04/26/2012 05:39 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2012

Prayer Failure

One of the questions skeptics ask about Christian faith is how Christians respond when their prayers fail. It is an old, old question. I cry out to you, God, but you do not answer. The Book of Job is the sharpest example, a meditation on a blameless man whose life shatters for what seems like God's whim. Scholars date its composition shortly after Jerusalem fell in 560 BCE to the Babylonians, who destroyed the great temple and took God's chosen people into slavery. But many biblical texts are full of helpless pain. I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

For the last 10 years I have been doing anthropological research with evangelicals Christians. More specifically, I have been spending time in two Vineyard Christians Fellowships. These are churches that represent the way that American Christianity shifted after the social upheavals of the 1960s, away from traditional worship and towards a more intimate experience of God. Their congregants expect a back and forth relationship with God. They go for coffee with God and take walks with God. They talk to God casually, easily and openly, about little things, and they expect that God will talk back.

They also insist that prayer works: that prayer is about talking to God, and that if you pray, God hears you directly and clearly. They would say that you just had to ask, and that you should ask -- even for little stuff. As a result, many of the evangelical Christians I knew prayed in a way that seemed to increase the chance that prayer would fail: that it would feel to them that they had been ignored. In many mainstream churches, people pray for the health of nations. It is unseemly to pray for exam results, or a new bicycle. But at the church where I did my main research, people were encouraged to pray for things that seemed downright trivial. "Don't pray for a car," my housegroup leader insisted. "Pray for a red car. Will your father give you a scorpion rather than an egg?"

It was pretty clear that many of these prayers did not deliver. When one member of the group, a young medical student, entered the residency match, she really wanted to work as an obstetrician, and she really wanted to live in Indianapolis, where her brother was -- and she didn't get to Indianapolis. She even didn't get into an obstetrics residency. She ended up in family practice in St. Louis. She was so upset and mad that she left Chicago for the spring. "I'm struggling with God," she said to us. "I don't know what to say. I'm struggling. Actually, I'm screaming."

Why would people pray like that? The answer is that in-your-face failures force people to get something different out of prayer. When prayer fails in this obvious way, people at these churches simply shift the focus and say that this is when you need God. Indeed, the more powerful the apparent assault on faith -- how could God have let this happen? -- the more intensely congregants insist on God's role as friend to help one through tough times. His friendship becomes its own reward.

"God doesn't want to be analyzed," a woman explained to me one Sunday morning. "He wants your love." She was reading one of the shelf-full of evangelical books about God's apparent failure to deliver on his promises. Philip Yancey's Disappointment with God does not explain why bad things happen to good people. In fact, he explicitly rejects the best-known mass-market explanation found in When bad things happen to good people. Harold Kushner wrote that book because he was horrified as a young rabbi when a couple lost their only child to a brain aneurism and attributed the death to God's wrath because they had not fasted on Yom Kippur. Kushner concludes that God is good, but not all-powerful. That is not Yancey's God. Yancey settles for a God who is logically incoherent but emotionally available, and the point Yancey makes is that the awesome, mighty creator of the universe is desperate that we should like him and hurt when we turn away, regardless of the devastation going on in our lives. "Our choices matter, not just to us and our own destiny but, amazingly, to God himself."

It can be tempting to ascribe this refusal to give a logical account of human suffering, this philosophical recalcitrance, to a kind of theological cluelessness, but it would be more accurate to treat the refusal as an indication of what this imagining of God does for his followers. This God is understood to be responsive, loving and present -- even when things are tough, miserable and unfair. The theology is not about explanation, but about relationship. That is what makes churches like these work for those who come to them. People stay with this God not because the theology makes sense, but because the practice delivers emotionally. When you feel lousy, reaching out to this God helps you to feel better. Under these conditions, it is often when prayer requests fail that prayer practice becomes most satisfying.