A reviewer and new friend recently asked me the question that she apparently likes to ask all of the religious elders she comes in contact with. “What about when God answers your prayer with a ‘No’?” She noted that she has largely gotten unsatisfactory answers to this question, including priests and pastors who dance around the subject.
I didn’t dance, but I really could have used a large white board and several different colors of markers. Some of you who know me well won’t be surprised in that.
So, I thought I would blog the answer I gave her, only slightly edited for clarity. Buckle your safety belts, my friends, and keep your hands and heads inside the windows at all times. This may not be your grandmother’s theology…
So, okay. This explanation could start at any one of a number of places. Today, I’ll start with free will.
I buy into the idea of free will in a big way. However, the concept of free will is negated if any of the following happen: if God says ‘No!’ to our choice of free will it’s not very free, is it? If God says, ‘Okay, but you’re going to hell for that one, my dear,’ then it’s not very free.
Not mutually exclusive to free will, is the consequences to our actions. If I steal your cell phone, there are several consequences to that action. You no longer have a cell phone. Perhaps the cell phone is your only phone, so you no longer have a means of verbal communication with people who are not in your immediate vicinity. Perhaps I have stolen something you cannot afford to replace. Perhaps this seriously disrupts your work life, if you are self-imployed. Perhaps you have permanently lost numbers that you are not likely to get back, and amongst those numbers are important contacts that you neglected to make a note of elsewhere. Also, on the emotional level, you may feel violated, unsafe, angry, bitter, resentful. You may desire revenge, or vengeance. You may fantasize about doing me physical harm, if only you knew who I was, if only you could confront me. On my side, I may feel guilty, I may feel resentful that I couldn’t get more money for such a good phone. On a deeper soul-level we have both made choices. I made a choice to steal something from someone. I exercised free will, and the way in which I exercised it harmed someone else and because at a soul-level we are all connected, harming you is harming me. I may have no conscious idea of this, but it is true. And on that soul-deep level, you exercised free will. You chose to be filled with ‘righteous anger’ instead of recognizing that everything is impermanent and just letting it go. You made a choice, but by choosing to dwell in anger, you harmed yourself at a very deep level and in harming yourself, you harmed everyone around you because we are all one. We both made choices, we both exercised free will, and there were consequences to those choices.
Now. In that example, say I pray to God to be able to get enough money for the phone to finish paying my rent so I don’t get kicked out. I don’t get enough money. Did God say ‘no’ to that prayer? I don’t think so.
In the same example, you pray to God that your phone comes back. You pray fervently. You promise a lot of shit. Your phone never comes back. Did God say ‘no’ to that prayer? I don’t think so.
Why? Well, I think we have to back up a bit and look at it from a different angle, other than free will and consequences. Okay. When we pray for something because we are experiencing a serious lack of it… here’s the thing. It’s only the lack that will increase. That is our actual prayer. Not the frantic, anxious, fearful, angry, bitter, hopeless words that spill out of our mouths. “God, I want this…” Okay. God answers that by allowing us to continue to want it. (This is true except in cases of profound, earth shattering faith that most of us don’t have. Sad, but true. Someday, perhaps. Moving on.)
What we focus on increases
What we focus on increases; this I take to be one of the spiritual laws of the Universe. If we focus on our lack, lack will increase. If we focus on our abundance, abundance will increase. And we have the free will to choose. God will not get in the way of our choice. God gave us free will. God will help us to manifest what we have chosen. And if we wish to dwell in a hell of our own making, God will support our decision, much like a parent who sighs when his three year old insists on playing in the mud, because it is what we have chosen.
Now, does this make God an insensitive clod? Nope. Don’t think so. And there are a lot of places the conversation could go from here. After all, this isn’t a new thought I’m outlining here, and there are many, many well written volumes of this sort of theology already extant. What about world calamities? What about Japan right now? What about nations starving? What about when the innocent die? What about Libya?
And what about all the ways in which we, all of humanity, have been complicit in the support of dictators throughout the years because it suited our purposes for the moment, right up until it didn’t anymore? What about our manic consumption of energy that is so frantic that it necessitates our use of nuclear energy, an energy source that can be painted green but really, really, really isn’t? What about our global inability to resolve differences of opinion without the use of force, violence, and widespread death and destruction
We are a product of the choices that we make. As Salman Rushdie says at one point in ‘Midnight Children’, the majority of decisions that affect our life are made outside of our presence. We live in a world that was shaped by decisions made by people we will never meet, but make no mistake, our world is the consequence of their exercise of free will. Does that mean that we can blame hurricanes on them? No, of course not. But why is it we think it’s a sane practice to live in the path of a hurricane, and then be surprised when it wipes our homes away? Why is it we build nuclear reactors on fault lines?
Still, there is hope
But there is hope. Despite the circumstances of our lives, which yes are hugely impacted by the consequences of the exercise of the free will of other people we will never meet, we can still choose how to exercise OUR free will. We can choose to focus on the love, peace, joy, compassion, generosity, hope and bliss that does genuinely exist around us and all of those things will increase. They will increase because we will have chosen them. And then, o then we will start to experience the profundity of goodness that we are capable of as human beings. God knows that we’ve already explored the profundity of foulness of which we are capable. And because it’s positive, it will start feeling like God is saying ‘yes’ much more often, but that’s an illusion. God has always supported our decisions and has only waited until we decided we were ready for something different.