"A lay Catholic perspective"

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Unanswered Prayer

by Mark Fetherston


S OMETIMES PRAYER CAN BREAK OUR HEARTS. Did you ever try with all your will to get God to do something, only to have him not do it? At one time or another, most of us have wanted something very badly and prayed ourselves to exhaustion in a futile attempt to get God to come through. Pleading, offering bargains, whatever we could think of; I hesitate to use the term manipulation, but I remember...

Our oldest son was a colicky baby. For the uninitiated that means his colon was not fully developed at birth, resulting in "gas attacks", which in turn resulted in loud, sustained screaming. The effect of this on many adults is to drive us out of our minds. Temporary lulls are possible by pacing up and down while patting the baby on the back...generally all night. This being a lonnngggg way to spend a night, I once tried working my faith to a fevered pitch (which took about 20 seconds), and prayed "in the name of Jesus" for God, to be blunt, to shut the kid up! God did not. Mike kept screaming.

What went wrong? I think that instead of truly praying in the name of Jesus, I was more trying to reduce God to a sort of an omnipotent baby-sitter. Rather than conforming myself to his kingdom, I wanted God to arrange things to relieve me of my obligation of love to my son.

What a dumb example!

Okay, you may be thinking that praying to stop a baby from crying is a pretty dumb example.[1] But, when you stop to think about it, it is difficult to come up with a good example of unanswered prayer. Take the example of praying for a loved one not to die. Dying is one thing we are all guaranteed in this life, so praying to avoid it could sometimes be like praying to stop a baby from crying. Maybe a person who needs a job badly prays for it but does not get it. When you think about that one though, only one person can get any given job. So, praying for one person to get a job is really praying for all the other applicants not to get it. In other words we could be using prayer for an unfair competitive advantage. Wielding prayer as a tool to extend our will has certain failure built into it.

I am not saying not to pray for these things! We can and should pray for anything. It is very important to bring the power of prayer into everyday situations. Jesus cares deeply about the crying baby, the dying loved one and the person who needs a job. However, we need to surrender to the Holy Spirit and let God form our prayer. What does that mean? When we are concerned for someone or something, it is often difficult to see God's will. Although we might think we see it very clearly, we are more likely to be applying human reasoning to our situation. As we pray we start to relax in the presence of God and open our hearts in trust. In this atmosphere the intensity of any immediate threat is gradually reduced and we are able to repent from our fears, self-interest, or whatever. Then it is much easier to pray for God's will to be done, trusting that our loving God will always care for us and give us the strength to endure any trial.

One problem with experiences of unanswered prayer, other than their potential for embarrassment, is that we are apt to draw the wrong conclusions from them. Sometimes we might even go so far as to wonder why we would bother praying if we cannot get God to do our bidding! Instead of wondering why God had let me down (again?) my attitude needs to become one of seeking God's will. To use an analogy, it is like trying to start a mechanically sound car by simply wishing very hard that it was running. As long as I confine my attempts to wondering what is wrong with the car, or even examining my motives and wish processes, I will not have a car that works. A different solution is needed: perhaps looking in the owner's manual might be helpful, or seeking advice from someone who is successfully driving their car.

Look out for those false prophets

In the Old Testament false prophets promised peace and prosperity when the Lord was warning his people that disaster was about to strike. The lives of great prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel were made miserable by people who refused to accept their warnings because the false prophets were a lot nicer to listen to. King Jehoiakim once listened to a lengthy scroll which contained all the words Jeremiah had ever prophesied. At regular intervals the king would have a scribe cut off the part of the scroll that had just been read and toss it into the fire, thus hoping to destroy Jeremiah's dire predictions. However, it is possible that the prophet Baruch may have been even more upset about this turn of events than Jeremiah. As Jeremiah's scribe, not only did Baruch write out the original scroll by hand, it was his job to write the whole scroll over again — with many similar words in addition! [2]

In contrast, today the Lord is coming to his people offering peace, healing and restoration. Meanwhile, the false voices are shouting doom and destruction. Listen to modern music, read a newspaper, watch a television news program — the hopelessness and bad news is overwhelming. We should be reluctant to fill our minds with these things.

New life in God's kingdom

Jesus' coming marked a new era in history. Scripture tells us that Jesus came in the fullness of time, and since his coming we are in the last days. The entire life of Jesus is a mystery of redemption, and "the mystery of faith...transcends and surpasses history."[3] Jesus began his public ministry with these words: "The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News."[4]

If we look at Christianity as a restrictive morality or an unlivable ideal, we are missing the point. A Christian is first of all a follower of Jesus. It is through our relationship with Jesus that we are inserted into the Church, the body of Christ. In Jesus we are given the Holy Spirit who prompts us to pray; and in Jesus we have access to the Father of all mercy. The scriptures do more than simply recount the words and deeds of God to us. As a living word, they actually make God present to us. When we hear scripture proclaimed God is speaking to us at that moment. If we are quiet and listen attentively we will hear him.

Prayer transforms us. Jesus tells us that we must not doubt when we pray but pray with faith. This can be extremely difficult when we are fearful about something, but God will answer our needs. When we turn to God sincerely, we will often find our fears easing and the quiet confidence of faith growing as the Holy Spirit begins to form hope within us. St. Paul tells us that the power of the Holy Spirit abounds in hope. Our Christian hope is not fragile or fleeting; it is based on God and absolutely secure and true. As we worship God we come into peace and joy, and are drawn into love. In love we listen to the Lord and respond to him by loving him and loving his people. [5]

The path of intercession

The Holy Spirit is always with us, prompting us to turn to God in prayer and enabling us to pray "in the name" of Jesus. In prayer we are drawn into Jesus and enriched by grace. The love which is the end and fruit of our prayer, is also the source and way of prayer. United with Jesus we are also united with Mary. The mother of Jesus cares for us and constantly intercedes that our lives overflow with the salvation won for us by the shedding of her precious Son's blood. A mother whose maternal love embraces all whom Jesus came to save, Mary humbly comes into our homes and warmly blesses all who, imitating the example of St. John the beloved disciple, welcome her.

In a particular way, Mary opens the doors of intercession to us. Not only can we pray to her, but she prays with us and teaches us to respond to the Holy Spirit's call to intercede for others. The habit of obedience to the Spirit's prayer promptings can lead to wonderful results.

I remember one night I had to go out in a rain storm to help an alcoholic who was in trouble. At about 2:00 a.m. I was driving home in the storm, which had considerably worsened, when lightning struck about ten feet in front of my car (which, by the way, is an awesome sight!). The next day I learned that five minutes prior to this Vickie had been awakened by the thought that she should pray for someone in our Community to be protected from being struck by lightning. I am glad she did not take a few minutes to think about it before she prayed!

It is also important that we pray for those God has given to shepherd us and guide us in our faith. This could include our parents, teachers, spiritual directors or the like. Our bishop and parish priests should be prominent parts of these everyday intercessions. Our prayer helps them, but it also helps us to come into a deep unity with them in their ministry. If we are committed to this, the Holy Spirit will soon start to form our prayer.

Some of us have taken on a sort of Adopt-a-Priest program, in which we each ask Jesus to inspire us towards a priest he wants us to pray for. Then we make a commitment to pray each day for that priest, asking our precious Saviour to uphold them and bless their labour in his kingdom. If the opportunity presents itself (which is not always), we also try to encourage the priest or bishop by letting them know that we are praying for them. God has given us these men to lead us safely into eternal life, we are obliged to do our part to support and care for them.

An answer to prayer

We often begin praying with a list of work God needs to do. But as we persevere in prayer, sincerely seeking his will and the coming of his kingdom, our perspective changes. We realize that God is close to us and loves us profoundly, and the longing to be instruments extending his loving salvation out to all grows in us.

[1] On the other hand, Fr. Egbert threatens to charge people a babysitting fee when their babies fall asleep during his homilies. But I'm just teasing. Fr. Egbert is an interesting preacher. In fact, after his homilies there is always a great awakening.

[2] Jer 36

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 517, 647

[4] Mk 1:15

[5] Rm 15:13, 5:5; Catechism 2656-8