Lost Things

I don’t know quite what I think about petitionary prayer; once you raise those sticky questions about God intervening in the world sometimes but not others, it all gets so complicated. But I’m more than a little skeptical of any theory of prayer that treats God like a vending machine who dispenses blessings if only you can come up with the correct combination of change. Rather, I’m drawn to the idea that the point of prayer is relational, that it’s not so much about coaxing stuff out of God as about developing a relationship with him.

That’s how I like to think about prayer in the abstract, at least. But to be honest, I don’t necessarily live that way. The truth is that few things motivate me to pray more fervently than being in a situation where I desperately want something, whether it be answers or help. I may roll my eyes at the vending machine theory, but that doesn’t stop me from occasionally rolling in quarter after quarter to see if this time it might work.

And then I really don’t know what to think when it does.

On a couple of occasions recently, I’ve found myself in the classic Primary scenario in which I’ve lost an object, and the thought has occurred to me that I could pray about it. I’ve felt rather silly, but I’ve kind of figured what the heck; it couldn’t hurt. And so I’ve prayed. And then the missing object has surfaced–not after a while, but right away. What makes this even wackier is that I’m not talking about situations in which I desperately needed car keys to rush a sick child to the hospital. These have been situations in which I just happened to want an item for something non-urgent, and I couldn’t find it.

My relationship with God has often been rather turbulent. I’ve been mad, at times even enraged, about things that have really hurt–answers that have never come, life circumstances that have felt like more than I could handle. I’ve prayed so many prayers that I felt were utterly ignored, and that’s only left me feeling angrier.

And then God, who seems to have nothing at all to say regarding so many of the issues that matter most to me, tells me something as mundane as where I left that thing I’ve been looking for. I don’t know what to make of that. Of course the skeptic in me says, hmm, God or coincidence, but I can’t entirely argue myself into disbelief, as bizarre as the situation seems. And I find myself feeling some spark of hope that if God is in fact aware of aspects of my life that are this trivial, maybe he’s not as unconcerned with the larger matters as I so often think he is.

In contemplating this, I’m also reminded of the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son in Luke 15. Because not only do I lose things; I myself am terribly lost, more often than not–sometimes more like a coin which gets misplaced with no choice in the matter, and sometimes more like the prodigal son, as a result of a conscious decision to walk away. And as distant as I may feel, as overwhelmed by sin or despair, I am comforted by the image of a God of lost things, one who is faithfully keeping track of where I am.


  1. Your question reminded me of when I was very little and asked questions that grownups apparently thought I was too young to understand, therefore I received silence in response, or else they attempted to redirect my attention to other things. I was frustrated no end that my parents and other adults misjudged me too young to understand.

    However, Heavenly Father does truly know our present capabilities and limitations. We are all just immature, inexperienced and ignorant children with near-sighted tunnel vision compared to him. We don’t know what we’re ready for and what we’re not ready for. The full naked truth about many things we seek after might be so devastating we couldn’t handle it. Preparation and growth might be pre-requisites, but finding answers on our own might also be a requirement for some things.

    I believe our individual life experiences are custom-designed for each of us by a loving father.

    Maybe we just aren’t ready for the real and complete answers to many of our child-like repetitive and recursive “why” questions; but to let us know he still loves us, he distracts us with a toy, or lost keys.

  2. Great post, Lynnette! You’ve articulated so well an experience that I’ve had too, having prayers for seemingly trivial things answered while my prayers for bigger things feel ignored. I really like how you conclude that perhaps answers to the trivial prayers are evidence that God is mindful of your circumstances.

    I guess you could be right, Bookslinger, that such a pattern of response suggests that God knows what answers we’re not ready for. That sure is a disappointing solution, though. I want to know things now.

  3. And then God, who seems to have nothing at all to say regarding so many of the issues that matter most to me, tells me something as mundane as where I left that thing I’ve been looking for.

    I think that perhaps your unanswered questions and the resulting discontnent make you (and me) part of a larger group– a group that may be a catalyst for some other change God is planning. Consider all the people around the time of the restoration that were frustrated and seeking earnestly for answers. God could have privately answered all their questions, and soothed all their frustrations, but by letting them remain frustrated or confused they became part of a much larger trend that provided fertile ground for the restoration when it finally did occur. Whereas on the other hand helping you find your keys does little more than provide you with a faith promoting rumour to share, and reconfirm that God knows and loves you. In other words, because finding your keys is so very mundane God is at greater liberty to offer personal assistance without drastically altering His plans.

  4. Although I don’t know if I believe it, I’m attracted by the idea that God sometimes acts in ways deliberately designed to remind us how little we know about Him. So He sees us thinking sensible thoughts about prayer and His reactions to it — and decides to show us that we’re not being clever enough by half. God doesn’t find lost keys, I think to myself, because He doesn’t even prevent genocides. But then — it seems — He does find lost things?

    Mormons hate mystery and paradox. We want to understand everything — as Ziff says, right now. But it’s important to remember that the scriptures tell us that God doesn’t make sense: His ways are not our ways, and His thoughts not our thoughts.

  5. Lynette, that was a great post. Thank you. This is something I think about all the time. This guy I work with suggested that God doesn’t have these blessings he is keeping, just waiting for us to ask– he doesn’t have a list of things we could have contigent on our asking, but rather, he will consider what we ask and sometimes give it, depending on his will. But it’s not like a vending machine of specific blessings we just need to ask for. I liked that thought, because the vending machine analogy that I had always assumed was the case really bothered me– it didn’t seem consistent with the loving God I knew. It seemed like our blessings were all based on the whim of our knowing what to ask for and when.

    And your last paragraph was really comforting and really rang true with me.

  6. Could it be possible that you were the one who last put down the object you were looking for? Or possible that you had gotten a glimpse of it in its wrong location or heard a hint of where it might have fallen, some time before the prayer? If so, its location may have been in your memory, and prayer allowed God to unlock what you already knew but were having difficulty remembering. Similar to the way God can help you recall information for a test that you’ve studied for.

    However, you might have to do the legwork yourself to unlock the answers to things that you *don’t* know.

  7. I think one of the trickiest things with regard to prayer is figuring out the right question. For example, a yes-no question is potentially problematic. We seem to love a good courtroom drama scene where the judge (or attorney) imperiously commands the out-maneuvered witness to, “Answer the question, yes or no!” But many questions cannot be answered completely and honestly with either a yes or a no. By not allowing qualifiers, the witness is actually maneuvered into committing perjury. There are also other forms of questions besides the yes-no variety that can be problematic. Therefore, depending on how we phrase a question, we may be limiting God’s ability to clearly respond to us, and because he can’t lie or misrepresent the truth, He says nothing.

    When my prayerful petitions aren’t answered after a reasonable amount of time, I find it often helps to re-examine my question. Sometimes by simply re-wording my question, I have gone from the “heavens being silent” to being “instructed by the spirit.”

    Like Beijing, I think this is why the “where did I put my watch” query is so readily answered; it has a fairly easy and straight-forward answer. Er…unless your one-year-old flushed it down the toilet (yep, been there).

  8. I am going through a tough period right now over these very issues, so thanks for bringing it up. I believe God knows us very well, knows our past and future, and knows what is best for us in the long run. The concept of not receiving blessings irks me though, it smacks of “Beg, Rover. Beg!” I think God’s plans and mind are so immense we have no chance of understanding any of it. However, he made us as we are, human, with the wishes and desires that we have as humans. So why bother to ask him for anything, because he will give us what he wills, and no more. This makes me very sad.

  9. Prayer is tricky, no question. I’ve definitely had prayers answered, and well, some, not so much. And I get the whole “lost item” prayer. I even had a profound spiritual experience while looking for a (wait for it) contact lens. I was on vacation, without any back up, and, as I’m totally blind without them, completely desperate. Seems like He could use something else besides a contact lens. Then again, maybe I was just listening better? Maybe I needed it so badly I was willing to open myself up? Or maybe He decided that me finding my contact wouldn’t disrupt the cosmos too much, and hey, why NOT use the moment to teach me a valuable principle.

    Or maybe it was a coincidence. But like you said, Lynette, it’s hard to deny things like this. And it does bring me comfort that if He is listening when I need my contact lens, He is listening when the stakes are much higher. I might not understand what is going on in the greater scheme, but it’s nice to know I’m not forsaken.

  10. Appreciated this post. It’s something I really struggle with – recognizing answers to prayers.. Thanks for such a thoughtful piece.

  11. Thanks for all the comments; I’ve really enjoyed hearing different people’s perspectives and stories. I particularly appreciated the various thoughts on why God perhaps doesn’t answer prayers–that maybe we’re not in a place where we could comprehend the answer, that maybe we’re part of something larger, that maybe there are other ways of phrasing the question.

    Kaliki (#12) said:

    So why bother to ask him for anything, because he will give us what he wills, and no more. This makes me very sad.

    I’ve had similar thoughts, kind of along the lines of, if God is going to do what he’s planning anyway, what’s the point? Is prayer just supposed to be something like, “do what you were already going to do?” But I’m very drawn to the possibility that our interactions with God don’t just affect us (though clearly they do), but in some way they affect him as well. As I think Kiskilili recently brought up on a different thread here, there’s an Old Testament tradition of arguing with God, and God genuinely responding–even changing his mind at times. I like that.

    Since I seem to be in a mood to tell faith-promoting stories (I know, I know, you all think you’re on the wrong blog ;)), I’ll share another anecdote. (And I should probably first confess that I’ve been known to make fun of the LDS tendency to compare life experiences to the gospel–e.g., “I was walking down the street and I saw a tree, and I thought, this is just like the plan of salvation.” But as this story will illustrate, I do it too.)

    Anyway, one of my roommates in college was taking a math class and she was having a hard time with it. It happened to be material that I was pretty familiar with, and I was happy to explain stuff when she occasionally asked me questions about it. I distinctly remember sitting at the kitchen table one evening and watching her work. She was clearly struggling. And I wanted to offer to help, but I felt weird about doing so; I was afraid of how it might come across, that it would seem condescending. In the context of our relationship, I felt like I needed to let her ask for help if and when she wanted it. And it hit me with real force that God might very well see me in a similar light, that at times he perhaps really couldn’t help if I didn’t first request it. Somehow that gave me a different perspective on the having to ask requirement, which I’d sometimes seen as an arbitrary and even silly hoop to jump through. But that night I had a very strong sense that God wanted to help much more than I was allowing him to, and that my role in the relationship was a relevant one.

    Roasted Tomatoes (#4) suggests:

    Although I don’t know if I believe it, I’m attracted by the idea that God sometimes acts in ways deliberately designed to remind us how little we know about Him.

    I like that, too. I know how easy it is for me to think I’ve come to some sophisticated understanding of a religious principle, only to have my beautiful theory fall short when it comes to accounting for the messy reality of life experience.


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