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I've been thinking quite a bit lately about why God doesn't answer prayer and, if he does, what sort of prayer does he answer. Is your prayer answered because you prayed it or because you just happened to be on God's wavelength? John the Evangelist said that God answers your prayers if you pray them according to God's will. Well what use is that? If he decided he wanted to do it why did he require your prayers?
I've watched a couple of Derren Brown programmes that apparently blow the lid off faith healers, spiritualists, mediums and snake oil salesmen in general. He is pretty convincing though you have to take into account that his skill is in deception so he could be deceiving us. But that's why he's so on the money because it takes a charlatan to catch a charlatan. The problem with faith healing is that it requires an unquestioning belief that you will receive what you are asking for. If you're not healed or you've not heard from your deceased love one or the finances you were expecting don't materialise, you have to find an explanation that maintains the belief and excuses the disappointment. If you accept that you were simply misguided you are forced either to accept that the cavalry isn't coming or that they never existed.
Derren claims he has no intention of discrediting faith itself but wants to expose those who make claims that are not credit worthy and, in many cases, who prey on the gullible. He says he's read the New Testament but dismisses it out of hand. While his cynicism is justified by his experience of those who would somehow prove the existence of the supernatural he cannot fully rely on his rational and logical reasoning to explain the mysteries of the universe. Unfortunately he doubts the existence of the cavalry.
Faith raises many problems that would be rationalised by the atheist or agnostic and therefore explained away. The faithful may defend their position by appealing to logic, proofs from history or empirical evidence but these are meat and drink to the seasoned sceptic and only confirm his position. That spiritual truths can only be received by faith would be a legitimate defence if it were not the fallback position and the refuge of the desperate. When faced with the question of unanswered prayer many of us find ourselves taking contrary positions simultaneously, drawing different conclusions depending on our state of mind. But I wonder if we are not just avoiding the hard questions - not that they are technically difficult but that they challenge the very core of what we believe.
You often hear people say that they can't believe in a God who would allow all the suffering in the world. But their belief in God makes no difference to his existence just as believing your prayer will be answered doesn't make it happen. When you begin with a false premise you invariably end up with a deficient conclusion and that, I believe, lies at the root of our dilemma. Many of God's characteristics are repeated over and over in the Bible without contradiction. God is holy, unique, supreme and all-powerful. He is the only true God, the Alpha and Omega. That God is love is echoed through both the New and Old Testaments despite the many references to his jealousy and anger. But one common misconception is that God is nice.
No one actually says God is nice but its clear that this characterisation often shapes our view of God as we read about him. It means that if God loves me he will be nice to me. It means he will not hurt my feelings or allow me to suffer. It also means that he will always be there to kiss me better and hold my hand when I am upset. When God appears to be absent or allows me to go through situations I wouldn't put my enemies through I have a problem that is almost impossible to solve. A simple but outrageous explanation is that God is actually quite selfish - he has his own agenda and if that means that I must suffer then so be it. Job understood this; his one problem was that God had been unfair in his case. I find it extremely difficult to reconcile the picture of Jesus being devoted to me when I can put myself in Job's shoes and I see myself looking at Jesus across the room with a devil in the foreground.
This is strangely comforting because it makes so much more sense and rings true in the light of my experience. Rather than clinging to the belief that God is holding my hand while every sense in my body tells me differently, I can see him at a distance yet fully aware, and in control, of the situation. I can picture God doing what he has to do in order to ensure the final outcome rather than being fixated on my petty inconveniences. Paul says that our momentary troubles will pale into insignificance when compared to the wonders that await us and Paul's troubles were anything but petty.
I like to think of Jesus as the anti-hero. He's the guy that walks into town and everyone eyes with suspicion. He proceeds to rub everyone up the wrong way, disregards the sheriff, and slights the mayor and stands and watches while the Hole in the Wall Gang robs the bank.
I find it easy to reconcile this scenario with that of God knowing every hair of my head and every sparrow that falls. Would I rather have a god who appears to care or one who really does care even when it appears he doesn't. Would I have a nice God who has sand thrown in his face by atheistic bullies or one who scoffs at their antics? It's commonly supposed that Christians are nice people. From this, two conclusions are drawn: that to be a Christian is to be nice or that to be nice is to be Christian. If Jesus Christ is not nice then both are inherently false and as the beaver might have said, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, "of course he's not [nice] - but he's good."