Years ago, a member of my church — well into her 80s, with limited mobility — told me she would ask God for a parking space near the front door of wherever she was going. Almost every time, the space was waiting for her.
More recently, I lost my prescription sunglasses, which made driving on sunny days rather painful. In desperation — and with a bit of embarrassment — I asked for divine help in finding them. A few days later, in a corner of our newspaper that displays folksy sayings to preview the weather, this line appeared: Can’t find your sun glasses? Check under the front seat, driver side.I went out and looked, and there they were.
I hesitate to tell these stories. They seem almost obscene in a world where, all too often, God appears to be stubbornly silent.
In the last century alone, we have endured so many catastrophes where we would have expected direct answers to prayer and they were not forthcoming. In his classic book “The Heart of Christianity,” theologian Marcus Borg addresses the notion of God as “an interventionist who sometimes answers prayers”:
The reality of unanswered prayers is a huge problem. Think of all the people who prayed for deliverance from the Holocaust, all the people who prayed for peace and safety in the midst of war, all the people who prayed for healing — and whose prayers were not answered. And thus many modern mainline Christians have problems with this kind of prayer. (p. 196)
In other words, why would God find me my sunglasses but not spare millions from Auschwitz, or the gulags, or Pol Pot? It seems nothing like the God described in the Christian Scriptures as Love Itself.
The obvious answer is to believe that God does not take part in human affairs, at least not in this way. Maybe God works only through the laws of science. Or perhaps the divine action is limited to transforming human hearts, as expressed in a quote from Christian evangelist Leonard Ravenhill: “Prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and they change things.” One could hardly be blamed for adopting beliefs like these.
Those sunglasses and parking spaces ask for some kind of response. Many would write them off as coincidence, but that explains nothing. An elusive synchronicity seems to be at work. Those of us in theistic faith traditions have a stake in the issue, since it affects how we live out our lives with God.
Perhaps the best place to start is with one obvious but profound fact: We cannot — ever — know why God intervenes in some places and not in others. Or even if God has intervened in certain places and not in others. Or ultimately what intervention means. For reasons obscure to us, God has not chosen to share this knowledge. Our only reasonable option is to let go of the quest to find out.
Borg addresses this point in a discussion of healing, addressing people who believe that God heals people directly as well as those who think miraculous healings are psychosomatic:
The point is that interventionism and psychosomatic explanation both claim to know too much. Both claim to know the “mechanism” at work in the relation between prayer and healing. I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. (p. 197)
Embracing this “not-knowing” liberates us to respond in several ways. When our specific prayers are answered, we can simply accept the blessing of these answers and give thanks for them, without guilt or shame. What is more natural than to be grateful for an open parking space when your legs won’t take you as far as they used to?
As for the prayers that receive no answer: We can seek to hear “the answer in the non-answer,” casting about for where the presence of God might show itself when God seems absent. We can turn away from the divine silence in the crisis and ask, “What next? Now that I am in this situation, being who I am, with no clear direction, how can I move forward in a way that might be faithful to God?” It may be precisely in the moving forward that we glimpse the purpose of God in what we are enduring.
We can also wrestle with God, as Jacob did (Genesis 32:26), joining him in saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” We can rant at God and express incredulity and rail at the seeming injustice of it all. The Scriptures are full of stories in which God’s friends did exactly this. We may not get a straight answer, but we will get the experience of closeness to God that, ultimately, is a prime objective of faith.
Perhaps that is the bottom-line answer: a shift in focus not just away from the reason, but toward the divine relationship. As mystics and sages have testified for millennia, intimacy with God is the richest experience we can know. It does not solve what may be the thorniest issue theists face: the question of divine intervention. But it enables us to move forward into God, even as the question lies unanswered.