Is God Listening?

Prayer remains vital to our religious experience, even if God doesn't swoop down to remove tumors.

Sixteen years ago, my mother suffered a debilitating stroke. All four of her sons prayed that she might live and recover. Although she lived, her recovery was partial, and she continues to suffer serious aftereffects, including aphasia. Did God answer our prayers?

The theological optimist would reply, “Of course. God answered, ‘Yes, I will let your mother live.'” But what if my mother had not had four children? What if we had decided not to pray? Would God have let her die? If we assume that God answers prayers, we must assume that had the prayers not been offered, there would be no answer. What would have become of my mother if one morning I had decided not to pray, or been distracted, or simply apathetic? It is hard to believe that God would have made my mother suffer because her sons did not pray. Yet if not offering our prayers would have made no difference, then why pray in the first place?

Unanswered Prayers

More powerfully yet, what of the prayers, worthy prayers, desperate prayers, that go unanswered? The traditional, glib response is, “God answered. He said no!” That flip rejoinder is satisfactory if the prayer is for a new bicycle; but prayers are often the product of true anguish. “God said no” sounds not clever but callous if the plea is that God spare a child suffering from cancer. Then “no” begins to sound more like the absence of God than a response from God.

Yet what can we make of prayer if it does not work in the world? How do we still maintain the worthiness of religious traditions if God does not swoop down to remove our tumors and raise our bowed lives?

Some point to recent research demonstrating that prayer has a medical benefit. But this research is a dangerous, even destructive tool for religion to wield. First, the results are contradictory. Second, if we take our stand on empirical studies, we are confounded when tomorrow a more thorough study comes along disproving the previous research. Faith should not be placed on the statisticians’ operating table.

Demeaning God

Indeed, I believe that expecting God to answer one’s prayer in the fashion that most people expect is to demean God. Our relationship to Ultimacy ought not to be one of favors. Do we pray so that God might act as a Celestial Doctor, a Grand Dispenser of Goods? Or do we pray for relationship, for closeness; to elevate our spirits and raise our hearts?

A good deal of prayer is indistinguishable from barter. Dear God, we pray, heal my mother, and I will be good. Such a prudential arrangement is hardly in the highest spirit of faith.

A New Model

Judaism offers a different, more powerful model of prayer. Two thousand years ago, Antogonos of Socho taught: “Do not be like a slave who placates his master simply to receive a reward.” What then might prayer be?

A medieval rabbi, Leon Modena, expressed the truth of prayer as follows: Imagine a man in a boat who is pulling himself to shore. If one did not know better, it could appear that he is pulling the shore to himself. But indeed, it is the one in the boat who is being moved, because the shore is fixed. So it is, he said, with prayer. We think that when we pray we are moving God closer to our will. But true prayer does quite the opposite: It moves us closer to God’s will.

If we rise from our prayer as better human beings than the ones who sat down, our prayers have been answered.

Does God answer prayer? Although I too have heard stories of miraculous recoveries and remarkable coincidences in people’s lives, stories of salvation that credit God’s power, I do not believe God supernaturally intervenes in the world in response to prayer. Although my heart yearns for such a God–and at times, I confess, my soul prays in such hopes–my experience in this often pain-wracked world belies the yearning of my heart.

But to say that God does not remove tumors is not to declare God irrelevant. For we can invoke the strength, guidance, and love of God in our prayers. Calling out to God, we elevate ourselves; seeking God through prayer, we can change our lives.

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