Q: Your column is always very interesting to me. However, in a recent column explaining prayer to children you listed, “The four kinds of prayers we say to God.” They were thanks, gimme, oops and wow! I believe you missed a fifth type of prayer. Taking up your sense of simplicity, I will call them the why prayers: Why did God take Auntie so young with cancer and left my two cousins without a mother? Why is there so much hatred in this world? Why do you allow Christians to be incarcerated in concentration camps in North Korea? Why did bunny have to die? You can see where this goes. I am sure most all of us who believe in God have asked these why questions in our lives. It would be very interesting if you could raise this issue in your column. Best regards and God’s blessings for your work.
— C from Gainesville, Florida, via email
And . . . as if the same spirit of “Let’s correct Gellman!” visited E from Oceanside:
Q: There is a fifth prayer, perhaps not appropriate for children. “Why? Why me? Why did you allow this to happen?” Is a prayer not our attempt to interact with God?
A: I think you have a point about including why as a fifth type of prayer. Let me begin with the biblical support for your emendation of my four types of prayer.
In Numbers 11:11, Moses asks God the 5th question, “Why have you brought this trouble on your servant? What have I done to displease you that you put the burden of all these people on me?”
In Psalm 22:1 the Psalmist wails, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?”
Psalm 42:9 repeats the “Why?” of Psalm 22, “I will say unto God my rock, ‘Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ ”
And then there is the tragic and powerful agony of Jesus echoing the Psalmist and spoken in Hebrew in his ninth hour on the cross, “Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” (Which is to say, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34).
As a non-Christian I have always been captivated by these words attributed to Jesus. It cannot be that Jesus did not understand the purpose of his mission. It cannot be that Jesus, whom Christians believe is one with God in triune unity, was angry at God. Why these words? I ask the Christian clergy who are regular and kindly readers of this column to write to me and explain Jesus’ ninth-hour cry. To me the words are meant to show the part of Jesus that was human and not divine, the part of Jesus that tried to feel the agony of our broken world. But what do I know? I am only a rabbi trying to teach children how to pray.
So, I am OK with why being the fifth type of prayer for those who want to include it, but in the end I remain unconvinced. I think there really are just four types of prayers and no more. To me, why prayers are ultimately just another type of gimme prayer. They are prayers where we are really asking God to give us understanding of God’s ways, which is impossible, or to give us courage and hope to bear our burdens, which is not only possible but is the greatest gift to us from God.
It is quite natural for us to expect God to justify our suffering by asking “Why?” but it is profoundly foolish. If sufferings are in fact the wages of sin, who can stand before God and say that he or she has not sinned? If the sufferer is truly innocent, who can expect God to respond? God did not give any of us a warranty for our lives that every day would be sunny and every moment joyous. God’s promise to us is not to give us a life without suffering but rather to be there with us to help us bear our sufferings without fear. In fact, the phrase “Do not fear” is the most commonly used in the Bible. Why do we expect reasons from God?
“Why?” is for me an understandable exercise in theological arrogance. We stand here on earth and we expect a justification from the Lord of the entire universe for everything in our lives that rubs us the wrong way? “Hello!”
Yes! That’s it. “Hello!” is the fifth type of prayer.