The Blessings of Unanswered Prayer

When God is silent I am still reaping benefits.

It is not possible to prove Christianity based on answers to prayer, because skeptics can always explain them away as coincidence. But as former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple said, “When I pray, coincidences happen; when I don’t, they don’t.”  The cumulative effect of answered prayer is to reinforce our faith in God.

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But what about unanswered prayer?  Most of us have heard that God answers every prayer: no, yes, not yet.  I used to be satisfied with that insight.  Now I am not.  My husband will tell you that is cold comfort for the sufferer and those watching a loved one suffer.  Yet, David and I persist in prayer, even when God seems silent.

The apostle Paul tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7, NIV)

Nicky Gumble, Vicar of Holy Trinity Brompton Church, London, comments, “It is interesting that Paul does not say that when you bring your concerns to God, God will give you peace by explaining or resolving every situation you bring to Him. Instead, he suggests that the peace of God in your heart and mind is somehow more likely to satisfy you and ease your fears than if He fixed or explained everything immediately.”

What is the use of praying if the desired health results are not forthcoming? 

Four cancer and prayer stories:

Story 1: Praying with and on behalf of a friend

Three of us went with our friend who was stricken with ovarian cancer to an unusual healing prayer service in the hopes of a miracle. She later died. We would do it again for it is the right and loving thing to do – to offer our time, our awkwardness, our companionship, and our prayers in her time of need.

Story 2: A prayer of healing not answered but changed the course of three generations

A friend of mine is named after an uncle he never met. The uncle died of cancer as a boy but not before being prayed over by a nurse who told him about Jesus.  The boy’s encounter with Christ compelled him to tell his family about Jesus and to pray for them. His father would become a Christian and study to be a pastor along with the support of his family.  Generations were changed by the prayers of the young boy and his nurse.

Story 3: Sincere prayers that warmed the heart of a sincere skeptic

A friend and neighbor had a child with leukemia. The father of this child was an adamant atheist but upon witnessing the praying community of his wife’s church he was led to place his trust in Christ well before it became apparent that his daughter would survive the cancer.

Story 4: When a fallen world works against our most fervent prayers and noblest of intentions

For the followers of my blog you may recall the story of Audra and Jeremy who were in process of adopting an Indian orphan with Downs Syndrome. The long and costly adoption process was nearly complete.  Jeremy and Audra were awaiting the green light to travel to India when little Hank developed leukemia. Bureaucracy and structural indifference, international adoption difficulties, and a pandemic delayed and delayed again Hank from coming home to Buffalo.  Audra and Jeremy were undaunted. They wanted him with them more than ever. Doctors were contacted in Buffalo and were ready to treat him as soon as he arrived. A specialist even contacted an Indian provider to advise on how to treat Hank for leukemia in the interim. A missionary couple residing nearby in India were ready to travel and care for Hank during the transport to NY. And, of course, many, many Buffalo prayers were offered up for Hank and his adoptive parents.  Yet, on July 16, 2020, Hank passed away, never having been held by his adoptive family.

I do not know why Hank died and left two heartbroken parents.  Who can explain why two faithful Christians were happily willing to spend the rest of their lives caring for a child with Downs Syndrome. If ever there was a contest for whose prayers are worthy to be answered no doubt Audra and Jeremy would be top contenders. 

This story raises some troubling questions:

Why would God call a family to open their hearts and home to a forgotten child to only be heartbroken months later?  

Why were prayers not answered on Hanks behalf?  

What was the point of all the money spent, all the anxious waiting, all the praying?   

Four ways unanswered prayer works

I have suggested some hints in the stories above.  Let me be more explicit. 

  1. Connection to God:  Prayer connects us to God. Communion with God through prayer offers peace and strength. Praying releases emotions and thoughts to the authority of God who is the “Father of all mercies and the source of all comfort.” Being assured of His reality, presence and love can happen in prayer especially if we are asking for spiritual resources in the midst of suffering and disappointments. There is joy and comfort that comes from such awareness and a “peace that transcends all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7).  This peace happens even if our prayers for healing are delayed or denied.
  2. Connection to others who are praying for our difficulties breaks the stranglehold of cancer loneliness and gives way to comfort and much needed companionship. 
  3. Witness to the world:  The local church in prayerful response to the suffering of its members and those outside its doors strips it of a superfluous club mentality and creates a genuine place of acceptance and emotional safety for sufferers.  We all know crazy faith-healer stories and the ridicule their often misplaced, insensitive prayers have generated.  But I have been a Christian a long time and I can attest that when the skeptical world sees the genuine prayers and love offered up by a church on behalf of a stricken person they are impressed; even without a miracle of healing.  The two childhood-leukemia stories I described above – one with a good outcome and one not – are cases in point.
  4. Courage:  Praying reminds us of the sufferings of Christ and the suffering of the faithful, past and present. It emboldens us to face our challenges and mortality with grace and faith regardless of the desired temporal healing being asked. 

So, these are the reasons I pray and find comfort when others pray for me against this yoke of metastatic breast cancer. If I am blessed with complete healing I will love Him for all his benefits.  If I am not healed and succumb to this disease at a time way before my choosing I will love him and give thanks for all His benefits for all of eternity. 

Post script: after telling others of Hank’s death with tears and frustration Audra concluded with this: “thank you for all the prayers on Hank’s behalf ” ( no bitterness and no retreat from the dependence on prayer ).

Sleep to Die For

Consistent, restorative sleep has eluded me for over 20 years.  Therefore, an image so often talked about in the New Testament – falling asleep in Christ – has come as an unexpected comfort.

“Have courage for the great sorrows of life and patience for the small ones; and when you have laboriously accomplished your daily task, go to sleep in peace.”

Victor Hugo

“That we are not much sicker and much madder than we are is due exclusively to that most blessed and blessing of all-natural graces, sleep.”

Aldous Huxley

grandma driving“I want to die peacefully in my sleep, like my grandma.

Not yelling and screaming, like the people in her car.”

Anonymous

 

I love to sleep but for the last 20 years consistent, sound sleep has remained tantalizingly out of reach. So desperate for sleep at times I have found myself looking on with envy at homeless folks asleep on benches. When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014, I immediately discussed sleep with my oncologist.  I assumed that cancer worries along with cancer treatment would be the end of sleep for good.

Sleeplessness in any degree is one of humanity’s great annoyances. Internet searches (not good sleep hygiene to do at night) are endless in describing and suggesting ways to recover our bodies’ routine and therapeutic need for the sandman’s nightly visits. Why he refuses to come and satisfy some of us is anybody’s guess. But for sure we cannot do well emotionally or physically without sleep.  Twenty years of insomnia has left me wanting to strangle the sandman.  Going for stretches without sustaining sleep has at times been as emotionally painful as my struggle with metastatic cancer.

Worrying about endings

A few people with metastatic cancer might not entertain thoughts about how dying might go for them.  I am not one of them.  Like the confession of the late Billy Graham, I too am not afraid to die as I have confidence in Christ receiving me, but I do worry sometimes about how I may die. I am like most people who would vote to die unsuspectingly at an incredibly old age at the end of a productive, meaningful life while SLEEPING!

To Fall Asleep in Christ

I recently landed on a book, Dying Well, by John Wyatt.  The author, a British medical consultant and devout Christian, has witnessed many people in the last stage of their lives and offers insightful, encouraging, and very practical suggestions for believers facing death from illness or old age. This book is for anybody who is eventually going to die. Yes, we all should push the pause button of our busy lives to think how we would like our endings to go before the end is close.

Wyatt’s chapter describing what it means to “fall to sleep in Christ” was particularly comforting.  To “fall asleep in Christ” is the term used in the epistles for the believers’ death.  Jesus in the gospels and the apostle Paul in his letters describe the death of a believer as residing in a state of sleep awaiting their new eternal life. The early Christians understood something about this image of death. It is one of the reasons they had the courage and hope to withstand all manners of persecution and death.  At death, the believer is, as in sleep, unconscious and unresponsive but none the less a person fully alive, being held safely by the love and power of Christ.

I have known the biblical expression for believers’ death for decades but never has the term meant so much to me as it does now; nor has it provided such hope and reassurance as it does now.  Falling asleep in Christ to be woken up to the most glorious reality of all is my great hope and desire.   I love sleep, I long for it and when I awake having had a good night of sleeping, I am exhilarated.  So now as the pesky death and dying thoughts resurface so does the gentleness of the sleep metaphor. Is this pie in the sky thinking to make the reality of dying easier to swallow?  No and yes!   No, it is not the pie in the sky.  The truths of scripture and God’s love for me did not originate with me and will not end with me.  And yes, life after death has been the great Christian hope for people from all over the world for centuries.  As Paul said, “if only in this life we have hope in Christ we of all people are to be most pitied.”   (I Cor 15:19) According to John Wyatt, we can deduct from 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14 that “Jesus experienced the full reality of death so that we might fall asleep,” never having to know abandonment from God’s loving presence. Hallelujah!  My imagination has taken a turn from the dreaded to the blessed! Falling asleep in Christ means resting in peace to be woken up by the lover of our souls at the culmination of history.

“Lucy woke out of the deepest sleep you can imagine, with the feeling that the voice she liked best in the world had been calling her name.”

Chronicles of Narnia , C.S. Lewis

DEATH VERSES TO FALL ASLEEP BY:

MATTHEW 9:24

JOHN 11:11

ACTS 7:59-60

JOHN 11:25-26

I THESSALONIANS 4:13-14

ISAIAH 26:19

PSALM 17:15

PSALM 16:9-11

PSALM 139:17-18

REVELATION 22: 3-4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cancer, COVID-19 and the fear of God

It has taken me decades to learn the meaning of  “fear God or fear everything else.”  Here is my story.

In 1971, the voting age was lowered to 18, the majority of Americans finally turned against the Vietnam War, Disney World opened in Orlando, James Taylor and Janis Joplin were at the top of the charts, and I was looking for peace of mind.

At the spontaneous invite of a college acquaintance I joined a bible study. After listening and reading for several weeks, I began to believe, or so I thought, I was finally exposed to the “real Gospel.” I was told Jesus wanted to be my buddy and cheerleader; a celestial presence that would give me peace and lead me on paths of success and happiness!

Fearing the Lord, a common refrain in the scriptures, was tamed by well-meaning Christian encouragers. No need to fear God, just trust that Jesus died for my sins and then enjoy an “all good, cleared for heaven status.” Discipleship, as in learning how to live like Jesus, sounded nice but it also sounded optional and too radical. I thought I was okay with that, but guilty and confusing feelings persisted as I tried to walk the fence between my youth culture and the Christian life. Little did I realize that “fear of the Lord” was wedded to love and comfort from God. I was trying on the new clothes of a Christian commitment and not finding them very comfortable and certainly not stylish. It was grueling. Anxiety and insecurity abounded but I stubbornly persisted towards this dead end; always hoping I would get a thumbs up from Jesus for labeling myself as a Christian. Jesus would understand a young woman just wanting to be, well, cool and culturally relevant while still loving Him or so I wanted to believe. I suspected that I was eventually going to give up this fling; the cognitive dissonance was driving me nuts. My secular friends were also waiting for the penny to drop and figured it would be just a matter of time before I was brought back to my secular senses.

Slide2Before writing further, let me be clear. I had no question that I was accepted by God. I had peace with God through Christ’s sacrifice, not through any action or behavior on my part. But I did not have peace of mind.

Living a double life was becoming too stressful. I finally cried uncle. I embarked on a good old-fashioned biblical activity. I began to REPENT of my double mindedness in order to learn how to live the way Jesus wanted me to.

First, I realized that I had to circle back around to the fear of God. It wasn’t easy. I circled with trepidation; the skittish movements of a timid animal trying to get close to a compelling fierce presence that was simultaneously good and terrifying. For much of my youth fear was the compass that directed my ways and thoughts. It had worked until it didn’t!

Dale Bruner, commenting on one of the most ominous but, paradoxically, comforting sayings of Jesus (Matthew 10:26-31), concluded, “And blessedly, the one who fears God is liberated from fear of people – no little liberation…..Fear God or fear everything!” 1

Again, clear explanations are needed. We are not to be scared of God. Fear of God is not the fear a servant has for a harsh master. It is more akin to the love, reverence, awe, and, yes, fear a child might have for a loving, wise parent who has expectations of the child for her own good. Like the loving parent, nothing can separate us from his love. He will never leave or forsake us. (Romans 8:38-39; Hebrews 13:5)

As I approached the center of that terrifyingAs it turned out, as I approached the center of that terrifying, fearful, holy presence that I began to experience a beautiful, flourishing life. I experienced a power to not just want to be good but a liberation that made it possible for goodness, wisdom, love and community to begin to be part of my nature without the white knuckling attempts to be good. My deepest needs were finding the source and power to become a learner of Christ and I was being renewed and refreshed; not overnight but the trajectory was set. I had purpose and purpose that finally brought the peace.

Here I am, 47 years later with metastatic breast cancer, a compromised immune system, and a lung inflammation (side effect of cancer drug). As it turns out, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, I never been more grateful for embracing the fear of God. There is an ultimate authority who reminds me of who is in charge and why and for whom I exist.

What is the Fear of God?
Psalm 34 is helpful here.

Seeking the Lord,
Embracing that God is in charge, not me or any other person, institution, or government,
Recognizing that he is the center of the universe, not me,
• Gladly accepting that He is the boss of my life, not me, and finally,
Operating as a mortal destined for immortality because of the will of the one “who alone is immortal and lives in unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16).

Many of you will have your own descriptors for a healthy fear of the Lord. The bottom line is that the ‘Fear of the Lord’ is a good and needful truth that grounds and encourages us in this chaotic world.

 

1. Bruner, F.D. 2004. Matthew, A Commentary, Vol 1: The Christbook. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI. 483 pp.

Name Your Tumor

Being known by name is significant and a comfort in the midst of difficulty.

Naming tumors is a real thing. And I don’t mean naming the specific type of cancer. No, these are pet names. Arnold, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, and disliked politicians are common tags assigned by cancer patients. Most people report that naming their tumor is an empowering exercise allowing them to wrestle back a little control from a bully.

Unfortunately for me, I would need a baby naming book in order to find names for all the little tumors that are floating around. Fortunately, I’m not attracted to the name-your-tumor game but I’m not judging those who are. Whatever helps cancer patients not feel so helpless is probably a good thing.

But I’m intrigued by the need to name a thing or person.  Assigning names, being referred to by names, labeling objects by names, Hello_my_name_is_sticker.svgand finding meaning in names fosters connection and intimacy to each other, our environment, and, apparently, our diseases. The importance of naming is found in both Testaments. Being named, having a name carries spiritual significance. God revealed his name to Moses.  Jesus was named Immanuel, ‘God with us.”  Both Peter and Paul were renamed by Jesus.

When I was first married, I complained to my husband that I wanted to hear my name spoken by him more often. Hearing my name by my beloved made me feel special to him and more connected. It capped off the special relationship we shared. No doubt he was initially perplexed by this marital complaint but happy to accommodate.

The following verses in the gospel of John at Christ’s resurrection are exceedingly meaningful and tender to me (emphasis mine):

John 20:15-16
He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means ‘Teacher’).

Imagine her relief, her love, her comfort to hear her name spoken by the Lord at such a time.  It’s an image that carries me through this harrowing medical ordeal. Imagining the Lord of the universe saying,

Dona, I’m here with you.”
Dona, I’ve got this, don’t be afraid.”
Dona, you will be with me forever.”

I don’t feel a need to name a tumor or tumors to feel more empowered or in control. He knows and calls me by my name. That is enough. That is everything.

4 Reasons We Don’t Feel Comfort from God

 

dandelion

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 2 Corinthians 2:3

Make no mistake – this world does not operate under a system of comfort but rather a system of survival of the fittest whether it is in the school playground or the board rooms of major corporations. Comfort and compassion in the midst of troubles come from God whether He is recognized as the author of it or not.

But how do we experience comfort in suffering?  Doesn’t suffering, by definition, leave no room for comfort?  Comfort and suffering (troubles) don’t co-exist but are strongly related as our biblical text attests.  Comfort and suffering don’t co-exist but they can come in alternating waves. A person can be suffering from the loss of a loved one but moments of reprieve can come by way of a friend’s presence or an unexpected mercy and then later grief can hit again with a raging force and then later God’s comfort comes again to sustain.

He is the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort whether it comes as sustaining relief or in spurts of reprieve that give just enough hope to take the next breath.

We can experience comfort during periods of trouble and hardship.  Let me suggest four reasons why we don’t feel God’s comfort or at least not get all the comfort available to us.

1:  We don’t feel God’s comfort because we don’t ask for it

We will seek comfort from almost anybody or anything before we ask for it from God.  Call it unbelief, pride, plain laziness or lack of imagination.  Whatever it is, it does not depend upon or uphold the one who is called “the Father of compassion and all comfort.”  Mercifully, He gives it out anyway to those who don’t even care much for Him. But how much more is our hope and faith enlarged when we ask for it, keeping our spiritual antennas pointing in all and any direction as we wait for his timing.

2: Comfort may not come immediately and so we are disappointed and distrustful

Waiting on the Lord is a frequent refrain in the Psalms and is fundamental to the meaning of faith and belief.  “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”  (Hebrews 11:1)  Some of the great saints, preachers, missionaries, and hymn writers as well as many clients and friends of mine have been sufferers of depression and experienced great losses; but they were believers in the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort and were all the wiser and compassionate for it. Their experiences of waiting on God have given hope to innumerable sufferers.

3:  Comfort does not always come to us in the way we expect.

We may be failing to recognize God’s comfort because it is not being delivered in a way we are used to or want.   We must be alert for the subtle comforts of God.

Acts 17 of the New Testament reports a theological sermon Paul gave to some Greek intellectual philosophers who were being introduced to the Christ- way for the first time. At one point in his debate he says in reference to humankind “that they should seek God, and perhaps reach out for him and find him. Though he is not far from any one of us.”

He is close at hand but we miss Him because our antennas (if even up) are pointing only in certain common directions. God’s comfort is sometimes so close that it is missed.  I have a friend who experienced disappointing career reversals and then had to leave her home. She was sitting in her car after clearing out the last vestiges of a life she loved. Sitting there alone she wondered where God’s care and comfort were for her and her family.  At that moment she noticed a disabled refugee she had seen limping along the street many times before but paid little attention to. This time she watched him as he bent down to gaze at a small dandelion.  He then looked up, turned towards her with a big toothless grin in what seemed to be a response to the beauty of a simple blooming weed. That was the moment my friend saw and felt the compassion and comfort of God.  And it was through a man with far less material wealth and physical comfort than she. She drove off comforted by faith in a God who was there and whose compassion was shown to her in an unexpected, humbling way.

4:  Suffering is not understood as having any value

A paraphrase of the last part of this verse goes something like this: “there will come a time when you will comfort others. The comfort you received from God when you were suffering will allow you to ‘pay it forward.’

When I was a young woman I suffered from a serious anxiety disorder. By today’s standard of mental health care I would likely have benefited from an SSRI and cognitive behavioral therapy. (A lot has changed in forty years.) Instead I received comfort through my Christian community even though it felt endlessly drawn out. I am pretty sure that if God had supernaturally spoken to me with a promise that someday I would be providing comfort to others because of the troubles I was having I would have said, “No thank you”.  I would have still pleaded for the quickest and most permanent relief intervention possible. And there would have been nothing wrong with that reaction. He would have understood and expected it. But my life was to take a different course.  In hindsight I can see that without that experience I would have missed out one of my life’s greatest privileges and satisfactions. I am a mental health clinician today because of my training and education. I am an empathic health clinician because of the “troubles” I went through in my early adult years and the benefits I received through the community of faith. God leveraged what happened in my life to later help me help others.

But, there is a caveat to all this. Proceed gingerly and prayerfully before telling a sufferer of how God is going to use their suffering.  I just told my sad story but there are much, much sadder stories than mine being experienced.  A bible verse like the one quoted above has truth but the messenger of that truth will more than likely be the Holy Spirit working through someone who has gone through a similar hardship to offer comfort to another.

In closing, I almost gave up this blog post several times.  As I worked on it over the course of a week I had periods of discomfort and discouragement. I worried about a return of cancer and a host of other things.   I felt like a hypocrite. But at the same time I had moments of insight and comfort so I stayed with it.  And isn’t this an imitation of life?  We have periods of discomfort, discouragement and trouble.  We feel like giving up.  But we persist, or rather God persists, comforting us, particularly if we ask Him for it, and then we wait and look for it in the ordinary and the extraordinary.  And dare I suggest, when we come through it, it is time to pay it forward.