Learning about Prayer from Fairy Tales
Our youngest son, Devon, and I anticipate a trip soon to the Baltic that will start and end in Copenhagen. While we celebrate Søren Kierkegaard’s 200th birthday (doesn’t every family?) amid Vancouver’s appropriately gloomy damp, we anticipate also learning more about Denmark’s even more famous author, Hans Christian Andersen.
In their original form, of course, Andersen’s tales are instructive, not merely entertaining. So are the folktales collected by the Grimm brothers. So are Aesop’s fables, Scheherazade’s Thousand and One Nights, and stories told around the fires and hearths around the world for centuries. And one of the abiding lessons is this: Be careful what you wish for.
Over and over, we are warned that the apparent blessing of being granted the opportunity to ask for anything can result in an ironically appropriate cursing instead. Sometimes a trickster is to blame, but sometimes it is merely karma, the scales of justice, the Logos, the Dao, the reaping of what one has sown.
Even Santa Claus wisely demurs from granting every child’s wish. In the authoritative documentary film on Kris Kringle, Miracle on 34th Street, Father Christmas makes clear that children can ask for things they couldn’t possibly use, “like real locomotives or B-29s.” (I’ve often disagreed with Père Noël on the latter score: a strategic bomber would have come in mighty handy at various junctures of my life. But I digress….)
Baptist preacher John Broadus, author of a leading textbook on preaching in the nineteenth century and a masterful preacher himself, challenges our natural desire to get exactly what we wish for—which, in Christian language, means having our prayers answered just the way we intend them to be answered:
Suppose that you could have everything you asked. Then just in proportion as your experience had been, you would be afraid to ask for those things you think you want. Many of us have lived long enough to see that those things most longed for are not the things that are best for us to have. and we would be almost afraid to pray, if we were sure of getting just what, in our human judgment, seemed best. But our Heavenly Father knows our needs, and will give us just what is best for us to have.
(Quoted in Nancey Murphy, Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion, 98.)
No matter how many fairy tales, folk tales, and Bible stories I have read, and no matter that I have fifty years of praying behind me, I still incline toward disappointment (= petulant rage) toward God when God does not, as he frequently does not, answer my prayers “aright.” I jolly well know that God ought to help my sons in this way, and help my college in that way, and sort out my city, province, and country in the following respects, and eliminate this and promote that and…. Well, I’m an ambitious person, so I have quite a long “to-do” list for God. And God frequently blows his assignments.
He who sits in the heavens laughs. God laughs kindly at his children, I am assured by Scripture, but also authentically at the massive implausibility of my arrogant prayers. What else can God do but laugh at my telling him how he ought to arrange the world far differently than he has? Like I would know!
Sometimes, thanks to the intermediary work of the Holy Spirit, I’m pretty sure I hear the laughter, and I settle down and pray as I was taught. Broadus’s good words come to me across the decades as the encouragement they were meant to be. Go ahead, pray boldly. God will not do you the great harm of answering all your prayers as you like. He is no Trickster looking to take advantage or make you eat your words. He is the Lord of Heaven and Earth who has deigned to love you, at the cost of his own life. How will he then not freely give you all things that are truly good for you? Why would he hold back anything now unless there was a powerfully good reason?
So much of the curriculum of Christian faith is unlearning stupidity and madness, and learning to live intelligently and sanely, in what the Bible calls “wisdom.” And trusting God to know what he is doing, to truly put our confidence in him as the Supreme Being next to whom our little powers of judgment vanish, is, indeed, the beginning of wisdom.
Today, then, as every day, I start again. “Our Father, who art in heaven….”