When Prayers Fail

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on the American Evangelical relationship with God by T.M. Luhrmann, author of When God Talks Back. For more conversation on this book, visit the Patheos Book Club.]

One of the questions skeptics ask about Christian faith is how Christians respond when their prayers fail. It is an old, old question. I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer (Job 30:20). The evangelical Christians I knew prayed in a way that seemed to increase the chance that prayer would fail: that it would feel to them that they had been ignored. In many mainstream churches, people pray for the health of nations. It is unseemly to pray for exam results, or a new bicycle. But at the church where I did my research, people were encouraged to pray for things that seemed downright trivial.  “Don’t pray for a car,” my housegroup leader insisted. “Pray for a red car. Will your father give you a scorpion rather than an egg?”

It was pretty clear that many of these prayers did not deliver.  When one member of the group, a young medical student, entered the residency match, she really wanted to work as an obstetrician, and she really wanted to live in Indianapolis, where her brother was–and she didn’t get to Indianapolis. She even didn’t get into an obstetrics residency. She ended up in family practice in St. Louis.  She was so upset and mad that she left Chicago for the spring. “I’m struggling with God,” she said to us. “I don’t know what to say. I’m struggling. Actually, I’m screaming.”

Why would people pray like that? The answer is that in-your-face failures force people to get something different out of prayer. When prayer fails, people at the Vineyard simply shift the focus and say that this is when you need God. Indeed, the more powerful the apparent assault on faith–how could God have let this happen?–the more intensely congregants insist on God’s role as friend to help one through tough times. That is what makes churches like the Vineyard work. People stay with this God not because the theology makes sense, but because the practice delivers emotionally. Under these conditions, it is often when prayer requests fail that prayer practice becomes most satisfying.

Questions or comments for Dr. Luhrmann about experiencing God?  Leave them below.  And join us for a LIVE CHAT with the author on Friday, April 27, from 2-3 pm at the Patheos Book Club!


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