because sometimes we feel impotent in our prayers.  We pray and pray, just like we are told to, and yet nothing seems to be happening.  We are told about people’s illnesses being miraculously cured and all the credit given to God because of prayer, and yet the people we pray for are not miraculously healed, the people we pray to survive die, the problems we pray about at work are still a problem, the child we pray for that God will protect or will lead to the right path just keep on doing the same thing, and so we wonder, are we doing something wrong?  or maybe prayer just doesn’t work at all, and so we contemplate giving it up altogether, and maybe some of us have even done that.

If you are to do a Google search for why God doesn’t answer prayers, depending on how you phrase the question, you’ll get somewhere between 3 million and 60 million hits, and some of the answers are what you would expect.  There is the old cliche that God answers all prayers with yes, no or maybe, not really helpful.  They say that prayers aren’t answered because we aren’t seeking God’s will, maybe.  Other answers are a little less charitable.  God didn’t answer our prayers because we have sinned.  In fact one website said, and I quote, “We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners.”  I pray that’s not the case because then I know that God is not listening to me, but I know it’s not the case.  When we have communion later this morning, we will hear Paul’s words from Romans, that “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners” and that proves God’s love for us. 

Another common refrain is that our prayers aren’t answered because we don’t have enough faith.  I’ve told this story before, but the minister who married Linda and I when he and his wife were expecting their first child, that she received a pamphlet that told her if she had enough faith, and prayed well enough, and properly enough, that she wouldn’t have any pains during childbirth.  And if you did have child birth pains, or worse your child was born with birth defects, then it was because you didn’t have enough faith.  Imagine explaining to someone that only if they had a little more faith, that their child would not have been born with a birth defect, or maybe if only they had more faith their child wouldn’t have died.  I’ll be honest, I think that God should sue for slander for most of the reasons we give for why prayers are not answered, because they are obscene and cruel, not just to God, but to those that we say these things to as well.

Jesus says that if we have faith as small as a mustard seed that we can say to a mountain move, and it will move.  Now I’ve never seen anyone do that, so how much faith do we really need for our prayers to be answered, what do these statements really mean?  Now I believe strongly in the power of prayer, I think it is first in the membership vows for a reason, but I do not believe that prayer works the way most people think it does.  If we were to get everything that we asked for, then there would be no deaths, because surely the most ardent prayers are those delivered for people facing death.  If we got everything we prayed for, then the world might be a really boring place, and how would that work anyways?  How would God decide the winner of the Super Bowl today, since there are invariably people who will be praying for both sides to win?  Would there be enough horses in the world to provide every little girl with their own pony? And how big would major league or NFL rosters have to be to allow every little boy who prays to play professional sports to fulfill that dream?  And could God make someone love you just because you prayed for it?  Once we really think about we realize how silly some ideas we come up with prayer really are.

But we still have to take account of the passages, like the one we heard today in which it appears that Jesus says that we will be granted anything we ask for.  In fact six times in scripture Jesus says something very similar to this, so what do we make of that, is that what Jesus said and meant or is there something else going on here?  First to start with, The Greek text does not really say “ask and you will receive.”  Instead, it says something like, ask and keep on asking, seek and keep on seeking, knock and keep on knocking.  The verb implies ongoing action.  This is not a onetime event, it is a constant activity.  There is also a command of boldness to this, which is what I think Jesus is saying here, and in his others passages.  Jesus used hyperbole a lot, and when we try to take hyperbole literally things break down.  

So, for example, if I was to say, “I’m so hungry I could eat a horse,” I really wouldn’t expect you to say to me, “you know John, we don’t eat horses around here,” or ask me how I could possibly eat an entire animal all at once.  You won’t say that because you understand it’s hyperbole.  Hyperbole allows us to make an gross overstatement in order to make a point, and this is something that Jesus does all the time.  Another example, Jesus says that if your hand causes you to sin to cut it off, and if your eye causes you to sin to gouge it out.  Now I don’t see a lot of one handed, one eyed people walking around, so I suspect we are not taking this literally, because it is hyperbole, again Jesus is trying to make a point, and I think he’s doing exactly the same thing here.

And if you don’t believe me notice that the disciples didn’t go off an pray that the Romans would suddenly disappear, and poof they were gone, or that suddenly there would be world peace, and there was, or that suddenly they would be wealthy and powerful, and they were.  They didn’t pray for those things because they didn’t expect that that was the way that prayer worked, and all we need to do to prove this further is to look for prayers that weren’t answered in scripture, and in the New Testament we find two fairly big ones.  The apostle Paul says that he was given a thorn in his side, what that was we don’t know although there is a lot of speculation, but Paul says that he prayed three times, and not just prayed but pleaded with God to have it removed, and it wasn’t.  and then there is Jesus’ prayer in the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus, on his knees, prays for God to take the cup from him, and it doesn’t happen.  But in each of those cases something does happen, and it is also what today’s passage says.  Jesus says that through prayer that we receive the Holy Spirit.  That means that every time that we pray all prayers are answered because God gives us the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit gives us what?  Power.  Paul is given the courage and strength to bear his thorn, and we are told that immediately after Jesus prayed for the cup to be taken that an angel appeared and he was given strength.

Jesus tells us to go to God in prayer boldly, but we also have to understand what prayer can and cannot do.  God is not going to grant prayers for things that we can and must do ourselves.  Someone asked me why God needs us to do things when God could easily do them by Godself, and the simple answer is because God won’t do things that we are told to do but are unwilling to do.  Or as St. Augustine said, without God we cannot, and without us God will not.  We cannot just pray for world peace, when God has given us the ability to solve that problem through our own actions.  We can’t just pray for God to end starvation, when God has given us the ability to solve that problem.  We cannot just pray for God to end racism, or injustice, when God has given us the ability to end those problems.  In 1952, there were 58,000 cases of polio in the United States alone, and people prayed for something to be done, and we created a vaccine, and last year there were 250 cases of polio in the entire world, and it is believed that within five years it will be eradicated.  We can’t just pray for miracles to happen, when we can cause miracles to happen, when we can be the miracle. 

But even though we might pray for miracles, especially medical miracles, I do not believe that is the purpose of prayer, and if that is how we are to judge it, then we will always think that prayer isn’t effective.  Rev. Adam Hamilton says that he has probably prayed for more than 30,000 people in need of prayer during his ministry, and of those he can count the number of people who appeared to be miraculously cured on two hands.  Not a very good return. But, what I have found is that when I pray for healing that healing is found, even if there is not a cure, and more importantly that when I, or others, pray for peace and strength and courage and grace, find those things in abundance and find the ability, the power, to move through things that they never thought possible, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit.

But what prayer also does is to connect us as a community, even though we often think of prayer as an individual thing, it is truly communal.  Notice that the Lord’s Prayer does not use personal pronouns, but instead we prayer, “Our Father,” and “give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses.”  The Lord’s Prayer which is given to us when the disciples ask to be taught how to pray, is given in the third person plural.  Prayer not only connects us with God in a deep and meaningful way, but it also connects us with each other.  When we lift up our prayer concerns, when we pray for others, including many people we have never even met, we are reminded that we are not in this alone, that we are not isolated, that we are not abandoned either by God or by God’s people.  In fact what we find out about prayer is that we are to pray boldly, understanding what prayer can and cannot do, but also knowing that every prayer connects us with God and it connects us with each other, and in the end every prayer is answered because when we ask, and keep on asking, search and keep on searching, and knock and keep on knocking, then we receive not necessarily what we ask for, but instead we are given the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit gives us what?  Power, and strength, and peace and assurance and healing and grace, and in that sense every prayer is answered.

Just like last week, I am again going to give the last word to Rabbi Harold Kushner who relates a story in his book
When Bad Things Happen to Good People about a young woman who challenged him about prayer after her husband had died of cancer.  “She told me that while he was terminally ill, she prayed for his recovery,” he says.  “Her parents, her in-laws, and her neighbors all prayed.  A protestant neighbor invoked the prayer circle of her church, and a Catholic neighbor sought the intercession of  St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.  Every variety, language, and idiom of prayer was mustered on his behalf, and none of them worked.  He died right on schedule, leaving her and her young children bereft of a husband and father.  After all that, she said to me, how can anyone be expected to take prayer seriously?

"Is it really true, I asked her, that your prayers were not answered?  Your husband died; there was no miraculous cure for his illness.  But what did happen?  Your friends and relatives prayed; Jews, Catholics, and Protestant prayed.  At a time when you felt so desperately alone, you found out that you were not alone at all.  You found out how many other people were hurting for you and with you, and that is no small thing.  They were trying to tell you that this was not happening to you because you were a bad person.  It was just a rotten, unfair thing that no one could help.  They were trying to tell you that your husband’s life meant a lot to them too, … and that whatever happened to him, you would not be totally alone.  That is what their prayers were saying, and I suspect that it made a difference."

"And what about your prayers?, I asked her.  Were they left unanswered?  You faced a situation that could have easily broken your spirit.... [yet] somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken.  You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things….  You faced a scary situation, prayed for help, and found out that you were a lot stronger, and a lot better able to handle it, than you ever would have thought you were.  In your desperation, you opened your heart, to prayer, and what happened?  You didn’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy.  But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy.  I offer that as an example of a prayer being answered.”  Amen, amen and amen.

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