The pastor said, “If your prayers were not answered, it was because you lacked complete faith.”
At that point I wanted to angrily bolt from the church. The deeply religious family with whom I was sitting had lost a child to cancer and I knew well, and was part of, the fervent prayers they, their friends and their church community had offered to God for their daughter’s cure.
While the timing of his message was unfortunate, to put the failure of their prayers on the parent’s already burdened shoulders was brutally wrong and another trigger point in my pilgrimage.
In researching prayer I learned they were categorized into four to six basic types and that, statistically, about 50 percent of Christians believe their prayers had been answered (similar numbers apply to Hindus, Muslims and others).
I was told confidently by many that “prayer works.” Others suggested that God answers prayer three ways: Yes, No, or Not Yet (certainly a no-lose situation for God.) But where did I stand?
Life’s experiences had led me to this reality: We can choose to live in a world of random events with prayer or we can choose to live in a world of random events without prayer. But make no mistake — we all live in a world of random events. Unfortunately, many random events such as loss, accidents, disease and death can be devastating.
Some Christians place the reason for life’s suffering squarely on the shoulders of Adam and Eve. Hinduism blames it on karma while Buddhism says suffering is caused by desire and attachment.
Like many, I was worried about the unknowable future and the threats it could bring. Consequently, I frequently offered God prayers of petition (requests for myself) and intercession (requests for others). Eventually, however, I began to realize that I was praying the only way I had known — as I was taught as a child. I began to question my selfishness wondering why God would decide to cure my illness but not those of 20,000 children in this world who die every day from disease? Or, I pondered, maybe one pair of hands working truly is better than a thousand praying?
When Jesus advised us to “ask and you shall receive,” he was talking about our spiritual lives and not material riches (despite the preaching of the “prosperity gospel.”) Besides, Luke 4:12 pointed me in a much different direction. When challenged by the devil, Jesus answered, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” I felt I was doing just that despite the wisdom revealed in Ecclesiastes that “time and chance happen to all.”
My theology changed further reading Mark 14:36 when Jesus prayed, “Not what I will, but what You will.” I have let go of trying to control my future through prayer and now accept God’s will whatever it may be. I find that to be both liberating and comforting.
Life, no doubt, will still bring me trials and trauma. But today I live the words of Reinhold Niebuhr, author of what’s commonly known as the Serenity Prayer — “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”
I’ve incorporated Joseph Campbell’s suggestion to “joyfully participate in the sorrows of life.” When I asked a street artist in Chicago, “How’s life?” he replied, “I’m just happy to participate in the struggle.” He was a poor man whose poetic words expressed a rich gratitude.
St. Francis, who commandingly said, “When we pray to God we must be seeking nothing,” guides me. I, too, despite the wondrous highs and deepest lows of my life, am happy in it. My future belongs to God and I will do my best with it. Each day, my prayer now consists of a few simple yet sincere words: “Thank you, God, for my opportunity in this life. Let me participate joyfully!”
Tom Bresko, retired from Mill Creek MetroParks, is a Christian on a spiritual pilgrimage.