Sunday, November 23, 2008

Prayer and Suffering

A friend asked me a question this week that really got my wheels spinning out of control. Which means, typically, there's a blog post a-brewin'. The question went something like this: "What's the point of prayer, really? Especially when we don't get what we pray for?" My friend is walking alongside another friend, who is currently facing quite a long journey of suffering, and was just discouraged that true prayer seemed to require more energy and time and emotion and thought than it is worth. Now, set this up against the backdrop of what I've lived this past year-- the recollection of the prayers I've prayed, the "answers" (or lack of answers) to those prayers-- and what I've learned as a result about faith and life and death and life again, and WHAM-- you've got the title of this post. The intersection of ideas of life and death; suffering and blessings; hope and doubt; our desires and "God's will"; namely, this crossroads we call "prayer".

What does it mean when I don't get what I pray for? Or even... when it seems that God hears my prayer, sees my faith, my sincerity, my humility, my anguish, and then seemingly CHOOSES to give me exactly the OPPOSITE of what I requested? Or even worse... seemingly chooses to IGNORE me?

Cutting right to the chase, let me get specific... Did God not hear our requests to heal Leslie? Certainly He would have been GLORIFIED in showing up in a miraculous way-- an obvious "sign" to doctors and lookers-on that He IS present, and active, and powerful... Indeed, "Mighty to Save", even in the earthly sense. Did He ignore us? Why did He do just the opposite? Why did He let cancer kill her? Why did He have her suffer like that, in spite of our prayers to the contrary?

Was it my/our "lack of faith"? Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." I wasn't asking to move a mountain... I just wanted God to cure a little cancer.

Or, as I plunge into the darker parts of my mind and soul... Does God just not care? Or perhaps... does He delight in our suffering? Like some cosmic screen-writer, trying to devise the saddest of stories that He can let unfold before Himself so that His bored and under-utilized heart-strings might be tugged on a little?

Here's another good one: Why pray if He's just going to do "His will" anyway, regardless of what I desire with all of my being-- as insignificant and sinful as my being is?

These questions are rhetorical, perhaps. But believe it or not, these are questions to which I've started to hear the faintest whispers of answers over the past months. I'm not claiming anything prophetic. Many before me have come to the same conclusions-- I've read their words, heard their accounts-- but I've been too thick-headed, hard-hearted, and earth-minded to really let it sink in. Well... in my brokenness-- through experiencing real "suffering"-- I'm finally starting to get it.

In the midst of some of the darkest, deepest, gut-wrenching moments of prayer I've ever experienced, I've often heard a question being whispered... "What is it that you REALLY want? What is it that you're REALLY praying for?" It stops me in my tracks. It sends my mind spinning. And then, it brings me to my knees in silence. What was I really praying for in healing for Leslie? An end to her/our suffering? Well if that is the case... if God had healed her cancer back in July, would that have been the end to her suffering? Certainly, she would have suffered and died another way, eventually... c'est la vie. Was I asking God to preserve our family that we could go on loving TJ and bringing him up in His ways? If that is what I was praying for... hasn't He provided just that-- isn't He doing that, even now? And in miraculous fashion, at that! Was I praying for the ability to go on living in the completion and joy that I had felt throughout those wonderful 7 years of our life together? To go on tasting this beautiful little "slice of Heaven", as I've dubbed marriage? Indeed, my life has never been more full and complete than it is today. I've never seen Heaven more clearly... never tasted His blessings on a daily basis-- minute by minute, breath by breath-- as I do these days, even in her absence.

So tell me... what prayer did He not answer? What mercy has He not shown? Is Leslie not better off now? Are each of YOU not better off now, having loved-- and even "lost"-- your Leslie the way you did, as closely or as distantly as you loved her? I would argue that indeed He asnwered those prayers. Your prayers. My prayers. Our prayers. It just looks NOTHING like what we had expected it to... hoped, wanted, desired... at that time, in our human near-sightedness. He did not ignore my prayers. He answered them (is answering them) more brilliantly than I ever could have imagined... as hard as it is for me to take.

To be honest, the most desperate prayers I prayed were not for me. They were not for TJ. Not for her family, our future, or anything like that. The most dreadfully intimate prayers I prayed with Leslie were when she was unconscious, in that hospital bed, in the days and hours before she left this place. I just wanted her suffering to be over. "Have mercy, oh God!" Indeed, my prayer for "healing" took on a completely different meaning, in those hours. And indeed, I have echoed similar prayers for my own soul, as I have struggled to "move on", in the months that have followed. "God, I will stay here and suffer forever," I wailed one morning, on my knees in the shower, at perhaps my lowest point. "Somehow, this suffering makes me feel closer to her. But God... I desire to feel closer to YOU. She is free now. I am not. I am still here. If you desire more for me-- for me to live this life again-- TAKE MY SUFFERING. HEAL ME, GOD. HAVE MERCY, OH GOD!"

Indeed, in both cases (my prayers for Leslie and my prayers for myself), God indeed answered/ is answering those prayers in miraculous ways.

...but what if He didn't? What if Leslie was still suffering in that bed? What if I was still buried deep in grieving depression? It's not like I said those prayers and *POOF* our suffering was lifted and we were out in the Streets of Gold jumping for joy. Indeed, my own suffering is far from finished... far from "complete". It is in THIS place-- the place where no mercy is shown, where the prayers seem to be unheard, where suffering is unbearable, and there is no hope of an end in sight-- where FAITH lives. I'm neck-deep in a phenomenal book on this very topic entitled, The Gospel According to Job. It was Job's suffering that defined his faith. Indeed, it is the suffering of Jesus that defines our salvation. Suffering is not something to be rescued from. Suffering is something to be endured. Jesus didn't promise happiness, relief, easy living, answers to questions, or any of that stuff. He promised the cross. He promised, in fact, suffering. ("If anyone should come after me, he must pick up his cross and follow me." ...and... "Are you willing to bear my cross? To drink from the cup that I drink?") (You all DID see The Passion of the Christ, right? You're aware of what He's asking here?!) This is not the "Gospel" that evangelicals usually preach, (let alone embrace or live), in my opinion. But it IS the Gospel that Job knew. And Paul knew. And James and Peter and John and Phillip and Tabitha and Stephen and the members of "The Way" knew. Indeed, these are not truths that I've discovered on my own. They've been right there in front of me in the scriptures my whole life. I just never understood them until now.

For instance, Paul wrote:

...there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Cor. 12:7-9)

What was Paul really praying for when he prayed for that thorn to be removed? He was just wanting to glorify God, right? To do His work. And perhaps, to have an end to his own suffering. After all, wouldn't have his ministry been stronger, had he been relieved of this thorn? Wouldn't have he done more? Traveled further? Preached with more energy and power? Obviously, God's answer to that question is, "NO... My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness." Paul himself was beginning to grasp this, 2000 years before I am, because in the very next sentence of that letter, he writes:

Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:9-10)

And then in another letter, he wrote:

...we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

James, in perhaps a more famous or often-quoted passage wrote something similar:

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2-4)

What this means is that the person who does not suffer is a person who is lacking the fullness of life that God intends for us to live. Indeed, suffering is a BLESSING, to the true child of God.

You see, we need to be quiet in our prayers from time to time. We need to just meditate and search our hearts and ask ourselves, "Just what is it that I'm asking for?" As Christians, if we're living by faith, the answer to the question will always be some version of this following statement... this "mission statement", if you will:

It is my heart's desire to know my God. To LOVE Him with all my heart, soul, mind and strength. To ABIDE in His presence, in the shelter of His almighty arms. To KNOW His wisdom and Truth. Indeed, I can never know, in this life, the fullness of His glory; the full extent of His grace; the greatness of His wisdom; the depth of His holiness; the perfection of His love. But indeed, I will live my life-- I will even die-- trying to know these things. In the meantime, my hope is not for physical healing or relief from this suffering. My hope is not for even temporal blessings or bliss. Surely, I will ask for the desires of my heart, and I will give thanks for my relief, my rest, my blessings, my happiness, should these things befall me. But no... These are not the things I truly hope for. My HOPE is for HEAVEN.

So I will go on praying-- pouring out my heart to him as Job did. Asking God for what it is I want from Him... showing Him my heart's desires, and asking that He provide. But I will not confuse these desires for my hope. Just as God does not rely upon my prayers to go on being God, neither do I rely upon God's apparent answers to my prayers to go on abiding in faith in Him. But regardless of how He answers, this I have learned to be true: Without prayer, I will not know Him. THIS is why I pray.


The Moser Fam... said...

You just summed up, so perfectly, the months and months of Bible studying I've done on prayer! You definitely have a ministry here! Thank you for using your suffering to teach others! :)

dk said...

Wow....that’s really profound. I came across your blog from “A Journeyman’s Catalog”. You have certainly been through a lot in the last year. I like your style – right to the point, to the heart of the issue. What a thought provoking response to a question I have often asked myself about prayer. Really profound stuff.

Several reactions to what you wrote:

"What is it that you REALLY want? What is it that you're REALLY praying for?"

I’m blown away by your ability to find truth in the midst of your circumstances. It seems like truth eludes us in times of great need because we are blinded by our pain and suffering. God seems silent as the droning sound of depression and loneliness leaves us feeling alone and isolated. But somehow you heard Him, you found him on your knees. Sometimes the most profound truth isn’t an answer but another question. What a great question that gets beyond our request to what God really cares about – our heart, the motivations of our heart. I will definitely begin to ask myself this question when I pray.

“Suffering is not something to be rescued from. Suffering is something to be endured.”

I have often prayed for healing. Perhaps I should pray for endurance. For me the issue of suffering get down to this: Does God ultimately have my best interest at heart? Is he 24/7 working all things together for my good or not? Has he really promised to finish the good work he’s started in me? If I can get the simple truth that God is fervently working on my behalf at all things with my best interest at heart then there’s no more questions for me. There’s no more why. There’s only faith. Either he is or he isn’t. Either he really loves me or he doesn’t. I either believe that or I don’t. If I embrace this truth, then nothing else matters. Suffering then is not a punishment but a practice. It is a means to persevere. Perseverance must complete it’s work so that I will be mature and complete, not lacking anything (James 1)

"Jesus didn't promise happiness, relief, easy living, answers to questions, or any of that stuff. He promised the cross. He promised, in fact, suffering."

I need to be reminded of this….

"So I will go on praying-- pouring out my heart to him as Job did. Asking God for what it is I want from Him... showing Him my heart's desires, and asking that He provide. But I will not confuse these desires for my hope. Just as God does not rely upon my prayers to go on being God, neither do I rely upon God's apparent answers to my prayers to go on abiding in faith in Him. But regardless of how He answers, this I have learned to be true: Without prayer, I will not know Him. THIS is why I pray."

Well said. Good stuff...

Anonymous said...

Your suffering has brought you to a place of understanding and peace with God that many of us are yearning to accomplish. No one wants to think about pain and suffering as the love of God in our life, but when I see how he has delivered you and Leslie into His perfect plan, it really does make sense. Thank you for sharing with those of us who are just beginning this journey. May God continue to bless you with His undestanding so that you can be a light to others!

Becky said...

I've been praying more than usual lately, especially for a little girl halfway across the country who is fighting leukemia. Like you, her parents are abiding and trusting in God's healing, whether that be here on Earth or in Heaven. We could all just say "why?" and fall into the depths of despair when such pain comes into our lives...or we can choose to trust and believe in the One who made us. Thanks for your words, your faith, and your willingness to share them with us.

Melinda said...

A prayer based on scripture that I read last week and I pray for you today: "Lord God, help Tyson presently believe, then one day see, that his present sufferings cannot be compared to the glory that You will reveal in him (Rom 8:18)."

Catherine said...

These are marvelous reflections on the mystery of prayer. I so admire the quality of your wrestling and agree with the first remark that you are birthing an important ministry in this space. I am presently not able to find like quality discussion in the context of a local church and (though I will always embrace the importance of corporate worship) I deeply appreciate being able to repair here to have my cup filled.

I love Oswald Chambers' treatment of Job in Baffled to Fight Better and will be very curious to check out the newer Job study you cite. You make an excellent discussion leader.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic explanation. We were just discussing this very topic in bible study. Thank you for every word here! You always seem to have so much truth and knowledge to share. May God continue to bless you and TJ.

Emily said...

Hi Tyson, I appreciate your "real" insights and the truth God is sharing through you. I have also experienced gut wrenching hurt - death, long term illness and more have caused me to ask the exact same questions you pose in this blog. You've summed up the answers that bring me peace. But I think as Christians there is one more thing - maybe the biggest thing - that we usually fail to consider until God has broken us completely. It's that life isn't about us. I have asked questions like "God, why are you doing this to ME?" "What is your purpose for MY life?" And amazingly - in His incredible grace - He actually does have a personal purpose and plan for me. But He also has much bigger things going on. He's at work in the world for the purpose of bringing HIMSELF glory. He saved me to bring HIMSELF glory. My testimony is supposed to point others to Him and make Him look good. I came to the point where I realized that even if the rest of my life was a horrible disappointment - one terrible thing after another - God has given me EVERYTHING (eternal hope, His presence, and so much more). How could I not surrender to any way in which He chooses to use me - even if it is brokenness and heartbreak?

My point is that when we pray God hears our prayers and unbelievably He gives us a personal answer out of His incredible love. But as much as He loves us, He is more concerned with His glory and His Kingdom than with our temporary happiness.

Ultimately, this knowledge brings me so much peace and allows me to let God be God. It takes the sting out of my pain because I see His bigger purposes.

And two years after the end of my battle I can say with confidence that He has redeemed it all!

Henny said...

I really like this post. When we pray for God to heal someone we love and he doesn't and he lets them die, it does cause us to feel that God ignored us or doesn't even care. Or if nobody was sick but they were killed in a freak accident, the same question arises does God even care? But if God's answer was heaven for that person, it is so hard for us to see that THAT was an answer to our prayers and in many ways incredibly merciful. All we can see right now is earthly treasure, but you are right, when God gives you a glimpse of what is beyond what we can see, we begin to find peace, answers, and we can let God be God b/c as Emily said it is just not about us. Its about HIM. I think once we learn this, we surrender and there is incredible freedom in that.

Kelly O'Dell Stanley said...

Wow. I'm humbled by the truth in your words, by the anointing poured out on you as you poured these thoughts out for us. I don't know you but I pray for you regularly and visit your blog continually for inspiration and renewal. Thank you for sharing such powerful, personal insights. May God continue to bless you and your son.

Jess said...

Tyson- That is definately something we all needed to hear. and remember everyday. Thank you. You really gave me some insight that I needed. I feel like I live by the concept of "everything happens for a reason." Maybe I should change that to "everything happens for His reason." It was so good to see you on Thanksgiving! and play ball with TJ. Man that kid almost slammed me in the face with the ball a few times. He is good! The talk you, me, and Kami had was really good. Your take on life amazes me all the time! I love you! P.S. I have always thought that one wonderful answer to prayer is that the whole ordeal Les went thru lasted less than a year! So many people are/have suffered for so much longer. I have been really thankful for that!

Erika Haub said...

Wow, I will be thinking about the things you have shared in this post for a while. Thank you for wrestling with God publicly and sharing your faith journey with such transparency.

Anonymous said...

WOW. WOW. Blown away by this. Truly, I'm speechless. I'll be chewing on this for a long time. Thank you. Thank you.