By Deacon Derick Cranston
“I really have a hard time praying for people. When my mother was dying from cancer I asked everyone I knew to pray for her, but she still died. I don’t think prayer works and it doesn’t change God’s mind, so why should we even pray?” Wow. How do you answer that one?
This was a remark that a 14-year- old girl made to me many years ago when I was a youth minister. She wasn’t confrontational, but made her remark in a tone that ached for an answer that made sense. As a 30-something inexperienced youth minister, I didn’t stand a chance in giving an adequate answer to her simple, yet profound question.
We are fond of saying “God has a plan for us” or “It was meant to be.” If you follow this to its logical conclusion, it doesn’t make sense to pray if God knows what is best for us and knows the future that awaits us. It would imply that we know better than God what the future should be and how our lives should unfold. Over the years I have often grappled with this dilemma and have come to realize a deeper truth: God did not answer Jesus’ prayers, either. Or so it would seem.
In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prayed, “Father take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Jesus, in all his humanity, did not want to be crucified. He prayed with such intensity that he started to sweat blood and “was greatly troubled.”
It is the second half of his prayer that led to a profound realization. Jesus prayed not so much to avoid the crucifixion, but to do the will of his Father. Jesus’ fidelity to the will of the Father (his announcing/embodying the reign of God) had the consequence of suffering. Suffering is often part of love. God knew that such would be the outcome. It was the will of the Father that brought the joy of the resurrection out of the suffering of the cross.
And that is why we pray. It is in trying to discern God’s will for us through prayer that we are given the grace to change ourselves for the better. The more we pray, the closer we come to finding out God’s will for us. I came to realize that God does answer our prayers. He answers our prayers in one of three ways: Yes; Yes, but not now; and No, I have something better for you.”
I remember when I was in college and my girlfriend, who I thought was the love of my life, broke up with me. I was crushed and devastated. I prayed that somehow, someway, God would get us back together again. God didn’t answer my prayers. At least not in the way I thought he should.
My judgment, and what I was praying for, was misguided. God had something better in my life. That something better is my wife, Kim, whom I have been married to for 24 years. God’s answer to my prayers was, “No, I have something better for you.”
I often think of that innocent, but profound question posed to me by a 14-year-old girl many years ago. She would be in her mid-20s by now, and I hope that she was able to come to terms with her mother’s death. I like to think that she has a good life and is possibly married and starting a family of her own. I pray for her happiness and I pray that perhaps she is reading this article and finally finding an answer to her question. At least a better answer than the one I gave her back then … yet not my will be done, but thy will be done.
(Deacon Cranston is pastoral associate for St. Mary Parish in Riverside, Holy Trinity Parish in Richmond and St. Joseph Parish in Wellman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)