Unanswered Prayers: A Difficult Lesson from Augustine (Updated)

Augustine treated Psalm 21 LXX (22) two times in his Enarrationes in Psalmos (Expositions of the Psalms). Psalm 21:3 LXX (Psalm 22:2: “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” [ESV]) deals with the difficult question of why some prayers go unanswered. Augustine’s discussions are instructive and illuminating.

For convenience, once again the text is that found in Patrologia Latina 36 as housed on augustinus.it. A critical text is available in CCSL 38, edited by E. Dekkers and J. Fraipont.

In his first enarratio, he says this:

Deus meus, clamabo ad te per diem, nec exaudies: Deus meus, clamabo ad te in rebus prosperis huius vitae, ut non mutentur; nec exaudies, quia verbis delictorum meorum ad te clamabo. Et nocte, et non ad insipientiam mihi: et in adversis utique huius vitae clamabo ut prosperentur, et similiter non exaudies. Neque hoc facis ad insipientiam mihi, sed potius ut sapiam quid clamare me velis; non verbis delictorum ex desiderio temporalis vitae, sed verbis conversionis ad te in vitam aeternam.

O my God, I will cry to you by day, and you will not listen: My God, I will cry out to you in the matter of prosperous affairs of this life, so that they may not be changed; you will not listen, because I will cry out to you with words that belong to my sins. And by night, and it will not be for foolishness for me: And, of course, in the adverse affairs of this life I will cry out to you so that they may become prosperous, and in a similar way you will not listen. Nor do you do this for foolishness for me, but rather so that I may become wise as to how[1] you want me to cry out: not with words that belong to my sins out of a desire for temporal life, but with words of conversion to you unto eternal life.

All translations are my own.

God does not want us to treat him as if he were the giant prize box in the sky, Augustine is saying; one whom we would address only when we wanted something good for this life–and the rest of the time, we can leave each other well enough alone, thank you very much. No, God wants us first of all pointed toward eternal goods. He wants to make us wise.

The second time he treats the Psalm, part of what he says on the same verse is as follows:

Per diem et noctem clamavi, et non exaudies. Multi enim clamant in tribulatione, et non exaudiuntur: sed ad salutem, non ad insipientiam. Clamavit Paulus ut auferretur ab eo stimulus carnis, et non est exauditus ut auferretur; et dictum est ei: Sufficit tibi gratia mea, nam virtus in infirmitate perficitur. Ergo non est exauditus; sed non ad insipientiam, sed ad sapientiam: ut intellegat homo medicum esse Deum, et tribulationem medicamentum esse ad salutem, non poenam ad damnationem. Sub medicamento positus ureris, secaris, clamas: non audit medicus ad voluntatem, sed audit ad sanitatem.

Through day and night I have cried out, and you will not listen. For many cry out in tribulation, and they are not listened to. But this is for their souls’ health,[2] not for their foolishness. Paul cried out so that the goad of his flesh might be removed from him, and he was not listened to so as to have it removed; and it was said to him: My grace is sufficient for you, for power[3] is perfected in weakness. Therefore, he was not listened to; but not for foolishness, but rather for wisdom, so that man might understand that God is a doctor, and tribulation is medical treatment for his soul’s health,[4] not punishment for damnation. But when you are placed under medical treatment, you are burned,[5] you are cut, you cry out.[6] The doctor does not listen to your wish, but he does listen to your health.[7]

Augustine’s image here is more challenging than his earlier treatment. Tribulation is surgery, and it is going to hurt. It will make you yelp in agony. You will ask, and even beg, for it to stop; but it will not stop until the doctor’s course of treatment is finished. It will seem that the doctor does not care, or that he even delights in your pain. If he didn’t, why would he inflict such suffering upon you when you are shrieking and weeping and pleading for him to stay his hand?

But his apparent refusal to listen is a disguised form of higher listening, one that looks to your good and your healing. He is not punishing you; he is saving your life.


1 I would originally have rendered this as “why,” which is frequently its meaning. But a student’s suggestion yesterday in class that it should be translated “how” here is surely correct, as the following ablatives make clear.
2 “Souls’ health” (and “soul’s health” below) is my periphrasis for salus. The Latin makes use of the double meaning of salus (“health/well-being” and “salvation,” i.e. the health or well-being of the soul) in a way that is impossible to reflect in a single English term.
3 Or “virtue.”
4 Again, salus.
5 The reference is to cautery. See Maria Boulding’s translation in The Works of Saint Augustine: A Translation for the 21st Century, Part 3, Volume 15 (Expositions of the Psalms: 1-32) (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2000), 230.
6 I love Maria Boulding’s translation of clamas here as “you scream with pain,” but it obscures the fact that it is the same verb used in the Psalm and in Augustine’s earlier exegesis and translated throughout here as “cry out.” Boulding renders the verb as “cry” or “cry aloud” in the other instances in this paragraph; but it should only be taken as “scream” here if it is also so taken in the rest of the section. See Works of Saint Augustine, 230.
7 sanitas, a different word from that used above.


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