“Belief in God has to be more than mental assent, more than a cliched exercise in cognition.” ---Ann Voskamp
Recently I came home from work, very hungry. I knew there was very little to eat, no crackers, no cheese, no yogurt, no left-over spaghetti or burrito ingredients. So I got the peanut butter and bread out of the cabinet, laid it on the counter. I looked in the fridge for strawberry jam. There was none. I found some honey, but it had solidified and looked old. I got mildly anxious. What was wrong with me? Was I becoming a stereotypical dude who ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches switching up the flavors of jelly? I was so hungry. I looked at the back of the fridge and saw a bottle of pancake syrup. I made the sandwich using the pancake syrup as a substitute.
When I sat down at the table and took a bite------the experiment tasted good. The anxiety went away and I began to feel smart. I had eaten 2/3 of the sandwich when I stopped and looked at this peanut butter and pancake syrup sandwich and thought “Four minutes ago my mind was full of desperate thoughts because my stomach was empty. This sandwich made all the anxious thoughts go way.” It seemed strange how hunger made me question so much about my life.
My brain naturally gravitates towards what is most pressing threat or need even if it is being out of strawberry jam. I find that my prayer life often has a similar theme to it. The difficult habit for the Christian is to turn towards God in prayer when a pressing, threat or need comes to mind. Even the most experienced Christians forget that God exists and is open to prayers even in the pettiest matters.
I pray when I feel threatened while lying in the bed at night at 11:40pm. I pray when I am anxious about potentially having a seizure at 8:25am(I have epilepsy): --------“O God please help me have enough energy to make it through Wednesday’s workday. Especially this meeting this afternoon. Please God. Please.” Silent prayers are said right before teaching 19 students in at 9:30am in the morning, in my mind as I walk into class. My need for God is great both in terms of salvation and the survival of the every day mindless grind. Theologians call this “supplication” -------asking God for help.
But then I leave work after a great day at 5:30pm, my anxieties washed away. Do my desperate late night and early morning prayers connect to my great day? Was it a mixture of my own planning? Was my late night anxiety a result of “overthinking it” last night? Was all this an answered prayer, God reaching down from the heavens to touch my epileptic brain, or just a random “good day” that came my way?
Was that an Answered Prayer?
In the movie “O Brother Where Art Thou,” the theme of answered prayers is touched on at the end of the movie. Everett (played by George Clooney) says a prayer of desperation on his knees right before he is about to be executed for escaping prison. Everett, Pete and Delmar are on the verge of being hanged for escaping prison, when Everett drops to his knees and says a sincere prayer of repenting of his life of crime and asking for his life back. This publicly desperate moment for Clooney’s character is unseen up to this point in the movie, a change from his lying his way out of any “tight spot.”
Throughout the movie, there is talk of “flooding the valley,” which was something being done in the 1920’s for the sake of energy. Thankfully for Everett, he is about to be hanged in the valley. Right after Everett’s prayer, a large flood of water comes washing through and they float away from executioner. Everett, Pete and Delmar are washed away and the rushing water saves their lives. They float to the top of the water and find a big piece of wood to float on. As they are floating on the wood, they debate how all this happened. Pete yells out “We prayed to God and He pitied us!” Delmar says the same thing. Everett, who says a clear prayer for help and repentance responds differently:
"Well, any human being will cast about in a moment of stress. No, the fact is, they're flooding this valley so they can hydroelectric up the whole durn state. Yes, sir, the South is gonna change. Everything's gonna be put on electricity and run on a paying basis. Out with the old spiritual mumbo jumbo, the superstitions, and the backward ways. We're gonna see a brave new world where they run everybody a wire and hook us all up to a grid. Yes, sir, a veritable age of reason. Like the one they had in France. Not a moment too soon."
Perhaps to Everett, who doesn’t show much, if any religious belief the entire film, the reality of his answered prayer was too real. Was the existence of God too real for him? He doesn’t want to give God credit for answering his prayer. Is Everett in denial? God seems to be easily forgotten when we are feeling powerful and in control, but we beg and remember Him when we are aware of our limitations in a scary world.
Everett’s response to the flood can be a picture of a prayer life with only supplication and no thanksgiving. I can be just like George Clooney’s character in the film, praying desperately at 4:45pm; then at 5:30pm forgetting that we ever prayed after the anxiety is gone. Do I see God’s intervention post-prayer?
It is human to fail to connect the dots. It is human to be so zoned into the present anxieties that we can’t see (or enjoy) the gifts God has given us for the present moment. “Ok, that problem was solved, that prayer answered, on to the next anxiety!” “Whew. That’s over with. Where is my to-do list?” The rush of life sometimes prevents me from seeing and thanking God.
I might feel guilty for forgetting God and forgetting my prayers. Often I have thought “Well, God might have heard my prayer, but I don’t really know if He will ever get around to answering it. I don’t know.” There is mystery in prayer. The mystery is when you are waiting for maybe 1-2 years to get a response. I have learned this over the years.
What do "answered prayers" look like?
Christians say they believe that God intervenes into 21st century reality. I’ve always wondered what this looks like, if I could see the unseen spiritual world. Does answered prayer mean God’s gigantic invisible hand comes down from heaven and touches someone’s head with His finger, which charges their mind with hope in a moment of despair? If I pray that I won’t make a fool of myself at my job in front of my students when I am under-prepared, does this mean that God sends an angel down to my classroom for 75 minutes to help the entire interaction? 21st century Protestants aren’t always keen on talking about angels interacting in reality, but technically if we believe in small and large miracles, something like that is happening. If you say you believe in miracles------God is doing something unseen that isn’t always clearly apparent.
Let me give an example of an answered prayer in my life where I think God intervened. Sometimes you have to wait on unanswered prayers. But in this case, this prayer was quickly answered.
In the process of moving to Morehead City, North Carolina, I came down about 2 weeks before I moved to find a place to live. My mom and I were looking at houses and apartments near where I work. I specifically needed a house within a mile or two from the community college since I could not drive due to my epilepsy. This limited where I could live and meant I would need to ride my bike to work everyday or catch a ride. I had found a condo to rent about ½ mile from the community college. However, it was over a mile from the grocery store and I would have to cross a 4 lane highway everyday to go to work on my bike. Things were not looking good.
Again, part of being a human being is to feel desperate and weak. I remember sitting at IHOP with my mom thinking my move to Morehead City would be bleak and isolating. The whole IHOP was empty and we were eating breakfast food at 5:30pm. I remember saying “Mom, I feel like this year is going to be hard.” I imagined myself living a life alone, unable to meet any new people in this small town. After dinner, we went back to our Holiday Inn hotel room and I said to God “Please help me find a place to live. God, please I ask you to help me find somewhere that fits my needs. I really need to have a good feeling about this place!” It was a prayer of desperation, I remember standing there in the hotel room. We were going to sign the lease the very next day for the condo ½ mile from the college.
About an hour later, my mom said “Hey look at this” calling me over to my laptop. After looking at local realties online, she found a house at a decent price in a great location. Apparently my mom uses Yahoo as a search engine. It was about 8:30pm and on the way to look at this house, I saw another house that was for rent that was even better.
The next morning, we went to the realtor early and looked at this house with a large porch and about 1 mile from the college next to the grocery store.
Later that day, I remembered the prayer of desperation and so God answered my prayer to be able to rent the house I live in right now. God intervened into my reality in North Carolina in early August of 2015. It was a real moment in time and I believe He (1) sent an angel down into my life or (2) reached down and touched my mom’s computer so she would see the listing on Yahoo housing (3) touched my mind, so that I would drive down Evans street to see it. I don’t know how God’s invisible hand works, but it really happened that day.
No matter how God intervenes into reality------paying attention after we’ve said a prayer is essential. I have come to the conclusion that many answered prayers are subtle. Furthermore, I think it is possible to be a Christian who prays desperately on lunch break at 12:55pm (cause) yet fails to connect the desired outcome at 4:30pm that afternoon (effect). Or even more, just attribute the positive turn of events to good luck. If that was God answering your prayer, it can be the evidence of the goodness of God. Ann Voskamp writes this about God's goodness and faith:
"Perhaps the opposite of faith is not doubt. Perhaps the opposite of faith is fear. To lack faith perhaps isn't as much an intellectual disbelief in the existence of God as fear and distrust that there is a good God. If I don't emotionally believe, practically believe, in the goodness of God, am I believer?"