Unanswered Prayer

Unanswered prayer is a subcategory of a much bigger question, namely why there is suffering in the world, the so-called theodicy. And theodicy is mainly a topic that flows from our image of God.

We could therefore say that unanswered prayer is at the heart of theology.

Let’s unravel this. You, and the whole church with you, pray for a terminally sick friend, and that friend dies anyway.

We sometimes tell their children that “God loved daddy so much, he wanted daddy to be with him.” While this is certainly a childlike explanation, aiming at the understanding of the child that it does not want God to miss daddy like it does, it is cruel, showing that God is an egocentric being, putting his own longing over the longing and the needs of the child.

Another explanation brings the devil into play. The devil certainly explains away the responsibility of God for evil, doesn’t it? Not in as much as God created the devil, or did he? Let’s assume that God did. This would mean that God allows for or even instrumentalizes evil to–to what exactly? Teach us something? Lure us into a more in-depth relationship with God from a place of desperation? This would boil down to allowing evil for the greater good. But if God allows evil for the greater good, this makes him responsible or incapable of finding a better solution.

Yet another place we look for an explanation why our prayers went unanswered is the level of faith and the existence of hidden sin in our lives. This would mean that we have to measure up to be worthy of God’s love. I think we have debunked this as the ancient serpentine lie it is.

And then, this is taken to its extreme. We suffer because we live in a fallen world. Who is responsible for this fallen world? If we believe that God is all-knowing, I would say that he is. Either God predetermined humanity to fail, or he foresaw the fall. Not coming up with a better plan either shows God’s unwillingness or his incapability.

Finally, we point to the necessity of God holding back to not interfere with our free will. Most people would say that free will is a necessary feature of humanity to reach their destiny, God-likeness or heaven.

If our destiny is heaven in the classical sense, communion with God as lesser beings worshiping God in eternity, and that there are standards and requirements to reach heaven, then we assume that God cannot live with other beings that are unholy or that substandard beings cannot live in his presence. I could point to God coming to the garden after what we usually call the fall to speak with Adam and Eve, God having communion with the devil in Job, Jesus eating with sinners to show how absurd this take is.

If our destiny is God-likeness, we already have it from the beginning, unless we believe the old serpentine lie. We are maturing into the realization of it, both in our minds and in reality. Believing it and walking it out. We are God’s children on a path to becoming what Jesus already called us, quoting the psalms: Gods.

But for an all-powerful being, free will cannot be directly linked to the necessity of suffering. Maybe we cannot think of a way that we can have free will without suffering and doing evil, but saying that God can’t is saying that he is not all-powerful.

Or what do we mean by omnipresence, all-powerful, and all-knowing?

Omnipresence culminates in panentheism, God in everything, but God being more than everything. If there were one place God were not, even if it only were a dimension and the distance to God would be infinitely small, God would not be omnipresent.

Unless we define omnipresence as meaning “right beside me wherever I go” or God within me so wherever I go, God is.” This would follow from the verses when David speaks: if I went to the utter most ends of the world, you would be there.”

But that leaves us short of the verses in Col 1:16-17:

For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

So my idea of the first characteristic of God that starts with omni (all) is panentheism, all creation within God and God within all of his creation seamlessly, and at the same time God being more than his creation.

Let’s look at omnipotent and omniscient, the other two, all-powerful and all-knowing.

I will not bring a theory, proof, or truth about these characteristics of God. Our knowledge is limited, and our logic may well fail us. All I am going to do is a thought experiment.

Instead of accepting that God’s ways are higher than ours and that our understanding of omnipotence and omniscience therefore cannot be questioned, but must be answered by saying that we just don’t understand, we have to recognize that the classical definitions of omniscience and omnipotence are human thought models based on interpretations of Bible verses and logic, too. As such models, they can be and probably are wrong. But as George Box put it:

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

Thus, instead of holding on to a model that has served us for a while but left us with many question like the theodicy, the incompatibility of love and omnipotence, we might think God differently. We have done that before, and new models might be beneficial for the next steps on our journey. And, with much humility, might bring us closer to reality–with no guaranty.

What if omniscience for God means perfect knowledge of the past and presence, of all that was actualized, and of all potential futures, all potentialities.

God would then know more than anybody else, know everything that is knowable, and grow in knowledge every single moment because potentialities are actualized.

Why do I say that he knows everything that is knowable? If he knew the future in the same way he knows the past and presence, that would mean that there is only one possible future. That would deprive us of the freedom to decide, and therefore free will. Even the cop-out of God foreknowing instead of the future being predetermined on an abstract level does not allow us to truly freely decide.

Giving God the capability to know all potential actions and decisions we might make gives us true free will.

This defines omnipotence. In the words of Julia Enxing:

God cannot intervene unilaterally in world events, even if God wanted to — and there is every reason to assume that God wants to and is constantly trying to do so — but world events are controlled and co-determined by multiple actors.

These multiple actors are we, among others. As creation with free will, we co-create the future within the realm of all potentialities.

God, knowing all potentialities, will lure us and try to persuade us to take an action that is beneficial without forcing anything upon us.

God also trusts love to prevail. Growing revelation, our relationship with God, and the irresistibility of love in the long run will eventually bring about God’s plan of harmony in prefect individuated unity without previously defining or knowing what it will look like.

It might seem problematic to define God as a being who wants, even tries to act in this world on his own but constantly fails. But is it worse than thinking of God as able, but unwilling?

Unanswered prayer is no systemic problem, and much less of a personal problem in this worldview. In classical theology, we might accuse God of being untrue to his promise if he does not fulfil my prayer to a T. Or we might call him cruel by allowing for terrible things to happen.

In this new paradigm called process theology, God knows that eventually, our relationship and love will bring prefect fulfillment, while not knowing how. All actors share the responsibility.

This makes God a truly relational and social being. He depends on all other actors to reach our shared destiny.

But how about petitionary prayer? If God cannot act, what sense does it make to ask for anything? Jesus called us friends, God is maximally relational. Would you not expect that he would try to make it possible if you ask something of him? Love seems to move us in that way, how much more love himself? Your wish becomes a factor in the evaluation of the possibilities of which God tries to persuade us, giving higher value to those possibilities that will most probably lead to seeing the wish fulfilled.

Now imagine everything in creation as an actor, from subatomic particles to celestial bodies. Quantum physics seems to point in that direction, or at least we could interpret it that way.

God setting out to persuade all actors, and your petition being part of the selection of the possibilities, would mean that God would try to align the universe to fulfil your wish without overcoming any actors’ free will.

Have you heard of anything more powerful that is still loving?