Dear Sister Sunday,
One of my goals for the new year is to become more faithful in prayer. But, it seems that, when I pray and ask God for answers to my prayer, I usually don’t hear back. I guess I’m just confused about why we pray and ask if our prayers aren’t always answered.
Is Anybody Home?
Please understand that you are not alone in asking this question. I think we have all asked God in true faith and hope for an answer we did not receive. But we need to consider both what it means to pray and the One to whom we pray. If you read David’s Psalter, or hymnbook, you see that David is forever putting one petition or another before God, like this from Psalm 12 where he prays that God will deal with his enemies,”May the Lord cut off all deceiving lips, and every boastful tongue.”
But we sing David’s psalms and meditate upon them, because they also reveal a heart stripped bare before God.
Or this, from Psalm 58, where David again asks God for help against his foes,”O God, smash the teeth in their mouths…have the whirlwind snatch them away.” David prays in Psalm 69 that God’s wrath will be poured out upon his enemies and that the fury of God’s anger will overtake them. In Psalm 109, David prays that the children of his enemy will be fatherless, their wives widows, and that they will be homeless, wandering beggars.
Perhaps the most disturbing of David’s prayers comes in Psalm 137, when he asks God to bless those who seize the Babylonian children and smash them against the rock. The scripture says that David was a man after God’s own heart. How can a man after God’s own heart have a heart so murderous? Well, that’s easy. He’s human. But we sing David’s psalms and meditate upon them, because they also reveal a heart stripped bare before God. There is no pretense, no posturing. David comes defenseless in prayer. He offers it all, even the ugly, hidden parts, to God. And that is a heart — open, vulnerable — God can inhabit and, so, transform.
What the scripture also reveals to those who study it, is that God is not a short order cook, even for those who cling to God and strive to keep faith. Please understand that I am not being flippant here. I just mean that God is not at our beck and call, always conforming the divine will to our own: “Two orders of Babylonian heads bashed in against a stone wall? Coming right up!” So, does God hear our prayers? Every prayer? Yes. Does God answer our prayers? Every prayer? Yes. Can we always see or understand the answer? Sometimes, but not always. Do we always like or desire the answer? Sometimes, but not always.
I have seen what I can only describe as miraculous healings. I have seen what I can only describe as deaths, come too soon, too much for the bereaved to bear.
Let’s go back to the short order cook analogy. No good parent serves only what children want to eat. Hershey bars for breakfast may gladden a two-year old child’s heart, but they will also rot his teeth. They cry out to you, “No! Candy!” You continue to offer them carrots. You hear and you answer and you pour out good things before the child, even if it looks to your little girl very like punishment.
I don’t know the chronology of the psalms. But I do know that the final one, 150, is a hymn of pure praise. And I suspect that day after day of standing naked before God did not change God’s heart, but it did change David’s. I suspect that it opened his eyes to see mercy where before he only saw murder, to trust in God’s will rather than demand what he understood to be justice. I trust that will happen to us, as well. The day will come when our eyes are open and we see how every prayer was heard and answered, with a goodness we could not even have imagined.