The Problem of Prayer

Reading Rachel Held EvansEvolving in Monkey Town the other night, my wife and I came to a passage about an 8-year-old boy in India, Kanakaraju, whose mother was dying of AIDS and father had already succumbed to the disease.

He had asked Evans, his akka, or “sister,” to pray for her, and she did, that day and every day after.

After my return to the States, when my pastor asked the congregation to pray for the funds to repave the church parking lot, I privately asked God to take care of Kanakaraju’s family first. It wasn’t that I thought god was incapable of doing both. I guess I just figured if prayer made any difference at all, it was more important that Kanakaraju have a mother than that my church have new blacktop.

But just a few weeks after I left India, I got an email from the missionary family saying that Kanakaraju’s mother had succumbed to her illness. They planned to take Kanakaraju in themselves and start training his older sisters for sewing jobs so they could earn a living. The email said Kanakaraju was struggling to accept his mother’s death, that he was crying for her every night.

Not long after I got the message from India, my pastor announced that God had provided the funds for the parking lot.

“Isn’t it amazing how God blesses his children?” he asked.

That last quote makes me feel a little icky, which I’m sure is exactly what Evans intended.

The truth is, my wife and I have been talking a lot lately about prayer: Why we do it, when it’s appropriate, and how it should be done. It comes up in the context of praying for rain, something people in our region do a lot, thanks to a horrible drought and record-breaking heat.

Neither of us is comfortable with the idea of praying for rain, and we’re not sure why. It’s not a particularly shallow request; rain would provide relief for thousands of farmers and ranchers who depend on it for their livelihood. And since I can live with my brown lawn and alarmingly yellow hedges, it’s not particularly selfish either.

But there’s something about it that seems off. Maybe it’s because there’s not much satisfaction that comes from it. It finally did rain here in a big way – three inches in one day – a couple of weeks ago. This was hailed as an answer to prayer. But it wasn’t an answer to everyone’s prayer. A storm cloud the size and shape of Texas did not park itself over the state and let loose for three straight days. We got rain, yes, but thousands of people praying for it have yet to see any.

And as it turns out, the rain wasn’t enough to make any difference in the conditions of the drought, or the state of the crops, or the need for many ranchers to sell off their cattle because they can’t find or afford the food for them. Further, years of reporting on West Texas farmers has taught me that hard rains like that in the late summer and early fall actually hurt the cotton crop because the raindrops splash dirt on the bowls and lower the value of the cotton.

So, after that huge outpouring of rain, the marquees on the small-town churches still say: PRAY FOR RAIN.

What was the point?

I’ve been following the cases of three children with whose parents I’m acquainted. They all have cancer, and they all went into remission around the same time after thousands of people from churches all over the city lifted them up in prayer. We all celebrated with them, and thanked God for helping them beat the cancer back.

Now two have relapsed, and the third is awaiting another MRI to see whether the spot found in his brain last month signifies that he, too, is no longer cancer-free.

What was the point?

We have these lists of requests we make to God, ranging from the deadly serious to the superficial, and how many of them are answered in a satisfactory way? Any more than would be resolved if we simply let chance and fate hold sway? If we pray for rain for three months, and we get a one-day rainstorm that does little to change the larger conditions causing the drought and covers only a small portion of the affected area, is that God? Or is it a cold front that happened to get a little bit of Gulf moisture over our region?

We have faith in an omnipotent God, one who can do anything he wants. We believe he spoke the world into existence, orchestrated the history of Israel to produce the Savior of the world, raised people from the dead. I personally believe, because he’s done it for me, that he changes lives in remarkable ways.

So why wouldn’t he nudge a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico a little closer to Texas and give it the good extended soaking the state really needs? Instead, it putters out on the border, delivering less than a half-inch of rain. Why wouldn’t he tell the cancer infecting these three children that they’ve fought hard and valiantly enough so it needed to leave? Instead, they are required to fight even more, in new hospitals, farther away from home and friends.

I believe God cares. And I believe he is unsurprised by our questions.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked.

“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.

Jesus wept.

If that passage from John 11 teaches us anything, it’s that God’s been getting these type of questions for a long time, and that he cares much more than we could ever know. What amazes me about this story is that Jesus weeps even though he already knows he’s going to raise Lazarus from the dead. He is about to turn their mourning into dancing, but their present sorrow is too much for his humanity to bear. He breaks down.

This is the God in whom I trust. He cares.

So I’m forced back into this situation where I don’t have the answer for the questions I have. Why do some, usually the more charismatic, churches report numerous cases of miraculous healings. Why do some friends of mine believe fully in the name-it-and-claim-it approach to prayer, while I, no matter how hard I try otherwise, merely request that God do his will? Why does Kanakaraju’s mother die despite the fervent prayers of Rachel Held Evans and an 8-year-old boy while a church raises money for a parking lot on the strength of a few dozen halfhearted prayers murmured in church?

All I can do is have faith that we worship a loving, compassionate God who is working all things together for good. That no matter what happens in this life, we will all eventually be reconciled to the perfection God intended for us. It’s an uncomfortable place for me to be, and maybe that’s the point.


I have some other thoughts on this subject, but this post is long enough as it is, so I’ll try to tackle it another day. In other news, today is the first day of class! I’ve chosen my six-word memoir – “Learning to live with shades of gray” – have my notebook and pen (I’m old school that way), but no backpack yet. (Next week!) I’ll try to report tomorrow on how things went. I don’t want to start promising anything, but it makes sense to post about the previous class Thursday night or Friday morning before I forget too much.

Thanks to the few of you who check this out consistently. I really enjoy having a forum with which to work out my faith with fear and trembling, and I hope you enjoy reading it.


8 thoughts on “The Problem of Prayer”

  1. Thanks for continuing to keep us in mind. It’s hard to take people’s pain seriously, to intentionally make yourself remember and observe it, and so to me, being remembered means more than prayers.

    As you start seminary, please keep hold of the question of suffering/pain/evil. As far as I can tell, it’s the only theological question that really matters.

    I have my own answer to it, but it’s not one that anybody really likes. Maybe you’ll find or develop something more helpful.

  2. Succinctly:

    It is not enough for God to feel bad about human suffering, or to somehow make up for it after the fact. To allow the torture of innocents is to be complicit in that torture, Free Will be damned. Consequently, it is plainly incoherent to posit a God who is both good and overwhelmingly powerful.

    But most of us still believe in a God. So what do we do with this belief? We should affirm it, but also accept that we must have been mistaken in some ways, and go about finding a different way to think about God.

    In my opinion, the best thing to do next — given the track record of power — is to abandon the idea that God is powerful, and by doing so, liberate our claim that God is good … that God is essentially goodness itself … or if we want to angle it a bit differently, we can claim, as the Bible does, that God is love.

    This is hard for many of us, because not only does it mean giving up little things, like a God who magically gives us rain and parking spaces and helps us find our keys, it also means giving up really big things, like a God who is a big grand king, who creates everything from nothing, who inspires a Bible, and who raises people from the dead. And maybe these things are too big to give up.

    But for those of us who have already given up most of those things, giving up power actually solves more problems than it causes. It’s the piece that makes everything click.

    And because I’m one of those people, that’s my position. God is not powerful. Or to put it another way: Love, and nothing else, is God in the world.

    1. I hate to be all eschatological about things (baggage from growing up, I’m sure), but what would this mean for after we die? If “God” is nothing more than love and goodness in this world and does not have the power to answer prayer (and, as you note, therefore not the power to create the world or raise the dead, among other things), is this life all we have? Is death truly the most powerful force in the world?

      1. >If “God” is nothing more than love and goodness in this world …

        It might be more helpful to think of God as “nothing more” than love and goodness in the same way that you are “nothing more” than a particular pattern of organic compounds.

        > Is death truly the most powerful force in the world?

        Even if our consciousnesses don’t persist — and there are a variety of reasons to be hopeful that they might persist — I’m hesitant to give death the kind of recognition you (and the Christus Victor soteriology) give it. I’m not much on catastrophe or war or disease, but I’m not sure that death per se is such a bad thing.

  3. When I read that passage from “Evolving in Monkey Town” I looked at it a little differently. To me the question of prayer isn’t about whether God does or doesn’t answer prayers but rather why does he want us to pray. If you believe that man was created in the image of God then that should mean that among other things our desire to commune with eachother is a byproduct of God’s desire to commune with us. I believe God wants us to pray so that we will commune with him, not simply to answer our desires.

    In response to Rachel Held Evans I would suggest that the view of prayer as a means for getting what we want or need is a little off base. I wouldn’t categorize her church recieving the money it wanted as an amazing answer to prayer. However I would categorize Kanakaraju’s faith as an amazing belief in God. The fact that a child growing up in the slums of India and is losing his family to a horrendous disease yet still has the faith to go to God in prayer should be celebrated. Instead Rachel Held Evans is questioning why one seemingly unimportant prayer is answered instead of the more humane prayer that goes unanswered. She’s focusing on the outcome of the prayer instead of the relationship with God that is strengthened through prayerful activity.

    Perhaps Matthew is right. Maybe God doesn’t actually have power. Not even the power to answer prayers. Perhaps what we perceive to be answers to prayer are nothing more than our lives playing out the way God intended. I’m not sure if I truly believe that or not but it certainly would help explain the existance of evil in the world. It also has more appeal to me than my own recent musings concerning the human understanding of the goodness of God. Of course given Kanakaraju’s unanswered prayer falling outside the realm of human understanding God could have intended to influence those Kanakaraju came in contact with. Kanakaraju obviously made a tremendous impression on Rachel Held Evans and in turn could have a significant impact on anyone who reads “Evolving in Monkey Town”. Your choice to include it in your blog has led at least two of your readers to reflect on what they believe. Of the millions of people who will read “Evolving in Monkey Town” perhaps a few of them will redidicate their lives to God in ways that improve the human experience and bring more people out of the darkness and into the light.

    1. I think your comments about prayer line up with where I’m headed. One of these days, when I do a follow-up to this post, I plan to explore more the idea that our western, request-based notions of prayer are wrong.

      As for why God does what he does (or, more accurately in this case, doesn’t do what he doesn’t do), I’m leaning more toward the idea that, painful as it is for those of us left behind, death is a mercy for those who are taken. Assuming we believe in heaven of some kind (not necessarily city-in-the-sky heaven, but a place where we are consciously present in the perfection of God), their suffering is over. They’re happier than we can ever know in this life. It’s us poor slobs still muddling through this life who have to pick up the pieces.

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