Where God Can’t, Agents Can

By Richard Cruse

Perhaps the reason our prayers go unanswered is simpler than we think.

No travel agent* could have predicted my long term “itinerary.” I grew into my 20s in California, attended and graduated from the Texan flagship of evangelical dispensationalism in my 30s, and then served cross-culturally (four countries on three continents) for nearly a quarter century. When I returned to the States, I found myself in wildly different places geographically (Midwest), theologically (ex-evangelical), and vocationally (chaplain in a Level I Trauma Center and teaching hospital; Spiritual Advisor to a Gender Health Program). Each of these new locales contains its own unique story, but for my present purpose, I will focus on my current theological location.

In broad strokes, my foundational theological premise is this: the Gospel, or the good news announced by Jesus, is not simply a mechanistic formula for getting people into heaven. Rather, it is—above all else—the opening salvo and the culmination of the Creator’s cosmic rescue plan. In the words of British theologian NT Wright, the Creator’s plan is to put all of creation “to rights”: in its original working order or reflecting the life of the age to come. Further, the accomplishment of said rescue plan not only involves, but also requires the responses of human agents and their participation in all sorts of redemptive activities, both consciously and unconsciously, from inside “the faith” and from outside. The proclamation of the Gospel is the Creator’s call for human participation with God as active partners or agents in setting the world “to rights.”

God’s intention is not save people “out of the world system for heaven’s sake,” but rather to save them “into the world system for creation’s sake.” The good news, the true protoevangelium, emerges initially in Genesis 1:28-31. There we find those created in God’s image and pronounced good being placed into God’s “very good” creation. They are to oversee and care for creation in its entirety as they live in loving relationship with their Creator. All of humankind was (and is) invited into an amazing opportunity to be active agents for carrying out God’s purposes. But, as we know, this mandate has not been fully carried out. Why? Because those created to be agents are always free agents: free to act responsibly and free to act irresponsibly. We see this reality lived out in the remainder of the Old Testament where we read about the centuries-long movement and growth of God’s initially-called people (agents) from polytheism (worshiping many gods) to monolatry (worshiping one of the many gods) to monotheism (worshiping the only true God). This lengthy process reflects necessary steps toward the ultimate revelation and recovery of God’s eternal purposes.

The cresting of this cosmic rescue plan takes us forward multiple millennia to John the Baptist, “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord…and all people will see God’s salvation.’” God’s salvation, or deliverance, further and finally emerges as Jesus reveals himself as the prime agent of restoration and reconciliation:,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to set free those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:18,19),

Humankind’s shared agency in bringing the good news that God has acted on behalf of humankind, verbally and actually, is next hinted at in the Lord’s Prayer: “…may [the Creator’s] will be done on earth as it is in the heavenlies” [emphasis added]: not a physical or metaphysical location somewhere in the sky, but the life of the age to come lived out by God’s agents now on earth. Jesus completed his task as the Agent of the age to come, but there is work yet to be done!

Jesus’s good news was that he fulfilled through himself the promise of a renewed and restored creation, of which he is the first fruits. His method? The “capture and release of active and responsible agents back into the world system” (Mt 28:18-20ff), i.e., proclaimers and active agents in renewing and restoring the now-but-not-yet renewed and restored creation. They, and by extension we serve as witnesses and observable demonstrations of the life of the age to come.

As a hospital chaplain and one of these active agents, one stereotype I face (aside from often being seen as the “harbinger/angel of death”) is that my primary, perhaps sole function is to pray for healing. More to the point, I am to pray for miracles. However, the reality is that I rarely offer to pray unless it’s requested or it’s absolutely clear that such activity is desired. Sadly, my track record for prayer-created miracles is pretty dismal. Consider the following encounter.

Unable yet again to bring myself to pray for a miracle, I left the patient’s room feeling discouraged but far less bereft than the discharged patient herself: no home, the car (in which she had been living) towed away, no money for her life saving medications, no marriage (separated from her homeless husband), no (apparent) contact with her one adult son (and grandchild), living on a paltry amount of SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) that always left her running out of funds before running out of month. I had recognized the frailty and vulnerability behind her tough, stoic façade. As I had taken her hand, tears began to seep out and slowly make their way down her roughened cheeks. Angrily wiping them away, she mumbled, “I’m fine; I’ll make it!”

Pray for a miracle? What miracle should I have prayed for? Pray that the poorly-functioning housing authority might drop a housing voucher into her lap; that her confiscated car be found and repaired without cost; that she find an envelope with money adequate to buy her needed medication—and not just for a week or a month; that her husband show up at her bedside with flowers and guarantees for a better future; that her son graciously invite her to share his home? I could have, but I didn’t because I actually could not and should not! But, one says, doesn’t God promise to answer our prayers, all our prayers? Isn’t the Bible filled with verses and stories of God’s miraculous provisions?

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you,” (Matthew 7:7).

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 18:19).

If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer,” (Matthew 21:22).

Therefore, I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours,” (Mark 11:24).

“Oh, wait,” someone will say, “You can’t just be a member of the Flip Wilson School of Prayer: ‘I’m going to pray now, any y’all want anything?’”

“You can’t just ask for something, you have to…

… be a Christian.”

… fulfill God’s requirements.”

… have enough faith.”

… be right with God.”

… ask according to God’s perfect will.”

ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

I’ve stood with countless families at the bedsides of their grievously injured or ill loved ones. They state with faith, hope, and authority: “Our God is a God of miracles. There’s nothing our God can’t do. Our God, who can even raise the dead, will heal our loved one!”

Where are all the answers to those prayers of certainty? Where are all the miracles, the ones that are not anecdotal, not learned from the internet, or the neighbor down the street? Where are the men and women, young and old, raised up from their deathbeds; fully restored from traumatic brain injuries; walking again after having their spinal cords ripped apart by gunfire; breathing deeply and without discomfort after their lungs were ravaged by COVID-19? Where are they?

“Miraculous,” unexpected recovery does occasionally occur: a patient awakening with some return to baseline abilities following a lengthy coma; walking again despite significant spinal cord assault; returning to a full life following a slow and seemingly certain descent toward death. When these happen, emails and Facebook posts abound with reports of God’s miraculous intervention. God be praised! God has wrought that miracle. Now, I agree that God should be praised. I agree that miracles have taken place, but these miracles have names: EMTs, nurses, doctors, respiratory techs, creators of amazing medications and machines of all kinds and countless others. God’s miracles are the divinely called, but also very human agents that demonstrate my premise regarding agency: those created in God’s image and pronounced good are caring for God’s “very good” but now broken creation.

Ultimately, I did pray for that dear homeless woman. After receiving permission, I took her hand and asked the Almighty to assure her that she is God’s beloved daughter. As I gently wiped tears from her cheeks, I prayed that she might know God’s nearness and tenderness. As I sat with her there in the comforting and uncomfortable silence, I prayed for agents to tear down the societal systems that keep her homeless and poor.

So, is the issue with unanswered prayer simply that God, because of sovereignly and predetermined outcomes that are beyond our understanding, won’t answer these prayers? Or, is the issue that God, in love, can’t force action from unhearing and/or unwilling human agents? How many answers to prayer do not come, how many miracles cannot come, simply because there are no willing agents of change?

*Agent: one who acts for, or in the place of, another (the principal), by that person’s authority; someone entrusted to do the business of another.

Richard Cruse has served for six years as Lead Chaplain in a Midwestern county hospital that provides care for all but with special emphasis on the underserved and vulnerable populations. Prior to this, he spent 45 years in a variety of local church and cross-cultural ministries. He and his wife have been married for 49 years and have three sons and five grandchildren.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love