Last year, my younger brother, indeed my only brother, died of cancer. I had prayed long and hard that God would grant him life, but it was not to be and he died. This has probably also happened to many of you, but I find it causes me a problem when I read the Gospel passage where Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive… for the one who asks always receives” (Mt 7:8) I asked and I did not receive – I prayed for my brother’s life and it was not granted. Was the Lord mistaken in what he said?
Over the years, I have received insights from the Lord, showing me different aspects of the prayer of petition that I had not thought about before. At one time in my life, for instance, I faced a situation which was threatening me and I begged the Lord for help, certain that what I was asking for was his Will. Eventually my world collapsed and as the dust settled, I sat in prayer, one day and asked the Lord, “Why didn’t you answer me? Where were you, when I begged and begged for your help?” He answered, “I was right beside you on my knees, begging you to let me in to share with you, to be one with you – but you did not want me, you only wanted my power so that you could go on running your life in your own way.” The Lord was right – my prayer had not been, “Your Will be done”, but “my will be done”. This has led me to see that all prayer is supposed to help bring me closer to the Lord and because he loves me, he does not grant prayer that will keep me divided from him.
There was also a time, when for many years I begged the Lord to take from me certain faults which kept leading me to fall. I could not understand why he would not grant my prayer, until one day I heard him say in the depths of my heart, ”If I take away those faults, you would no longer be Terry – and it is Terry whom I love, not that wonderfully perfect person you want me to put in your place.” So, now, I am content to bear my weaknesses and content – if that is the right word – to fall, so that he can gently raise me to my feet again and with infinite tenderness lead me on to try once more.
I can also see why some of my prayers of petition seem to take so very long to be answered. As wise men have said, prayers of petition are primarily there to help us – not to help God; God does not need us to tell him what to do, but I do need to make those prayers for this is the way the Holy Spirit stretches my heart. Many of the prayers we say in church are prayers I do not feel strongly about. For instance, if I pray for the sick and the hungry, my prayers will be full of passion if they are for someone near to me who is sick or hungry – but that is not the case if those prayers are for people I am only distantly connected to. Then why do I say such prayers? Am I being a hypocrite to do so? No! I was created to become the child of God, to become loving like Him, and that process will go on for as long as I live. When I pray for people such as the world’s hungry or sick people everywhere, at first my prayers will not mean very much to me, but when I pray, I give the Holy Spirit the opportunity to enter my heart through those prayers and stretch it – little bit by little bit – so that slowly my heart follows where my prayer has gone and one day, please God, it will catch up with them and my prayers will become true expressions of the love and compassion in my heart.
However, even though all these insights make sense and help explain some aspects of unanswered prayer, there remains the bald fact that I prayed for my brother, and prayed with fervour, that he might live and it was not granted, despite the Lord’s promise that those who ask will receive. The memory of those unanswered prayers leaves me facing the darkness and in listening for an answer from the Lord, all I hear is silence! But, slowly the silence also speaks.
When I left Sarawak in 1984, I went to work in New Orleans for two years and while there I made many good friends. When I moved on from there to work in England, I would go back, now and then, to visit them, and those visits were special – as are all visits to friends. However, a few years later, I was appointed to India and I knew that the allowance for Mill Hill Missionaries in India was something like £15 sterling a month and I knew that one did not buy air-tickets to America on an allowance of £15 per month. So, before I left for India, I paid, what I thought would be my last visit to my friends. On my last day there, I was sitting in prayer and I asked the Lord, “Lord, will this be my last visit to my friends here?” There was a moment of silence and then I hear him whisper to me, “You don’t need to know that!”
All friendships have those moments, when we have to face things we do not know – and our friendship with God is the same. I do not need to know everything, because I also need to learn to trust and to hope – and these virtues can only be born in non-knowing. This comes to my aid when the question of why my prayers for my brother were not answered brings me face to face with the darkness of God and the silence of his Word.
If we Christians believed only for this world, then unanswered prayers would lead us to walk away from our religion – and rightly so. But our Faith is not only about this world – our belief in God and our friendship with him is lived out against the background of the belief that he is creating me for eternity – and I do not need to know how this works. My Faith demands that I step out into the darkness and reach out my hand for guidance, even though I do not see what or who is there, for I know that a hand will take mine. I have known the love of God many times in times of darkness and pain and confusion. I have come to know that his love will never fail me and indeed can only rise to a crescendo when all reason is absent – and so, despite unanswered prayers, I trust!
I have just come back from a week in West Malaysia, Penang, giving a retreat to the seminarians of the Major Seminary there – and they included the two Mill Hill students who are studying English there. I enjoyed it and I hope they also did – but it is sometimes difficult to gauge, if they do not smile or react to what is said. People can sometimes get very serious about their religion and forget to smile!
Time is passing very quickly and in just over two weeks’ time I will begin my journey to Rome. I will be attending a three week course for the over 65s, which should be very pleasant this time of the year. I shall go into UK for about 10 days on my way there and again on my way back, both to pick up my cold weather clothes and also to see my family and friends. I shall be back mid-October.