“If you shall ask anything of the Father, he will give it you in my name”
We closed in our last blog with the phrase “The universe is not a steel gauntlet hard and inflexible. It is a silken glove.” And what is more wonderful still, it is a silken glove with the hand of God inside it.
We are therefore to pray, and to pray in faith; but as in the case of faith, we are not to test our prayer and call it useless if it does not bring exactly the kind of reply we desire. The chilling thought that God does not answer prayer, that there is a great silence, must be fought at all costs. There cannot be such a thing as unanswered prayer. How can there be? If God is anything like the God Jesus believed in, a God who is interested in the small details of our lives and knows the sparrow’s fall, how can he possibly refrain from any answer at all when his own children, made in his likeness, cry to him? “God is a father,” says Jesus. “When you pray say, Our Father.” What sort of a father is he who, when his child cries out to him, averts his face, maintains a stony silence and looks the other way?
At one of the Round Table Conferences which E. Stanley Jones held in India, there was a fine young Englishman, the leader among a group of business men, who wanted better relationships between India and Great Britain. “God let me down,” said this young Englishman. “My brother was wounded in the War. I prayed to him that my brother might live. Any decent person would have answered. He did not. My brother died. I have no faith left.”
Do we not all see here an illustration of the point that there are some circumstances in which God cannot do what we ask? The answer of the individual prayer might let go of the greater good of the entire family of humankind. Or, under some circumstances, the misuse of free will and the results of man’s folly and sin and ignorance, create a situation to repair which God requires time. To deflect a bullet in answer to a prayer would make religion an insurance and prayer a bribe. To prevent a bullet from pounding through the brain of our loved one because we happen to pray for him, would involve a rearrangement of the whole universe on a plan less good than the present. God’s way seems to be to allow evil and folly and ignorance to bring about certain results which offer an endless challenge to the rest of the family, but not to leave the matter there; to act subsequently, indeed, in ways which weave the tragedy into his ultimate plan.
Whenever he can do so, having regard to the family interest, God does answer our prayers in the way we want them answered, and it is evident that, again and again, in cases of suffering, he is able to do things through prayer which are impossible without it. If my loved one were suffering, I should always feel that I must pray. I should not think my prayer was directed toward persuading a reluctant God to intervene, or telling him something he does not know, or getting him to do something which otherwise he would not do. I should regard my prayer as a co-operation with his spiritual laws, similar to the co-operation on the physical level which the doctor or the surgeon employs, with the additional richness about it that my co-operation brought me into a conscious, personal relationship with him. That point of our co-operation with God through prayer needs to be and again, in my experience, the prayers of a congregation have so acted upon the mind of a patient, bringing sometimes, but not necessarily, the expectation of recovery, that therapeutic agencies already employed have a far more, far more potent effect, and the mind, which is powerful an agent on the body, believes in recovery and brings it about.
But the value of prayer in suffering is not fully realized by healing and is not discounted by failure to heal. Its value is seen in the rich fellowship which the sufferer has with God through it. That fellowship can become so wonderful that the patient, while still greatly desirous of being cured, does not feel there is a mystery left, and, far from any feelings of resentment and rebellion, is able to co-operate with God so that whatever happens the eyes are lifted to the glory of God and the final consummation of his purposes.
Saint Paul himself had a thorn in the flesh, which may have been a recurrent malaria, or may have been the lameness which hindered him in his long missionary journeys. Whatever it was, he prayed to the Lord “thrice” (the Greek phrase means “repeatedly”). There was an answer, but not the answer he wanted. The reply seems to have been that although the thorn was not the will of God but a “messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7). God, for reasons not disclosed to Paul, must not remove it, and Paul was holding on in the faith that God’s grace was sufficient for him and that God’s strength was made perfect in weakness. But look at Paul’s magnificent reply. The relationship between himself and God is so close and rich he writes, “Most gladly therefore will I gather glory in my weakness that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Paul does not stop praying. He does not “finish with religion.” He does not even say, “Isn’t it terrible?” not even “it’s too bad,” or “I can’t think what I’ve done to deserve it.” Although what he desires is not done, the mystery ceases to trouble him and his eyes are lifted to a far horizon."