It’s not a new question; indeed, it’s one of the oldest questions. And I have no fresh insight to bring to it either; it is a deep, profound, and serious matter of faith and theology, whereas my thinking at the moment is self-centered, mean, even a little angry. Still, tonight it’s my question nonetheless.
For the past couple of months, I have fasted and prayed for a certain blessing–a job–which we really need. Today, I learned that I will not receive it. Why not? Lots of possible answers there. But, in light of my pleadings with the Lord, and in connection with everything that I’ve read or been taught during my life as a member of the church about the consequences of such pleadings, I think I can identify several more-or-less coherent (which is not to say necessarily doctrinal or edifying) answers. First there is the God Didn’t Answer My Prayer category; then there is the counterintuitive God Did Answer My Prayer category. Allow me to lay them out.
God Didn’t Answer My Prayer…
1) …because God only answers the prayers of the righteous, and I wasn’t. Which is true; if answers to prayers are conditioned upon our obedience to the Lord’s commandments, then there is a multitude of ways in which I quite specifically did not uphold my end of things, whether in thought or word or deed.
An important variation is: 1a) …because God only helps those who help themselves, and I didn’t. Did I do everything in my power to warrant this blessing? Study it out enough? Prepare myself enough? Did I pay my dues, go to the right schools, meet the right people, make the right choices, work hard enough, publish enough, teach enough, stay up late working often enough? No? Then where do I get off complaining?
2) …because I didn’t pray the right way, or with sufficient faith. Did I bring the Lord a sacrifice in prayer, or make a covenant promise with Him? Did I ever stay on my knees all day and all night, like Enos, until the Lord responded? No? Well then, again: what right do I have to complain?
3) …because it wasn’t a righteous request. Which perhaps it wasn’t! I mean, I say my family needed it, but really: it’s not like we don’t have food on our table. No, isn’t it more true to say I wanted this blessing for the sake of my ego, my career? If so, then it was a self-interested–and thus by definition unrighteous–prayer.
4) …because God knows what’s best for me…
Which takes two forms:
4a) …and right now, refusing my requests is what is needed. Let’s face it; I’m often an arrogant SOB. I need to be humbled. This is the way it’s going to happen.
4b) …and for the time being, the Lord needs me and/or my family here in Jonesboro, AR. There is a work to be done, either by me and/or my family or at least in some way involving me and/or my family, and God will keep us here until it happens.
5) …because God doesn’t answer those sort of prayers. Get real! All while I was praying and fasting about my stupid desire, righteous and innocent and needful men and women around the world were pleading with the Lord for lives to be saved, for addictions to be overcome, for wars to end, for rain to fall, for evil to be thwarted. People crying out in pain, in despair, suffering oppression or violence or madness, enduring disease and famine and cruelty and abuse: these are the prayers God (sometimes) answers. Honestly, God couldn’t care less whether I have this job or that, so I should just stop pestering him about it and work out my own problems myself.
6) …because God doesn’t answer prayers. Not really, anyway. The hard truth is, faith-promoting stories to the contrary, our God is not, in fact, a petitionary God; He cannot be made, through faith or works or any combination thereof, to do something that He was not going to do anyway. Prayer is ritual, an expression of faith, a form of testimony; it is not an open-ended working out of one’s future, for that has already been determined. Either I was going to get this blessing, or I wasn’t, and prayer wasn’t going to change anything. As it happened, God wasn’t planning on giving it to me (presumably for reasons covered in 4a or 4b). So there you go.
God Did Answer My Prayer…
7) …only the blessing He’s given me is an even greater one, awaiting the right moment. Next year (or the year after), an even better job will be available, and it has my name written all over it. I just have to be patient–remember, we’re talking about the Lord’s timetable, not mine.
8) …only I wrongly assume that Lord’s answers actually consist of the things asked for. Not so! The “answer” to my prayer is the peaceful feeling I (should) have in my heart, it’s the confidence which tells me that my words have been heard. It’s the beautiful sunrise, Alison’s five-month-old laugh, the appreciation expressed by a student, friends over for dinner. How can I say that my wishes haven’t been answered, when I can see God all around me?
I’m pretty certain that I have believed, at one time or another, every single one of these to be true doctrine, sometimes even simultaneously, as incoherent as that may sound. None of them provide me with any solace at the moment; but then I didn’t expect them to. Any that I’ve left off? Any that are clearly without scriptural or theological support? I’d like to be able to dismiss either 1a (pure works righteousness) or 6 (pure predestination), but something tells me that, in our attempts to make sense of God’s will, one or the other of these will always provide the final refuge for any unfulfilled faith.