From Let Me Tell You a Story, pages 7-9, © 2000 by Tony Campolo
There are those who say that if God loves us, He should answer our prayers. But we should recognize that sometimes it may be that God doesn’t answer our prayers because He loves us.
Sören Kierkegaard tells the story of a schoolboy who refuses to learn. His teacher tries hard to get him interested in his schoolwork and to apply himself to his studies. But the boy shrugs off her concerns and pays her little attention. She begs him to cooperate. She pleads with him to let her teach him, but he refuses. He just wants to play. Eventually the teacher says, “Okay. Tell me what you want to do, and you can do it.”
The boy says he would like to just sit in the back of the room and make some drawings and sleep a little bit, and spend some time doing nothing at all. The teacher tells him that he can, and he is allowed to do exactly what he wants.
Kierkegaard ends the story by saying, “The boy got what he asked for because the teacher had given up on him.” He then goes on to say, “Beware when God answers prayer!” He suggests that we sometimes get what we want because God has given up on us. On the other hand, God may refuse to give us what we want because He loves us.
This point is especially real to me because of an incident when my own father did not accede to a desperate request. I was about eight years old when I went to a Saturday matinee at the movies and saw a cowboy film about Hopalong Cassidy. I was so impressed with that cowboy hero that I went home and told my father that when I grew up, I wanted to be a cowboy. I really meant it! I was intense! I was passionate about it!
The good news is that my father didn’t give me what I wanted. Wouldn’t it have been a weird situation if when I was seventeen and asked him about going to college, he had exclaimed, “College! What do you mean you want money for college? When you were eight you told me you wanted to be a cowboy. You said it with such passion, and you pled with such earnestness, that I made sure your dreams would come true. I spent the money I had saved for you on a thousand acres of land in Texas, along with a horse and a hundred head of cattle. It’s all waiting for you, because that’s what you pled for. That’s what you said you really wanted.”
I’m glad to say that my father did not give me what I thought I wanted when I was eight years old, so that he might one day give me something I really needed. He didn’t want me to have what I though I wanted, because he knew, eventually, it wouldn’t be what I wanted at all. And so it is with God.
Sören Kierkegaard also told the story of a boy trying to learn arithmetic. The teacher gives him a book full of problems to solve. In the back of the book there’s a listing of the answers to the problems, but the teacher instructs the boy never to look at the answers in the back of the book. Instead, he is to work out the answers for himself.
As the boy does his homework, he cheats. He looks in the back of the book and gets the answers beforehand, finding it much easier to work out the problems if he knows the answers in advance. Kierkegaard points out that while it is quite possible for the boy to get good grades this way, he will never really learn mathematics. As difficult as it may prove to be, the only way to become a mathematician is to struggle with the problems himself not by using someone else’s answers, even if those answers are the right ones.
It’s obvious that on life’s journey we are faced with problems, and we sometimes wonder why Jesus doesn’t just spell out the answers so that we know exactly what to do. That is what we might want. According to Kierkegaard, however, God doesn’t give us the answers because He wants to force us to work out the problems for ourselves. It is only by struggling with the problems as they present themselves, day in and day out, that we can develop into the kinds of mature people God wants us to be.