Unanswered Prayer

My brother asked me an interesting question the other day. “What is the most frequent unanswered prayer?”, he asked. His opinion is that the most frequent unanswered prayer is “Lord, let me win the lottery.” He might be right.

I remember some years ago there was a Garth Brooks song about unanswered prayers. Garth runs into an old high school girlfriend at a football game and recalls how, when they were younger, he’d prayed for God to make that girl his. Garth doesn’t elaborate on why. He’s just glad God didn’t answer that prayer.

In the same vein, I prayed for a pony for Christmas when I was five. That was my earliest experience with unanswered prayer.

Sadly, both personally and professionally, I’ve had far more serious experiences with unanswered prayer. Personally, I wonder if the most frequent unanswered prayer is “Lord, heal my loved one from this illness” or even “He/she has suffered enough, Lord. Please take him/her.”

Similarly, I have sat with good people and listen to them question the quality of their prayer. “Maybe I didn’t pray correctly or maybe I didn’t pray enough”, agonized one woman when trying to grasp the death of her daughter from cancer.

And yet I continue to believe in prayer. I pray every day for the health and safety of my loved ones. And so anyone who believes in prayer has to also come to terms with the reality of unanswered prayers.

The most common explanation has to do with God’s will. This position holds that everything happens for a reason. However, that reason may not be clear and in fact may never become clear. This was the explanation my mother held in the face of the deaths of her mother and my two sisters. It is the explanation held by a man dying of Gehrig’s disease. It is an answer that takes great courage and faith to embrace.

Others would argue that some of the bad things that happen in life are not God’s doing. This is the position suggested by Rabbi Kushner in his wonderful book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. This positions argues instead that God does not cause all tragedies but is there for us in the midst of those tragedies.

Still others argue that God does not run a candy store where He/She doles out goodies. Rather, they argue, prayer allows us to experience God and especially God’s love in a direct manner.

There are those who say that God is not involved in the day-to-day details of our lives. Thus, there is no point in praying that God help me find a parking spot in the Walmart parking lot. As George Burns as God says in the film Oh God, “I worry about the Big Picture and leave the details to you all.”

And finally there are those who give up on prayer and God completely because of an unanswered prayer

I don’t have an answer. At this point, I rather doubt that God is involved in the outcome of a lottery or, for that matter, in the outcome of a sporting event. (I am convinced that many Red Sox fans believe that Dave Roberts stealing second base in the 2004 playoffs against the Yankees and turning the tide in favor of the Red Sox was an answer to prayer!) And yet prayer does seem to have some power to it. Perhaps as Abraham Joshua Heschel said “Prayer doesn’t save us but it makes us worth saving.” Perhaps when I take a prayerful attitude, I may more easily embrace the need for me to stop trying to control that over which I am powerless. And, for certain, I know when I pray I am more strongly centered in the love I have for others. That alone makes prayer worthwhile.

Reflection: How do you deal with the reality of unanswered prayers?