Unanswered Prayer Living with the Mystery by Philip Yancey

Unanswered Prayer Living with the Mystery by Philip Yancey

All the quotations below are from Philip Yancey’s book, “Prayer: Does It make Any Difference?” published in 2006.

O that thou shouldst give dust a tongue

     To crie to thee

And then not heare it crying!

          George Herbert

     Some, but not all, unanswered prayers trace back to a fault in the one who prays. Some, but not all, trace back to God’s mystifying respect for human freedom and refusal to coerce. Some, but not all, trace back to dark powers contending against God’s rule. Some, but not all, trace back to a planet marred with disease, violence and the potential for tragic accident. How, then, can we make sense of any single experience of unanswered prayer?

     I take odd comfort in the fact that the Bible itself includes numerous prayers that went unanswered. Although we can only speculate why God does not answer a given prayer, these biblical examples lay down useful clues.

• After leading the Israelites through the wilderness for forty years, Moses pleaded with God to allow him to accompany them across the Jordan River before he died. God refused this request in punishment for Moses’ past outbursts, which so rankled Moses that four times in his speeches to the Israelites in Deuteronomy he lashed out, blaming them for God’s refusal. On other occasions Moses had talked God into `changing his mind’. Not this time.

• King David spent a week, prostrate and spurning all food, praying that his infant son not die. As a consequence of his grievous sin, that prayer went unanswered: David and Bathsheba lost the child. Nevertheless, their next union led to the birth of Solomon, who would rule over Israel’s Golden Age.

• Four characters in the Old Testament—Moses, Job, Jonah and Elijah—actually prayed to die. Fortunately for them, God ignored their requests.

• Several times the armies of Israel prayed for victory over their enemies, only to suffer humiliating defeats. Each event prompted soul-searching. Did the army act precipitously, against God’s orders? Had some soldier committed a war crime that displeased God?

• The prophet Habbakuk prayed for deliverance from the Babylonians; Jeremiah prayed that Jerusalem not be destroyed. Both prophets’ prayers went unanswered, and each struggled to explain the reason to a defeated nation. `You have covered yourself with a cloud so that no prayer can get through,’ lamented the prophet in a book aptly titled Lamentations.

     I have mentioned some of the twelve disciples’ inappropriate prayers, such as calling for fire from heaven against a town. In one instance the disciples proved unable to perform a miracle of healing and seemed puzzled by the failure (see Mark 9 and Matthew 17). Jesus used the opportunity to rebuke their lack of faith. Although the disciples’ prayers had gone unanswered, clearly it was God’s will that the boy be healed, for Jesus then accomplished what they could not.

     The apostle Paul had his share of unanswered prayers: you need only read his luminous prayers for churches and then read the sad record of those churches to realise how far short they fell of the ideal for which he prayedIn his most famous unanswered prayer, Paul pleaded with the Lord three times for the removal of the `thorn in my flesh’. In a model response to a negative answer, he put behind him the disappointment of not getting what he wanted and instead accepted what he got:

     Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

     Not even Jesus was exempt from unanswered prayer. In Gethsemane Jesus prayed with both the faith of protest and the faith of acquiescenceHe turned for help first to God, pleading `let this cup pass’; then to his friends, who were sound asleep; then to the religious rulers, who accused him; then to the state, which sentenced him; then to the people, who rejected him. Finally he uttered that awful cry of dereliction, `My God, why have you forsaken me?’ For C.S. Lewis, that sequence of helplessness illustrates `the human situation writ large … Every rope breaks when you seize it. Every door is slammed shut as you reach it.’

     From these unanswered prayers I gain a glimmer of insight into the riddle of prayer. What if David’s son had lived, and reigned as king instead of Solomon? What if the prophets’ prayers had been answered and Israel had established itself as a world power, its citizens holding their religion tight to their chests, unshared with the world? What if Paul had been healed, making him a more agile missionary perhaps but one of insufferable pride as he feared? Finally, what if Jesus had received the answer he prayed for in a moment of dread? His rescue would have meant the planet’s ruin.

     C.S. Lewis observes:

     The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted. And if an infinitely wise Being listens to the requests of finite and foolish creatures, of course He will sometimes grant and sometimes refuse them. Invariable `success’ in prayer would not prove the Christian doctrine at all. It would prove something much more like magic.

     It is not unreasonable for a headmaster to say, `Such and such things you may do according to the fixed rules of this school. But such and such other things are too dangerous to be left to general rules. If you want to do them you must come and make a request and talk over the whole matter with me in my study. And then—we’ll see.’

Sweeping Promises

     As Lewis acknowledged, the real problem lies not in the fact of refusal but in the Bible’s lavish promises. In a nutshell, the main difficulty with unanswered prayers is that Jesus seemed to promise there need not be any.

     Jesus could have said something like this: `I am bestowing the gift of prayer. You must realise, of course, that humans cannot have perfect wisdom, so there are limits as to whether your prayers will be answered. Prayer operates like a suggestion box. Spell out your requests clearly to God, and I guarantee that all requests will be carefully considered.’ That kind of statement about prayer I can easily live with. Instead, here is what Jesus said:

`I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt … you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea”, and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.’

`Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.’

`Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.’

`You may ask me for anything in my name and I will do it.’

     These represent just a sampling of the New Testament’s sweeping claims made in plain language. Some preachers seize on these passages as a kind of club, flogging the church for not taking them literally and faulting believers for having too little faith. But how to account for the unanswered prayers of Jesus and Paul? And how can we reconcile the lavish promises with the actual experience of so many sincere Christians who struggle with unanswered prayer?

     One possible explanation centres in the specific group of people to whom Jesus was talking: the disciples. Could it be that Jesus gave the Twelve, handpicked to carry on the work after his death, certain rights and privileges in prayer that would not be normative for every follower? The Gospel writers do not explicitly say, `These commands apply to the disciples only’, but they do specify in each case that Jesus was speaking to his intimate disciples, not a large crowd.

     Jesus invested in the disciples a unique discernment into God’s will. `Everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you,’ he told them at the Last Supper. After spending three years schooled directly by Jesus, they would presumably have a good idea of which prayers would further God’s purpose on earth and which would be capricious or self-serving. (Yet the letters credited to Peter and John show that prayer did not operate like magic for the disciples either. Those two, like Paul, expressed frustration over developments in the church contrary to their prayers. And historians tell of the martyrdom of ten of the disciples. Surely the prayer `let this cup pass’ must have run through their minds at some point.)

            Another explanation focuses on the `fine print’ that modifies the lavish promises. Virtually all of them contain a qualifier, such as `whatever you ask in my name’, or `If you remain in me and my words remain in you’. The assurance of answered prayers, still sweeping in its scope, comes with conditions. Am I abiding in Christ? Am I making requests according to his will? Am I obeying his commands? Each of these underscores the relationship, the companionship with God. The more we know God, the more we know God’s will, the more likely our prayers will align with that will.

     After pondering this problem for years, and discussing it with `about every Christian I know, learned or simple, lay or clerical, within my own Communion or without’, C.S. Lewis finally concluded that the kind of dauntless faith called for by Jesus `occurs only when the one who prays does so as God’s fellow-worker, demanding what is needed for the joint work. It is the prophet’s, the apostle’s, the missionary’s, the healer’s prayer that is made with this confidence . . . something of the divine foreknowledge enters his mind.’ In other words, one who works in close partnership with God grows in the ability to discern what God wants to accomplish on earth, and prays accordingly.

A Time to Wait

     In no way do I mean to dilute the majestic promises about prayer given by Jesus, James, John and others in the New Testament. God knows—truly, God knows—I need more of the bold and simple faith those passages call for. On the other hand, considering them in isolation leads to a `name it and claim it’ mentality that ignores much other revelation. The same Jesus who spoke of faith as a mustard seed also gave us the story about a widow wearing down a judge with her persistence. And all through the Bible spiritual giants wrestle with God in their prayers. As we have seen, Jesus himself set limits to the requests he made. `Take this cup,’ he asked, and then added the modifier about the Father’s will. He prayed that Peter’s faith would hold firm, but not that Peter avoid all testing. He declined to pray for angels’ help in rescuing him from execution.

     So, too, do we all set limits to our prayers. Some things we can ask for unconditionally, such as forgiveness, and compassion for the poor, and progress in growing the fruit of the Spirit. Other requests are conditional, such as Paul’s plea for relief from the `thorn’. Some we refrain from asking out of respect for the natural laws that govern the planet. I pray that God will help my uncle cope with diabetes, but not that God restore his amputated leg. Nor do I pray that God would shift the orbit of planet Earth to counteract global warming. Instead, I ask what my own role should be in helping my uncle and in addressing environmental concerns.

     I also learn, as I ponder the mystery of unanswered prayer, simply to wait.

The Lord is good unto them that wait for him …

But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.

     Daniel waited three weeks for an answer to his prayer. Seeking guidance in the midst of war, Jeremiah waited ten days before receiving an answer. After climbing Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments, Moses waited six days before hearing God’s voice. Jesus, too, waited. When he performed an impressive miracle, his followers wanted to spread the word immediately. Jesus hushed them: `My time has not yet come.’ He understood something about God that we impatient types overlook: God acts slowly.

     Think of the centuries that passed between the disruption caused by Adam and the reconciliation brought by Jesus: centuries that included Abraham’s waiting for a child, the Israelites’ waiting for liberation, the prophets’ waiting for Messiah. Biblical history tells a meandering, zigzag tale of doglegs and detours. God’s plan unfolds like a leisurely opera, not a top-40 tune. For those of us caught in any one phrase of the opera, especially a mournful phrase, the music may seem unbearably sad. Onward it moves, at deliberate speed and with great effort.

     The very tedium, the act of waiting itself, works to nourish in us qualities of patience, persistence, trust, gentleness, compassion—or it may do so, if we place ourselves in the stream of God’s movement on earth. It may take more faith to trust God when we do not get what we ask for than when we do. Is that not the point of Hebrews 11? That chapter includes the poignant comment that the heroes of faith were `commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised.’ It then intertwines their frustrated destiny with ours: `God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.’ Faith calls us to trust in a future-oriented God.

     Scoffers will call such a pledge into question, as the Bible freely admits. `They will say, “. .. Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation” . . . But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ With all the time in the world, God waits, tolerating the insults of human history out of mercy, not impotence.

     Even Psalms, the Bible’s prayer book so profuse with groans and laments, circles back repeatedly to the theme of God’s faithfulness. No matter how circumstances appear at any given moment, we can trust the fact that God still rules the universe. The divine reputation rests on a solemn pact that one day all shall be well.

The Surprise Factor

     I have a friend in Japan who provides resources to the underground Church in China and often worships among them. One day I asked her, `How do Chinese Christians pray? Do their prayers differ from what you hear in the US or Japan?’ She replied that the prayers closely follow the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer. The Church has spread most widely among the lower classes, and when they ask for daily bread and deliverance from evil, they mean it literally.

     She continued, `I’ve heard Chinese Christians pray for the leaders of their government, but never for a change in the government—even in areas that persecute the unregistered churches. They pray very practically, thanking God for today’s grace, asking for tomorrow’s protection. They tell us visitors, “Don’t pray for me to get out of prison, please pray for courage and strength so that I can witness boldly in the prison and not lose faith.”‘

     When I visit places like Nepal and China, I come upon a paradox of answered and unanswered prayers. On the one hand, I hear remarkable stories of miracles. For example, the first Nepalese became a Christian in 1950. Now the Church numbers more than half a million, and Nepalese church leaders estimate that 80 per cent of the converts have resulted from physical healings: a Christian prays for a sick neighbour who then gets well. I have interviewed European and American doctors who work there as missionaries, and they admit that they have no scientific explanation for some amazing recoveries they have seen. David Aikman’s book Jesus in Beijing reports a similar pattern of apparent miracles in China.

     On the other hand, Christians in Nepal and China tell horrific stories of oppression, imprisonment and torture. My Japanese friend introduced me to a Chinese pastor viewed as one of four patriarchs in the unregistered Church, a giant of faith who spent twenty-three years in prison because he refused to halt his church activities. Pastor Yuan told me with great excitement of a miracle: during his long sentence in a prison near Mongolia, he worked daily outdoors wearing nothing but a light jacket in the harshest winter weather, and never caught a common cold or influenza. I marvelled at his story, but inwardly I could not help wondering why God answered that prayer and not the thousands of prayers from church members pleading for his release.

     I asked my Japanese friend how to reconcile this strange combination of miraculous answers to prayer in the midst of intense persecution. If God can heal sick people or prevent illness, then why not protect suffering Christians? (As soon as I phrased the question, I had to smile, for that replicates the pattern of the Book of Acts.) She thought for a moment and said, `I know this is a “textbook” answer, but everything is in our Lord’s hands. And he shows his glory in each occasion.’

     In all my prayers, whether I get the answers I want or not, I can count on this one fact: God can make use of whatever happens. Nothing is irredeemable. `Teach me, 0 God, so to use all the circumstances of my life today that they may bring forth in me the fruits of holiness rather than the fruits of sin,’ prayed the author John Baillie:

Let me use disappointment as material for patience. 

Let me use success as material for thankfulness. 

Let me use trouble as material for perseverance. 

Let me use danger as material for courage. 

Let me use reproach as material for long suffering. 

Let me use praise as material for humility. 

Let me use pleasures as material for temperance. 

Let me use pain as material for endurance.

     By selfish nature I tend to pray for successes, happy outcomes and relief from difficulties. And I must say, with gratitude, I have experienced my share of the good things life offers. But in the Beatitudes Jesus calls `blessed’ those who experience the very opposite: poverty, mourning, hunger, persecution. How would my faith survive, and my prayers change, if life took a dramatic turn for the worse—if I came down with a degenerative disease, or lost my home, or landed in prison because of my beliefs? Could I fill in the blanks of John Baillie’s prayers with details of my own newly lapsed state? Would I humbly allow the Spirit to accomplish God’s purposes in me even through such unwelcome agents?

     I have a book titled Prayers of the Martyrs, which reproduces actual prayers of martyrs from AD 107 (Ignatius of Antioch) to 1980 (Archbishop Oscar Romero). I find it shocking how few prayed for deliverance as in the background lions roared, gladiators sharpened their swords, or, in Romero’s case, assassins fastened ammunition clips onto their automatic weapons. The martyrs prayed for families left behind, for steadfastness of faith, for strength to endure death without shame. Some thanked God for the privilege of suffering, surprised they would be counted worthy. Some forgave their persecutors. Very few asked for a miracle.

God’s Smile

     Theologian Ronald Goetz calls himself an `occasionist’: God acts in response to prayer, he believes, but with baffling unpredictability. (Of course, most of us pray with baffling unpredictability, too.) Review the alternatives, though. God could act alone, ignoring us and our prayers. Or, God could leave matters entirely in our hands with no direct involvement in human history. The first option contradicts the whole motive behind creating personal beings made in God’s image; the second option is too ominous to contemplate.

     We have, instead, a relationship with God based on constant negotiation. We inform God what we think should be done in the world, and in the process God reminds us of our own role in doing it. Rarely do we get everything we want, and I imagine the same holds true for God.

     The trail of God at work rarely follows a straight line, which means our prayers may well produce different answers than we expect. For whatever reason—God’s sense of irony, antagonistic spiritual powers, the vicissitudes of a fallen planet—prayers get answered in ways we could neither predict nor imagine.

     Each December actors in Christmas pageants recite the jubilant responses of two cousins, the elderly infertile Elizabeth and the young virgin Mary, as they learn news of their surprise pregnancies. How must Mary have looked back on her great prayer the Magnificat as she saw Jesus crucified by the very rulers she had hoped he would vanquish? And Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, who had prophesied `salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us’—what did he think as he watched his son John grow into an insect-eating dissident who got beheaded by one of those enemies? Both families prayed fervently, and neither got the answer they expected.

     Sometimes, though, an unanswered prayer opens the door to something far better. For fifteen years Monica prayed for her son Augustine as he indulged his senses and investigated exotic philosophies. When Augustine finally converted, these were the very experiences that gave depth and richness to his writings, allowing him to set the course of Christian thought for centuries. Once, Monica prayed all night that God would stop her son from going to wicked Rome, but he tricked her and sailed away. It was on that trip, in fact, that Augustine became a Christian. Reflecting later, he said that God denied his mother once in order to grant her what she had prayed for always.

      Edith Schaeffer, the daughter of missionaries, tells of Dr Hoste, the successor to Hudson Taylor as director of China Inland Mission, praying daily on a walk that lasted four hours. He counted that task his chief responsibility as leader of the mission and mentioned each missionary and child by name. Within a few years, however, Chairman Mao would evict a11 7,000 missionaries from China, including all those for whom Hoste prayed. They relocated to places like the Philippines, Hong Kong and Singapore, dismayed at what might happen to the fledgling church in China now bereft of outside help. In their absence, under a dictatorial regime that forbade Christian evangelism, the greatest numerical revival in history broke out. What happened in China, and is happening now, exceeds beyond all dreams the prayer requests of the missionaries of 1950.

     `If you want to see God smile, tell him your plans’, goes an old saying.

Human Agents

     In answering prayers, God normally relies on human agents. On a visit to Holland I heard the story of strict Dutch Calvinist farmers who, during the devastating floods of the 1950s, climbed onto the roofs of their barns but refused to be rescued. `God’s will be done,’ they said.

     Someone made a joke about one such farmer who sat on his roof with flood waters swirling around him. A neighbour in a rowing boat offered him help, which he declined, insisting, `God will protect me.’ A helicopter buzzed overhead, its rescue party lowering a rope and ordering through a loudspeaker, ‘Grab the rope, and we’ll pull you to safety.’ The farmer stubbornly shook his head No.

     Soon the water engulfed the barn and swept the farmer away. In heaven, he demanded an explanation from God. `I counted on you to protect me! Why didn’t you answer my prayers?’

     God replied, `I sent you a rowing boat and then a helicopter. What more did you want?’

     Those of us who struggle with unanswered prayer dare not overlook an important theological truth about how God acts in this world today. The church is the body of Christ, and as such it does God’s work. As Ronald Rolheiser expresses it, `A theist believes in a God in heaven whereas a Christian believes in a God in heaven who is also physically present on this earth inside of human beings … God is still present, as physical and as real today; as God was in the historical Jesus. God still has skin, human skin, and physically walks on this earth just as Jesus did.

     ‘To pray `God, please help my neighbour cope with her financial problems’, or `God, do something about the homeless in the inner city’ is the approach of a theist, not a ChristianGod has chosen to express love and grace in the world through those of us who embody Christ.

     As a journalist I see this principle at work in inspiring ways. While writing this book I have made trips to several different countries. I visited a church in South Africa, 35,000 members strong, which runs outreach programmes including a prison ministry, a hospital and a rehabilitation farm for addicts. In the same city I visited a woman who recruits volunteers to come in daily and act as surrogate mothers to children afflicted with AIDS. Two months later I travelled to Nepal where I met with health workers from fifteen nations who serve under a mission specialising in leprosy work. Historically, most of the major advances in leprosy treatment have come from Christian missionaries—mainly because they were the only ones willing to treat the dreaded disease.

     A few months later, in Wisconsin, I attended a conference on ministry to women in prostitution that attracted representatives from thirty different nations. They work to counter illegal sex trafficking and also to liberate women from prostitution, which in poor nations constitutes a modern form of slavery. From there I went to a Salvation Army conference where I heard stories from the world’s third-largest standing `army’—this one mobilised to help the poor and downtrodden—then to Roanoke, Virginia, where I visited a sprawling complex that began as a rescue mission and, through the help of sixty churches, grew into a shelter, education centre and clinic. As I interviewed the leaders of these ministries, I learned that many began with a crisis of faith, indeed a crisis of prayer. God, why don’t you do something about the homeless families in Roanoke … or the AIDS orphans in Johannesburg? Don’t they break your heart? Inevitably, there followed a prayer echoing the one prayed by Bob Pierce, founder of the global charity World Vision: `Lord, may my heart be broken by what breaks your heart’. Those who responded became the answers to their own prayers.

     Children view God as a celestial version of Santa Claus who sits on a cloud considering requests and funnelling answers like presents down a chimney. A better model might be the president of a large corporation who must occasionally step in to manage a crisis but prefers to delegate tasks to trusted managers and employees. Or, better yet, the metaphor the New Testament relies on: a human body, in which all parts of the body are organically joined and co-operate to carry out the will of the head.

An Apostle’s Prayer

     The apostle Paul had one overriding desire: that fellow Jews would embrace the Messiah he had encountered on the road to Damascus. `I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart,’ he said. `For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.’ No doubt Paul prayed to that end daily, yet seldom saw it answered. In city after city his fellow Jews rejected him and he turned to the Gentiles.

     I see in Paul’s response to that disappointment an ideal pattern of coping with an unanswered prayer. In the first place, he did not simply make a request and resign himself to God’s decision. Paul the human agent put feet to his prayer, making a habit of going first to the synagogue when he entered a new town, often at great personal cost as his visits led to riots.

     Furthermore, Paul persevered, even when it became increasingly clear that his prayer was not being answered. John Calvin said, `We must repeat the same supplications not twice or three times only, but as often as we have need, a hundred and a thousand times … We must never be weary in waiting for God’s help.’

     Apparently, however, Paul did grow weary. In his most elegant letter, he sets as his centrepiece (Romans 9-11) a passionate passage, a verbal wrestling match with God in which he struggles openly with this the great unanswered prayer of his life.

     Paul acknowledges one important side-benefit (the `surprise factor’) of this most distressing development: the Jews’ rejection of Jesus led to his acceptance by the Gentiles. It seems strange, he admits, that the Gentiles who did not pursue God’s gift attained it whereas the Jews who did pursue it have not attained it—not yet, anyway.

     Paul is trying to make sense of history, a very personal history. Sometimes his passion interrupts: `Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved.’ He ploughs over the same ground, looking for something he may have missed. And he concludes that God hasn’t rejected the Jews; to the contrary, they have the same opportunity as Gentiles. God has widened, not closed, the embrace of humanity.

     The prose begins to soar as Paul steps back to consider the big picture. And then comes this burst of doxology in the midst of Paul’s dissertation on an unanswered prayer:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! 

     How unsearchable his judgments,

     and his paths beyond tracing out!

`Who has known the mind of the Lord?

     Or who has been his counsellor?’

`Who has ever given to God, 

     that God should repay him?’

For from him and through him and to him are all things. 

     To him be the glory forever! Amen.

     In a flash Paul has gained a glimpse of the view from the top of the mountain, not the timber line, the view from Andromeda, not Rome.1 In that glimpse, somehow the doleful events of history and theologians’ mind-numbing theodicies, the unsolved mysteries and unanswered prayers all fade to grey against the technicolour panorama of God’s plan for the ages. God is the potter, we are the clay. God is the Father, we are the children.

     Perhaps more accurately, God is the playwright, we are the actors. That prayer exists at all is a gift of grace, a generous invitation to participate in the future of the cosmos.

     In the end, unanswered prayer brings me face to face with the mystery that silenced Paul: the profound difference between my perspective and God’s.

`For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

     neither are your ways my ways,’

     declares the Lord.

`As the heavens are higher than the earth, 

     so are my ways higher than your ways

     and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

A Senior Citizen’s Prayer

     As I was writing this chapter, my wife recommended that I interview some senior citizens about prayer. `Most of them pray, and they’ve been at it a long time,’ she said. `Surely they’ll have some wisdom for you.’

     She was right. I accompanied her to the retirement centre where she assists as a chaplain and that morning I heard one miracle story after another. One elderly woman had felt a sudden urge to leave a card game and go home. As she walked in the door she saw that a candle had burned to the nub, igniting a bouquet of plastic roses—a fire she was able to smother with a pillow just in time. Another told of remarkable survival stories from World War II. Another told of her husband choking on a homemade cinnamon roll, just as two paramedics walked past who saved his life by performing the Heimlich manoeuvre.

     I heard, too, of prayers for world peace and against injustice. Those prayers saw senior citizens through the scary times of a world war and then a cold war that threatened the very survival of the species. One African-American woman reminisced about praying while growing up as a second-class citizen in the South. Who could imagine then the changes she would live through?

     Although I probed for accounts of unanswered prayers, most of the senior citizens preferred to talk about answered prayers. All of them could tell of family tragedies and health breakdowns, but somehow these events did not shake their faith in prayer.

     After our meeting, however, I wandered through a portion of the facility that cares for elderly people who need more assistance. They lay in beds or sat in wheelchairs. One man was so slouched over that his chin rested on the wheelchair tray. Some wore orthopaedic boots, some hummed nervously, some drooled, some snored. One woman with a vacant stare waved a banana in her hand. Another repeated the same phrase over and over. I tried talking to these elderly people, too, but the lights in their minds had gone out. Any secrets they had learned about prayer lay hidden beyond retrieval.

     I drove away from the facility more convinced than ever that the only final solution to unanswered prayer is Paul’s explanation to the Corinthians: `For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.‘ No human being, no matter how wise or how spiritual, can interpret the ways of God, explaining why one miracle and not another, why an apparent intervention here and not there. Along with the apostle Paul, we can only wait, and trust. [224-239]


1. William Sloane Coffin says of this passage about God’s unsearchable judgments, ‘Christianity is less a set of beliefs than a way of life, and a way of life that actually warns against absolute intellectual certainty.’

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