One Sunday night when I was a priest in Bolivia, a man pounded on my door and asked for help. He was a “marinero,” a member of a crew of one of the small boats that went back and forth between Bolivia and Peru on Lake Titicaca, reportedly carrying contraband.
One of his fellow crew members was deathly sick, he said. The sick man was still in the boat, which was on the shore about a 45 minute Jeep drive away. The man at the door had walked that distance, meaning the sick man had already had a considerable wait. Could I please pick up the man and get him medical care?
They possibly knew that our parish had two nuns who were nurses and that we had a clinic. Or he could have learned that I was one of the few people in the area who had a car. At any rate, how could I refuse?
Writhing in Pain
We brought the sick man to the parish’s examination room. He was writhing in pain, had abdominal swelling and an extremely high temperature. One of the nuns determined that he had a blocked intestine and that he would die without treatment. We decided to take him to the hospital in La Paz, a two-hour drive over rough roads. He died shortly after we reached the hospital.
I recall that this happened on a Sunday night because the Gospel of Mathew from that morning’s liturgy was fresh in my mind. It included the famous passage, “Ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Standing over the man on the table in our examination room, I was determined to test that pledge. Was Jesus serious, or was this just another nice-sounding promise? If I asked and didn’t receive, was it because I lacked faith? No such condition is mentioned in the gospel passage. And how much faith do you need? And how could a just God determine the fate of this man based on a test of my faith?
Despite these doubts, I prayed earnestly and sincerely for the man’s life. I was sorely disappointed when he died.
Many people have had similar experiences. They pray, and apparently nothing happens. We are answered with silence. We may wonder why but usually just shrug our shoulders and move on.
I believe the first answer to this question, “why God doesn’t answer our prayers,” has to be, “We don’t know.” The gospels were written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death and are no doubt missing a lot of what he said and did and some parts are more accurate than others. Did Jesus further explain the “asking and receiving” passage? Maybe.
Christians aim to follow the gospels, but from modern biblical studies, we know that we have to be discriminate. Some verses are undoubtedly meant to be taken literally; others not. It depends on the context, the intent and many other factors that Scripture scholars study. One of the traditional functions of the church is to help determine the meanings.
Common answers to the question are that God answers all prayers, but not necessarily in the way we may expect. Or, he/she simply says “no,” which appears to contradict Jesus’ words on the subject. An answer that makes the most sense to me is in the context of a parent analogy.
As young parents, I recall taking our children to an amusement park several times. Like most kids, they wanted everything – cotton candy, hot dogs, candy bars, ice cream, soft drinks. We generally bought one thing to eat and another to drink and that was it. When they didn’t get other stuff, they sometimes became angry, cried or pouted – for about two minutes. Then they forgot about it until they saw the next thing they wanted.
We finally figured out that the best approach was to lower their expectations before going to the amusement park. We said something like, “You’ll get one thing to eat and another to drink.” That solved the problem.
It’s evident that children often don’t know what’s good for them, or even what they want. And that doesn’t apply just to children. That’s why I like the analogy with God and prayer.
Looking back on the scene in the examining room in Bolivia, I must admit that I really didn’t know what was best for the sick man. Endowed with the instinct for self-preservation, we always assume that death is the worst thing that can happen. If all that we know about God from religious tradition is accurate, however, that’s not how God sees things.
And he/she is the parent.