Question: I spent quite a bit of time praying for someone who was very ill. Many people came together to pray for this person yet she unfortunately passed away. How can we say then that a prayer is never unanswered? Obviously in this case and in many others the prayers of so many people have not been answered. How can we have absolute faith in G-d if He doesn’t spare the life of someone who so many prayed for? I understand that belief in G-d is fundamental to our religion but I just wish to understand this. I have also heard many answers before. For example G-d does everything for a reason and one can’t see the whole picture. I was wondering if you had a different answer as this one doesn’t fully answer my question.
Answer: The first thing to understand is that prayer – no matter how sincere and intense – can never be guaranteed to produce results. Think about it: if all prayers were rewarded, wouldn’t that make us gods, and God nothing more than our slave? Think about this, too: are we really so sure that we know enough of the universe’s workings to be sure that what we’re asking for is really the very best thing for everyone? Isn’t it wiser to place ourselves in God’s gentle and powerful hands; to rely on His judgment?
This, in effect, is what King David’s general, Yoav, was saying on the eve of a very dangerous battle (II Samuel, 10:12) with the words: “Be strong and sure for our people and for the cities of the Lord our God, and the Lord will do what is best in His eyes.” So what then is the purpose of prayer?
-Rabbi Boruch Clinton
from “Belief in G-d and Unanswered Prayers”
Good question and one that doesn’t offer an easy answer. Some people don’t find an answer at all, and the result is that they leave the faith.
You pray. You pray with all your heart, with all your devotion, with all your love of God, and yet it seems as if your prayers are not answered. The illness is not healed. The loved one is not spared a painful death. Grief and disappointment enter your heart, your soul, your very being. Where is God?
I can’t peer behind the veil of Heaven and give you the answer. This is a question both the faithful and the faithless have been asking ever since man first became aware of a Holy God. Where is God during a flood that leaves millions homeless? Where is God when cancer ravages a once vital and robust person, reducing her to a faded skeleton with skin of parchment? Where is God when I need Him the most? I prayed that she would be healed and recover completely, but instead, she died.
There are any number of books written by Pastors and Rabbis, who are far more learned and wiser than I am, who try to answer these questions. I suppose that’s why I quote from the ancient sages and the modern clergy when I write my “meditations.” I find them just as inspiring and illuminating as the others in their audience. I draw strength and courage from their insights into God, and through what they teach, I try to gain a better understanding of the scriptures, of God, and of myself.
But where is God when disaster strikes the world, strikes communities, families, and individuals, and grips the human heart with terror? And not understanding the answer, why then do we continue to pray to a God who does not seem to answer us when we beg and plead for mercy?
The Talmud says that a Jew is obligated to pray, based upon Deuteronomy 11:13: “serve Him with all your thoughts — Livavchem — and with all your soul.” Livavchem is a form of the Hebrew word Leiv, which is most often translated as the heart. In the Torah, however, we find that the first appearance of Leiv is Genesis 6:5 “Machshavos Libo” — thoughts of his Leiv (see also Proverbs 19:21). We do the same thing in English, referring to a person with a “warm heart,” while in reality we know thoughts are in the head. Be that as it may, the service of G-d in Deuteronomy 11, service “with all your heart,” is found in our thoughts. The Sages of the Talmud say that this is prayer, Tefilah.
The word Tefila deserves further examination as well, because although we commonly translate it as prayer, the origin of the word is the root Palel, meaning to judge or decide (see Ex. 21:22). Jewish prayer, in fact, is a form of reflection and self-judgment. In the reflexive form, the verb L’hispalel, “to pray,” actually means to judge one’s self.
Prayer is better understood as a service of the Al-mighty that takes place in our thoughts, which involves judging ourselves, making decisions, before G-d. We make judgments and decisions many times each day. The obligation to pray asks us to involve G-d in our thoughts and in the decisions we make. Formal prayer remains necessary, for it trains us to turn to Him periodically throughout the day — but the training should lead us to turn to Him whenever we need clarity and help, far beyond the synagogue. (Heard from Rabbi Jonathan Rietti)
G-d loves us, and He asks us to love Him back. Sometimes more precious than hearing “I love you” is hearing “I was thinking about you.” The more He’s on our mind, the closer we come to Him. Also, let’s not forget that He’s the ultimate source of all goodness. He pulls the strings infinitely more effectively than any other resource in our network of friends or associates. Shouldn’t such a personal contact take priority over all others?
I don’t know if that’s a good enough answer for you. I don’t know that it’s a good enough answer for me. I do know, or at least believe, that prayer is not a simple ask and answer transaction. As Rabbi Clinton suggests, God is not the genie of the lamp and we are not Aladdin. It’s not a matter of rubbing an ancient illumination device, summoning the all-powerful being that resides within, and simply directing him to give us what we want, when we want it, in the way we want it. If this were so, then we all would be little “gods” running around commanding this all-powerful force to do our bidding, changing the world around us as our wants, needs, and desires saw fit.
Obviously, such is not the case. There is the will of God and as such, His will is not to be denied, even when we face our darkest hour. The Son of Man knew this most poignant and overarching lesson:
He parted from them a distance of slinging a stone and got down on his knees and prayed, saying, “My Father, if only you were willing to make this cup pass from me! Yet let it not be according to my will but according to your will.” An angel from Heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. Then the bonds of death came upon him and he continued to pray fervently. –Luke 22:41-44 (DHE Gospels)
Jesus prayed that God release him from the sentence of a painful, agonizing, humiliating, and ultimately unmerited death; a death in which the Son of Man would be separated from the Father in Heaven, perhaps for the first time since he was born to Miriam.
And yet he said, “let it not be according to my will but according to your will.” The result was that “the bonds of death came upon him.” I believe you know what series of events followed. Jesus prayed. He was comforted. He struggled with the “bonds of death.” He was unjustly tried. He was tortured. He was denied by one of his closest friends. He was humiliated. He was nailed to a tree. He suffered horribly. He was mocked while in agony. The Father (seemingly) abandoned him. And then finally, he died.
And not only he, but his disciples, his closest companions, were utterly disheartened and crushed.
Where was God?
The story has a “happy ending” which Christians celebrate every year at Easter but that “happy ending” is provisional, since we still live in a broken world where people pray, suffer, and die every day.
Where is God?
Why do we bother to pray?
Because, as Rabbi Dixler says, prayer is more about our relationship with God than what God will or won’t do for us. It’s about facing trials and suffering and knowing that the hurt may only end in death, but still knowing that God is our companion in all of that. Faith in God through Jesus Christ comes with a certain promise attached.
This is my mitzvah: that you love one another as I have loved you. There is no love greater than the love of one who gives his life on behalf of his companions. As for you, if you do what I command you, you are my companions. I will no longer call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master will do. But I said you are my companions because I have made it known to you all that I have heard from my Father. –John 15:12-15 (DHE Gospels)
In the past few weeks, I’ve written a great deal about love. Prayer is an act of self-sacrifice. In religious Judaism, prayer substitutes for the sacrifices Jews would make if the Holy Temple currently existed in Jerusalem. The Apostle Paul urged us to offer our bodies as living sacrifices (see Romans 12:1) though not in the literal sense. He referred to himself at the end of his life as being poured out like a drink offering (see Philippians 2:17 and 2 Timothy 4:6). And he urged the church at Philippi:
Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. –Philippians 4:5-7 (ESV)
Prayer is the act of self-judgment, service to our Master, and turning ourselves inside out to God. It’s totally and willingly revealing of ourselves to Him (not that He doesn’t know us). It’s inviting God into our lives, our hearts, our joys, and our suffering. God isn’t obligated to answer our prayers in the manner we desire, but He has promised to always accompany us on a journey through whatever territory, light or darkness, that we may find ourselves. David’s most famous psalm to the King of Kings included this:
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. –Psalm 23:4 (ESV)
Jesus promised that we would be more than servants, we would be his companions. The word “companions,” as I previously presented when quoting from John 15:13, is often translated as “friends.” Though we are sometimes in pain and torment, we are never alone, for God is with us. He comforts us, if we will only reach out to Him. We will not always be absolved of pain, but we will never be abandoned.
Rabbi Clinton finishes his answer with this:
The prayer book (Siddur), Psalms and the words various traditional formulations are bursting with valuable lessons about our relationship with God, His compassion and generosity and our own fragile existence. By thinking about these precious words, we are deeply enriching our own faith and expressing our dependence on God – who does, after all – care for us.
Do our prayers have any effect on our suffering friends? Undoubtedly. Perhaps the very act of growing in faith and sensitivity as a result of the prayer process can be considered a significant accomplishment for ones loved one. After all, it was your relationship to him/her which inspired this growth.
There is much more to this subject, but I hope that these words will be of some help to you.
May the God of Abraham always answer your prayers and mine by drawing us close to Him, today and forever. And may we continue to walk and talk with our Master as our traveling companion…and our friend.