Why would a loving God not answer prayer?

I heard a story of a ship that was sinking in the middle of a storm. The captain called out to the crew and said, "Does anyone here know how to pray?"  One man stepped forward and said, "Yes sir, I know how to pray." The captain said, "Wonderful, you pray while the rest of us put on life jackets - we're one short." Last Sunday, in the gospel story of Martha and Mary, we were reminded of the importance of regular prayer. I suggested that you take it as a challenge to pray regularly for at least five minutes each day. How did it go? When we start to pray regularly, we usually begin to notice difficulties.  These difficulties are reflected in the joke we heard: 1) we find we don’t really know how to pray and 2) we discover that sometimes our prayers don’t seem to be answered. Jesus addresses these challenges in today’s gospel.

We all struggle with knowing how to pray. Praying is no easy or straight forward task.  Many Catholics do not think that they enjoy a very good prayer life.  They think everyone else has an amazing prayer life and that all everyone else has to do is close their eyes and they are immediately filled with the presence of God. This is nonsense! We all struggle with prayer, myself included. When I pray I seldom experience strong positive emotions. I can easily lose concentration and become distracted. I received a good reality check about the difficulty of prayer when I read an interview with the now deceased Cardinal Hume. Towards the end of his life this devout man was asked about his prayer life.  He responded:
Oh, I just keep plugging away. At its best it’s like being in a dark room with someone you love. You can’t see them, but you know they’re there.
The disciples too must have had challenges praying otherwise we would not find them asking Jesus to teach them how to pray in today’s gospel. That the disciples and great Christians such as Cardinal Hume also struggled with knowing how to pray gives me hope. We all find prayer difficult.

Though prayer can be tough, an intimate, personal relationship with God is not beyond our capabilities. When asked by His disciples “teach us to pray”, Jesus gives them the “Our Father”. This prayer teaches so much about the nature of prayer. According to Christ, prayer is an incredibly intimate and personal thing. We are to call on God as we would our own father, with loving trust that He will provide for all our needs. In the end, prayer is a matter of the heart. We unite our hearts with God. We can do this simply by speaking to God in our hearts during the day, being open and honest about our joys and frustrations. We can also unite our hearts to God silently in a type of loving gaze. There is an interesting anecdote from the life of St. John Vianney. He would often notice a poor old peasant spending hours in prayer before the tabernacle, in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Eventually St. Vianney went and questioned the man about how he prayed, what does he did, what he said.  The man responded: "Nothing. I just look at Him and He looks at me."  Though prayer is challenging, it should foster this kind of intimate, personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

Prayer gradually transforms the human heart, to make it more in accord with God’s.  A huge obstacle in prayer can be the sense that God does not answer our prayers.  We can ask for things in prayer and when it does not come to pass we can feel that God is not listening, that our prayer is useless. Even though we may not see any results, prayer always works.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Transformation of the praying heart is the first response to our petition” (CCC §2739). We ask for many things in prayer, but do we even know what is really good for ourselves? If I look back I see that there are some things that I asked God for in prayer that weren’t really what was best for me. I can see now that what actually happened to me at that moment, though not what I wanted, was actually what was best for me.  When we pray God slowly changes our hearts so that we begin to desire what God desires for us. Hence in the Our Father we pray to God, “thy will be done”. There is a story that in a Soviet prison camp there was one prisoner who would get on his knees each day and pray. One day when he is praying with his eyes closed, a fellow prisoner walked by him and said with ridicule, "Prayers won't help you get out of here any faster." Opening his eyes, the praying prisoner answered, "I do not pray to get out of prison but to do the will of God." Prayer changes our heart so that we more and more desire to have God’s will done in our life.       

Because of all the challenges that prayer poses, it is vital that we cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our prayer life.  Today’s Gospel makes several things crystal clear regarding prayer. 1) God is a Father who loves us dearly and will always give us in time what is best for us, and 2) our job is to persevere in prayer, to keep asking God for what we desire, to always knock. We may ask, “why does God not just grant us what we want right away? Why does He wait?” I would like to answer that by taking as an analogy the way a particular species of bamboo grows. When you try to grow this bamboo from a seed, something peculiar happens. For the first year you water and fertilize the seed but little seems to happen, a small shoot only emerges from the soil. When you water and fertilize the seedling for a second year, nothing seems to happen, no growth is visible. The same for the third year, and the fourth year. Then during the fifth year something remarkable happens. When you water and fertilize the plant, it will grow close to 90 feet in just a couple months. What was going on during the first four years? During this time, the bamboo plant was growing a vast root system underground that would ultimately support the towering plant.  When we ask for something in prayer, perhaps we are not yet ready to receive this gift or perhaps God has an even greater gift in mind. Like the plant, we lack the necessary roots. When we pray, it is like watering and fertilizing our soul so that our hearts – our root structure – can grow and become strong enough to receive the great gifts that God wants to give us. In order for our hearts to grow, we need to keep praying, we need to keep knocking. For this reason it is vital that we cultivate the virtue of perseverance in our prayer life.

Recently the world was able to witness an incredible testimony to the importance of prayer and perseverance. As many of you know, this past week Rio Di Janeiro has hosted the World Youth Day. A few nights ago was the prayer vigil, in which over three million young people joined the Holy Father to pray. The youth persevered in prayer late into the night, uniting their will with God. Surely their hearts were changed. It is a great source of inspiration and encouragement for me just to see the incredible images of this event showing the vast multitude of praying youth. Let us follow their example by persevering in prayer in the face of obstacles. Let us remain faithful to praying regularly each day so that God can transform our heart to better reflect the desires of His own.

Prayer? Ain't nobody got time for that!

Whenever I hear the gospel story about Martha and Mary, I cannot help but feel sorry for Martha. It seems like Jesus is being unfair to her. If I was in Martha’s shoes, running around working while Mary just sat around, I would probably complain to Jesus. I would also be upset that Jesus didn't tell Mary to get up and help. We must realize that there is more going on here than meets this eye. This gospel does not downplay the importance of work or service. This gospel should, however, serve as a powerful reminder about the importance of taking the time to pray. It is critical that we regularly imitate Mary by putting aside our duties and take the time to consciously spend time with Jesus. Such a reminder is important as we find ourselves so busy with work, family and social commitments.

Deep down we all harbor the suspicion that prayer is not the best use of our time. Of course we would never say this out loud; in theory we all agree we should take time to pray. But our actions suggest otherwise. How often do we justify not praying by telling ourselves that we are too busy today? I once read an interview with Bill Gates that struck this point home. As most of you know, Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft and is now well known for his charity work.  Though I do not agree with all the causes Bill Gates supports, his generosity and drive in helping the poor is admirable. In the interview he was asked: “Mr. Gates, are you a religious person?” His response: “for me, I find that there are more productive ways that I can use my Sunday morning than being in Church”. I do not know whether Bill Gates still thinks like this, I mention it because I think that he said out loud what we often think. Often we think that there are better ways to use our time than spending it is prayer and religious pursuits.

The truth is that prayer makes us better people.  When we pray we give God the opportunity to transform us. I firmly believe that prayer makes me a better human being.  When I do not pray enough I find that I am less patient and not as kind. When I do not pray enough I lose sight of what is truly important in life and become bogged down in work and duties.  I become like Martha: distracted by many things. It is as though each of us is like an electric car which has batteries that power the engine. For a while the car runs great, but after some time you need to plug the car in otherwise the batteries get drained, the car loses power and will eventually stop. As Christians our “batteries” hold the grace of God, His strength and life, rather than an electric charge. If we do not take the time to re-charge we will stop working properly, we cannot live like Jesus intends. When we pray we “plug into” Jesus, the source of all goodness, love and kindness.  In prayer we become like Mary in the gospel, we sit at Jesus’ feet and He charges us with His grace. Plugging in an electric car to recharge it is not optional. Likewise for us Christians, taking the time to pray is not optional. When we pray we give God the opportunity to change us for the better.

In order for God to transform our lives through prayer we need to pray regularly each day. Just as regular practice is crucial to becoming a good musician, praying regularly is fundamental to becoming a good Christian. There was this great pianist called Ignacy Jan Paderewski. When asked about the important of practice he said the following: “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it.  If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” If we pray regularly, we should experience the same thing. If you miss praying one day, you will notice the difference, you may be less patient for example. If you miss two days, those closest to you, your family, will notice a difference. If you miss three days everyone else will notice a difference. Sometimes we are inspired to make a grand plan to pray for a long time each day, but what usually happens is that after two days we stop. It is much better to choose a realistic amount of time to pray, and a certain time that you can be sure to pray each day and stick to it. For example, perhaps you just have time for five minutes of personal prayer each day that you can do first thing in the morning. The important thing is that you are faithful to this time and do it every day. This regularity in prayer is a great sign of love to God and will also allow Him to change you.

In the end, the more generous we are with God in our prayer life, the more He will be able to transform us.  God can only transform us to the extent that we give ourselves to Him in prayer. Generosity in prayer is about more than just spending time in prayer, but also about how open we are with Jesus. For example, the more honest that we are with Jesus in prayer about our problems, the more He can help us with them. There is story that illustrates this principle.   In India there was a beggar sitting by the side of the road. Every so often a traveller would pass by and place a little rice in the bowl the beggar was holding. One day the beggar heard the king approaching with his entourage. This was the moment the beggar was waiting for. Surely the king would give him plenty of rice! The king did indeed stop before the beggar. But when he bent over towards him, this great king said something unexpected. The king said to the beggar, “give me some of your rice”. The beggar was taken aback! He reached into his bowl and gave the king one grain of rice. The great king calmly replied “is that all”? Furious, the beggar took out a second grain from his bowl and tossed it at the king. With this the king gathered up his entourage and was off. The beggar, filled with rage, greedily fingered the remaining rice grains in his bowl. It was then that he noticed that one grain felt different to the touch. When he brought it out of the bowl he noticed that it was a grain of pure gold! The beggar quickly checked the rest of his bowl. To his delight he found a second grain of gold. He had one grain of gold for each grain of rice he gave the king. As the king walked away, the beggar couldn't help thinking “why on earth did I not give the king everything?!”  We should ask ourselves the same question. Why do we not give our King, Jesus Christ, everything? The more generous we are with God in prayer, the more God can transform us.

Though we are busy, if we are honest with ourselves and examine how much time we spend daily on television or social media I think we must conclude that we do have time to pray more. Today let us commit to praying more regularly. If you do not yet have a daily time of personal prayer, commit to pray 5 minutes each day at some time that works for you. If you are already do this, commit to praying 5 minutes more. Let us be generous with God. Pray regularly and allow yourself to be transformed by God. You will be doing yourself and everyone around you a favor.

Avoiding "God blindness"

In North America and Europe God can seem so far away for many people. Charles Taylor, a Canadian philosopher, has written quite a lot about this. He explains that a few hundred years ago, belief in God was “axiomatic”, it was something that people simply accepted. Today in Western society this is just not the case. Believing in God does not come automatically. Many people are unsure if God exists, others say there is no God. What accounts for this dramatic change?

Though there are perhaps many reasons, I suggest that one is that we have become blind to the way that God works and acts in our life. In today’s gospel Jesus is warning the inhabitants of the cities in which He has worked His greatest miracles. Even though Jesus has done His amazing works in these places, the people have refused to change their ways and turn to God. In North America and Europe we have an abundance of good things: plentiful food, peace, access to education and a good medical system. Certainly things are not perfect, but we do have so much.  Often we can go through our lives ignoring all the good things that we have.  Perhaps it is because we tend to focus on the negative. We should stop and ask ourselves: why do we have all this goodness in our lives? I am not asking a scientific question here but a philosophical one. Science, for example, can tell us how we have so much food: good soil, climate, agricultural technology, etc. It is an entirely different question though to ask why we have so many good things.  Is it just chance?  Are we just lucky that the factors are such in the universe that we happen to have it so good? Or is the answer that there is a God who loves us and is trying to show us this by giving us so many gifts? One answer is not more scientific than the other. Maybe we have become like the cities that Jesus cautions in the gospel. God is working so much and giving us so much but we do not recognize it comes from Him. Perhaps as a society we have become blind to the way God works in and acts in our life.

Being deaf to how God is speaking to us is a real possibility for us who profess a belief in God and are trying to grow close to Him. We too regularly ignore how Jesus is working in our lives, just like the cities in today’s gospel.  The problem is that we expect God to work in dramatic and fantastic ways. God can work like this but more than not God speaks to us in simple, daily events: a conversation with a friend, a family dinner, a passage of scripture that happens to strike us or a sunset. We might complain that God is not active in our lives, that we feel unloved by Him or that He is not answering our prayers. We should ask ourselves if we are paying attention. Perhaps God tried to show you His love today through the smile of some stranger on the bus. Maybe God is trying to tell you to be more patient with yourself through the words of a friend with whom you are having a conversation. If you are having doubts about God’s power, perhaps He is trying to demonstrate it to you through some wonder of nature, such as a thunder storm.  Since God is always speaking to us through daily events, it is important to develop a discerning heart by 1) being aware of different events that happen to us (not just letting life pass us by) and 2) taking the time to ask, “what is God trying to tell me through this person or event”? God is always speaking to us, but often we are not listening.

Let us not make the same mistake are the cities that Jesus rebukes in today’s gospel by being blind to the works that God is doing in our lives.  We should notice them and allow them to lead us closer to Him. A very practical way you can do this is by taking some time at night to review your day to try to find one or two events in which God was active. Perhaps something good happened to you, for example someone said something kind. Or maybe you felt inspired to do a good deed for someone. Whatever it may be, identify it, give thanks to God and ask the question, “what is God telling me through this person/event”? You may be surprised by the answer.