In last Sunday’s Gospel, we heard the story of the widow at Nain, whose son Jesus raised from the dead. Beautiful though that story is, there are some who may wonder sadly why they did not receive a better answer to their prayers; why their loved one died. Such stories might even serve to deepen their sorrow.
All of us struggle with the great mystery of God’s providence and will. Sometimes it is our own struggle and sometimes we must commiserate with others who are in distress. One friend is losing her young daughter to cancer, another is struggling to find work, still another has a husband who is drinking. Some people will say to me, “I’ve been praying, Father, but nothing seems to happen.” I am not always sure how to respond. God doesn’t often explain why we must suffer, why he delays, or why he sometimes just says no.
Just think about how God answered Job. Job wanted answers as to why he was suffering. God spoke to him from the whirlwind, upbraiding him with provocative questions meant to humble him. But in the end, He gave him no real answer. He did, however, restore Job. In the midst of God’s mysterious ways, we do have to remember that if we are faithful God will more than restore us one day. But in the throes of trials, the promise of future restoration can seem pretty theoretical.
In the midst of trials, often the best thing we can do is to be still; to breathe, sigh, and yearn; and to weep with those who weep. Scripture says, The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD (Lam 3:25).
Scripture does give some answers as to why God sometimes delays and why He sometimes says no. And while these explanations may not always satisfy us emotionally, they do provide a teaching that can ultimately assist us in not allowing our sorrow, anger, or disappointment to interact with our pride and lead us away from faith. Let’s look at a few of these explanations. Some of them pertain to God and some to us.
I. Sometimes no is the best answer.
We often think that we know what is best for us. We want to have this job or we want that person to fall in love with us. We want to be delivered from a certain illness or to receive a financial blessing. We see these as good outcomes for us and are sure that God must also see them that way. But in fact God may not agree with our assessment. In such situations, no really is the best answer to our prayers.
For example, we might want God to answer our prayer that none of our children be born with any disabilities. But God may see that the experience of disability may be just the thing that we or the child needs in order to be saved in the end. St. Paul prayed for deliverance from physical affliction in this passage:
Three times I begged the Lord about this, that it might leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me. Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints, for the sake of Christ; for when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Cor 12:7-10).
The fact is, we really don’t know what’s best for us or for someone else. We may think we know, but we don’t. God’s no to Paul actually helped to save him. It helped him to better understand the power of the cross in his life and to realize that he must learn to depend on God. So, too, for us. We may prefer certain outcomes, but God alone knows if our preference is truly good for us.
II. God is love.
Many confuse love with kindness. Kindness is a common attribute of love, but it is not the same thing. All parents know that they must sometimes discipline their children and that it is the loving thing to do. Parents who are always “kind” and never punish their children actually spoil them; failing to discipline does not exhibit true love. Parents sometimes inflict short term pain on their children by limiting their freedom and/or insisting that they do what is right. They will bring an unwilling child to the doctor for shots; they will insist that they finish their homework before playing. Parents may give a firm no to certain requests that they know are harmful or that interfere with more important duties. Kindness always wants to say yes, but love sometimes says no—even inflicting hardship where necessary.
God is a Father. Kindness has its place but love is more essential for us than mere kindness which is but an attribute of love.
My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son … God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:5-6, 11).
Endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus … Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this (2 Tim 2:3,7).
III. Sometimes our request cannot be affirmed without violating another’s freedom.
It is common to pray for the conversion of other people. Or we may pray that they make some decision that we would prefer. God is omnipotent and could choose to force outcomes, but this would violate the freedom to truly decide. If freedom is contingent upon God’s whim, then it is not really freedom at all. God can exhort us through His Church and the Scriptures. He can send us special graces. But in the end each of us is free. God will not typically force someone to choose something that someone else wants or asks for in prayer. The Scriptures affirm our freedom: There are set before you fire and water; to which ever you choose, stretch forth your hand. Before man are life and death, which ever he chooses shall be given him (Sirach 15:16-17).
IV. Sometimes our request cannot be granted because of the harm it might cause to others.
We can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that we are the most important thing on God’s agenda. We may want a sunny day for our picnic but the farmers are in desperate need of rain. Whose need is more important? It would seem that the farmers need for rain might be a bit more important to God than the weather for my picnic, but even this I leave up to Him.
The prophet Jonah went reluctantly to the Ninevites (Assyrians) to preach. He didn’t want them to be converted. Jonah wanted them to refuse repentance and be destroyed in forty days. In his own mind, he had good reasons to want this: the Ninevites were amassing an army that was a great threat to Israel, so their destruction would spare Israel from further threat. But the Ninevites did repent. And Jonah was sullen and bitter over this. God rebuked him with these words:
Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city? (Jonah 4:9)
While we may not actively pray for another’s harm, it may sometimes be the case that what we ask for would adversely affect others.
V. Sometimes our faith is not strong enough.
Jesus said, If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer (Matthew 21:22).
And the Book of James says, But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord (James 1:6-7).
There is also the sad case of Nazareth, where the Lord could work few miracles so much did their lack of faith disturb him (Matt 13:58).
VI. Sometimes we ask for improper things or ask with the wrong motives.
The Book of James says, When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
VII. Sometimes unrepented sin sets up a barrier between us and God so that our prayer is blocked.
Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor His ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities (sins) have separated you from God; your sins have hidden his face from you so that He will not hear (Isaiah 59:1-2).
VIII. Sometimes we have not been generous with the requests and needs of others.
If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered (Proverbs 21:13).
IX. Sometimes God cannot trust us with blessings because we are not conformed to His word or trustworthy with lesser things.
If you remain in me and my word remains in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you (John 15:7).
So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? (Lk 16:11-12)
Thus we must prove trustworthy in smaller matters to be trusted with greater blessings.
Each of the “explanations” above may or may not apply to you. In the end we have to accept the mystery of prayer and come to understand that not everything is fully explainable. We see so very little of the whole picture that God sees. Humility must be our constant disposition.
This song says that some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.