The following is my homily for the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The readings can be found here.
“On the day I called for help, you answered me.” Our readings this week are extremely uplifting. From our first reading in which God patiently listens to Abraham, to our Gospel in which Jesus tells us that God always answers our prayers, we get the sense that we are never alone, that God listens and cares for us.
These things should not come at a surprise to us. As Christians, we know, of course, that God loves and cares for us. That he answers our prayers. We could go around the room sharing time after time of how something in our lives seemed utterly miraculous happened, until God intervened with his saving hand.
When I was in high school, I planned on going to college. I found my dream school and couldn’t wait to start. There was just one problem. College… is expensive. I had no way of paying for it, and there was no chance that I was going to take out $200,000 worth of loans. I was stuck, and so I prayed to God. Please, help me. Wouldn’t you know it, my dad got a new job that paid a little more than his last one. More than that, this job was at a local university in the same system, and so they were willing to pay tuition exchange, taking care of more than 3/4 of my expenses, just like that.
How true our psalm is: On the day I called for help, you answered me.
And yet… as inspiring as these readings are today, we might find equally as challenging. Yes, God has answered some of our prayers, but certainly not all of them. What about those times that we were in distress and we heard nothing?
Jesus tells us to knock and it shall be opened, but I can think of plenty of times that I found nothing but a locked door. From the trivial things like praying that I would pass a math test, to quite serious things, like praying for an end to war, for the healing of a sick relative, many prayers have gone unanswered.
In our first reading, in fact, Abraham pleads with God to save the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God listens… but go a few chapters ahead and you know that it didn’t end well for them. As much as God answers our prayers, there are also times in which it seems that they go unanswered.
And so, it leaves us with a question: How do we reconcile the fact that God tell us to trust in him, tells us to go to him in prayer and we will not be turned away, with our own experience of being turned away?
For me, it comes down to a very simple solution: too often our prayers go unanswered because we misunderstand what prayer truly is.
So often, we approach God as if God were an all powerful genie. We come with requests, making known what we want, and do our best to convince God to give them to us. We say, “Lord, your will be done,” but in reality, what we’re trying to do is convince that will to be more like our own. We want God to see things the way we do, and so get what we want.
If this is the way we think, I believe we have something backwards.
Prayer, by its very nature, is not about convincing God to be more like us, but allowing God to transform us to be more like God. It is about bringing our needs and petitions to the one who can see it all, who knows it all, who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, so that we can be changed in a way that will best deal with our situation.
Sometimes, this means beginning to see the world as God sees, realizing that we have been asking for the wrong things all along.
When I was in college, my girlfriend broke up with me. [It’s okay, I’m over it now.] She was the love of my life, and I was absolutely devastated. I prayed to God that she would come back to me, that we would be together again. But she never did. I got angry at God, wondering why he wasn’t with me in my time of need.
As I’ve thought about it over the past few years, I’ve come to realize that it was an unfair expectation of God. You see, God gives us each free will. He loves us enough to let us choose for ourselves what we do and who we love. In praying for my girlfriend to return, I was essentially asking God to take away her free will, to force her to do something that she did not want. This is not something that God can do, and so God could not answer my prayer as I wanted.
One could definitely argue that this was Abraham’s problem in the first reading. On the surface, he asks God to have mercy, and we are a bit confused why God doesn’t grant this. But in effect, Abraham is asking God to look upon overwhelming evil and injustice, a city that is so far gone that as few as ten people are righteous, and ignore it, to let it continue. This is against God’s very nature. This is an impossible ask. We cannot pray for God to cease being God.
When we feel that God is not answering our prayers, it might be good to take a step back and look at what we are actually asking for. Is this reasonable? Is it something that fits with who we know God to be? Or are we asking for something that contradicts the very nature of God?Sometimes, God does not answer our prayers because there is something wrong with what we’re asking for.
Other times, the problem is not that we ask incorrectly, but that we fail to see when our prayers are actually being answered.
How many times have I prayed for the recovery of a friend or family member, for help in a difficult time, only to forget about that prayer as soon as everything is alright? When things go catastrophically wrong, it’s easy to remember that God didn’t answer our prayers, but when nothing happens, when the crisis is averted and we go back to what’s normal, I often fail to see the work of God right in front of my face.
One reason for this is because God answers our prayers, but not in the way that we expected.
Through high school and college, I used to pray that God would show me the path that I was to follow, that I would do something important for the Kingdom, that my life would mean something. I feel that I’ve found that answer as a Franciscan, as a priest, but I know that this would not have been possible had it not been for some difficult experiences, not the least of which was my college girlfriend breaking up with me. At the time, as I was going through struggles, I felt that God was abandoning me. Looking back, it might be more true to say that those difficult experiences, the ones that led me to who I am today, were actually instances of God answering my deepest prayer.
But I couldn’t see it at the time. I couldn’t see it because I was expecting something else, and because I was impatient. I’m sure I’m not alone, but I sort of want what I want when I want it. I pray for God’s help, and I expect a clear sign of my life changing the next day. When I don’t wake up a completely different person, I find myself becoming cynical, crying that God does not answer my prayers.
Looking back on my life, seeing where I was five, ten, fifteen years ago, I’m astounded by where I’ve been, who I’ve become, and what more is to come. I could not have done this on my own, every step of the way was the result of God’s hand in my life… but at the time, I couldn’t see it. I was too impatient, too stuck on what I wanted, to see that God was there, answering my prayers.
So, yes. Sometimes we ask wrongly. Sometimes we can’t see what’s right before us. But other times—honestly, I think most of the time—what we misunderstand about prayer is that it is not about letting God do everything for us while we check out, it’s about receiving the grace and strength to make a difference ourselves.
All throughout human history, God has used his servants and prophets to perform miracles. What made the prophets great was not that they were amazing speakers, had power in themselves, but that they were so close to God in prayer that they knew what needed to be done. They knew that they needed to take responsibility: to announce justice, to perform acts of charity, to do what they could to answer their own prayers.
Rather than going to God, depositing our prayer, and walking away, feeling that everything will be taken care of, sometimes the reason that our prayers seem to go unanswered is because we failed to be God’s hands and feet in the world. In prayer, God offers us peace, inspiration, strength (in other words, God’s very self), and he expects that we will take these things out to the world, to put to action the changes we know need to be done, to do our part in building up the kingdom.
“On the day I called for help, you answered me.” I believe this to be true with all my heart. But I do not believe that God is going to do it for us, as we want it, when we want it. Prayer is not about convincing God to be more like us, it is receiving the grace to become more like God, and living our lives as a people devoted to his mission. Call to God, and he will give you everything you need in return.
“I sort of want what I want when I want it.” Don’t we all. 😉
I can think of times in my life when not getting what I wanted was actually a really good thing. And times when I got the thing I wanted years later, and that actually worked out way better than it would have if I had gotten the thing I wanted at that time that I wanted it.