ESSAY- Divine design: Survivors right to question unanswered prayers

In a society in which at least 9 of 10 people identify themselves as believers in a Supreme Being, it is natural for people to pray for what they want and identify good outcomes as God's affirmative response. This is especially true in situations in which the stakes are life or death.

And so when a plane crashes or a boat sinks, it is common for the survivors to attribute their good fortune to God's response their prayers. Similarly, when a person is facing life-threatening illness, it is routine to solicit the prayers of others for recovery. While there is little experimental evidence that such pleas for divine intervention are effective, insofar as such beliefs affect the attitude of the ill person positively there may be some contribution to healing.

Here is the problem. If one gives God credit for saving one person, what can be said of those who did not survive? Were they less deserving or is the question meaningless since the ways of God are simply beyond our limited powers of comprehension? These are the central questions behind the mystery of unanswered prayers.

This issue was brought home to me in a recent conversation with a father whose premature child survived several health catastrophes in a way that appeared to him "miraculous." Like many in his situation, he credited the many prayers that he and others had offered on his daughter's behalf. This was a comfort for him, an affirmation of the power of his faith, and a reassurance of God's benign presence and accessibility.

I am a bereaved parent. As my 6 year-old son, afflicted with leukemia, fought for his life through chemotherapy, and ultimately a bone marrow transplant, many prayers were offered on his behalf. These came from me and all who loved him, most of whom had a much more confident relationship with God than did I.

Was his death a commentary on my skepticism? Was he, in his innocence, somehow less deserving of life?

I cannot, of course, answer these questions. All I can say is that I find it difficult to have those whose children had a happier outcome rejoice in their good fortune by implying that their children were chosen for a miracle when my son was not.

"God gives us only what we can bear" and "What does not kill us makes us stronger" are popular faith-based statements of consolation for the bereaved (along with the ever-popular, "He's in a better place.") Why do these bromides not console? Why is our emptiness and sense of amputation still overwhelming? And what do we do when the next person attributes their child's survival to the power of their faith?

There is something self-satisfied about imagining that one is saved or uniquely blessed by their particular beliefs. We live in a world in which the evidence of random outcomes is all around us. We accept that an inch or a fraction of a second can be the difference between living and dying.

Why does the tornado obliterate a house and all inside while leaving the house next door intact? Why did the drunk driver swerve into one car and not the one ahead or behind? We are made uncomfortable by such apparently indiscriminate occurrences, and so it is natural that we try to imagine some divine order that will explain them. If only we can believe in something, anything to explain the vagaries of chance, then we will be able to go on in the expectation that it will all be explained to us in the next life.

For it is death itself that puzzles and frightens us. How can we face the inevitable loss of ourselves and all that we love without being paralyzed with dread? The easiest way to avoid this is to believe in some divine design that will guarantee us immortality in return for praise and worship. With this kind of incentive, it is not surprising that we choose some system of belief that gives us a sense of control through faith and prayer along with the promise of eternal salvation. That we may become a bit self-satisfied in the process is only natural. The implication is clear enough: we are among the chosen.

But if the process of being saved leads us to believe that we are more deserving of God's intervention on our behalf than those with a different view of causality, think of what it means to others not so lucky. If you (or your child) survives while someone else did not, please consider the impact on them of your certainty that your prayers were answered.


Gordon Livingston is a West Point graduate who served as an Army doctor in Vietnam. He became an antiwar activist, and is now a psychiatrist in Columbia, Maryland. His latest book is "Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart: Thirty True Things You Need to Know Now." This essay distributed by Featurewell.