Why doesn’t God answer prayer?

Mary Ellen Ashcroft

Irish nuns, Iona Community members, a London prayer order: so many people prayed for Steve’s healing. South African churches, including a large Pentecostal church where services go on for two or three hours! (Seems like they could twist God’s arm…) In Australia, Canada, and all over the United States: people prayed for Steve’s cancer to disappear.

And why not? If you’re going to ask for a miracle — this is perfect. Only 37 years old, with little children, dreams to mentor at risk youth. Well, duh. You would assume that God (or maybe God’s administrative assistant) would slam this huge file of prayers on top of the pile — “Hey God you gotta take a look at this one….”

I prayed every way I know how. And hoped. Right up to the last ditch trip to Mayo, when doctors affirmed hospice care only, I knew God could heal him — through a new treatment or other means.

Steve died December 14th. What am I to make of that?

Some would say we didn’t pray enough or believe enough or weren’t good enough. Others would insist God had a higher purpose or wanted Steve in heaven. Some would argue this proves God can’t intervene or that there is no God.

Not me. Because years ago my magical God was pulled out of my arms.

I don’t recommend it, but it helps to be “acquainted with grief.” That lovely phrase from Handel’s Messiah: it means knowing grief well enough to put it in its place. Having lost my God during my last grief, I have been graced with God’s presence in this one.

My last encounter with suffering – when my ex walked out and I was left trying to hold family and life together — I hoped I had received my full lifetime allotment of agony. Years later, when asked about that time, I’d say, “It was horrific. Excruciating. I didn’t know I would — or wanted to – survive.”

That loss was not only of a spouse, a firm family unit, and trust in how people treat each other — but a loss of God. During those awful months I prayed and prayed — please God, please. Was God deaf? My old God (who answered prayers according to his will) would have checked a file, “Yes, this fits…. husband stays with family…family stays together…. Right, I’ll get on this immediately.”

My magical God died, and sometimes I miss that idol I could manipulate. But as I let go, I was given a God who offers glimmers of presence.

So my question, “Why did God not answer prayers that Steve be healed?” changes to, “Why did I expect God to take my advice?” My nodding acquaintance with grief has taught me that my perspective is inherently limited: I cannot know what is best.

The apostle Paul models this turn, recounting how “three times [he] asked the Lord” to remove his mysterious “thorn in the flesh.” (And we can’t accuse Paul of being short on faith!) But when his advice to God doesn’t work, Paul shifts, realizing God’s “strength made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12:8-9)

I still pray. And I miss Steve terribly. But in not demanding God answer my prayers my way, I find my mind and heart open to the grace of the divine. Letting go of my magical God means I am held by one who is mysterious and ineffable — whom I sense as strength in weakness, whom I glimpse in the sunrise over the lake, whom I experience in the embraces of friends, and whom I know as warm presence holding my heart.

Each month a member of the Cook County Ministerium will offer Spiritual Reflections. This month’s contributor is Mary Ellen Ashcroft, Vicar of Spirit of the Wilderness Episcopal Church.

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