So, there’s so much that could be said concerning the mind-boggling complexity of why our prayers are and are not answered. So many variables and such a vast amount of possibilities that our finite minds simply cannot comprehend; not only can we not comprehend such; we don’t even have the information available to begin to process answers. Such simply is not revealed.
So what do we know? We know that God loves us. We know that the person of God, according to Scripture, is fully revealed in the person of Jesus Christ (Col. 2:9; Heb. 1:3). And we know that at the end of the day God wants what’s best for us. With this being said, allow me to leave you with three things to think about.
First, when we see pain and drama come tumbling into someone’s life, remember there is no perfect thing to say that can make sense of things. We had a friend in Memphis who lost her son in a car wreck. The youth group was on a trip, the van wrecked and life was forever changed. There is so much about the situation that was frustrating and painful for this couple, among which was a comment spoken to her in the visitation line. “You know,” the well intending lady said, “God had a Son and He lost Him as well.” To which the grieving mother said, “Yes, and He got Him back in three days!” If we’re not careful, through our ignorance, although well intended, we can actually be agents of further pain as opposed to givers of comfort. Remember, Job’s friends started messing up when they began to speak! The best approach, in my opinion, is to reaffirm your love, trust God and simply be there.
Second, don’t pretend you know why. As is commonly known, the more we learn and the deeper we go into the details of the physical world, the more profoundly we are humbled--the more we know how much we don’t know. So it is with God. The more we consider the variables (the order of the world, free will, God’s will, faith of the one praying, faith of the one being prayed for, persistence, number of people praying, not to mention the antagonistic spiritual world, etc.) the more we should be humbled. It should be painfully clear that we simply don’t have enough evidence to form a conclusive explanation.
Remember, the Creator is fully revealed in Jesus - that’s what we do know. I love what Boyd says in regard to prayer’s ambiguity: “This humble acceptance of finitude is very beneficial. If followed through in faith, it helps us relinquish our fear of ambiguity and our inclination to oversimplify creation and overcomplicate God’s character and purposes (which have been unambiguously revealed in Christ).” He goes on to say, “It also helps us to more fully appreciate that the mystery of evil is not a mystery about God but about Creation.” (p. 147) Did you catch that? The mystery of evil isn’t a “God question”; it’s a “vastness of the creation question.”
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve spoken with people who in the midst of pain had this knee-jerk tendency to blame God for the pain and drama in their life. (To be honest, I’ve been guilty of the same.) Perhaps though, upon learning further about the nature of prayer and the various variables in this series of articles, we can learn to trust God rather than blindly indicting Him.
There is a God. His person and indescribable love are revealed to us in Jesus. Realize that prayer plays a huge part in how things go in our lives while being cognizant that there are many other variables at play, to the end that even God does not always get “his way” with things. Case in point: Jesus’ plea on the cross, “Father if you are willing, remove this cup from me.” (Lk. 22:42) And above all, keep on praying!
You are loved,
On those occasions when our prayers aren’t answered as we have hoped I’ve argued that for us to simply conclude God said “no” is over-simplifying things. Such isn’t just an insufficient explanation; it’s a position that can be detrimental to one’s trust in God. As noted before, there are many factors to consider when it comes to prayer. Last time we spoke of such things as: GOD’S WILL, FAITH (both of the person praying as well as the intended recipient of the prayer), as well as the matter of PERSISTENCE. Although God is alive and able, things outside of Himself do have an effect upon the outcome of our prayers.
Concerning those times things don’t go the way our prayers anticipate, there are other factors at play. According to Scripture the NUMBER of people praying is very relevant. There are countless times in which, as Boyd suggests, “large groups of people were called together or when biblical characters ask others to join them in prayer.” While there is certainly efficacy in private personal prayer (Ja. 5:16), Jesus emphasized the remarkable power of numbers. Remember that time He told His disciples: “if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.” (Mt. 18:19)? Although He is using hyperbole, numbers matter when it comes to prayer.
Another relevant factor is human FREE WILL. God designed the world so that we have choice; we are not slavish robots. (Lk. 9:23; Rev. 22:17) Such certainly comes into play when we pray, especially for the lost. Have you ever thought about what it is that you’re actually praying for when you pray for a lost family member or friend? We all know people that we want to love Jesus, yet for whatever reason they have not so chosen. So, when we are praying for them, what is it that you are wanting God to do? Suspend their free will? That’s impossible given the nature of the world that God created.
Thus, as we evoke God’s name on behalf of a loved one in need of the Gospel, rather than asking or expecting God to save them against their will, our goal is for their heart to be awakened. “Lord bring something into their life (hopefully good, even bad, whatever it takes) to awaken their intrinsic desire to seek You.” They need a Savior, yet due to sin, stubbornness or distraction they just don’t see it yet. Our prayers are limited by free will.
The vastness of the complexity surrounding prayer is mind-boggling. Still, keep on praying! More to come.
You are loved,
As we contemplate prayer and the evil, pain and suffering that’s in our midst, let’s go back to the initial question, “Is God responsible for the pain in our lives?” Remember, although He is the Creator, He chose to construct a realm in which His image-bearing creatures have free-will. Consequently, as Boyd points out in his book, Is God To Blame?, there are various factors/explanations as to why prayers go unanswered. (Of course, it is understood that sometimes a seemingly “unanswered prayer” may simply be God saying, “No” to our particular request.) But the point of this discussion is that God saying “no” is not necessarily the only explanation. There are various factors to consider when it comes to prayer. Boyd suggests several things.
Certainly, first and foremost is GOD’S WILL. While such is not the only aspect, it should be at the fulcrum of every believer’s prayer life. John said, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (1 Jn. 5:14) The will of God is a factor when it comes to prayer, but it’s not the only factor. Remember when Jesus visited his home town of Nazareth? He sought to heal and help the people, but because of their unbelief He “could do no mighty work there.” (Mk. 6:5) It wasn’t His lack of desire (His will); it was their lack of faith. “It’s important,” according to Boyd, “...for us to see that in the case of Jesus, ‘God’s will’ was not necessarily God’s ideal will. It was rather God’s will accommodated to the situation of a fallen world.” (p.136) In other words, God yielded to the choices of the people.
Besides God’s will, secondly, there is the aspect of FAITH - both the faith of the person doing the praying (Mt. 8:13; Ja. 1:6-7) as well as the recipient of those prayers (Mk. 6:5-6; Mt. 9:22). Both points are important, but, again, neither are the sole answer to the question of unanswered prayer. Knowing the need for faith, yet not understanding the vastness of this topic, sometimes well intending people jump to the conclusion that their faith is flawed. Maybe it is; maybe it isn’t. While a lack of faith (of various people involved) can inhibit prayer, such isn’t always the case. What is clear, however, is that faith does enhance the strength of our prayers - not just the presence of faith, but also the amount. Remember, Jesus was impressed with “great faith.” (Mt.8:10)
One other consideration we’ll look at this time that is clearly relevant to the efficacy of prayer is PERSISTENCE. Jesus said that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Lk.18:1) To illustrate such, you may recall, he followed this comment up with the parable of the Persistent Widow - the point being that if a wicked, calloused, old judge would listen to a pleading widow, how much more would a loving God heed the prayers of His children? Boyd says, “...when a matter of prayer is on our heart, we should be persistent about it. And for all we know, in some cases, our persistence may be the decisive variable in determining whether our prayer is answered.” (p.139)
I don’t know about you, but when I think of being “persistent in prayer,” like that widow, it’s sounds so exhausting. Does it not? Yet prayer is work. Paul speaks of Epaphras in the book of Colossians who was “always struggling” on their behalf in his prayers. (4:12) Did you catch that? He was struggling in prayer. The word means to “struggle or to agonize.” Sounds like work! Great physical obstacles take hard work, do they not? Why would we be led to believe that such wouldn’t be the case when it comes to those great spiritual obstacles with which we are confronted? We’ll think more on this next time. But until then, keep on praying!
You are loved!
In thinking through this whole question of suffering, I know that God loves the wayward, broken and hurting. Such is clearly manifested in the life of Jesus Christ, the “exact imprint” of God’s nature (Heb. 1:3). Also, as we noted last time, because of love and a greater good (a stable environment of free-will) we have an existence in which problems and pain are common place. Such isn’t evidence that “God doesn’t care,” but rather it’s the result of the fact that we live in an extremely complex universe which is engulfed in a cosmic war.
With pain and thorny problems in our own lives, I’m reminded of the two-fold promise of God: “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” (2 Th. 3:3) The NIV says that He will “strengthen you and protect you from the evil one.” While the Lord of course doesn't even hint at totally removing the challenges of life, there are two things working on our behalf: 1) God through His influences - Scripture, indwelling Spirit, fellowship, etc. - empowers us in the face of life’s difficulties; and 2) God through His providence and angelic host works to shield us to a degree from them.
If you’re like me in this regard, and I assume that you are, typically the focus of prayer is upon being shielded as opposed to being strengthened. “Lord, please protect my family.” “Lord, put a hedge around our lives.” "Lord, please watch over us in our travel." “Lord, shield me from evil.” To pray for God's protection is certainly good and Biblical, however, I wonder if the Lord shares our evasive perspective.
I read where Phillips Brooks said: “Never pray for an easier life—pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers—pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then doing your work will be no miracle—you will be the miracle!” Now that is a challenging thought.
I love how Peter puts it. His words are a stark reminder that the goal of life isn’t about avoiding pain and problems; rather it’s about growing and developing our faith. It’s concerns bearing up under such knowing that in due time we shall be rewarded. Peter says:
- Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Pt. 1:3-9)
Christian, pray for strength to meet the challenges of life head on. Be strong and remember, not only how much God loves you, but how petty and insignificant the trials of this life will someday seem. My dad used to say, “A hundred years from now what will it matter?” Probably not much if we’re talking about such from an earthly perspective. However, if we allow such to embitter our hearts, destroy our faith and prompt us to give up on God it's far different. More to come.
You are loved!
All of us doubtlessly have wrestled with the will of God on various things in our lives. Perhaps you, like Melanie (whom I mentioned last week in regard to her “miracle baby’s” stillbirth), have wondered where God was in your life. While we understand that Satan is throwing his “fiery darts” (Eph. 6:16) in an attempt to wreck our faith, his opposition is to be expected; the hinge point concerns why God allows it. God could stop it. Why doesn’t He intervene?”
Initially, as finite creatures we’ll never know the full answer to such a question, simply because it’s not revealed. Boyd points out in the book I’ve been referencing that “There are far too many unknowable variables that would need to be factored in to such knowledge. Indeed, to know anything exhaustively, we’d have to know everything exhaustively.” (p. 107) Well said. So we’re left with merely trying to glean what we can from what’s revealed in Scripture.
"Can’t God do anything?” someone may ask. While much could be said here, the simple truth is no. Although God is “all powerful” He can’t do anything (Morally: He can’t lie (Ti. 1:2), Ontologically: He can’t make a rock that’s too heavy for Him to lift, etc.) and, when it comes to His image-bearing creatures not even then does He get “His way.” That almost sounds blasphemous doesn’t it? Think about it though: Peter said, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (1 Pt. 3:9) Notice that God is “not wishing” that any should perish, but clearly some will. Thus, even God does not get “His way” all the time.
So if it is the case that God, because of the world He created to allow us freedom of choice, doesn’t necessarily get “His will” in regard to a person’s salvation, would it not be plausible, given the pain in the world and the overarching emphasis of the Lord’s compassion, that He doesn’t necessarily get “His will” in regard to all suffering and pain due to the same?
The critical factor in all of this, whether it be salvation, thorny problems or the lifestopping pain we may face, is “free-will.” Because of our free-will God sometimes doesn’t get His way. Think about it: in regard to salvation many times our will or desires don’t coincide with His will. On the one hand, with little difficulty we typically can embrace that God allows things to happen (which are not an expression of His personal wishes) in regard to salvation due to free-will. Yet, on the other hand, when it concerns disappointment and pain in our lives, we tend to believe that everything amiss is in some way God’s fault, at least from the standpoint that He, as an all-powerful Creator, could have prevented it yet chose not to.
"Why did God,” we ask, “allow that?” Everyone has a different “that” with which they wrestle. It may be a health “that,” a relationship “that,” a money “that,” a career “that,” an annoying person “that” and so on. In life these “thats” - sometimes big, oftentimes small - keep on coming many times in spite of the fact that we’ve prayed and prayed and prayed for such not to happen. It’s this “arbitrariness” that can be so puzzling and at times frustrating.
So what about “that”? As noted last time, in Jesus Christ the “fullness of deity” dwells (Col. 2:9). He is “the exact imprint” of God’s nature. (Heb. 1:3) In Jesus we get the fullest, most exhaustive look into WHO God is and HOW He views things. It is my conviction, in working through all of this, that it is paramount that suffering is approached from the standpoint of how Jesus viewed it. Did Jesus care about the pain in people’s lives? Did Jesus feel/show compassion? Did He ever do anything to help? Was He consistent in His response? Friends, not only did He feel compassion and help, such served as the identifying characteristic of His earthly ministry. (Mt. 11:4-6)
Let that sink in; a predominant characteristic of Jesus Christ’s earthly ministry pertained to how He addressed pain and displayed compassion. I believe this is a true picture of how God views what goes on in our lives. To me this all comes down to love and free-will. Because of God’s love He gave us free-will and because of free-will there are consequences, specifically that even God has to watch things unfold which are not what He necessarily wishes. Boyd’s thoughts are helpful here:
- ...if God decided to create a world where love is possible, he thereby ruled out a world in which his will is always done. If he chooses to create this kind of world, he can’t guarantee that his will is always done, not because he lacks power but because of the kind of world he created. Just as a triangle can’t be round, so too a world that includes love can’t guarantee that God’s will always comes to pass. There is no reason to avoid saying God can’t do something so long as we are clear that this “can’t” is the logical consequence of decisions God made.
Friends, God loves the wayward, broken and hurting, but because of love and a greater good (a stable environment of free-will) we live in the world as we know it. Problems and pain are not evidence that “God doesn’t care,” but rather that He has limited Himself out of love for us. And don’t forget your time here is a brief journey - the destiny is the Resurrection and all that that entails! More to come.
You are loved!