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Unanswered prayers

God makes it clear that with prayer and faith, we can move a mountain into the sea. No matter how hard we pray and how much we believe, however, we don't always get what we ask for. Sharing a childhood story as an example, Amelia explains why God's answer to our prayers is sometimes "no."
For verily I say unto you, that whosoever shall say unto this mountain, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall have whatsoever he saith. Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.
— Jesus, in Mark 11:23-24

When I was in the third grade, my classmate had the neatest pair of scissors I had ever seen. The ends weren't rounded off, like the regular kid-scissors that the rest of us had. They were pointy and sharp, just like grown-up scissors, except they were pint-sized for small hands. What I really loved about them, though, was their pink handles.

I just had to have those scissors.

So without a second thought, I swiped them out of the girl's desk one day and never looked back. I had never stolen anything before, but I wanted these scissors so badly that I didn't even hesitate. I was so proud to have such special scissors, and I was even more proud that I didn't get caught.

I'll never forget the day, a year or so later, when my conscience caught up with me. The guilt choked me so bad I couldn't breathe. It was the most awful feeling I had ever felt.

I knew that the only way I would ever feel better would be to return what I had pirated to its rightful owner. I remember wishing that I could have secretly slipped the scissors into my friend's desk while her class was eating in the cafeteria, or that I could have just left them out somewhere where she would see them. But there was a giant obstacle in the way, a problem that my nine-year-old mind had absolutely no idea how to solve.

During the previous summer, my friend and her family had moved to Japan. She had given me her forwarding address, but just dropping her scissors in the mail was way easier said than done. First of all, I would have had to have found someone to help me—someone to buy me a suitable envelope, take me to the Post Office, and pay for international shipping—which would have meant explaining exactly what I had done. Even worse, though, I knew that I would have had to confess to my friend. She would have found out that I was a thief, not to mention a pretty rotten pal. I was too ashamed to tell the truth, and so I felt completely stuck.

Then, one day, a brilliant idea came to me: I remembered that God answers prayers! From that day forward, every night before I went to bed, I prayed and prayed that God would make those scissors disappear. There was no doubt in my mind that He would.

But every morning, to my despair, there they were. No matter how much I prayed, they were still there, day after day. The guilt was horrible; it followed me everywhere I went. And if I did forget about it momentarily, I would dig through my drawer looking for something else, and the scissors' sharp, pointy tips would poke my hand, reminding me of the terrible thing I had done.

I hated those stupid scissors and their stupid pink handles. Why wasn't God listening to me?

* * *

Even as a nine-year-old child, I knew that God would help me if I asked. I just didn't know that there were rules about what we could ask for.

God said, "Ask and ye shall receive," but He also said we have to ask for the right things; the Scriptures say: "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts" (James 4:3). In other words, when we pray to God, we can't ask Him for things that He says we're not allowed to have. That means He won't help us fulfill sinful desires, He won't magically take us out of the sinful situations we put ourselves in, and He won't help us get away with things He told us we shouldn't have done in the first place.

How many of us, as adults, have ever been impatient or angry with God for not giving us what we begged for in prayer? How many of us have blamed Him or even cursed Him? How many of us have stopped praying, or even stopped believing?

A lot of times, when we have blasphemous thoughts about and feelings toward God, they stem from our own guilt. In those instances, we may not even realize so. We bury our guilt, the way I buried my classmate's scissors, and we try to forget about it. It's still there, though. And like a cancer, it grows and spreads until it becomes something uncontrollable. When it finally explodes into a devastating mess of one kind or another, then we blame God for not helping us out.

But it's not that He doesn't listen to us. We're the ones who don't listen to Him. Here are some examples of selfish demands that we might ask God to meet:
  • To receive or experience sinful pleasures, things that God warns us to stay away from.
  • To receive blessings in our relationships, regardless of whether those relationships have elements to them that are forbidden by the Church.
  • For help in deceiving others, not getting caught, or avoiding punishment for things we may have done wrong.
  • To allow us to hurt people we don't like, even though He commands us to love everyone, especially our enemies.
  • To receive all of the material things we ask for, even though we know that spiritual gifts are more important.
There are many more similar examples, but the principle is the same for all of them: God won't help us sin, no matter how much we pray for it. If we're asking Him for things that He knows will tempt us, defile us, or help us cover up sins that we've already committed, we shouldn't expect to receive whatever we're asking for.

If we pray for these things and do receive them, we should be aware that those "gifts" aren't blessings from heaven. The devil invites all of us to his dark underworld, and his invitations are always alluring; if they weren't they wouldn't be called "temptations." So we have to be certain, when we except gifts, that they aren't lures from Satan.

And when we don't receive everything we ask for in prayer, we have to make sure that we never accuse God of not listening. He always hears, and He always listens. By not granting our lustful prayer requests, He's only protecting us from falling further into sin. When it seems like God isn't responding to our prayers, then, it's only because we're waiting for the wrong answer. The response we desire isn't always what's best for our souls.

God knows exactly what kind of help we need, far better than we do, yet we don't always trust him.

More than once, I've heard people—Christians—counsel others to be patient with God, that it's okay to be angry with Him, but that we should try not to get too angry. But Christians, understand that this is blasphemy! God doesn't make errors in judgment that require our patience, as though He's delaying us in our holy pursuits, ones that He somehow doesn't understand yet. We're not wiser than the God, and it's sinful to think of ourselves as "waiting for Him" to come to His senses, realize we're right, and apologize for taking so long. God forbid us ever to think of the Lord that way!

Instead, we have to be thankful that the Lord is ever-patient with us, despite our incessant requests for things that we should know are dangerous to our souls. As the Bible says, God doesn't tempt us—and rightly so. If He gave us everything we asked for, most of us would end up regretting it very miserably in hell. At the final judgment, there will be no one to cover for us—not even the demons who tempted us to sin in the first place. And, by then, it will be too late to ask for God's help.

As for me, if God would have made those pink-handled scissors disappear, I would have learned that the law doesn't mean anything—not the civil law, and not God's moral law. I would have learned that there are no consequences for disobeying Him, and that He would even help me to get away with my sins. I thank God that He stopped me in my sticky-fingered tracks when I was only nine.

I kept the scissors for a long time before finally donating them to a charity. Even though they were uncomfortably tiny, I forced myself to use them often. They were a stone-cold, sobering reminder of how tormenting it is to be haunted by something that once brought so much delight. It wasn't until precisely 17 years later, in Holy Confession, that the wound those scissors had left in my soul was finally healed. In a way, I suppose the Good Lord finally did make those scissors disappear. For me, they had become an icon of sin, guilt, and shame—all of which He immediately lifted from my heart the moment that I finally asked Him the right way. All it took was some genuine repentance. Guilt alone does nothing other than torture a person, but true repentance is life-transforming.

It's never wrong to pray. God tells us that we must pray. But when we do, we have to be careful that we're not asking for things we're not allowed to have. Just because God doesn't indulge all of our earthly fantasies, it doesn't mean He's not listening. If we want to receive the things we ask for in prayer, then we have to pray for things that will be of benefit to our soul, not defilement.

If stealing that pair of scissors taught me anything, it's that there really are no unanswered prayers. God always responds to us. It's just that His answer, sometimes, is no.