Unanswered Prayers

By Rev. Chris Jorgensen

September 19, 2021

Video of Entire Service: https://www.facebook.com/hanscomparkchurch/videos/1489068461446118

Scripture: Matthew 26:36-45

photo of feet with stained glass reflection on the floor and a mask on the ground

So, last week I promised you that this Sunday, we would attempt to answer this very hard question: why doesn’t God answer my prayers in the way that I desire? It is a question being asked this morning by many members of Husker nation. Too soon?

I will confess that I did briefly consider preaching on something else and just hoping you would forget, but that service was recorded and streamed to the whole world. So here we are. Hard question week, it is.

Why doesn’t God answer my prayers in the way I desire? I mean, my prayers are for very good things, and I am sure that your prayers are as well. Mine are for the physical, mental, and spiritual health of people I love. They are for the coming of peace and justice in the world. They are for very good things.

I’m also sure that you, like me, have asked for these things sincerely and faithfully. I am certain of it. I don’t think our prayers have lacked some magic component. I think our prayers have been acceptable, even lovingly received by God.

Why doesn’t God answer our prayers in the way we desire?

I’m going to start by following Fr. James Martin on this from his book, Learning to Pray. In it, he goes through the various ways sometimes people answer this question. So, according to Father Martin, why doesn’t God answer our prayers in the way we desire? He writes, and I quote, “The short answer is that we have no idea…I will not sugarcoat this aspect of the spiritual life. We will probably never understand why it seems that some prayers are answered and others are not.”[1] 

Well, that’s not very satisfying.

Luckily, he says more, starting with “But I don’t have to understand God to believe in God.”[2] Fr. Martin does not stop there. He does try to help us understand. One answer people sometimes suggest is “God answers our prayers, but God does so with what is best for us.” This is appealing. It affirms that God has a more universal understanding of what is going on in the world than we do and knows better than we do. Perhaps there can be some benefit to not having our prayers answered – like if we don’t get the job we were praying for, but we get a better job at a later time. Maybe God knew that better job was a possibility for us.

But Fr. Martin writes, and I agree, that this “has far less appeal in serious situations.”[3] He uses the example of a child who is not cured from cancer. In this case, God using a child’s cancer for some other purpose…well, as Fr. Martin says, it makes God either at best “trickster” or a “sadist.” I would probably use the word monster. I’m with Fr. Martin when he says that the approach of “God could answer our prayers but allows suffering because suffering is good for us” ultimately fails if we believe in a loving God.

Fr. Martin lands on this bottom line: “God doesn’t answer our prayers in the way that we would like, and why remains a mystery.”[4] I think this is an okay answer. I definitely leave room for mystery in my faith. Ultimately, I know that our human attempts to understand God always fall short of the full reality of who God is with us and for us. There is mystery.

Yet, I think about this a lot. I thought it might be helpful to you just to hear how I work out the problem of my unanswered prayers. There’s no one perfect answer, and there isn’t agreement among theologians who frankly, especially classical theologians, kind of land on this. They say, “Yep, God doesn’t answer your prayers the way you want, and that causes immense suffering. You just need to believe that God is omnipotent and immutable and omniscient, and if you don’t like it, you can suck an egg.” 

Okay, they don’t say that last part, but that’s the feeling I get.

The problem with these descriptors (omnipotent and immutable and omniscient) is that they leave out the most important one: God is loving. God loves. God is love. We all agree about that, right?

So if God loves us…if God loves us more than we can ever possibly imagine or understand…if God loves us like a perfectly loving Mother or Father or Parent, then I just don’t think it makes sense that God desires for us to suffer. I just think that there are times that suffering is unavoidable – that even God can’t save us from our suffering.

Let’s start exploring that by looking at today’s scripture.

Here we’ve got Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He’s there with his disciples, and he’s kind of walked off to the side with Peter and the two sons of Zebedee. He begins to be grieved and agitated. Jesus is suffering here. He says to his friends, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” So Jesus goes a little ways away from them, throws himself on the ground and prays, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” 

Let’s look at this. Jesus is praying. He addresses God as a loving Father, and he, asks in deep grief, it is possible, let this cup pass from me. In other words, God, if it is possible, save me from this. Save me from having to be crucified. That’s what Jesus is asking here.

Then Jesus adds, “yet not what I want but what you want.”

After that, he goes and talks to his friends (who had fallen asleep), and then he prays again, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Then he talks to his sleeping friends again, and the text says he prays one more time the same way:

“My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.”

Jesus’ prayer seems to move from “save me from this thing happening” to “I see that this thing is going to happen. May your will be done.”

I have prayed like this. Have you ever prayed like this? I have prayed like this years ago when my dad had his first heart surgery, more recently when he had his stroke, when my daughter was in the hospital. I have prayed, “God, if it is possible, take this cup from me.” I do not want this thing to happen. God, stop it from happening. Save me from it.

Then, when it became clear that miraculous healing was not in the cards for me or my loved one, I have said, “Okay God, get me through it, heal them in whatever way you can, and let some good come out of it – even if I can’t see it now.” 

I know it’s unusual for a pastor to say this out loud, but I do believe that God can’t do some things. I’m following a theologian who I am lucky to call a friend here. His name is Dr. Thomas Jay Oord. He’s a Nazarene – which is another branch of the Wesleyan family tree. Methodists and Nazarenes are like cousins.

Tom’s work has helped me make sense and meaning out of the unavoidable suffering in my life. First, in my understanding, there are some things God can’t do unilaterally with a snap of God’s cosmic fingers. Firstly, this is because God has no cosmic fingers.[5] As Oord writes, God, who has no body, no physical presence, only acts through creation. God needs our bodies and the activity of all creatures in order to affect change in the world.

Furthermore, God only acts through uncontrolling love.[6] It’s powerful, but it is always 1) uncontrolling (because creation has free will) and 2) it is always love. Oord calls this “amipotence” – the power of love. God doesn’t force humans or any part of creation to act in a certain way. 

But God does influence creation, through what my process theology professor in seminary called “the lure.” God lures us, God invites us, God woos us and all of creation to move toward ever-greater wholeness and abundance. God is omnipresent and influences all of creation, all the time. But creation is free, and so sometimes it responds in the direction God calls it, and sometimes it does not.

This understanding allows for miracles! If all of the creatures (from cells on up) involved in any given situation respond to God’s lure & influence in the right way at the right time, miracles can happen. I will confess that it is actually hard for me to believe, and I know that some of you (and some of my clergy colleagues) are better at believing in miracles than I am, and I am grateful for you. You keep me praying that first prayer that Jesus shows us in the garden. God, save me from this! Fix this! Those bold prayers are important.

But I am also saved daily by Jesus’ second prayer. If I can’t get out of this, then at least, my loving God, your will be done.

See, what I believe is that God can sustain us through unavoidable suffering. When God can’t save us from suffering, God saves us right there in the suffering through God’s radically loving and comforting presence and through God’s promise that, as our offering song says, “one day [God] will set all things right.”

Here’s how I answer the question of unanswered prayers and suffering in this life. Sometimes God can’t save us from the suffering, but God can always save us in the suffering. That’s because I believe that whatever awful thing might be happening in my life, God knows my pain. God, who in Jesus suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane, who also wanted to get out of suffering if it was at all possible…that is the God who knows me and holds me in all of my trials, in all of my hardship, in all of my pain.

I also believe my suffering has meaning. Like Jesus’ suffering had meaning. He suffered, and it mattered. Even though God couldn’t take his suffering away, he accepted it because he knew it was going to make an incredible difference.

As a Christian, I believe Jesus’ suffering and resurrection was a pivot point. It was the pivot point. It was the day that creation turned. It turned from a path toward brokenness and destruction to a path toward wholeness and life. And now, we are on that path with Jesus.

One day all of creation will move in concert with God’s desires. One day, we will all be free from suffering. We will have love and peace and plenty. 

I am very aware that we have not reached that day yet. 

But whatever is happening to us, God is present holding us…and we can respond in ways that make our suffering (like Jesus’ suffering) part of God’s movement toward wholeness – not just for ourselves but for the people we love and all people and all of creation.

Thanks be to God who is holding us and saving us, even now.

Amen.

[1] Martin, James. Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone. New York: HarperCollins, 2021. p. 109, 111.

[2] Martin, p. 111.

[3] Martin, p. 113.

[4] Martin, p. 114.

[5] Oord, Thomas Jay. Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas. Grasmere, ID: SacraSage Press, 2021. p. 84.

[6] Oord, p. 82.

 

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