“But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”
That’s good advice. I mean, of course it is. Jesus said it. Calling it good advice is like calling “Let there be light” a decent enough ice-breaker. But it’s good for me, at the moment, because I’d prefer people not to hear me pray. I’m a little ashamed.
My understanding of prayer has changed. Back in the day, back when I was a badly-behaved fundamentalist, I believed and told anyone who would listen that God answers prayers. All of them. Of course I’d trot out that line we all eventually use, the one so trite it’s almost meaningless: “Sometimes the answer is no.” But I never bought that. God, I believed, loves us so much that, independent of any church, any priest, anything I could do to deserve it, He wants to give us good things. He wants to answer our prayers. In the affirmative, not in a flash of smartassery with a “Nope!” or “Not yet!” And, if I prayed in faith and He did not give me what I asked for, I was convinced there was an edifying (and ultimately testimony-worthy) reason for that.
My, how I’ve grown.
Today, when I hear someone at a home group giving prayerful thanks for a better-paying job or a new car, it’s all I can do not to stand up and start shouting: “Did God give that to you, or did centuries of Western imperialism? Is it really a gift from God, or is it the ill-gotten proceeds of injustice on a global scale? Can we really give thanks for material blessings while we are lounging on the backs of the downtrodden poor? Huh? Can we?!”
I don’t get invited back a lot.
From my fundie roots, I’ve embraced nuance, complexity and mystery. I have learned the value of suffering and liminal space, I’ve started seeing God not as an equation or machine into which we enter our desires and which outputs predictable blessings, but the free agent above all free agents. For the first time, I think I mean it when I say ‘relationship with God’, because I do not assume He is predictable.
God seems to choose, every day, not to answer prayers. Prayers that even Southern Baptist me would have thought of as sure-fire winners in terms of faith and purpose. Prayers not to be raped. Prayers for the cancer not to have spread, for the food truck to arrive before the rebels, for the abuse to stop. Reasonable things, asked not just in faith but good faith.
There may be good reasons for this, from man’s intervention to a fallen world, and I hear you when you tilt your head and ask me what exactly I thought the deal was when it’s clear that everybody dies. That some prayers just can’t reasonably be expected to work. I know, I know.
But here’s my secret. I still pray. And not just for the noble stuff.
I pray for parking spaces and success at work, for fun nights out and not to die too soon. When my parents go for surgery, I pray and pray that they will live, that they won’t lose each other, that somehow they will come to Jesus before dying. I pray for God to shield me from the consequences of my actions and to inspire my writing and to bless my career.
And I’m alive. My cancer is in remission. My job is going well and, while I have no idea about my folks’ salvation, we fight less about religion these days. And I have no idea if that is the power of prayer or just that God is inexplicably kind to me.
But I have some questions.
Does God take away dramatic answers to prayer so we can grow in faith and discover the riches of mystery and unknowing? Is all this a function of growing up, or just growing liberal? Is it growth at all? How am I to trust a God who tells me I will suffer, I will most likely be persecuted and that I certainly will die? A God who says salvation is attained through a very narrow gate? How am I to pray with confidence and ask with faith?
I am no longer as sure as I once was that everything will be okay. But I still pray. I am a prayerful hypocrite, begging for mercy while hoping desperately that God, who is good, who loves us and has patience with us, has not grown as much as my theology. It’s best I do it in private.