There is an immense difference between a worldview that is not able to answer every question to complete satisfaction and one whose answers are consistently contradictory. There is an even greater difference between answers that contain paradoxes and those that are systemically irreconcilable.
Once again, the Christian faith stands out as unique in this test, both as a system of thought and in the answers it gives. Christianity does not promise that you will have every question fully answered to your satisfaction before you die, but the answers it gives are consistently consistent. There may be paradoxes within Christian teaching and belief, but they are not irreconcilable. To those who feel that Christianity has failed them because of prayers that went unanswered, it is important to realize what I am saying here.
I sat with a man in my car, talking about a series of heartbreaks he had experienced. “There were just a few things I had wanted in life,” he said. “None of them have turned out the way I had prayed. I wanted my parents to live until I was at least able to stand on my own and they could watch my children grow up. It didn’t happen. I wanted my marriage to succeed, and it didn’t. I wanted my children to grow up grateful for what God had given them. That didn’t happen. I wanted my business to prosper, and it didn’t. Not only have my prayers amounted to nothing; the exact opposite has happened. Don’t even ask me if you can pray for me. I am left with no trust of any kind in such things.”
I felt two emotions rising up within me as I listened. The first was one of genuine sorrow. He felt that he had tried, that he had done his part, but that God hadn’t lived up to his end of the deal. The second emotion was one of helplessness, as I wondered where to begin trying to help him.
These are the sharp edges of faith in a transcendent, all-powerful, personal God. Most of us have a tendency to react with anger or withdrawal when we feel God has let us down by not giving us things we felt were legitimate to ask him for. We may feel guilty that our expectations toward God were too great. We may feel that God has not answered our prayers because of something lacking in ourselves. We may compare ourselves with others whose every wish seems to be granted by God, and wonder why he hasn’t come through for us in the way he does for others. And sometimes we allow this disappointment in God to fester and eat away at our faith in him until the years go by and we find ourselves bereft of belief.
G. K. Chesterton surmised that when belief in God becomes difficult, the tendency is to turn away from him—but, in heaven’s name, to what? To the skeptic or the one who has been disappointed in his faith, the obvious answer to Chesterton’s question may be to give up believing that there’s somebody out there, take charge of your own life, and live it out to the best of your own ability.
But Chesterton also wrote, “The real trouble with the world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite.”(2) He is right. Only so much about life can be understood by reason; so much falls far short of any reasonable explanation. Prayer then becomes the irrepressible cry of the heart at the times we most need it. For every person who feels that prayer has not “worked” for them and has therefore abandoned God, there is someone else for whom prayer remains a vital part of her life, sustaining her even when her prayers have gone unanswered, because her belief and trust is not only in the power of prayer but in the character and wisdom of God. God is the focus of such prayer, and that is what sustains such people and preserves their faith.
Prayer is far more complex than some make it out to be. There is much more involved than merely asking for something and receiving it. In this, as in other contexts, we too often succumb to believing that something is what it never was, even when we know it cannot be as simple as we would like to think it is.
Ravi Zacharias is founder and chairman of the board of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.
(1) Excerpted from Has Christianity Failed You? by RAVI ZACHARIAS. Copyright © 2010 by Ravi Zacharias. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com
(2) G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 87.