Back in the day, occasionally someone in Sunday school would look up at the teacher in all innocence and ask, “How come God doesn’t answer my prayers?”
“God always answers prayer,” the teacher would glibly say. “Sometimes He says yes; sometimes He says no; sometimes He says wait.”
That little Sunday school chestnut has always bothered me. It used to bother me because that’s not what we mean when we talk about answered prayer. When people talk about answered prayer, they mean that they prayed for Aunt Martha’s gout to get better, and it got better. If it got worse instead, nobody said, “See? God does answer prayer! (He just said no!)”
So I always thought it was a little disingenuous, a slippery redefining of the terms in order to avoid having to answer the hard question of how come God clearly heard Johnny’s request that his parents would not get divorced, and — as far as any of us could tell — just decided to ignore it.
I still harbor that same objection, but now this whole “God always answers prayer” schtick bothers me for a different reason entirely: the people who say it don’t really believe it either.
Suppose I ask you for a lollipop. You have the same three possible responses:
“Sure; here you go.”
“Hang on a minute.”
Suppose you do nothing, and say nothing to me, even though I ask again, and then once more. Would I say that you answered me? Or would I say that you didn’t answer me, even though I asked you three times?
Some of you see where I’m going here, and I can already hear the protests. “I would be answering you in my actions.”
Really? How do I tell the difference between “no” and “wait”? I can’t, except by waiting until you eventually — in ten minutes or ten years — give me a lollipop, or until I die, whichever comes first. Not the most kind and helpful possible responses, huh?
If you treated me like that, even if it was just over something as insignificant as a request for a lollipop, you’d be a jerk. How much worse if it was over a request for a job, for healing my wife, or something else equally life-altering?
But how many of you think God is exactly like that?
Jesus said, “If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father give good gifts to those who ask him?” Most of us don’t believe that God is much better than an earthly father; we believe He is incomparably worse — the sort of dad who, when we ask for a fish, would give us a viper, make sure we got bit, and then tell us that it will improve our character. We send dads like that to jail. The early Christians used to mock the pagans for worshiping gods that indulged in adultery, incest, rape, theft and every sort of debauchery while at the same time disapproving of those behaviors in human society. We have become like those ancient pagans, rather than like our fathers who mocked them.
I have good news though. God is not a bit like we think He is. He really does answer prayer. For example, when Paul asked God to take away his thorn in the flesh, God answered him: “My grace is sufficient for you; My strength is perfected in your weakness.” That’s what our loving Father sounds like when He says “No.”
Know what it sounds like when He says, “Wait”? It isn’t the silent treatment; it sounds like “Wait.”
The question is, do we listen?