The Challenge of Unanswered Prayer
Richard R. Crocker
Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
July 24, 2011
Hosea 1:2-10 and Luke 11:1-13
Here I am, talking about prayer, again. I would not be surprised if you were tired of it. After all, I talked about it last summer when I preached here. And you were kind enough to ask me to come and give another talk about it this winte during a Sunday afternoon session. I probably wouldn’t have chosen to talk about it again, had not the gospel lesson in today’s lectionary compelled me to do so. For those of you who think you have heard everything I might have to say on this subject, I apologize and beg your indulgence. I shall try not to be unnecessarily repetitive. I do not aim to be like the man in today’s parable, who by his persistence finally rouses his sleeping neighbor, but I am aware of the parallel. There is something just a bit different in what I will say today. First, I will offer a few brief thoughts on the general nature of prayer. And then I will focus more specifically on the experience of unanswered prayer. Much of what I will say is heavily indebted to Harry Emerson Fosdick’s little book, The Meaning of Prayer, which I commend to you.
First, the general thoughts. Prayer is the essence of the religious life in general, and it is certainly the essence of the Christian life. That bears repeating, doesn’t it? Prayer is the essence of the religious life in general, and it is certainly the essence of the Christian life.
Fosdick says this; so does William James, so does the apostle Paul, and so does Jesus himself. Indeed, the only thing that his disciples asked Jesus to teach them was how to pray. The practice of prayer is the foundation of Christian discipleship. Jesus prayed, frequently, and he taught his disciples to pray. Christians believe that something important actually happens in prayer. It is not the mere repetition of words. It is not just talking to ourselves. It is a transaction. Something happens.
Since I have already pled guilty to being repetitive, please indulge me further. We have, at our camp in Maine, a television set that gets no channels and a large supply of video cassettes – a technology now outdated but still enjoyed by some of us of a certain age. One of the pleasures of these cassettes, acquired long ago or more recently at garage sales and at the free table at the dump, is looking at the movies which we enjoyed with our children when they were small. One such movie that we watched again, after a 25 year lapse, is ET. I take it as a given that most of you remember that movie and its famous phrase, ET phone home. You will recall how ET, accidentally left behind on earth by his space ship, devised from spare parts a machine that allowed him to reconnect with his fellows, so that, after a death and resurrection experience, he was ultimately rescued by them and ascended into the heavens. The Christian parallels are fairly obvious. ET depended for his survival on being able to reconnect with his real home. And that is what religion is. The word religion means to reconnect, to bind together again, to reconnect with our very source of being. And that is what we do when we pray, for we have the capacity, the amazing capacity, to reconnect through prayer.
To prove that I am not a technological Neanderthal, relying upon videocassettes, I will also say that I have recently acquired an IPad. Now I am able by moving my fingers along a screen to communicate with people all across the world, instantly, to summon up information about almost anything, to see people and talk with them almost anywhere. It’s amazing. And it is all the creation of the human brain, which is, of course, the most amazing creation we know about. If we can create machines that allow us to communicate instantly, it is because our brains have that capacity. And Fosdick sees this capacity as the very basis of prayer. He says, “”Jesus simply assumes that God has so made the human mind that it is capable of an interchange of thought with himself.” (Meaning of Prayer, p. 119) Our minds are wired to pray – to be able to communicate with God. We realize this connectedness whenever we find ourselves swept up in awe, gratitude, regret, and need. As I have said before, prayer is summarized in four words: Wow. Thanks. Sorry. And Help. When our hearts and minds cry out in awe, or gratitude, or regret, or need, we feel that we are speaking to the source of our being. And we are. All of us know this. The experience of prayer underlies religious experience in general (according to William James) and Christian experience in particular. And it is something that all of us are instinctively, naturally able to do. It is a hard-wired -- or perhaps wirelessly connected– part of our being.
Awe, gratitude, even regret – these are parts of our spiritual life that we can easily acknowledge. But is the prayer of need, of desire, the prayer that seeks help that I want to discuss just a bit more thoroughly today, because the scripture prompts it. Jesus says that if we ask, it will be given to us; that if we seek, we shall find, and it we knock, the door will be opened to us. And many of us could tell of experiences which confirm the truth of those words: of prayers answered. Almost all of us could, I expect. Just take a moment to think of a prayer of need or deep desire that you have made, and that has been answered in a straight-forward way. If we were a bit less formal, we could take time for testimonies. But most of us could also recount times when our prayers, or the prayers of others, have not been answered – when God has seemingly met our need with silence. The world is full of tragedy, of broken hopes, indescribable losses, that seem to contradict this assurance that our deep prayer of need will always be granted. What shall we say about all those unanswered prayers – or those where the answer is “No”?
Well, many times we can say nothing. Words fail when our children face disease, or death, despite our deepest prayers. Platitudes, even well-meaning ones such as “it’s God’s will”, “they’re in a better place”, even if spoken with the intention of comfort, are empty at best, destructive and obscene at worst. So what do we say to ourselves and to others? We say nothing, except “I am so sorry that this has happened.” We just cry, or hold a hand, or reach out for a hand. We are human. It is our lot to suffer and it is our challenge to alleviate suffering. Sometimes we can do it; sometimes we can only share it. So what are to make of Jesus’ words? Are there limits to what we can ask, or seek? Limits to what will be given to us? Yes. There are deeper purposes in the world that Jesus himself showed us. Remember, this same Jesus, God’s son, prayed before his crucifixion that he might be spared that cup, but he also prayed that “not my will but thine be done.” Moses prayed to reach the promised land, but he was not allowed. Paul prayed frequently to be relieved of some unnamed affliction. But it was denied.
Human life, as marvelous as it is and as many blessings and joys and mercies as we experience, is also deeply wounded. Our prayer can never be that we cease to be human. Rather, our prayer is that we be given strength to endure those trials, disappointments, and tragedies that we cannot avoid or prevent. This does not mean that we should simply acquiesce. Much of the suffering that occurs in this world is needless, and its alleviation does not depend upon God’s action but on ours. We have been given brains and skills and visions that can alleviate many diseases, much poverty, and much cruelty that we too easily accept as inevitable. The inequality of opportunity and of wealth that our world takes as normal is not normal; it is sinful. And we cannot blame God for it. What are we doing about it? It is ineffectual to pray for a world of greater sharing if we live greedy lives, don’t you think? And prayers for peace are hollow when our ways are not peaceful. Jesus says: “if you know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Note carefully: a good parent does not give children everything they think they desire. God does not give us everything we think we desire. Rather, God’s greatest gift to us is a spirit, God’s spirit, which accompanies us and informs us and guides us and comforts us in every party of life, and which gives us hope that our connection with God can never ever be destroyed, by anything.
It is this hope to which we cling, and which we ask to be renewed, in good times and in bad. Remember the Old Testament lesson today: Hosea, the prophet, is called by God to marry Gomer, a prostitute, who continues to be unfaithful to him. But Hosea, by his faithfulness, demonstrates God’s faithfulness even when our faithfulness fails. It is a story, a parable of love that is unfailing.
Many of us find that there are times when we simply do not feel that connection with God. The horror, the disappointments, the trials we face are sometimes overwhelming to us. That is why we depend on others. I have a horror of hearing in sermons references to the sentimental story of footprints. You have all heard it a thousand times. It is for me an unhelpful platitude. But others tell me that they find it helpful. More helpful to me is the hymn that we will sing at the close of worship. It’s an old evangelical hymn, written by Horatio Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and evangelical Christian who supported the ministry of Dwight Moody. It’s a platitudinous hymn as well, “It is well with my soul.” But it has power for me because I know why it was written. Mr. Spafford, who was an unusual man and not in all ways a positive example, wrote it after his wife and four young daughters were in a notorious shipwreck while crossing the Atlantic in 1873. His four daughters were drowned. He received a telegram from his wife, who was rescued, which said simply “Saved, alone.” He sailed at once to join her. Imagine his grief. As he sailed to meet her in England, the reliable story goes, the captain of the ship paused when they passed over the spot where his daughters had drowned. Horatio Spafford wrote this hymn just after passing over that spot. That is the story, which may have been embellished but which is in essence true. We have this hymn, a gift of his, and of the Holy Spirit, to help us.
The greatest gifts that we can ask for ourselves and our children, are three: for faith, and for hope, and for love. And these three gifts are ours, no matter what befalls us, as God’s spirit lives in our hearts. Amen.
 The story is told in American Priestess, by Jane Fletcher Geniesse (Doubleday, 2008)