A major difficulty one encounters when reflecting on prayer is an apparent dissonance between certain  passages in the gospel and our experience.   The evangelists report some very strong and broad assurances about prayer linked to faith.  There are passages which seem to promise our prayer requests will invariably be granted.  Matthew quotes Jesus as telling his disciples:  “If you have faith everything you ask in prayer you will receive.”  Passages like that caused C.S. Lewis to speak of “the New Testament containing embarrassing promises.”  He cites Mark (11: 24) as the “most staggering of such promises.”    “I tell you, therefore, everything you ask and pray for, believe that you have it already, and it will be yours.”

C.S. Lewis asks: “How can those astonishing promises be reconciled with our experience?  Every war, every famine or plague, almost every deathbed is a monument to a petition that was not granted.”

To be specific, who of us can say they have always  received everything they asked for in prayer ?  How do we reconcile those promises with our experience? A not uncommon reaction is to think one’s faith is somehow deficient.   That is not the best way to resolve the dilemma. It is not the strength of one’s faith that causes prayers to be answered.

Taking those gospel promises about prayer in a strict literal sense can have unfortunate consequences.  Feeling one’s faith is deficient can lead to futile efforts to strengthen faith as though we generate faith by our own efforts.    Unless we go beyond the literal meaning of the words we will have difficulty in reconciling those passages with our own experience.     But the gospel itself reveals those statements are not to be taken literally.  At the very heart of the gospel we see a glaring instance to the contrary.  In Gethsemane the holiest of petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him.  It did not.

Through the experience of feeling our prayers are unanswered  we can learn to rely less on our own courage and offer our fears to God in trust.  We learn it is not our unaided intelligence that will find a solution to our problems and we learn to offer our doubts and confusion to God in faith.  We recognize the limits of our strength and offer our weakness to God in hope.  We come to understand ourselves better and to offer ourselves, with all our shortcomings and blemishes, to a loving and forgiving God.