During his Wednesday Audience this week, as a part of his ongoing catechesis on prayer, Pope Francis confronted one of the most difficult questions that face Christians: “if God is Father, why does He not listen to us? He who has assured us that He gives good things to the children who ask Him for them (cf. Mt 7: 10), why does He not respond to our requests?”
“We all have experience of this,” the pope continued, “we have prayed, prayed, for the illness of a friend, of a father, of a mother, and so it went. But God did not grant our request!”
A few years ago I was at a prayer service and the priest leading it read from the same Gospel story that the pope references, “If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him” (Mt 7:11). Afterward, he asked the question, “Do you believe that God will give you the good things you ask for, or do you think he will give you scorpions?”
I knew the theologically correct answer—but I couldn’t say it with sincerity.
My colleagues have joked that I have just three emotions. My wife is the one who feels things deeply whereas my emotional range is normally pretty bland. Almost a decade of marriage has been mutually beneficial, I’ve helped her level off her emotions and she’s helped me feel things with empathy.
A few years ago I experienced several months of very real depression. This was a feeling I wasn’t familiar with and didn’t know how to process. It was triggered by the accumulated stress of having four kids five and under, not sleeping because of an infant, caring for a family member with mental health struggles, and practicing postpartum NFP.
The depression was also intimately wrapped up with my spiritual life. I knew enough of St. Ignatius’s discernment of spirits to recognize the desolation but didn’t have the wherewithal to respond the way he would have prescribed. On top of that was precisely the question Pope Francis addresses in his catechesis: why does God not respond to our requests?
The image I like to use to illustrate my spiritual life at that time is Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter stories. When the invisible gateway is open a person can walk through a brick wall into the magical world, but when it’s closed the wall is just a wall.
That was what my prayer was during that time: I would ask God for healing and nothing would change. I’d be more vulnerable and open to friends, asking for them to pray for me, and nothing would change. I would invite friends to pray with me, and nothing would change. “Why does He not respond to our requests?” Pope Francis asked today, as I asked then.
I screamed at God. I swore and argued with him. Nothing changed. It was like running into a brick wall thinking it would give way, or that the invisible gateway would open up, but instead every time I rammed into it and fell down, sore and bruised. After doing that enough times, I felt less and less likely to get back up and try again.
“The scandal remains,” the pope said, “when people pray with a sincere heart, when they ask for things that correspond to the Kingdom of God, when a mother prays for her sick child, why does it sometimes seem that God does not listen to them?”.
There are no simple answers to this question, and any easy answer is likely to be the wrong one. We tell ourselves that this suffering we’re asking God to fix is his will—as if our Father in Heaven desires for his children to suffer! Or we convince ourselves that we are just too sinful and that we’re not praying the right way—as if we need to perform for God for him to care.
Indeed, sometimes our desires are not aligned with God’s desires. When we offer, as the pope said, “a prayer that is always demanding, that wants to direct events according to our own design, that admits no plans other than our own desires.” This transforms prayer into “a magic wand,” leading us to expect God to perform for us however and whenever we ask.
I certainly slipped into this way of thinking. That season of desolation and depression happened to coincide with Lent. I remember bargaining with God. I committed to the most regimented prayer and fasting I had done since having kids. My unspoken presumption was that if by the time Lent was over I still hadn’t been healed that it wouldn’t be me who was at fault. But Easter came and went leaving me in more despair than I was before.
The answer that Pope Francis offers is essentially the same answer God gave Job in the Old Testament: my ways are not your ways. Or, as the pope said, “God’s time is not our time.”:
On some occasions, therefore, the solution to the problem is not immediate. In our life too, each one of us has this experience. Let us look back a little: how many times have we asked for a grace, a miracle, let’s say, and nothing has happened. Then, over time, things have worked out but in God’s way, the divine way, not according to what we wanted in that moment.
Two weeks after Easter I had my worst day. The depression was weighing heavier and heavier day after day, week after week, month after month. But that was the worst day. As I was saying bedtime prayers with my daughter I thought to myself, “what’s the point?”.
The pope referenced a passage from the Catechism, “Some even stop praying because they think their petition is not heard” (CCC 2734). I was in that place. I never stopped believing that God existed, but I didn’t believe he cared about me.
At that moment, grace broke through and invited me to ask Mary to pray for me. I’ve been Catholic my whole life, so asking for Mary to pray for me was pretty normal. But this was different. My request to Mary that night was, “I can’t pray, and even if I could I don’t want to. Please pray instead of me.” And she did.
From the next day on, while for months my life had felt like it was constantly spiraling downwards, things started to change. The causes of my desolation began to steadily improve and the fog eventually lifted. As the pope expressed, “Evil is never the lord of the last day.”
Even my small share of suffering “on the penultimate day…when the devil makes us think he has won” was a real opportunity for grace. Only in looking back on that experience do I see the tremendous and deeper healing that God was working for me during that time. He was there with me through all of it, although I lacked the patience and faith to see it. As Francis concluded his catechesis:
Let us learn this humble patience, to await the Lord’s grace, to await the final day. Very often, the penultimate [day] is very hard, because human sufferings are hard. But the Lord is there. And on the last day, He solves everything.