Unanswered prayer, lies and more lies

Unanswered prayer, lies and more lies May 23, 2017

I left Evangelicalism mostly because of lies about how God answers prayer and keeps all faithful Christians safe. Those lies clear God of all responsibility for human horrors but still insist He (always “he”) stays in total control of everything.

Dear Thoughtful Pastor: What good is prayer, in a practical sense?  When I try to pray for the nation these days, I remember the many people who prayed for their lives during WWII.  What use is prayer, at the doors of the gas chamber? If God did not/could not save those innocent lives,  He certainly won’t help us now.

[Note: Although I don’t know the questioner personally, we have an acquaintance in common, a young man, brilliant, funny, a husband and father–and in only brief remission from a virulent cancer that will kill him sooner, not later. Our shared despair prompted the question.]

Silence, a book about unanswered prayer
By Source, Fair use,

On occasion, I am asked to review a movie, generally one with a faith theme underlying the storyline. This past January, I reviewed a Martin Scorsese film, Silence.

Scorsese based the film on the book, Silence by Shūsaku Endō. It’s a piece of historical fiction detailing the persecution of Roman Catholics in 17th Century Japan.

This exploration of the silence of God in the face of unspeakable horrors inflicted upon God’s people was Endo’s way of working through his faith life.

When Scorsese came upon the book, perhaps 30 years ago, it became his life’s work to produce the movie. For Scorsese as well, this work marks his faith exploration.

Schlinder's List, another book where prayer is not answered
By Source, Fair use,

This movie ranks with Schindler’s List as the two most painful movies I have ever seen. In both cases, I later read the books. Neither story got easier with the reading.

Both Silence and Schindler’s List stop in its tracks the lie that good humans won’t suffer.

Both strip away surety that right actions and beliefs will bring the results we want.

Both insist we stop lying by our insistence that God always answers prayer.

The Silence story

Plot summary: In the 17th century, two young, idealistic Portuguese priests, Francisco Garrpe and Sebastian Rodriques, set off for Japan to find their mentor, Father Christovao Ferriera. Rumors in Rome suggested that Ferriera, after torture, had “apostatized,” i.e., betrayed his faith.

Despite their unbending assurance that God is on their side, Garrpe and Rodriques discover that the God on their side does not appear to also be on the side of a group of faithful Japanese Christians.

Those Japanese believers face real and unrelenting persecution.

Father Rodriques chronicles the search for Ferriera.  One day, three men from the Japanese village that shelters the priests are carried away. The three will face ruthless torture for not revealing the secret presence of those very priests.

Two of the three, eventually killed, are righteous men, leaders of the village in every way.

The third, the degraded, drunk, and cowardly Kichijiro, had helped the priests find the villagers. He lives.

Rodriques writes,

I do not believe that God has given us this trial to no purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all its sufferings has been bestowed upon us for everything that Our Lord does is for our good. And yet even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of those last stammering words of Kichijiro on the morning of his departure. ‘Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering upon us?’ And then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. ‘Father,’ he had said, ‘what evil have we done?’

Years of lies about prayer

Many of those who have read my work know I have a long background in the conservative, Evangelical world of Christianity.

But I left. I could no longer deal with a world so enmeshed in lies.

Lies about “absolute truths” that enshrines oppression of women and the sexually different.

Lies that give powerful men leeway to escape accountability about their immoralities as long as the money flowed in.

Lies about the lack of contradictions in a so-called inerrant text, littered with irreconcilable statements.

But mostly lies about how God answers prayers and keeps all faithful Christians safe. Those lies clear God of responsibility for human horrors but still insist He (always “he”) stays in total control of everything. If something bad happens to you, it is because you are bad.

As I write, I think about the young girls the Boko Haram in Nigeria carried away to serve as their sex slaves. Yeah, some have been returned, three years later. A lot more will never be seen again.

God was/is silent.

The epidemic of teen sex slavery in the US boggles the mind. What happens to their prayers for release?

God was/is silent.

It can come closer. I have several life-long friends, faithful servants of God, right now who are facing terrible, frightening scenarios, including a plunge into abject poverty because of irreversible health conditions.

God, where are you? Why must you be silent?

But I still pray. I admit it. I do.

It is my way of loving those whom I cannot physically help at this time.

It’s my way of intentionally entering the Holy Place, accompanied by my tears and my frustration and my despair. I emerge determined to do whatever I can to ease suffering and fight oppression in my otherwise comfortable path.

I pray because I can’t not pray. But God is often silent nonetheless.The Thoughtful Pastor

[Note: A version of this column is slated to run in the May 26, 2017, edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions.

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  • Chuck Johnson

    Christy, I am an atheist.
    The mysteries that religious folks are confused by are no mystery to me.
    Why do people pray for help from some god? – – – Because of ancient ignorance.

    The magical hoped-for help from above never arrives.
    This leaves mundane, real, and human benefits to be considered.
    This is the truth about prayer. The mind and the emotions of the person who is praying are affected by the prayers. The minds and the emotions of the people who discover that people are praying are affected by the prayers.

    This understanding has the advantage of being the truth.
    And for me, it also has the advantage of avoiding the exaggerated emotions which usually go along with belief in magical beings and magical events.

    • I do very much understand where you are coming from. I did also leave the magical “god” behind a long time ago.

      • Rudy Schellekens

        And where did that image come from? I would argue that it did NOT come from the Bible, but from the explanations given by those around you.
        NOWHERE in Scripture does God tell us that a) He (I stick to “He,” since that is what I find in the only book that tells me about the Judea-Christian God) has a plan for the every day lives of all people; b) He wants all people to be healthy and happy all the time.
        Were that His intent, every body WOULD be happy and healthy.
        Two reading suggestions: 1) The Bible and 2) Decision making and the will of God (Gary Friessen, 2004)

        When I suggest the Bible as reading material, I am not suggesting you never have read it. But read if from a different perspective maybe?

    • Maura Hart

      Agreed. Total superstition. If things go the way you want, answered prayer yay!!! If it goes the other way, perhaps you are judged unworthy, or the wrong words from the wrong book you didn’t kneel correctly, your faith is weak. Bogus.

    • jimoppenheimer

      Well of course your understanding has the advantage of being the truth. Everyone’s understanding is the truth — for them.
      It never ceases to amaze me how many folks there are who would rather be right than happy.

      • Chuck Johnson

        “Well of course your understanding has the advantage of being the truth. Everyone’s understanding is the truth — for them.”

        I am not just an atheist, I am also a scientist.
        Scientific study has many ways of showing that God (and other gods) are fictional characters invented by humans many thousands of years ago.

        Such fictional gods do have the power to affect human life here on Earth, but in a way that religionists don’t expect or perceive. God doesn’t have the power of thinking. Humans do the thinking for God and then we project our own thoughts onto God. This God is typically used as a rubber stamp for human ideas.

        God affects human societies in ways that are psychological, social, political, legal, etc. but this God is just an idea.

      • Chuck Johnson

        “It never ceases to amaze me how many folks there are who would rather be right than happy.”

        Your statement announces that I would be happier if I were wrong or confused.

        I can see how religionists such as yourself might think that this is true. You folks tend to value the happiness that you derive from being confused and deceived by divine mysteries.

        I am a scientist, and I get a great deal of happiness form discovering new ideas which are true and useful. I value ideas which are useful to me and useful to the rest of humanity. The pursuit of science tends to be a happy and generous thing.

  • Monty

    There are great evils in what calls itself Christianity. There is a parallel religion, I’ve called it “Christianism”. It looks like the real thing but it is not. Jesus is not an example to follow. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and the One whom we obey. God has three responses to prayer: yes, no, or wait. I don’t understand the evils that we see. I long ago saw that God is entirely good, pure love and completely in control. God is not responsible for the world’s evils, man is. When people tell me that they don’t believe in a god that tolerates so much evil, I reply, “He tolerates you!” God wants to save the wicked but they choose not be saved. We are seeing the fruit of man’s increasing selfishness, lovelessness and lawlessness right now. Boko Harum and ISIS are part of the consequences. Lord Jesus will return and sort out the mess but it could get worse before then.
    The answer is in a really close fellowship with Lord Jesus. I had a problem that could have killed me but it seemed minor. I did not feel ill at all. The Lord told me to go to the doctor. A few days later I was admitted to hospital for a procedure that saved my kidneys and maybe my life. The specialist told me to go straight to admissions, not even to go home to get a change of clothes. If not for God’s mercy and grace I might not be here right now.
    People just don’t read the word properly. Jesus said there would be tribulation and persecution. God’s elite suffered terribly at the hands of the wicked. The worst were the religious zealots of the time. “Come to Jesus, he has a wonderful plan for your life”. No one told me the fine print either. “Through tribulation we enter the kingdom of God”. I had an idealised view of “Rose Garden” Christianity. I had many knock-down, drag out fights with my Heavenly Dad. I always lost, especially when I thought that I’d won. I don’t fight any more. God is God and that gives Him the right to do as he pleases. As it happens, it pleases Him to show mercy and grace. It pleased Him to punish His only begotten, Lord Jesus, for our wrongdoing.
    I know a man whose daughter was murdered in Africa. He has a pretty warped idea of Christianity but he believes in God. Sort of. Now he is mad with God because his daughter was killed. She did not believe, even to the point of being aggressive. She put herself in danger and she rejected the One who could have helped her. It is an evil world and evil happens. Finding fault with God cuts us off from the only real hope that we have. Human nature is not going to change, not without the new birth. One of the greatest Christians of the 20th century was imprisoned by the Chinese government and died there, even as the world was starting to normalise relations with China. Christians die daily at the hands of Muslims, not just “extremists”, the people that are just normal Muslims. I’ve seen a figure of 90,000 murdered in 2016 alone. One day Jesus will come back and put an end to the wickedness. In the meantime we need to encourage the weak, keep close to God and keep on trusting and keep learning.

  • Mordecai Schreiber

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/033643e256c008af245935a3d7a95363b33b8deb25396d6cb0585ac14c45c73e.jpg Dear Christy,
    My new book, Why People Pray, deals with this question. Basically, I agree with everything you say. Rabbi Mordecai Schreiber

  • Maura Hart

    why pray? doesn’t god have a perfect plan for your life? if you pray for a cure for cancer say, aren’t you trying to circumvent that perfect plan? does that not imply that you know better than god? isn’t that blasphemy?

    • That is a great question. Could I use it for a follow-up column to this one, Maura?

      • Maura Hart


      • Dirk Coetsee

        I suggest a very interesting book on this subject by a Dutch theologian, Vincent Brummer. In the book, aptly titled “What do we do when we pray?”, he honestly and painstakingly approaches the question from a religious philosophical point of view, with his conclusion embedded in the relation between man and God.

    • jimoppenheimer

      Goodness, no. You don’t know God’s plan, and She is perfectly aware of this, probably more than we ever could be. You pray for what you feel is desirable. The answer sometimes will be “No.” Of course, the answer sometimes is, “Wait.” I like to think that prayer is not using the Eternal One as an ATM, but the means of forming a relationship.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    I don’t know why God is silent sometimes. I do know that He answers prayer, because He has done so on more than one occasion in my life. Like Christy, I feel that praying for others is an expression of love. It also helps to diffuse any negative feelings that I may have.

  • Rudy Schellekens

    The sad thing about all of this? People attribute things to God that were never His to begin with. This goes both with pain AND joy!
    One of the best quotes in the realms of human suffering and the presence of God? “God has one Son without sin, but no sons without suffering.”
    The “Health and Wealth” preachers are not helping, nor do the preachers who tell us that it is sin that has brought suffering into our lives.
    From a Biblical perspective, there IS no answer as to why physical suffering enters our lives. There are explanations as to why suffering follows sin or even righteous living, when suffering comes our way because of our living out our faith.
    But there is no Biblical answer as to why our babies die, our parents suffer from Alzheimer’s etc.
    But God is NEVER silent! God shouts out his love, through the outstretched arms of His Son – on a cross.
    In all honesty, some suffering comes our way because of life style choices. If you are a five pack a day smoker, guess what? Your chances of dying of a related form of cancer are well, high. When you pickled your liver with alcohol abuse, well – you WILL die an unpleasant death.
    If you spend hour after hour driving a car. you run a pretty high chance to die on a vehicle accident say the actuaries.
    37% of people going in to a hospital may come out with more than they expected, with some kind of infection.
    Nothing you did. Sometimes that is the cause of our suffering – living in the world in which we live. Buildings collapse. Forrest fires happen. Diseases will come our way. No sin involved.
    And there lies the rub. Many Christians seem to be unable to grasp that God does not have a specific plan for the lives of each of us, for every step of every day. Apart from that, a large number of those same Christians seem to have more pleasure in either carrying guilt, or assigning guilt (or, sometimes, both!)
    God’s request for His children? Live life in such a way that HE is glorified. Whether good things happen, bad things happen.

    • jimoppenheimer

      Nonsense. If you don’t want to see the silence, fine, but if you have not walked in their shoes, you don’t know. Show a little respect. If they say God is silent, just accept it on face value. Denying the fact is not going to change anything except perhaps shore up your own shaky faith, I suppose.

      • Rudy Schellekens

        You are assuming that I have no personal experience with situations like this.
        I HAVE walked in those shoes, and HAVE been in those circumstances.
        Apart from that, I have it on good authority that God is NOT silent.
        It just might be that we have forgotten what God sounds like. That, too, is nothing new. For educational reading, I suggest Psalm 22. Once you have read through that, you just might discover that it was not a silent God, but an ear that was not discerning the presence of God.
        Or, paraphrasing: God was not silent. I was just not listening.

        We live in a time of instant gratification. I want it. I want it now. Add to that an ever increasing selfishness. I want it. i want it right now. I want it right now MY way.

        We also live in a time filled with wrong information about Who God is. Too often we listen to PEOPLE speak about God, rather than read what God Himself has to say.

        And because we are filled with incorrect information, we end up on the losing side…

    • Perhaps God is never silent–but most people experience deep silence from God, even when living lives of extraordinarily faithfulness to God. It seems a bit cruel to deny their realities.

  • Dorothy Esau

    I really like the last line in this piece: “I pray because I can’t not pray . . .” I said something similar a few weeks ago in speaking with someone close to me who has walked away from traditional Christian faith. I said, quite spontaneously, “I pray all the time – I can’t help it”. No longer an evangelical, I’m still a follower of Jesus, wherever that will take me.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    What most impresses me about your post is that you irrationally connect the complexities and paradoxes of faith and prayer to say what (??)”God was/is silent.” Really? So you haven’t been listening to the voices of God as spoken through his people? Sure, I get that there are theological lies out there. But what does that have to do with the God of pure Truth? If you are mostly trying to be appealing to those whose faith demands clear and immediate answers to their doubts I think I get it. But you go beyond that to imply that objections to accepting the lifestyles of the “sexually different” are lies. So, are you suggesting that the textual rejection of the “sexually different” are lies as well? This just shouldn’t be passed over as a reasonable consequence of rejecting the theological distortions and lies of the church regarding other matters, perhaps even regarding prayer. Still, it is a big leap from anguish over ostensibly unanswered prayer and the inclusion of those in sinful lifestyles. Yes, sin and oppression continue to exist in our world and don’t simply disappear following our prayers. There is an old adage that might apply here: it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and that is perhaps what you are suggesting by ending with saying that you continue to pray. If one prays in synch with the will of God, with the submission like that of the one who willingly went to the cross, one might ultimately come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be a true follower of Christ, who did pray, yet still got crucified.

    • jimoppenheimer

      Most folks replying in this fashion show they do not actually understand the text; they merely say they disagree. No actual reason, just, “I disagree and it’s all your fault.”

  • Mark

    My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I guess even Jesus could make the claim that God sometimes goes silent, Who knows why and what God’s role is or isn’t in this world. I do agree with you that the evangelical church and the greedy television preachers have made things worse by preaching a false gospel. A gospel of joy with no sorrow, victory with no battles, health with no sickness and on and on it goes. I share your frustration. I was of the evangelical mindset that God will always rescue you. However, after multiple tragedies in my life I have discovered that God doesn’t always come running when I push the panic button. After my last tragedy, I spent 3 years in total hatred of Him, calling him every name in the book. Cursing at Him, calling Him a liar and a fraud and anything else my bitterness and resentment could come up with. At that time in my life it was the final straw and I let God have it, with both barrels. The liar however, was not God but those who misrepresented Him and my anger should have been directed at them.
    What I had discovered is I had listened to and believed all these people for years tell me things about God that weren’t true. Things He never promised. Lies like God has a wonderful plan for your life. Tell that to a young mother dying of cancer with three little ones and no husband. Finally, I have surrendered my bitterness and resentment and came to the realization that in this life, we will never understand all the whys and the why nots but I do believe we will in the next. These things bring me peace of mind and I had to ask myself a question, the same question Peter responded to Jesus when many followers no longer decided to follow Jesus because His teaching was too hard. Lord, where else would we go?

    • Thank you for speaking truth about life and death and pain and sickness and the lies that we tell. Truth is so much more freeing.

  • Marjorie Wells

    God is not responsible for the free choices we make, as he gave us free choice. The evil in the world is due to the choices we humans make, but the consequences are inevitable . Thisj is not heaven, but earth. It is an ongoing series of spiritual pop quizzes. We can and should pray for guidance and courage. For mercy. For each other. But God’said wisdom is more than ours, and some answers answers are “no”.