What Does It Mean When Prayers Go Unanswered?

This last week I watched, to much delight, “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the latest Marvel offering in their growing pantheon of adventure flicks.

Spoiler alert: the giant gloating goats are the best characters in the movie.

But the central premise, and I’m not spoiling anything here, revolves around the villain (Gorr) of the movie. He and his young daughter are members of tribe of people who’ve sworn allegiance to a deity, a god whose image he wears around his neck. He prays fervently to this deity that his daughter might be spared from the death plaguing his tribe, but his prayers go unanswered.

She dies (this is not a spoiler).

He gets a chance to have an audience with this deity, who laughs at his supplications and scoffs at his sadness and starvation, all the while sumptuously dining in front of him. Enraged, Gorr grabs a mystical blade and destroys the god, going on a crusade to eliminate all gods from existence.

After all, if the gods are unable to help their supplicants (at best) or unwilling (at worst), why have them at all?

Taika Waititi, the director and co-writer of the film, treads on fascinating theological ground here. I’m unsure if it’s intentional or accidental (I know very little about his personal background), but the central question of this plot is exactly the existential crisis that so many religious adherents, philosophers, and believers-turned-atheist/agnostics have faced.

What good is believing in a god/God if prayers go unanswered?

Conventional Christianity has often touted that when it appears prayers are unanswered, it is simply God’s “no” to the prayer.

This, to me, is a huge copout. It’s like carrying a rock in your pocket and claiming it keeps away tigers because you’re never attacked by tigers. Correlation and causation are not the same thing, and honestly the church would do well to stop saying this line to people despairing that their prayers seem to go unheeded, especially in such tragic situations as the one plaguing Gorr the God Butcher. Too many children have become “another angel in God’s heaven” because “God needed them more” than their grieving parents.

That’s a bunch of bullshit, and the church knows it. It’s theological abuse, not to mention just crappy theology.

If we want to wade into a bit of honesty…and I think we should…we need to admit that prayer is not something that can provably influence external outcomes. There are too many variables in this world to say, with certainty, that prayers move the Divine needle. Sure there are Biblical stories that suggest it (Abraham and Moses were known for changing God’s mind), and Biblical stories that seem agnostic on it (Jesus himself prays for a different outcome and yet hangs on a cross), but we cannot view those as prescriptive stories, but rather descriptive points of view (though the parables of Jesus encourage honest and persistent prayer…to what end, though?).

Rather prayer, it seems, is meant to elicit internal change, rather than external magical change. That is, prayer affects the pray-er more than anything.

Which is important, Beloved! Please don’t think this is a lesser thing. In fact, I’d probably posit it is a greater thing. I’m not sure we need a Divine who is able to be easily persuaded by supplications or who tilts at every windmill.

But this is a truth that the Eastern faiths seem to have realized a lot sooner than the Westernized versions we find around us today: prayer changes the pray-er first.

If not, solely.

That does not mean we shouldn’t be honest in our prayers. After all, expressed honesty puts us in touch with our deepest longings and desires, especially those often suppressed in life (such honest expression is a change-agent!).

Honesty is important.

But we do not have a Divine ATM at our finger tips.

Saying this truth out loud has gotten me in deep trouble many times. A few times it’s caused people to leave my parishes, or threaten to leave.

Prayer is about relationship: with the Divine, and within ourselves. Prayer is about honest expression, getting to the core nugget of what our deepest hopes are in any given situation (or just in general!).

I’ve come to see that prayer is about changing our hearts to accept and move forward more-so than changing God’s heart, Beloved.

This is not a popular opinion, and that’s ok.

But it has in fact been comforting to me many times. I dare say it’s kept me in the faith more than a few times. Because when you look at the honest prayers of people who sweated in prayer over the bed of a dying person, who visualized their cancer going away only to have it spread ever more rapidly, you cannot help but think what Gorr thinks in this philosophically deep (and deeply amusing) movie: God is either unable or unwilling.

And neither of those are great propositions.

So, perhaps it’s less that, and more that prayer is not supposed to do what we’ve been told and taught it does.

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