Chapter 4:<I> </I>Can Prayer be Answered?

Christian Affirmations
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 4:<I> </I>Can Prayer be Answered?

The question which we shall now consider is one that a great many people ask, sometimes from curiosity but more frequently with deep personal concern, even with anguish: "Can my prayer be answered?"

All men pray. Sometimes they do not pray to the God whom we Christians worship, but insofar as they direct their thoughts and desires toward that which they conceive to be greater than they, and somehow in control of things, they pray. William James, the distinguished American psychologist and philosopher, once remarked that the important point is not why men pray, but that men cannot help praying. When they are happy, they want to thank somebody. When they are in need, they wish to ask for help. When they feel that they have done wrong, they seek to express their guilt. Prayer is a perennial fact about men as men; and one might say that insofar as sophisticated moderns have assumed that prayer is an outworn, superstitious practice, they have by that token ceased to be men and have contented themselves with being a rather sophisticated variety of simian.

Of course, the first thing we must ask when we seek to consider the question of prayer is how prayer may be defined. I want to suggest to you the classical definition of Christian prayer that is found first stated by a great theologian of the earlier days of the Church, St. John of Damascus, and taken over by St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century: "Prayer is the elevation of the soul to God." You notice that that definition does not say anything at all about the sort of prayer (which for many people exhausts the subject) which is concerned with the coercing of God so that He will give us what we think we need. Rather, it centers the meaning of prayer in a relationship to God. Prayer is the elevating, the lifting up, of our personalities -- which is for me a more satisfactory word than soul -- so that in the presence of God they may become that which in God’s intention they are meant to be, related to Him in healthy, wholesome, invigorating, and altogether good intercourse.

If you look at prayer as the great teachers of prayer have described it, you will find that the first aspect of it mentioned by all of them is not petition but adoration. "Religion," said Baron von Hügel, that great scholar-saint of our own time, "is adoration." To adore God, to praise Him for what He is, to delight in Him: this is the heart of prayer, and anything that we may wish to say about the answering of our personal or corporate desires must come a long way after the adoration which we owe to God. Adoration with thanksgiving; the recognition of our defects, our failures, and our sin in the presence of God; and the attempt to conform our little impotent wills to the plan of God -- here we come to the crucial elements in Christian prayer. I suppose that the words of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night in which He was betrayed give us the clue: "Not my will but thine be done." The elevation of our personalities to God so that adoring Him, thanking Him, recognizing our imperfections, and seeking to relate ourselves to Him so that His Will may work its way in us, is prayer in the Christian sense.

To the question, "Can this sort of prayer be answered?" the answer which we should give, I think, is quite obvious. Of course it can be answered. The man who seeks to bring himself into relationship with God and seeks it with as much earnest zeal as others seek the goods which they may obtain in their several businesses and professions in the ways of the world does not come away empty. Our Lord, you will recall, said that "the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light"; by which He meant that people who are seeking a purely secular good frequently show a great deal more zeal and exert much greater effort than those who are seeking God and His Kingdom. If we do not put a hand to the job, we can hardly expect an answer to be given us.

I do not know very much about mathematics, but I do know that the difference between ten and fifteen minutes a day spent in seeking to know God and to relate oneself meaningfully to Him, and the number of minutes that we spend in quite different pursuits, is rather extraordinary. There is something to be said for the scale of time spent in the effort of prayer because, like all worth-while things, prayer is not an easy -- although it is a very simple -- thing for us.

Of course, the real question which is in people’s minds when they ask if prayer can be answered is whether or not their petitions for others and for themselves will be effective. And here, with that ambiguity which I suppose is common to all people engaged professionally in theology, my answer will have to be Yes and No. It all depends. Let me begin by putting it this way -- and here I quote a favorite sentence from Dr. William DuBose, a great American theologian forgotten by most Americans, for many years a professor at the University of the South -- "There is no limit to that which God will do for us, but He will never do it in spite of us, but always through us." That is a very good beginning for a consideration of prayer for things and persons that we deem to need our asking.

The principle here, you see, is the very sound Christian principle, although often forgotten by Christians, that God works upon us and in us by working through our humanity. The great example of this, the illustration of it, is the central belief of all Christians; we call it the Incarnation. When God willed to manifest Himself to His human children in the most intimate manner, and to bring to them His Grace and power as fully as possible for them, He did not speak to them as from a thunderstorm, He did not manifest Himself as a startling wonder, He did not contradict the conditions of our ordinary humanity. Rather He came to men m a Man: ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us." Yes, dwelt in us: joined with, permeating through, our ordinary run-of-the-mill humanity, not alien to us, not remote from us, not working upon us as at a distance or by some strange mechanism unrelated to our humanity, but in the terms of our human nature. If you want to know God, you are not to seek Him far off in the starry heavens; you are to seek Him close at hand in One of your brother men. If you wish to receive power from God, you are not to go to distant places, but to go to a very near place, a holy family, a simple human life, a death, such as all men must experience.

This which is the basic principle of Christianity, that God is working upon us and in us and for us and with us in the terms of our human experience, has its profound significance for our life in prayer. Dr. DuBose said that God will not work in spite of us, but in us and through us; and often enough our problems about prayer are really caused by our assumption that prayer is answered by some bolt from the blue which contradicts everything that we have ever done, ever known, ever thought. The truth is -- if we take this Christian principle seriously -- that it is within our own lives that the answer to prayer is given. If, for instance, we pray for a friend who is ill, God’s answer to our prayer includes as one of its major elements His sending of us with our concern, our love, our capacity to help. This may not be all there is to it, but this surely is a major part of it. If we ask that we shall grow in grace, the answer comes in terms of our human experience, demanding our co-operation with the movement of God in our hearts to respond to all that we see and know of His goodness. The limits to what God can do in answer to prayer are, in that sense, set only by our willingness to be used as instruments for the divine goodwill. Thus you could say that the question, "Can our prayers be answered?" ought really to be re-phrased and put in this way: "Are we willing to be the instrument of God in the accomplishment of His purpose in that place and at that time where our lives are lived?"

You will at once see that there can be no scientific objection to a consideration of prayer so far as I have described it. The empowering, strengthening, invigorating of our human lives by divine energies that work in us will not in any way violate whatever we may know to be psychological process. The universe, as scientific study has disclosed it to us, is open to this kind of subtle and vigorous movement of spiritual power working in and through human nature. But what we often have in mind is that the very orderliness of the world shall be changed at our behest. We may pray for rain when to all appearances the laws of meteorology are against the answer to this prayer. We may ask for such changes in situations as would turn the world upside down should they be granted. It is at this point that the problem becomes for many people quite acute, and it is at this point that two observations ought to be made. The first one is that since God is our Father, by which we mean that He cares for us after the fashion of our concern for our children but with an intensity altogether beyond our human imagination, He would wish that we should tell Him, although already He knows, all that we think we need, all that we want to have. The second observation is that like a good father, God does not play favorites, that God has established an orderly world in which, by the operation of His own purpose, He is effecting great ends. We do not know very much about these ends save as they affect us, in that we shall be whole, healthy, well-adjusted personalities who can live rightly with God now and through all eternity in His presence.

Our grasp of God’s plan is very slight indeed, and there is something a little preposterous about man s dictating to God what He shall do with His world. Do our prayers for rain or sunshine, our prayers for changes in circumstances, our prayers for things which we feel we need, have an answer? Of course they have an answer. Frequently the answer is, "No -- you do not know what you want. You may think that you know, but you really do not." Sometimes the answer is, "In due course. If you will align your tiny human energizings with the great Divine purpose, then this for which you seek may come." Sometimes the answer is, "Yes, since that will be in accordance with the plan that God is working out." Many of us fail to take into our consideration of prayer the picture of our Lord in the Garden of Gethsemane, when He prayed, "Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me," and added, "Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done."

Those who try to use prayer as a way of avoiding the hardships that are incidental to human life are really asking that the Cross be taken out of the Christian faith. I should like to put this as strongly as I can, because, as it seems to me, some of the renewed interest in prayer and in the devotional and the spiritual life in our day has frequently led many good people far away from true Christian prayer. It would be invidious to mention the names of popular books which commend prayer and set forth techniques of praying, but are so alien to the whole Christian position -- although written sometimes by ministers of Christian bodies -- that it is astounding that they are accepted so readily by people who profess and call themselves Christians. Prayer as a device for securing business success, prayer as a way of insuring that you will sell your customer, prayer as a method of getting mental security when the world is in hell, devices to find an easy peace of mind and the like, bear no relationship, so far as I can see, to authentic Christian prayer. They are a variety of a modern heresy which you can call, alternatively, Christian Science, New Thought, or any other of the cults that seem to commend themselves to those whom the Christian Church apparently does not help. There can be no doubt that the blame, to some degree at least, attaches to the Church, in that most Christian people, even Episcopalians, have had very little training in prayer as the masters of prayer have known it. It is inevitable, therefore, that they will turn for help to the places where help may be found, and if that help is called by some quasi-Christian name, naturally they will assume that it is a Christian presentation. But far too often it is not.

I should come back, then, to my insistence that Christian prayer is to take its meaning from our Lord’s words, is to be seen as the relating of our wills to God’s Will, as the opening of our lives so that God’s life may enter in, as the elevation of our personalities to God. God is at work throughout His world. Every moment and every place is an occasion for us to meet Him, to know Him, to serve Him. What were called by Père de Caussade "the sacraments of the present moment" will be our most effective way of encountering God. The given situation of home and office and store and school, and the places where we live and work, the people whom we meet, the duties that are laid upon us in the course of our daily life, these are the occasions for our knowing God. And what we can do in prayer is to take these occasions and lift them, as we lift ourselves, into the presence of God. There they will be blessed, as they find their meaning in relationship to Him, and we shall be enabled to live according to God’s holy Will.

Of all the collects in the Prayer Book, that for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity happens to be my favorite. I know of no prayer which so admirably expresses the deep meaning of true Christian devotion. Let me repeat it to you and then examine it with you.

Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Give unto us the increase of faith -- the habit of living faithfully, committed utterly to God, and to the love and service of His children.

Give unto us the increase of hope -- not wistful desire for what is round the corner or over the hill, but the habit of living with tip-toe expectancy in the sure confidence that God has in store for us more than we can conceive or know.

Give unto us the increase of charity -- the habit of living with loving concern for our God and for our fellows under God.

That we may obtain that which thou dost promise -- What is that? The perfect enjoyment of God, delight in Him, happiness which comes from proper functioning as a man who is a child of God with his brethren who are children of God.

That which God doth promise -- that we may obtain it, we pray, make us to love. Make us to love; move in upon us, work through us, put pressure on our little selfish lives, so that we may love "that which thou dost command" -- the things, the places, the times, the persons, the circumstances in which God has sent us, the whole realm of the divine ordering of things. Make us to love this and in this to see God’s gracious hand at work -- and all of this through Christ, in His Spirit, by His Grace, through His mediation of the divine charity.

That is what Christian prayer is all about; and when we have grasped this, the problems which at first may have troubled us about answers to prayer fade into insignificance, and we can remember the great words of St. Francis de Sales: "we seek not the consolations of God, but the God of consolation." Having Him as the secret of our lives, sought and found in prayer, we have everything.