When our son graduated from college, his professors encouraged him to pursue an advanced degree, giving him very complimentary letters of recommendation. He applied to several universities, but almost every one replied with a rejection letter.
With our son feeling unable to make long-term plans, a feeling of dead-in-the-water inertia hung over our household. I assured him that God's love for him would make itself known in exactly the right purpose appearing in exactly the right way at exactly the right time. I knew this because of how my own educational opportunities and career had developed as I prayed for God's guidance.
But the weeks dragged on with no word from the remaining university.
Finally our son became distraught. "What am I going to do? Why isn't God answering my prayers?" he asked me.
At that point this Bible verse came to mind: "Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts" (James 4:3). To me this meant that prayer should not come out of selfish motives.
Then I remembered another quotation: "Working and praying with true motives, your Father will open the way." This is from a book I study often, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures," by Mary Baker Eddy, Founder of Christian Science (page 326).
These ideas were the guidance we needed, and I interrupted my son in mid-complaint, saying, "You know ... maybe it's not that God isn't answering our prayers. Maybe it's that we're asking the wrong questions."
For two hours we discussed why he wanted to go to graduate school. Was it to build a life that would bless others, or was it just to avoid a 9-to-5 work life? Was this path a calling or merely an avenue to personal prestige?
The conversation was gentle and supportive, but honest; and later, he excused himself "to do some thinking."
Looking up the chapter in James, I discovered further instruction for those who had asked "amiss": "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord," it read, "and he shall lift you up."
Wondering what such "humbling" would look like, I remembered another passage in one of Mrs. Eddy's other writings: "A little more grace, a motive made pure, a few truths tenderly told, a heart softened, a character subdued, a life consecrated, would restore the right action of the mental mechanism, and make manifest the movement of body and soul in accord with God" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896," page 354). Now the picture was clearer.
A "motive made pure" would involve surrendering personal agendas to the leadings of the Almighty, which would align us with God's will. When we trusted God, the "mental mechanism," or individual thought, could be free from anxiety about the future, and "the movement of body and soul in accord with God" would overcome inertia.
At dinner, our son admitted that some of his hopes were ego-based, but mostly, he wanted to continue the work he'd started concerning prison reform and programs for former inmates.
"Well, then," I said, "your Father will open the way."
A few days later a professor called from one of the universities. He'd been considering our son's application for some time, but he questioned whether the program was right for him. However, looking at his undergraduate project and his letters of recommendation, the professor had decided to follow up personally.
By the end of their conversation, both agreed the program was promising, and the professor decided to recommend acceptance. But he warned our son that there might not be much financial aid available at that point.
When the papers arrived, and we didn't know whether we could afford to send him, our son had the idea to call one of the other universities to ask why his application had been rejected. The reason? He hadn't written specifically why the university's program was a good match for his professional goals. He realized he'd made the same mistake on all the applications.
Within a few days the acceptance letter came from the university from which the professor had called, and our son was able to move cross- country with financial aid in place and a job on staff waiting for him.
We felt assured that God does answer our prayers and that when humility subdues selfish will, even our own mistakes can't hinder His plan.