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.