“God is not in the business of opening up parking spaces for you,” my theology professor often reminded us.
My professor’s voice, speaking this line, comes back to me often as I struggle to find words in prayer. It’s hard to know what to pray for, how to pray. It’s so easy to slip into simply reciting a laundry list of wants and desires for God. Things that will make us happy and forward the life that we envision for ourselves. When we get what we want, then, we give God thanks and proceed, thinking our system of prayer air tight. Until we don’t get what we want. Then the bottom drops out.
My professor was saying that prayer is more complex than praying for life to be easy and comfortable. It’s not a simple transaction that makes our lives more convenient. God is more interesting than that, and our relationship to God is more varied.
Yet, is it wrong to state our desires in prayer? Isn’t there value in that, too?
I have wanted something particular to happen for a few years now. In the last few months, I recommitted to that desire and spent more intentional time expressing that desire to God. It felt good to honestly claim what was in my heart. It made me feel vulnerable and closer to God. I told my friends what I wanted, too, and they prayed with me. I felt their love, energy and prayers with me, strengthening me. I found myself coming to peace with getting or not getting what I wanted. Waiting felt lighter. I thought about how long Abraham and Sarah waited for God to fulfill God’s promise. I reminded myself that God never promised to make me happy. God never agreed to make sure there would always be a parking spot open for me in the lot.
Meanwhile, my friend’s dad got sick and moved into the hospital. She, too, prayed to God for what she wanted. She wanted her dad to get well and return home.
Within weeks of each other, I got what I wanted and she didn’t.
This is where prayer becomes I mystery. I was not praying harder. My faith is not stronger. God does not love me more. My desire was in no way more pure. In isolation, I’d like to believe my prayer made a difference, but put alongside my friend’s prayer that seemingly went unanswered, that just stops making sense to me. This line of thinking leads us to our bewildering thoughts about God, thoughts of God being unfair and inconsistent and cruel.
I flew out to spend a few days with my friend. She was so sad, so angry, so confused. “I believe in heaven,” she said. “I know he’s happy, but I’m not. I want him back with me.” She didn’t know where God fit into her pain. She didn’t know what prayer meant anymore.
The easy response is to say that we should not pray for what we want, but pray for strength to handle what happens. I told my friend, however, that I think it gives God honor to show her anger and say plainly what she wants. It will not bring her dad back, but it is her coming to God with authenticity, vulnerability and honesty. We agreed to keep muddling through this life together, praying as we go.