I pray often – not long prayers necessarily, sometimes short ones. Sometimes the pain or anxiety I am experiencing is all I can see so my prayers are not eloquent. “Jesus, help me!”
I pray for those who ask for prayer and those who don’t. Praying for others feels good – feels like a privilege. And many people appreciate the effort and spirit with which it is done.
Sincere prayer as an act of obedience
My husband, David, was in the city walking when a panhandler approached. The man described the jam he was in and asked for money. Over the years, I have challenged David’s cynicism regarding panhandlers and encouraged him to not to ignore people on the street asking for money. After all, panhandling is not anyone’s dream job. Although now homeless, or dealing with a mental disability, or both, they were once children dreaming of careers as a pilot, teacher, nurse, basketball player……like us. As the man pocketed the money David gave him and turned to enter a nearby Burger King, David called out, halfheartedly without real conviction, “I’ll be praying for you.” The man stopped, did an about-face, walked back to David, and said, “Will you pray for me now?” My somewhat stunned husband responded positively, placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and prayed for him. David walked away from this encounter with a lot more conviction and much less cynicism.
But certainly not every time we pray do we walk away feeling uplifted or victorious. Sometimes we pray in obedience to a biblical fundamental, but we are left still shedding tears for others or for ourselves. We are just not sure we are always going to get the answer we want. But despite the disappointments, we pray. It’s just what we Christians do.
As my followers know I have been struggling through treatments for metastatic breast cancer for 3 1/2 years. Just yesterday I was told that my X-ray scans showed a reduction of liver metastasis. Hip, hip hooray! The immunotherapy may be the ticket for a longer life. As my daughter said, “You were due for some good news.” The combo of immunotherapy and chemo was doing its job. But the celebration was short lived. My blood labs showed high liver enzymes that indicated hepatitis. Immunotherapy had triggered an immune response against the healthy parts of my liver. Immunotherapy is off the table for now and indefinitely as cancer treatment takes a back seat to restoring a sick liver. David and I left the clinic heartsick. I considered all the prayers from my friends over the years on my behalf for a better outcome to the ongoing story of keeping me alive as long as possible. I often feel self-conscious about it. I do not think I am monopolizing my friends’ prayer time but worry that they grow weary or understandably numb to the same requests over and over, month after month, year after year, which go….
“Please pray this new therapy will improve my condition.”
“Please pray this side effect will abate.”
“Please pray I will get some sleep………………”
Our doubts do not change who God is.
A friend has been praying for her drug-addicted son for years. He is almost forty and homeless and recently found sleeping in a street by the Buffalo police. He was taken to jail after the police discovered he had an outstanding arrest warrant. My friend confessed at our church community group that she wondered why, decade after decade, her prayers for her son are not answered. She went through a litany of reasons: “Maybe I don’t have enough faith. Maybe I have not repented from some sin that blocks God’s answers.”
But in all her doubts and disappointments she persists in prayer. She and her husband cannot shake the feeling that Jesus is “near to the broken-hearted” (Psalm 34:18). They may doubt and worry, but they do it in the presence of God.
19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness
Prayer as the co-existence of grief and defiant hope
Last week, in Fairbanks, Alaska, Josiah, the oldest son (25 years old) of our dear friends, Tony and Lara, was killed; hit by a car while taking a walk on Saturday night. This couple are not new to devastating family trauma. Thirteen years ago, their 5-month-old, Jeremiah, died unexpectedly, and then 9 years later their daughter was treated for an aggressive, protracted leg sarcoma (currently in remission).
And now this! What more can a family take? As my husband and I listened to them we were once again struck with their faith in the faithfulness of God. Truthfully, before we called, I was ready to hear some ‘justifiable’ self-pity, anger, and bitter fatalism. Sure, they cried, and we cried with them, but as we listened, we could only marvel at the Holy Spirit’s care of them as they enumerated all the love that friends, family, and church were pouring out on them. They said, “We feel blessed by all this love!”
To summarize, this heartbroken couple expressed their faith as hope in the resurrection and the mysterious promises of God righting all wrongs some day at the end of time. We do not live in a cold, impersonal, pitiless universe of random chance and tragedy.
Seven months ago, Labib Madanat (read about him in Christianity Today) died suddenly while leading an exploratory mission group through Iraq. He left behind not only one of the most influential Middle East ministries but five children and his wife, Carolyn.
Carolyn and I talk frequently, she is in England, and I live in New York.
In her grief and questions, she will voice her concerns for her children and admit to overwhelming loneliness and sadness for the husband she dearly admired and loved. (Labib was hard not to love.)
I thought she might take a protracted break from her work as a curate (associate pastor) for the Church of England but that’s not happening. She soldiers on, engaging in the rhythms of her church: studying, teaching, counseling, administering, baptizing, leading worship. And then of course there is the running of a household and the comforting of children that are looking to her for the stability they need in such a time. She doesn’t accomplish all this with the stiff-upper-lip British stereotype. She’s deeply authentic and realistic in what she faces.
But again, I have never heard that she cannot do it or that the Lord is not there for her or real to her.
She leans hard into the presence of God through prayer, church life, and the word of God.
“I realized that trust in God’s goodness and feelings of sadness are not mutually exclusive; lament is a path to praise that travels through disappointment and pain and being ok with not knowing everything. It is accepting the co-existence of grief and hope; mourning what has been lost yet grateful for what remains. Part of prayer, I’ve realized, is surrendering to God the questions we don’t have answers for and having the assurance that they are in safe hands; it is having enough confidence in God’s goodness and steadfast love towards us that we don’t need to settle for ‘glib’ answers.”
Often my husband has told me that amid spiritual dryness, frustration, bleakness of spirit, Peter’s response to Christ in John 6:68-68 says it all for him. It is the starkness of its truth that pushes him and many others into a deeper wisdom of God’s goodness.
In this incident, Christ’s teaching has alienated many of his followers and they begin to desert him. Jesus then turns to his closest disciples and asks, “Will you leave me too?”
Peter responds, “Where else would we go for You have the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
We pray and trust God no matter what because He is the good and compassionate God who loves us. Sure, we are besieged by doubts during difficulties and often find his ways inscrutable, but we still pray and cry out with tears and laments to God. Our laments are not simply floating into an impersonal, pitiless, cold universe. We are not alone, and our lamenting follows the examples of the great men and women of the Bible.
In Psalm 56, the psalmist, presumably King David, asks God to “keep his tears in a bottle” (v.8) in remembrance. David is expressing a deep trust in God—God will remember his sorrow and tears and will not forget about him. David is confident that God is on his side. He says, amidst his troubles,
In God, whose word I praise,
in the Lord, whose word I praise—
in God I trust and am not afraid.
What can man do to me?
Jesus remembers all the things that happen in our lives, including the suffering endured for His sake. In fact, there are many instances in Scripture of God’s recognition of man’s suffering.
So, like the millions before and the millions after, I pray for certain outcomes, and I will pray fervently for those outcomes to be in God’s best interest for me and others. But if I don’t get my hopeful outcomes, I will assume that my tears and sorrow are held tenderly by God and will be shown one day to have been the just right and good outcome that I could have never imaged. But within Gods cosmic plan those bottles of collected tears like the collected tears of many will be somehow redeemed into a glorious and splendid eternal reality beyond and more we could have ever imagined.