Unanswered Prayers and the Love of God

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My heart is broken. My beloved granddaughter Penelope Grace Deely, who was only 2 ½ years old, died early Sunday morning at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. I was there with the family.  In the end, her body proved defenseless against a virulent strain of meningitis. It attacked her suddenly and swiftly. She was dead within 36 hours.  As I write, my daughter Genevieve and her husband John are at this moment at a loss to know how they will make their way through their pain and loss.

My youngest daughter Christine raised the question of unanswered prayer in connection with sweet Penny’s death. Why would God not answer the prayers of so many people for Penny’s life? Does unanswered prayer count against the love of God? That is the crucial question. All things considered unanswered prayer does not count against the love of God for the fundamental reason that our lament has already been answered in the cross of Jesus Christ and through his resurrection.

This is not the answer we want, unquestionably, but it is the only answer we have that puts our lamenting Penny’s death in a right and hopeful perspective. “Through Christ and in Christ, the riddles of sorrow and death grow meaningful. Apart from His Gospel, they overwhelm us. Christ has risen, destroying death by His death” (Gaudium et spes §22).

Still, putting the question this way makes clear that for some people it isn’t about whether God exists, or is sovereign in power and knowledge.  Rather, it is about God’s goodness, particularly his love.

As a committed Christian, how do I answer the spiritual perplexity occasioned by this question, not just for my daughter Christine, and others like her who have this vexing question, but for myself? We walk by faith and not by sight, St. Paul tells us (2 Corinthians 5: 7). He adds, we see through a glass darkly; we know in part (1 Corinthians 13: 12). One implication of this limitation is that I do not know the answer to the question as to why the death of this child.

This child who was loved unconditionally and deeply. This child who responded unconditionally to her mother and father, Genevieve and John, with an equally deep love. This child, who was blond, with green/hazel tinted eyes, and to all who knew her was beautiful, amazing, a gift, and full of promise. This child, my Penelope, whose actual voice I will never hear again in this life. This child, who is unrepeatable, one of her kind, irreplaceable, leaves us with a hole in reality that will never be filled.     

Yes, we walk by faith and not by sight. Thus, given this limitation of what I can know, here and now, I am perplexed, but not troubled. My resolute belief in the goodness of a loving God, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is not shaken by the death of my beloved Penelope. I know who God is, and the Holy Bible tells me several things that help me through my perplexity.

What follows is more a confession of faith, of a reflection on certain truths that I cannot hold together in one rational synthesis, but which nonetheless provide light in our path ahead. You see the truths of faith “are lights along the path of faith; they illuminate it and make it secure” (Catechism of the Catholic Church §89).

The first truth I know is that death is an enemy in the Christian scheme of things, indeed, it is the last enemy to be destroyed (1 Corinthians 15: 26). Furthermore, in Penelope’s death—in any child’s death—I see the enemy of God. Moreover, Jesus himself assures us that “little children” belong to the Kingdom of God. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16). So, I think we can say here without any doubt that the suffering of children is contrary to the will of God and the law of his kingdom in Christ. In that light, I have the consolation that Penny is at peace because she is in the presence of the Lord, seeing the face of God.  What also brings consolation is the well-grounded hope that by God’s merciful grace when I stand before him I will hear him say to me (adapting Luc Ferry), “Come quickly, your granddaughter Penelope eagerly awaits you.”

The second truth I know is—and it follows closely from the first—that I cannot find in the death of little children, in the death of this child, Penelope, an ultimate meaning or purpose.  In a general sense, however, I hold with the Christian tradition that God’s goodness and providence is defensible in the face of evil and suffering. In other words, there is a theodicy (Greek: theos: God; dikē: justice) that helps us to make some rational sense of these matters. Still, the Christian tradition has long recognized that there are unfathomable depths to evil that are only answered by Christ’s cross and resurrection.  In short, radical evil is rationally inscrutable, in particular, evils such as the death of my beloved Penelope.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe that death and evil have the last word, as if life is meaningless, a matter of blind fate, or wild chance. The Gospel brings us the good news that God’s will cannot ultimately be defeated. Indeed, it assures me—and I trust in this truth with everything that is in me—that victory over evil and death—and hence victory over Penelope’s death—has already been accomplished by Christ through his cross and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15: 54-55). 

The third truth I know is that there is a battle of good and evil—and death is evil, an enemy of God!— darkness and light, truth and falsehood, life and death raging all around us. But as Christians we live in anticipation of the day when God will make all things new (Revelation 21:5). This promise includes the dwelling of God with his people, with “God wiping away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain” (Revelation 21:3-4).

For now, we must pick up our cross and follow Christ to his death on the cross and his resurrection. We know that life not death has the last word. We have the promise that his grace is sufficient to help us carry the burden of this cross of my beloved Penny’s death (2 Corinthians 12:9).

Finally, I have been listening a lot recently to the Australian Christian group Hillsong United. Perhaps I was being prepared for this lamentation, but I was particularly impressed by their song, “Oceans (Where Feet May Fail).” Here, too, there is an emphasis on the sufficiency of God’s grace. It is his grace that will help all of us, particularly Penny’s parents, Genevieve and John, deal with their pain and loss. So I will end my short reflection with a taste of that song:

You call me out upon the waters
The great unknown where feet may fail

And there I find You in the mystery
In oceans deep
My faith will stand

And I will call upon Your name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine

Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand
Will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now

So I will call upon Your name.

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About Author

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria

Dr. Eduardo Echeverria is professor of philosophy and theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary

11 Comments

  1. Ed, This is a beautiful reflection. So filled with faith and with no easy answers. I think a bit of Job here, too. The devil attacks God’s faithful ones to attempt to shake their faith. And the devil, of course, is as infinitely cruel as God is infinitely good. My heart breaks with you, especially with Genevieve and John. Be assured of my prayers.

  2. Ed, thank you for sharing your beautiful reflections. You have a courageous heart. As I’m sitting here reading it, with tears in my eyes, I’m trying to pull out pieces of hope. Hope that I find in your words, hope in the resurrection of Christ and hope that I pray for Genevieve and John and your family. I so enjoyed your sharing the life of your Sweet P with us, thank you. Know of my continued thoughts and prayers for all of you as you move through this week, and beyond.

  3. Sharon Williams on

    Dear Ed. I remember so vividly the two of us sharing the pictures of our granddaughters just last week. I can only imagine the depths of heartache you are experiencing at the loss of Penelope. I remember as well, the great joy she gave to you which was the blessing of her sweet, short life to you all. Know of my prayers.

  4. You are right, Dr. E ~ He has never failed. And your witness to never-failing hope amidst the reality of our fallen humanness is cause for a great teachable moment. Many of us are more comfortable talking (or preaching) about God’s infinite love for us; but you are living it, breathing it, and sharing it so that we may learn from the teacher. I have a quote on my desk that means a great deal to me and I know you have seen it. May it be a small comfort to you in this tragic season in your life. “The greatest grace God can give someone is to send him a trial he cannot bear with his own powers – and then sustain him with His grace so that he may endure to the end and be saved.” -St. Justin Martyr

  5. Thank you Ed – no He has never failed us. I am so sorry for your loss but I am sure that Penelope will be waiting for you in heaven. May our Lord bless you and your entire family during this most sad time and know that I will keep you and all of your family in my prayers.

  6. Ed, I am struck with shock and at a loss of any consoling words. My heart aches for you and all who loved Penelope…she was your light and joy! And somehow you are left to grapple with how to move on in your lives through the gift of faith. Please know of my deep prayers and intercessions for you.

  7. Anne Hendershott on

    I am so sorry for such a sadness. Heartbreaking. Prayers for you and your beautiful family. God will sustain you but the pain must be unbearable.

  8. Dr Ed,
    I am sending your whole family the prayers we can offer for comfort. May truth always be something that shines brighter than our confusion and doubts. We are so sorry for this tragic loss.
    Warmly,
    Candise & Crew

  9. Dr. E,

    Words cannot express the profound shock and sorrow that we all feel for you and your family.

    I recall just a short two and a half years ago sitting in your class when Penelope Grace was born and how you were showing off her pictures on your phone to my classmates and I. What a proud and happy grootvader! I also recall your excitement and anticipation of going to meet her for the first time – and now it is far too soon to have to say goodbye to her. As a grandfather I cannot imagine the sorrow you and your family are carrying at this moment.

    Please know that we all echo your question and cry out to the Lord “why THIS child”? The answer, of course is known only to He who knows all and who purchased each and every one of us, including, – and especially – the innocent little ones like Penny.

    JK

  10. Scott R Sollom on

    Dear Dr. E.,

    Thank you for writing this beautiful profession of faith.

    I’ve had the joy and blessing of learning from you in a number of wonderful classes, but I never learned as much as I have through this fervent testimony.

    We will keep you and your whole family in prayer.

    Scott

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