The Prayer Riddle

Before Adam and Eve sinned, the Bible says God and man conversed daily as friends, “walking in the garden in the cool of the day” (see Gen 3:8). Even after we allowed evil and suffering into the world, God still spoke to Cain, and he spoke to Noah to say nothing of the later patriarchs. How did they hear him?

Often we imagine these scenes the way movies or paintings portray them. A deep voice comes from somewhere offscreen and says, “Noah, I want you to build an ark!” We assume Cain and Noah had a legendary quality, something special that we don’t have. That is why they were able to talk with God the way they did.

Conversation, of course, implies at least two people and an exchange of ideas or information. Who knows if Adam, Cain, or Noah saw God when he spoke to them. Who knows if they heard a voice. What is certain is that they conversed with God. They acknowledged the presence of the Other, understood what he was saying to them and responded.

Men spoke with God. We are so used to the idea that it does not shock us. Imagine one of your friends says to you one day, “So I was just talking to Pope Francis about what is going on this week…” Or, “Yeah, I asked Angela Merkel what her thoughts were on that, and she said so and so.” Or, “When I called Donald Trump to let him know about that, he said so and so.” It would be a fascinating surprise to have the inside scoop on what world leaders think about some particular issue. Who wouldn’t want to have a personal conversation with the Pope or the president of the United States?

But we take it for granted that we can talk to the Creator of the Universe. Praying does not strike us as unusual. Getting a response does. While we all voice prayers to heaven, few of us would say we get a direct answer. No booming voice off stage. No blinding flashes of light. No miraculous solutions. The absence of an answer leads us to conclude God is not listening or just doesn’t care. “Deaf heaven” heeds us not–so it seems.

How is that possible if God is a good God? “When you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8). The one who made the deaf hear cannot be deaf himself. And he already knows what I need. So he hears my prayer but decides not to answer–at least not as I expect him to answer.

Every once in a while I enjoy a riddle. The last time a group of friends gave me one I had not heard, they couldn’t contain their chuckles at my frustration trying to solve it. The rest of the group, of course, had already heard or discovered the answer. After twenty minutes’ laughter at my inability to get it right, they let me in on the secret. To my chagrin it was so obvious and simple, it was no wonder they couldn’t contain their amusement at my complicated responses. Sometimes the answer is beneath your nose, but you approach the problem with such a fixed frame of mind that you just can’t see it!

I think God must be speaking to us now just as he was to Cain and Noah. Who knows if Noah’s conviction God wanted him to build an ark came from a voice offstage or from an idea that kept slipping silently back into his head? We prefer the dramatic version with visions and locutions. But all things considered, that might be our invention which scarcely corresponds to God’s typical modus operandi. The difference between us and Noah perhaps is that we don’t recognize his voice.


Photo Credit: J P Davidson

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The Prayer Riddle