Recently I’ve been thinking quite a lot about unanswered prayer—you know, the perennial question of what to think of a God who says “Knock, and the door will be opened” and then seems to ignore us quite often when we ask things of him. There are all sorts of answers to that question which I understand mentally, but which don’t always seem very emotionally compelling; and so from time to time the issue comes up again, and I have to think through the whole thing again.
This weekend was one of those times—and, as has become unfortunately common in my wrestling with God, my doubts became recursive. I saw that I pray not only for concrete things, but also for the patience and strength to bear up under prayers that aren’t answered—and I am frustrated, not only by unanswered prayer, but also by my frustration that my prayers are unanswered. When my prayers for minor things aren’t answered, I pray that I will become a fervent enough lover of God not to care—but these prayers, too, seem to go unheard. And this seems to be a larger problem. It’s all very well to say that God withholds some things from me because they actually aren’t in my best interest; but I know that he wants me to be a better person, and in my darkest moments am quite angry at him for not making me one immediately. Perhaps being an enormously successful person in the eyes of the world would lead me into too much temptation; but is it too much to ask God to make me the kind of person who doesn’t care about how I look in the eyes of the world?
I talked to several very wise people about this problem over the weekend, and I got several very good pieces of advice. One that particularly stood out to me was a passage in Romans 5 that one of my friends brought up: “We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” When we ask God for patience, he doesn’t magically make us into patient people, because that would turn patience into something other than a virtue. Instead, he puts us into situations where we have to be patient, so that we can learn how to be so. It’s the same as any other kind of learning. If I asked someone to teach me calculus, and all she did was tell me the answers to my problem sets, I wouldn’t really have learned calculus; but if she leads me through the process, however tortuous, until I really understand the math, I will have learned. It’s difficult, sometimes, to feel grateful for the headaches of calculus lessons, when you know that your teacher could just give you all the answers and be done with it; but then it is important to remember that she could have just refused to teach you at all. It’s the same with the virtues. They’re painful to learn, but would be much more painful if we didn’t learn.
I’d like to leave you with the same encouragement that the wise people I talked to gave to me. Don’t despair if it seems as though your prayers, even your best prayers, are going unanswered, because the battle usually seems the grimmest just before it turns. God’s grace really is all around us, even if it doesn’t seem so, and we will be able to look back someday and see that the Holy Spirit was with us even when we seemed completely sundered from him. God does answer prayer, even if we can’t see it sometimes. Let your sufferings bring you hope, not despair, because our hope does not disappoint us.