In my childhood, I recall an emphasis on prayer. Prayer was everything. It was how we communicated with Jesus, how we discerned His will for our lives, and how we correctly interpreted His word. Prayer was the Swiss Army knife of the Christian life, which is why we were counseled by our elders to “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) I can remember songs like “I Go to the Rock” by Whitney Houston in The Preacher’s Wife or “Jesus on the Main Line” that emphasized the need to go to God in times of trouble. (This is probably the origination of phrases like “There’re no atheists in a foxhole”, which assumes that people return to God in times of trouble, an idea not without precedent, but not discussed right now.) But all you had to do was call God up and tell Him what you wanted. It was that simple.
So prayer was the golden calf of my youth. Imagine you’re just hearing about prayer for the very first time. A loving mother or father sits down with their child and tells them that the King of the universe, the jungle, and the sea is particularly interested in their life. They tell them that God is able to do everything, knows all of our most intimate desires, and cares so much about us that He knows the number of hairs on our head. Well, unlike adults, children haven’t had imagination beat out of them yet, so they go with what you’re telling them and apply it ruthlessly.
Can I run as fast as The Flash?
Can I be invisible?
I want to be able to breathe in outer space!
God can make me able to fly and tell the time using a bucket of ants!
I wanna melt things with my breath!
And had an actual child written these, they would be even more phantasmagorical, believe me. When you tell kids that the Almighty Creator can do anything and that He cares enough about them to want to make them happy, they’ll take you at your word and ask for anything, because they don’t think God has limits. Unfortunately, not every child’s mind will hop to something they read in a comic book. Remember, they think God can do anything.
Can you make Mommy and Daddy stop fighting?
I wish Terrence Shaw would stop hitting me at school.
God, can you make my brother Darrell’s ALS go away?
Please protect us from the bullets in the street tonight.
I want Mommy to stop doing bad things with me at night.
How does one answer these questions? You might argue that God is a God of cosmic justice, therefore it’s all about the beautiful end that He brings about to the grisly realities of the world. But is He not a present God? Does He not care for the suffering of His creation? Regardless of the fact that He understands, inhabits, and encompasses past, present, and future, He must surely understand that we do not. He must understand the very present nature of our troubles. Of course He does, He made us that way.
As Ivan notes in The Brothers Karamazov, “Listen! If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please? It’s beyond all comprehension why they should suffer, and why they should pay for the harmony….
And what do we answer to the child who asks us why God didn’t save them from a predicament, didn’t keep the one they loved alive, or stop others from brutalizing them? Were their steadfast supplications too quiet for Him to hear? Or “…peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” (1 Kings 18:27) The One who cares about them far more than the sparrows, and fastened the foundations of the world, the One who is present with and in all things simply was not able to intervene or chose not to. Well, if we’re already committed to the story, what we say is the only hollow line we know, that the ends justify the means, and that the fairer world on high will wash away the ache in our hearts today. Or put a different way, “The things of Earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”
…And if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price.
This is the failure of prayer. And I surely wouldn’t expect God, should He exist, to favor me, who lives in outright rebellion against Him. I would, however, expect Him to stand and care for those that love Him the most. I’m an atheist for many reasons, but one of those is that I just don’t believe that the beautiful consummation, even if there were to be such a thing, would be worth the price.
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