≡ Menu

Sunday Sermonette: “While You Were Out”

The Spark Gap

I’ve long had a theory about why prayers are answered but answered rarely. I think that God, for all his omnipresence, omnipotence, and omniscience is pretty much nailed to the present as far as humans go.

Yes, I know all the arguments for predestination and preordination but those strike me as a one-way street to Dullsville even for God. If, as God, You let Yourself know everything that was going to happen everywhere for all time (Not that You couldn’t if You wanted to.), what’s the entertainment value in that proposition? Slim to none, if you ask me.

We don’t know much about God. Indeed, there are many among us who make it a point to know even less — until they are proud, damned proud, to know nothing at all. Once they achieve this brainfade, they encourage the rest of us to follow suit in a paroxysm of self-willed ignorance. Today there are fresh new scriptures attesting to this revelation. There are traveling preachers of this gospel. There are even congregations, support groups, jewelry, and t-shirts. It’s a religion. Of sorts. A religion in which you collectively as individuals agree to worship Zero, and to carry the gospel to others. Seems like a waste of life to me.

In fact, we are probably not yet wired to know much about God. If the Smart Monkey survives itself, evolution (Great and brilliant tool of God that it is.) will probably finish the deeper neural nets of our brains at some point in the eons to come, and we will slowly come to descry the faintest shadow of a clue. About all that is. About the fundamental nature of the miracle. For the present, most of us remain in shadow, looking at the noema from without; running on the insights of the genetic spiritual sports that appear on Earth so rarely that their lives are remembered forever.

At the present time, most of what we know about God comes from assumptions built on revelations. These are backed-up with a sheaf of incomplete, poorly translated notes from chance encounters.

The Dead Sea Scrolls demonstrate that, to date, our record-keeping is spotty and our storage methods poor. If you think that any future chance meetings or memos are going, in the long run, to be kept any better than the Dead Sea Scrolls, please tell me what’s on that six-inch floppy disc at the bottom of the fourth box to the left on the third shelf from the top at the back of my garage.

“It’s true He has staff, but He’s running a universe on a pyramid organization table and has, still, some problems with the delegation of power. “


Nope. The problem is not knowing the will and laws of God. They are pretty simple, straightforward, and seem, for the most part, to be embedded in the cerebral cortex of most before birth. In addition, there are lots of memos in every language and no shortage of interpreters — AM/FM/SW; network and cable; 24/7/365, forever and ever, amen, can I get a witness? Even so, there have to be thousands of memos that, although sent, we just didn’t get. Indeed, even working with the memos that we did get, you’d have to admit that we are very poor at carrying out the policies they announce. It probably has to do with us not being finished just yet.

We know that God is not finished with us yet in many ways, but the most obvious sign is the fact that, if God were finished with us, we’d have a third set of teeth that would come in around age 45. Why this doesn’t happen overnight as a miracle is a question asked by many while waiting for the Novocain to kick in just before the root canal. Many a prayer has been sent up during these moments, but not as many as those that came with root canals before the advent of anesthetic, i.e. “Oh, God!” Indeed, Novocain — the idea to create it and technology to make it — is probably a non-interventionist God’s answer to such a plethora of prayer.

Since we see, in small ways in our own lives and in larger ways in the realms of the world and history, that prayers are, from time to time, actually answered, and since we are only the dim and unfinished Smart Monkey, we naturally wonder why all prayers are not answered all the time. After all, what would be better for the dim Smart Monkey to have God working for him as an individual all the time? Nothing.

Everyone in Death Valley wants ice-water. Everyone wants a personal God, ideally right next to your personal barrista of your personal Starbucks in your personal walk-in closet– “I’ll have a double-shot Americano and a 378 year life-span as a blonde teenage cheerleader, please.” Hey, you don’t ask you don’t get.

In fact, whole elements of religion are centered around having you find and keep a personal relationship with God. But just because you have a personal relationship with God (and you should), doesn’t mean God has to have a personal relationship with you. He is, after all, God and He’s got a whole universe to run. It’s a big place and He’s just one God and He’s busy.

It’s true He has staff, but He’s running a universe on a pyramid organization table and has, still, some problems with the delegation of power. He tried that untold eons ago and a number of vice-presidents got a bit above themselves and got sent to a branch office. Not fired exactly — let’s just say they were put in charge of Guam. The result was that the CEO still retains the power to make fundamental alterations to the shape of reality and its product line.

For the most part, God lets the Evolution Factory handle reality. The Evolution Factory is one of his better projects. Brilliant really.

After all, if You were God and were going to create and run an entire universe, You wouldn’t really want to be running around it all the time doing hands-on alterations on everything from quarks to galaxies. Micromanagement is boring and doing a bunch of handwork on the entire universe for all eternity can get old really quick. It’s much better just to create a process that will essentially hunt and peck along for order across billions of years and, sooner or later, come up with a life form that can both apprehend You and make a hot-fudge sundae at the same time.

So You come up with light, touch everything off with a crisp “Let there be…,” and take a break for ten billion years or so. Much more relaxing than hanging around in the void with nothing but a bunch of sub-atomic particles and an infinite supply of Super-Gluons.

And yes, You put free-will into the mix, but not for the benefit of anything that comes along with a will to free, but for Your benefit — that You be not bored by Creation. After all, if You are God and, looking out on space, feel lonely, what’s the point of making a Universe where you know how it will turn out from the Big Bang? It would be like having 500 cable channels that are all showing Pulp Fiction all the time — pretty much like it is now.

Whatever else He may be, God is not that dull a programmer especially when He is the Audience.

Instead of getting eternally bored in quantum reality, it’s much smarter to whip up some matter, let it bake, expand, set, toss in a few — very few — places safe for organic matter, mix in some DNA, and then let her rip.

Result? As far as we know, six billion channels on Earth alone, each with its story where the ending is always in doubt. It happens that way when you get that many Smart Monkeys “working on mysteries without any clues,” and it is invariably entertaining. This is why God likes to spend afternoons with soap operas and has let Lost slump in the ratings.

Still, because of the predilection of DNA-based free will, God will have a lot of the Smart Monkeys wondering about His motives. Krishnamurti was once asked, “If God is all good, why is there evil in the world?” To which he responded, after reflecting for a moment, “To thicken the plot.” Now, I’ll be the first to say that, while correct, this doesn’t really satisfy when it comes to such issues as childhood leukemia. But I’ll also note that God did leave one small backdoor into his universal code, prayer.

For a certain type of extremely stupid smart and educated person, prayer is something to be sneered at their entire life right up to the moment when they see the intergalactic candle snuffer descending on their head or the head of those they love. At this point, it is the rare wiseguy who does not spontaneously discover his or her capacity for prayer. Indeed, it strikes me that it is often the agnostic or the atheist who become the most voluble bargainer with God under unfortunate circumstances. Lord knows, I was.

It is only recently that I’ve come, in my dotage, to see that prayer — even unheard or unanswered — can be a powerful intellectual force in one’s life. And by this, I mean prayer in its most personally humiliating and elevating form: down on the knees and speaking out loud. Daily. Very abasing and very uplifting at one and the same time.

For most of the time, answers come there none. But that’s the way of prayer. If prayer were the vending machine of God, we’d spend all our time on our knees between meals and lovemaking and let basic maintenance of roofs and refrigeration go to Hell. Nope, prayer as a constant begets random answers, and not always the straight-forward ones we were looking for because we are a very simple Smart Monkey.

Indeed, it has occurred to me, in my very dim monkey brain, that prayer can work even if God Himself does not exist. (Yes, He’s just that clever.) Prayer seems to be a need hard-wired into our limited cortex. If you doubt this, please go out, find a war, dig a hole, and sit in it under an artillery barrage for an hour or two. Then come back to continue this discussion.

As I was saying, prayer — with or without God — makes us stronger and our desires and abilities more focussed just by happening. As a result, things you pray for tend to happen to you more often than things you don’t pray for simply because your abilities are more concentrated on the outcome. Pretty clever wiring for a God who does not exist.

You may, of course, because you have free will, mark it down to a random effect of DNA fresh from the uber-automated Evolution Factory. And you can explain it all, over and over again, to the other members of your religion. That doesn’t mean your memo is going all the way to the Top.

After all, what makes you think God wants to read your plaintive little magazine articles in the portentously titled “National Geographic” or “Scientific American?” He not only wrote the blueprints and whipped up the algorithm for the Evolution Factory, He did Charles Darwin in a nanosecond’s afterthought just because He felt we weren’t getting onto it fast enough. Before Darwin we had clues, but we didn’t yet have a prayer. Now we’ve got fish with feet on the backs of our cars so others can tell our way-new religion from the old. And marvel at what smart monkeys we must be.

Prayer’s important to God because it is His way of staying current with the various problems besetting free-will in smart monkeys. After all, He may be a bit detached with love from this part of His creation, but He knows we have, well, “issues” with life and all that, and He’d like to know. Prayer is, in a sense, God’s suggestion box; which is why many think that not all prayers are answered and why some, like the Tibetans, think that if you repeat a prayer often enough it gets noticed and answered. This irritating approach to prayer probably cost them their nation even though it hasn’t shut them up. In general, it is probably not a good idea, but who am I to criticize? I’ll leave that to the Dalai Lama who seems to be carrying on just fine.

For me prayer is done best the old-fashion way: on knees, a hearty “How are you today, God, and thank you for the miracle of creation and for letting me witness one more day of it, and, oh, while we’re at it….” and then I slip one in quick and move on to, “Thanks again for being God, Have a good one.” And off it goes.

But what comes back? Precious little but I’m not complaining. I’m not complaining at all. Let me repeat that in case He wasn’t listening, “God, I’m all right with whatever You want to do.”

You see, my theory about why prayers are answered only rarely concerns God’s workload. As noted above, He’s one God who is running a very big universe. Perhaps He’s got the whole thing franchised and He’s running thousands of universes in a host of different dimensions, all with local variations to the main menu. We don’t know. We can’t know. But if you grant even one universe to this one God, you’ve got to admit this would be a very busy Supreme Being. Even being omnipotent and omnipresent and omniscient, You’d still have an In-Box beyond the human mind’s capacity for bogglement.

So what do You do? You do what Big Executives everywhere do. You show up for work early and leave late. Every so often you come in on weekends. You always take a ton of work home. Believe me when I say, “Your arms to short to lift God’s attache case.” Even then the occasional all-nighter is not out of the question if you’re doing a complicated project like, say, a platypus.

As God, it’s good you don’t have a wife because she’d make your home life a, dare I say it?, living hell. There are, after all, some advantages to having a Son by a mortal woman, not that She’s any less holy for that, but at least She isn’t waiting at home with the dinner growing cold for the multi-billionth time. Better still, You don’t have to phone in from somewhere out near the galactic core of Andromeda with some lame excuse.

But given even the most hard-working, attentive, and desk-bound CEO God we monkeys can imagine, even God has got to, sooner or later, take a break. A little stroll down the corridor to check in with the staff — management by walking around so to speak. A brief visit to the God’s room for a little wash-up and wet-comb. A small working lunch with The Boys. For all we know, a weekend in Vegas in, we hope, the high-roller suite with very attentive room service. After all, when You are God you can set your own schedule.

So, for whatever reason, God is sometimes away from his desk. But does that stop the prayers? Not a bit. They keep coming in at the same pounding rate that they always do from every corner of the cosmos. After all, prayers are postage paid so you don’t ever have to look around for a stamp. You just make it, hit “Send,” and, Bingo, off it goes with that little swooshing sound that comes with Macintosh Mail. (Yes, God prefers Apple — especially after some of the smartest, richest monkeys in the world came out with Vista.)

This (that Bruce Almighty movie notwithstanding) does not mean that God does email. (See that Bruce Almighty movie for why.) Nope, as I noted above, God has staff to handle the incoming correspondence for Him. Don’t think that this makes it easier for Him. Just a tad more organized.

The final upshot is that, even if God just steps away from his desk for a quick trip to heaven’s free beverage machine, when He gets back he’s confronted with at least 4,675,839 prayers presented as pink “While You Were Out Slips.”

I submit that even the most omnipotent God cannot deal with incoming requests at this rate. The result? Pick some at random to answer, and tell your staff to file the rest for (possible) future reference. As an efficient executive, God has to be a clean-desk Supreme Being.

To me, this is the most obvious reason that some prayers are answered while most are not. It’s simply a question of time and resources, even for God.

Does it really happen this way? God knows.

[HT: The Doctor Is In — for reminding me — and who has much more to say.] First published, July, 2005

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Patrick O'Hannigan August 6, 2017, 12:14 PM

    When you suggest that “prayers are answered, but answered rarely,” you seem to be presuming at least two things: One, that all prayer is petitionary, and two, that only “Yes” answers from God count. But what about prayers of praise or thanksgiving? And what if “No” or “Not yet” is as valid an answer from the Almighty as “Yes”? Moreover, while it’s interesting to speculate what might happen were God to step away from his desk, figuratively speaking, mainstream Christian theology seems to have coalesced around the idea that we’re held in existence by the creative love of a triune God. Were He to need or want a “time out,” He would not be omnipotent, and everything He created would wink right out of existence (in other words, don’t get fooled by the “absent watchmaker” heresy).

  • Mike Anderson August 6, 2017, 12:47 PM

    I love to confound the faithful and faithless alike by asking them “What would God use for a business card, just to let you know he’d stopped by?” and then answering “How about his own picture, lightly browned, on that tortilla you just took off the griddle?”

  • Patvann August 6, 2017, 1:37 PM

    I thanked God that you posted this.

  • Kathryn Matlack August 6, 2017, 6:10 PM

    Thank you! You were able to articulate and expand on–a lot (!)–things that I’ve been thinking about for quite awhile. It just seems to me that it’s obvious that there is so much more God than we are able to understand with our finite little brains. He’s the Creator of All Things! But I pray mightily and hope for understanding. But I doubt that it’ll be while I live.

  • Snakepit Kansas August 6, 2017, 6:10 PM

    I think Patrick has it right. Sometimes we simply need to pray in thanksgiving. We certainly do not do that enough. It is easy to think about all the things we need or want, but what about what we already have? I am doing better than I deserve. Yes, God is omnipotent but sometimes we must simply remind OURSELVES that He is in charge and everything we have is temporarily on loan from Him.

  • Missy August 6, 2017, 8:24 PM

    I have been very lucky that most of the things I prayed for never happened. Inconceivably wonderful things I didn’t deserve or think to ask for happened instead. I prayed regularly that “bad things” not happen. They always do. So prayer doesn’t “work,” but of it does. An ineffable thing.

  • rabbit tobacco August 6, 2017, 9:25 PM

    James 4:3 kjv

  • Ann K August 7, 2017, 5:16 AM

    If you liked this, you’ll love the One Cosmos site: onecosmos.blogspot.com.

  • Donald Sensing August 7, 2017, 12:40 PM

    Funny, I am starting this Sunday a sermon series on prayer. An excerpt:

    There is nothing in the Bible promising God’s people a pass on the tragedies of life. Of course, I do pray for healing of the sick and I did pray for the life of our friends’ child. Yet, in grappling with that child’s death, I had to understand that God is not a cosmic vending machine dispensing favors for which prayers are the currency. God is Lord of both life and death, and as Paul wrote, there is nothing in life or in death that can separate us from the love of God for us in Christ Jesus. That is itself an answer already given to many prayers. Though the sufferings of this life are real, they are not permanent.

    With that assurance, the more years I spend in prayer, the less I pray, or see the point in praying, mostly for God to do something, doggone it and the more I pray for God to lead me to do something. I pray not that God will conform to my desires or needs of the moment, no matter how pressing they may be, but that I and others concerned in the prayer situation be conformed more to God in the likeness of Christ.

    Yet more is necessary, I think. Prayer is only one part of engaging God. In the movie Forest Gump, there is a character named Lieutenant Dan. He lost both legs in Vietnam and, embittered by invalided life, finally joins his old subordinate, Gump, in running a shrimp boat off the the Louisiana coast. Dan scoffs at Gump’s simple faith and sarcastically tells him to pray for shrimp. One day they are caught at sea by a violent storm that threatens to sink the boat. But Dan refuses to seek shelter in the boat’s cabin. He remains high on the mast with the whipping rain and lightning all around, shaking his fist to the storm and yelling at God, “Is this the best you can do?”

    Lieutenant Dan is unable to dismiss God as delusion, even though it would be so much easier to do so. He is determined to confront God as God, even to defy God if that is what it takes to encounter him deeply. The two men and their boat survive the storm and over time, Dan finally finds his peace with God.

    So many of us decline to encounter God except in storms of life or in pro forma occasions such as a minute of silence now and then. These are inadequate, for God intends that the prayers of our lips be buttressed by living in godly ways for godly purposes. We surely cannot wonder that God does not acknowledge prayers seeking his miracles when we so consistently fail to acknowledge his call for our daily service. Just as Jesus in the garden, we find that maturity in prayer is not about God doing what we want, but about being willing and empowered to do what God wants even if it makes us recoil.

    The conundrum of life as prayer is that we come less and less to ask God for an answer as for his presence come what may. Finally we realize that God with us and us with God is all the answer God may give us and is sufficient for our need.

  • Ralph Kinney Bennett August 7, 2017, 1:07 PM

    Thanks, Gerard, for dusting off a classic. Once it sinks in exactly WHO you’re talking to, prayer tends to organize the mind. I mean, if any one of us were given the opportunity to speak for half an hour with the President, wouldn’t we at least jot down a few thoughts on a 3 by 5 so we could get the best value out of the time? Yet, we have the opportunity, at any time, to speak with the Lord of the Universe, and we waste those precious moments with “please gimmes” and half-formed thoughts and mumbling. Every time I climb aboard the fire truck and we go roaring off to an alarm, I take time for a prayer — mainly of the “Father, help me to do the right thing at the right time” type. I have found it wonderful preparation for whatever comes.

  • Francis W. Porretto August 8, 2017, 2:26 AM

    Most philosophizing about God starts from a dubious assumption: that He is embedded in time as are we, and experiences temporal sequency as do we. I think it far more likely that He stands outside time, looking “down” on it as we would look down on a map. Indeed, I can’t imagine how it could be otherwise: time exists only because matter exists, and He created all matter.

    If we start from the premise that God is outside time, the question “Are all prayers answered” acquires quite a different character. It also casts “the problem of pain” and “the problem of evil” into a much different light.

  • Ron Tolbert August 8, 2017, 5:42 AM

    I believe that God answers all prayers.

    But sometimes the answer is “No”.

  • Snakepit Kansas August 9, 2017, 8:07 PM

    God is often not as fast as we want, but always right on time.

  • Howard Nelson August 11, 2017, 6:54 PM

    “Guide me now and every day in all I think and feel and do and say.”

  • gwbnyc March 21, 2021, 1:32 AM

    God exists.

    If I get out of my way I’m given what I need- not everything, but enough to begin. So perhaps that is everything. To own this within the confines if my existence I’ll say, “Now I understand.” Then I get another nudge that says, “No. There is more. When there is more.” I see this as an acknowledgement that something far greater than anything knows me and is never not there but my ignorance blinds me of it. When I’m in my way.

  • Boat Guy March 21, 2021, 3:04 AM

    Thank you -and God – for this! It is most timely. I probably wasn’t ready for it when you wrote it or when you republished it; it appeared in the perfect moment. If that’s not Divine…

  • SoylentGreen March 21, 2021, 6:56 AM

    Thanks, Gerard. My wife and I read most of what you write out loud to each other. This one contains just as much of God’s character as everything you write and in this one it is more clear to me.

  • Nori March 21, 2021, 7:18 AM

    A lovely Sermonette for a beautiful Sunday morning,thanks to Gerard and Our Father.
    Good commentary too,from way back 2017 to today. Gratitude is a soul-healer;works wonders.

    Thanks especially for the pepper-spray at the smartest,richest monkeys of Microsoft who came up with Vista. I used that dead carp system for a couple of years. My theory is they created it to prove how much they hate the lesser monkeys who bought it.

  • Sam L. March 21, 2021, 7:38 AM

    Mr. V, HE brought you back from death…
    I and your other readers appreciate that.

  • patvann March 21, 2021, 7:45 AM

    Today I am thankful I still get to read your words, (since 2006)
    -and that you’re still here to write them.

  • Dan Fowler March 21, 2021, 8:40 AM

    We are finite. We can not know or comprehend or understand infinity. We are one daily moment on our linear timeline. We know a little about love because we are loved. If we are not loved, we become unloving. We can not know God, unless He deigns to allow a dim knowing, with a limited and usually brief revelation or epitome, or unless we gaze in wonder and appreciation at beauty, which provides a small cloudy window into His beauty. He is light and in Him is no darkness. He is LOVE and in Him is nothing that is not love. I believe the Bible, the OT and NT, is the living word of God. It says we are made in His image. It says He is preparing a place, a mansion if you will, for us to inherit after death. It says we will be resurrected incorruptible into eternal life, as new Men, with eternal physical bodies incorruptible, with our future progenitor Christ, who is the second Adam, into a new heaven and a new earth. That is all I need or could ever need. He loves me and that is very good.

  • lpdbw March 21, 2021, 9:03 AM

    I used to lead peer counseling group sessions in a 12-step program for parents of drug/alcohol addicted teens.

    We were told to kick off the sessions with a brief intro that would get the other parents to reflect and then be able to frame their thoughts in the context of that intro.

    One of my favorite intros was “A rabbi once stated that all prayers are answered. Usually, the answer is ‘No’.”

    This proved sufficiently jarring to the adults that it stimulated them to speak out. Which was the point, after all. The reason for the group sessions was to get people to articulate their fears and concerns, rather than keeping them internal and stewing in them, and for the other parents to validate their feelings and give them hope they could move past the trauma.

  • Kevin in PA March 21, 2021, 9:56 AM

    Once again, I find myself commenting quite late to the party, but I must tell you exactly where I had my Epiphany as I read the Most excellent sermon offered this Sunday morning, by Brother Gerard;

    “But just because you have a personal relationship with God (and you should), doesn’t mean God has to have a personal relationship with you. He is, after all, God and He’s got a whole universe to run. It’s a big place and He’s just one God and He’s busy.”

    Like a flash of light. Now I get it.
    Terrific writing, G.

  • leelu March 21, 2021, 10:26 AM

    I was trying to answer the question a dear friend asked me a couple days ago, if I had returned to church. I told her I hadn’t because I wasn’t sure if my take on things fit in the Catholic framework.
    This piece does a much better job of describing what goes on in my pea brain.
    I do disagree on prayers being answered or not. I think they always are, in one of three general categories: 1) the answer is pretty much what was asked for, 2) the answer doesn’t look like the answer to the prayer as asked, but it is, 3) the answer is “No”. You have to allow for that one, too.

  • EX-Californian Pete March 21, 2021, 10:36 AM


    What an excellent post, and just perfect for this beautiful, warm, sunny Sunday!
    And the plethora of great comments above just add icing on the cake- it’s truly heartwarming to see how many good, down-to-earth people follow this website.

    I would estimate that 90% of my prayers to God are prayers of thanks, as (despite some huge occasional challenges) I have an overwhelming amount of things to be thankful for, and that amount increases daily.
    I still face challenges, but they are way easier to face with a positive attitude, a strong faith, and the strength that God give us.

    To all here, and especially Gerard- God bless you.

  • Jack March 21, 2021, 11:34 AM

    Excellent article for a beautiful Sunday, here in the cozy Deep South. I loved it. And Mr. Sensing’s comments were well taken too.

  • julie March 21, 2021, 11:55 AM

    Day by day, I see more and more how it is that we are crossing over an abyss without a bridge in sight, and yet the Lord grants us a place each day to set our feet, and so, beyond blindly, we muddle through anyway.

    Prayers are answered, constantly. Just usually not with the drama we might hope to see, and as noted above, quite often the answer is either, “No,” or “Not Yet,” or “Not like that.” Sometimes it’s simply, “I know this hurts and you are suffering; you won’t understand until the other side. But you are not alone.”

  • james wilson March 21, 2021, 4:51 PM

    Most of the prayers I’ve had answered were the ones I wasn’t wise enough to make.

  • Bear Claw Chris Lapp March 22, 2021, 5:42 AM

    Amen. I make it a point daily to pray. I make it a point also to give thanks as I have been blessed beyond my wildest dreams, just did not know it for a long time. The bible states we will have tribulations throughout our life but he is there for us. Great writing Gerard thank you. ps I Thank God he has answered some prayers not in the way I asked.