ESSAY- God and prayer: Tough on us... and on egos

Gordon Livingston's October 8 essay "Divine design: Survivors right to question unanswered prayers" (The Hook 10/08/09 -10/14/09) verbalizes an almost universal concern, "unanswered prayer." He states that we "try to imagine some divine order that... explain(s) the vagaries of chance... or random outcomes." In essence, he questions the healing attributed to answered prayer, and is puzzled by that which seems "unanswered."

First of all, prayer is more than asking for healing. Or for a corner office. Prayer is establishing and maintaining communication with our Creator. For which we must, of course, acknowledge His/Its existence.

That the universe exists presupposes its creation by some power, principle, designer, (Aristotle's Prime Mover?): a Supreme Being. God.

Believers in God generally feel that there is a relationship between us and Him/Her/It that must be maintained– that God created us, and we are responsible to Him. That and prayer give us hope, an essential ingredient in life.

Livingston says we "choose some system of belief" and "imagine" what amounts to a benign God, and asks why such a God would deny prayer. He also suspects a certain air of superiority among those whose prayers are answered toward those whose are not, and asks why. So would I. 

He asks a lot of whys. Okay, a Supreme Being/God by definition could not be a fantasy figure, nor would His existence be of our choosing or imagining. We don't control the universe, so its functions do not revolve around us. We are not– gasp– all-powerful. That humanistic idea is as old as humanity itself and leads to no realistic answers. It also requires little mental effort. It is part of our human nature to want to understand everything, to believe we can ultimately know all mysteries, be in control (read: ego, pride).

By definition, the word "God" denotes a Being beyond our comprehension, whose reasoning we cannot grasp (Isaiah 55: 8-9). When we pray, we by that action reaffirm our dependency, or cluelessness, our necessary trust in Him, our placing our lives and destinies in His hands. That's hell on our egos, and it is also the first and hardest step on a faith journey.

In prayer, we are, bottom-line, acknowledging God's power and control. It's part of the Covenant we Christians enter into with Him through Christ. We may ask for healing or whatever, and we are encouraged to do so in the Judeo/Christian Bible. But in essence, we are recognizing/agreeing that "thy will"– not my will– be done," as Christ prayed on the night of his betrayal and imminent crucifixion. If our prayers are answered "yes" we rejoice. If "no" or "not yet," we who believe recognize God's reasons as beyond our understanding, as Livingston wonders, and we accept that. 

Very possibly, "no" answers (i.e. no healing, no instant gratification, perhaps even death) are in reality to be endured as tests of our faith. Big stakes tests.

Think about it: if every prayer were answered "yes," we could avert any and all mishaps– from death to a bad hair day or an unwelcome zit. Life, with nothing to mark it or hope for, would become a meaningless amoeba-like existence, as C. S. Lewis put it "not worth living." A non-test to which we had the cheat sheet.

Now, I can empathize with Mr. Livingston's loss. I too, have watched loved ones die. It is a grievous, heart-rending experience. And, no, the bromides don't console. But whoever promised us this life would be easy? That's a Disney movie ending. And no, we can't know why some people suffer more than others: God's business.

Livingston doubts miracles. I have, in a long life, survived experiences that defied reason, the law of averages, every aspect of our earthbound and limited logic– including a fall off a 15-story cliff for just one. And yes, I attribute my well-being to a God who has a plan/job for me to do. And I will keep that line of communication open to Him.

It is currently popular to doubt, to question, to be cynical about faith in God. That's easy. That's letting the material world shape us. Many in Mr. Livingston's profession of psychiatry think we believers are deluding ourselves by our faith and prayers.

Could be, but what have we given up to pursue our beliefs– violence, hatred, envy, lust, greed, corrosive doubt, and just plain meanness? How bad can that be?

Oh, and the death that Livingston says "puzzles and frightens us"? As a believer, when God's ready for me, I'm outta here. Grinning.


Free Union resident Charles McRaven, the pastor of Waddell Memorial Presbyterian Church in Rapidan, won the Hook's 2007 short-story contest.