Two school-aged girls were always missing their morning bus. Ultimately, the principal warned them: “If you are late again, it will mean detention for the both of you – for a week.” They took the warning to heart, but only a few days later the girls found themselves running late once again.
One of the girls said, as they ran to catch the bus, “Let’s stop and kneel in this ditch and ask God to help us not be late.” The other girl answered, “You can stop and pray if you want. I’m going to pray while I run!” It’s fairly easy to ascertain which of these children had the best chance of avoiding detention.
When I was younger my teachers made prayer simple: “Ask and it shall be given to you.” If I asked God for something and didn’t get it, that wasn’t God’s fault. It was mine. I didn’t have enough faith. Sin or selfishness was “blocking” my prayers. These were the explanations given to me, explanations that can no longer bear the weight of critique or experience.
I have prayed to heaven believing with all my heart for a hoped-for result only to be disappointed. I have seen faithful saints devoid of iniquity pour out their pain to God with no perceptible results. I have been with literally hundreds of believers over the years who in the face of a horrific health diagnosis, accident, or crisis have begged God for an intervention. They received nothing but silence.
C.S. Lewis, as faithful and true as any high profile believer of the previous century, had this same experience. As his wife lay dying of cancer and the grief overtook him, he noted that God always seemed close when times were good. “But go to God when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find?” Lewis asked. “A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.”
Lewis’ honest rumination so unsettled his publisher that the book in which he wrote about his frustrations with God was released under a pseudonym so his readers and fans would not protest against him (imagine C.S. Lewis getting “cancelled”). Only after his death did readers come to understand the depth of this giant of the faith’s sorrow.
So should we pray? Absolutely! Pray as an act of reflection, contemplation, and introspection. Pray as a means of settling the mind. Pray to arrive at a place of acceptance and surrender. And pray with the suffering as a show of solidarity. Because when the chips are down, what is needed more than a prayer meeting are those friends who can keep us out of the ditch and on the road.
What is needed is compassionate, merciful accompaniment: A community of friends who can hear all our frustrations and fears and not be put off by them. Finding such friends is an answer to prayer in and of itself.