Back in 1990, Garth Brooks had a #1 hit with his song, "Unanswered Prayers", where he pointed out that sometimes it's better NOT to get what you ask for because you often don't really know what's best for your life. One great line from the chorus says, "Just because he doesn't answer, doesn't mean he don't care"...
...but do we really believe that? I mean, do we believe there are prayers that God just refuses to answer?
The people who made 2003's Bruce Almighty seem to believe it. In the movie, Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) feels like God has turned his back on him, and he decides that God must be either non-existent or evil, because if God has infinite power at his fingertips, he could clear up all our problems in five minutes. In order to teach him a lesson (or several), God (Morgan Freeman) gives Bruce a unique gift: he allows Bruce to temporarily have all of God's powers!
|Bruce Almighty parts the red... soup.|
In a humorous scene, Bruce tries several ways to organize prayers so he can handle them. He finally organizes them in the form of e-mails, but after spending all night trying to answer prayers at break-neck speed, he realizes that there are more prayers than he can handle, so he decides just, "Reply Yes to All". Suddenly, thousands of people win the lottery at once (which means the payout-per-person is very small), which eventually results in a riot, and Bruce can't figure out why everyone's upset. After all, he gave them everything they wanted! God's reply is insightful:
"Since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?"
The truth is we often don't know what we really want, and if God gave us everything we asked for, we're liable to ask for things that are bad for us in the long run. It's much better to trust God, because we know that he sees the bigger picture, he loves us, and he will always give us good gifts (James 1:17). As God told Bruce in the movie...
"Remember, everything I do, I do because I love you."
...but that doesn't mean it's always easy to understand. Bruce struggles to understand God's will all throughout the movie, and in Bruce Almighty's 2007 sequel Evan Almighty, Evan (Steve Carell) has just as much trouble. At one point, Evan cries out:
"I know: whatever you do, you do because you love me.
Do me a favor - LOVE ME LESS!"
For Bruce, when he sees that giving people everything they want doesn't work, he decides to pull the plug on his computer, effectively refusing to answer anymore prayers, whatsoever. But I don't think God ever refuses to answer a prayer. God wants us to pray, because he wants to be in a relationship with us. He wants us to desire his input and seek out his will for our lives. But how long would you stay in a relationship with someone who just ignored you all the time? (see Luke 18:1)
"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances;
for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you."
- 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (emphasis mine)
I believe God answers every prayer, but that doesn't mean the answer has to be "Yes." Sometimes - just like any parent on earth, our heavenly Father has to say, "No, that's not good for you," or "No, but I have something better in mind."
And even when God does say, "Yes," that doesn't necessarily mean he will instantly zap you with what you want. Sometimes, the answer is, "Yes, I'll do that, but you have to wait." It's not that God doesn't want us to have what we want, that he's not capable of doing it, or that what we asked for was wrong, but God just knows the time isn't right, and we have to wait for God's timing. That's not always easy to do, but it can be easier when we remind ourselves again that God loves us and he promises only good things.
Sometimes, God's answer can also be, "Yes, that's good. I'll empower you, but you have to take the first step!" That seems to be the answer God gave to Bruce in the movie. Again, it's not that God isn't able to do anything - it's that God often chooses to let US be part of the answer! For that reason, in the movie, God teaches Bruce to "Be the miracle!" But then, when Bruce takes the steps to make things happen, and when he prays unselfishly for his girlfriend, THEN God does something miraculous. And that's often the way it works for us. When we act in faith because we're doing what we believe God would want us to do, and we pray unselfishly, "Not my will, but Thine be done." (Luke 22:42, KJV), then we will see God saying yes to our prayers and doing something miraculous in, through and around us! (see also James 4:3, 1 John 5:14-15)
There's a wonderful illustration of this in Evan Almighty. There, God (Morgan Freeman again) puts it this way:
"Let me ask you something. If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does he give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does he give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does he give them opportunities to love each other?"God lets us go through so many of the trials of this life because he wants to teach us something (Deuteronomy 8:2-10). He wants us to grow. And often, the way he answers prayers reflects that. It's not always an easy thing to understand, but you can trust in God's loving plan. Even when it feels like your prayers are not being answered, they are!
God is good all the time! All the time, God is good!