Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Saturday, February 24, 2018

"Your column [about death] hit home this month," a reader wrote to me several months ago. "I suffered a struggle with faith after my 30-year-old sister died . . . Weren’t we promised that whatever we ask in Jesus’ name will be granted? Didn’t I ask that my sister be restored to health? It was such a shock when she died. We were all set for this big miracle. I mean, we had even prayed. What does it take? Was my faith not enough?"

When we talk to God, people say we’re praying. When God talks to us, people say we’re crazy.

I understand the reader’s agony. I, too, lost a sister following her 20-year battle with drugs and alcohol. Throughout those long years, our family prayed that she be freed from addiction. But she wasn’t freed – at least, not in the way we wanted.

In each case, desperate families clung to Jesus’ promise that, "whatever you ask in My name will be given to you."

So if this is Jesus’ promise, why are there so many unanswered prayers?

"My mother used to preach that passage to me, that whatever I prayed for I would receive," my correspondent continued. ‘"You mean I would get my wish?’ I’d say. ‘No, it’s not a wish, it’s a prayer,’ she’d explain, whatever that distinction meant. Once, I dropped a nickel into the tin box at church and lit a candle and prayed that I would have as big a Lionel train set as Billy Corrigan, who had two locomotives, tunnels, two sets of tracks and a layout that filled his cellar. This was 55 years ago. I never put a deadline on the prayer, so technically, the prayer has not been denied. But you can guess that I never got that train.’"

Again, the question is, why doesn’t God grant my prayers?

My short answer is, I don’t know. Who can know the mind of God? And yet it occurs to me that we’re asking the wrong question. When I complain that God doesn’t answer my prayers, I’m picturing God as some celestial genie in the sky who grants wishes when we rub the magic lamp.

But that’s not right at all. In a human relationship, communication is more than one person’s asking favors of the other. It involves listening, waiting, watching, loving. So too with prayer, which is two-way communication between God and us.

The crux of the matter is Jesus’ phrase, "in My name." To a Hebrew, one’s name was not simply a handle that was slapped onto a baby to honor great uncle Herman. A Jew’s name was who the man was, the very essence of his nature. So when Jesus promised to give what we ask as long as we ask in his name, he did not mean tacking the phrase, "we pray in Jesus’ name, amen" at the end of the prayer, like a rabbit’s foot attached to a prayer intention. He meant that we must know the very essence of Christ, must become so united with him in prayer that we can feel the heartbeat of God. When we are so united to God, we will receive what we ask because what we ask will come from the very heart of God.

Most of us don’t experience this degree of intimacy with God. In fact, many of us don’t even want such closeness, because to be so intimate with God means fundamental change to who we are and how we live. It means following Christ into the slums and soup kitchens and prisons. It means loving our enemies and changing our priorities. Such love of Jesus is hard, and if it’s not hard, we’re probably not doing it right.

Why doesn’t God grant us what we ask? Because until we know the heart of God, we are not asking in his name. Knowing the heart of God means radical Christianity – but that’s the only kind of Christianity worth living.

Regina Cram lives in Glastonbury and is a freelance writer.