Thoughts on Wesners’ Book, “When God Can’t Answer”

Wesner, Maralene and Miles Wesner. When God Can’t Answer. Macon, GA: Nurturing Faith, 2022.

This is a relatively short (100 pages in paperback) and dense effort to explain why many (maybe even most) prayers are not answered. Fundamentally, the authors explain and conclude that God’s nature and human freedom are the reasons for “unanswered” prayers. The authors provide many examples and illustrations from real life which are generally helpful. Some illustrations (mostly analogies), however, are too fabricated and unrealistic and thus detract from the very point they are trying to make.

In these 100 pages, the Wesners reference and/or fully quote more than one hundred and sixty passages to establish and/or illustrate their perspective on nature of God, humanity, and/or prayer. Given that they reference Scripture with such frequency I am frustrated that they didn’t clearly explain how they view, and thus utilize, the Bible. However, their extensive referencing to biblical passages indicates to me that they have high view of Scripture, especially with respect to communicating truth about the nature of God, humanity, and prayer. Yet, as I find for many conservative evangelical authors, there are relevant passages that they do not reference or quote. These are the passages that appear to provide perspectives on the nature of God, humanity and prayer, in both the Old and New Testaments, that contradict the Wesners’ conclusions.

Also, many of the scriptures the authors utilize are taken out of the context and applied as universal truths regarding the nature of God, humanity, and/or prayer. For example, when they quote passages from Ecclesiastes, they choose a passage that, on the surface, appears to authentic or illustrate their theological perspective on the unchanging nature of God and of God’s truth. Meanwhile, when read its immediate context (chapter) and even its distant context (the entire book) it is obvious that the creators of Ecclesiastes present various and often contradictory understandings of the nature, working, and/or will of God. For example, just a few verses later, we read, “I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity” (5:18–19). I’m pretty sure the Wesners would not agree with Ecclesiastes on this, and many other, points. So, if 5:18–19 is not right about the nature of God and humanity, why should we unquestioningly accept that 4:14–15 as eternal and unchanging truth?

One of the most egregious examples of the authors’ use of indiscriminate proof texting is their quote of John 9:31, “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will” (p. 19). This biblical quotation is utilized by the authors as authority for their belief that, “When our character becomes true, righteous, and loving, like God’s, then our prayers can be answered” (p. 19)! So only those whose character becomes like God’s can have confidence that they are praying prayers that can be answered! But, who could judge whether one’s character is “like God’s” with respect to being true, righteous, and loving? And to what degree is that even possible? What is the biblical authority for this incredible statement? John 9:31 is not a record of anything Jesus said or taught. As a matter of fact, found only in the Gospel traditionally attributed to John, it is a statement made by those who opposed Jesus and did not believe that he had given sight to the man born blind. And the reason they didn’t believe was because they knew that “Jesus” was a sinner and they knew that God does not listen to sinners. So, obviously, Jesus could not have called upon God to heal the man born blind! Given the Wesners obvious familiarity with the Bible, as evidenced by their scores of references and quotations, I’m amazed at this kind of proof texting.

Another less egregious proof text, but equally surprising to me, is the authors’ use of Jesus’ promises which were directed contextually to his twelve apostles. These are not necessarily meant to be eternal promises of God to all followers of Jesus for all times, unless such promises can be found outside such an intimate and specific context. On page 30, the authors state that we, as Christians, have inside information on the subject of truth because, “We have an ally in this department. We have direct access to the essence of things. … Jesus said, ‘When the spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth’ (John 16:13).” The context of this promise as Jesus to his twelve disciples is established clearly in John 16:1–4. He told them that they would be “put out of the synagogues” and would be killed by those who think “they are offering worship to God” but that when this happens, Jesus said, “you may remember that I told you about them.” John 16:13, then, is the reporting of a specific promise made to Jesus’ twelve apostles about remembering what he told them when they would later come under life-threatening pressure and persecution. I would contend that not even these specific apostles came to know all truth about all things and, for sure, nor will the spirit-indwelt Christians of future generations ever, this side of eternity, know all truth about all things. Such generalization of specific promises is a glaring example of the dangers of proof texting; something of which these authors, and many, many others, are often guilty.

In my opinion, if an author or speaker repeatedly appeals to the authority of the biblical texts to establish and/or illustrate the accuracy of their perspectives, it is incumbent upon them to clearly state their understanding of, and approach to interpreting, the Scriptures. Is Scripture God’s word? Is it inerrant in its entirety? Is it inspired in its entirety? Is it a divine/human product? Does it communicate only the truth about God’s nature, working, and will or do the creators of the biblical texts, at least sometimes, get God wrong—as not a few Christian theologians have claimed: e.g., Fretheim, Brueggemann, Oord, etc.

There are many other statements, whether the authors appeal to scripture or not, which are examples of the assumptions through which they read and apply the scriptures to the subjects of the nature of God, humanity, and prayer. For example, the authors emphasize with much passion that God is love. After quoting 1 John 4:8, 16 they write,

“This scripture, and hundreds more like it, assures us that God cannot do things that would bring harm to anyone. Love rules out revenge, retaliation, and hatred. Instead, love includes affection, good will, and respect for others. If God is total love, then [God’s][1] affection, good will, and respect for us is total. … A loving God could not impose a penalty that is not redemptive” (pp. 38–39).

So, then, what are we to do with Genesis 1–11, for a start? When is the penalty of death redemptive for the victims of the flood? Men, women, and children were drowned to death by God according to the creators of this book. Do the Wesners believe that as these people gasped their last breath they prayed a prayer of repentance and accepted God’s forgiveness, thus dying in a “right relationship” with God? What about the death of every one of Egypt’s firstborn, both human and animal? While that might have been potentially redemptive for those who were not of the first born, how was that redemptive for those who perished? And what of the armies of Pharoah who were drowned in the Red Sea, or Achan and his family, the inhabitants of Jericho and the other cities that were utterly destroyed by the Israelites at God’s command? And we could go on. If theologians are going to base the core of their theology on the Scriptures—i.e., on the hundreds of Scriptures that speak of God’s unconditional love for all—then they have to deal honestly, and openly, with the hundreds of passages in both the Old and New Testaments that portray the God of love who considers, commits, commands, and/or condones violent acts of revenge, retaliation, and non-redemptive punishment. The Wesners, in this book, offer no explanation. The closest they come is to write on page 12, “If God destroys cities … If [God] viciously punishes transgressors …If [God] arbitrarily favours some groups over others…”. But, there is no “if” about it. According to the Scriptures, God did destroy cities, viciously punish transgressors, and arbitrarily favoured some groups over others.

It is clear to me that their lens through which they read these passages is “Christological” as they state on page 33, “Also, consider Jesus’ life. He is the best picture of God that we have. If Jesus wouldn’t do it, then God wouldn’t do it.” However, they make no effort to explain or justify their hermeneutical lens. And even if they did, most who justify such an approach neglect to deal with numerous passages where Jesus (and other NT writers) speak of the violence that will be experienced by those who die apart from being saved by Jesus’ salvific death. If God is pure love, then even in eternity—and I would say ‘especially for eternity’—God could not impose a punishment for sin that involves unbelievable and inescapable, everlasting torture. A Christological lens does not automatically negate these dozens of passages.

I do agree with the authors that so many Christians have very strange and magical understandings of what prayer is and how prayer works, as if God, who is love, must be appeased, convinced, persuaded, begged, by as many people as possible for as long as it takes. And then, maybe, just maybe, God will give heed to and answer our prayers. I, too, believe God cannot answer many of our prayers because love is non-coercive and thus cannot violate creaturely freedom of will/choice. I agree that God is calling his creation to partner with him, to live lives of love, and thus together have influence and impact for the good of all.

Yet, because the Wesners appeal to biblical authority for their theological perspectives, without ever explaining or justifying their hermeneutical lens, I cannot agree with how they utilize many of the passages, nor some of the conclusions they come to about the nature of God, humanity, and/or prayer. This is not a book that I would recommend to others. My readings have uncovered other books and articles which attempt to explain what may be going on “when God can’t answer,” better than do the authors of this particular book. These are those that attempt to engage with the biblical texts in a much more open and honest way, acknowledging the problematic texts and offer, at least, a reasoned explanation of why passages where God is obviously not love are found in the book of books. Authors such as Pinnock, Sanders, Oord, Fretheim, and Seibert come to mind.   

[1] Whenever the authors of this book refer to God as “he” I have substituted the gender non-specific term ‘God’ in its place. The reader will know I have done that when they find God is square brackets, i.e., [God].

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