Occasionally, I wrestle with a topic to write about in this weekly blog; this was one of those weeks. As a number of themes turned in my mind, I prayed that God would help me in my efforts to formulate a concise and meaningful reflection worthy of posting. Ironically, my attentions were drawn over and over again to prayer: as I discussed with other pastors a biography we read on J. Hudson Taylor, the conversation was about prayer; as I led the Lenten study on Matthew 26, the scriptures addressed prayer; when I put a 2006 Veggie Tales DVD into the player for the kids I watched as their moms attended the Women’s Bible Study, “Gideon: Tuba Warrior”, we unexpectedly watched a vignette about George Mueller (who was a champion of prayer).
Hudson Taylor was the founder of China Inland Mission, which brought the gospel to the Chinese, through ‘faith missions’ (the sending of missionaries with no promises of temporal support, but instead a reliance ‘through prayer to move [people] by God’), serving eastern Asia from 1854 – 1905. He utterly relied on prayer for his provision and direction throughout his life. As we discussed the life and faith of this great follower of Christ, a few of us were transparent enough to voice our regret that our prayer lives were, in comparison, woefully lacking in fervor and faithfulness. Hudson’s contemporary George Mueller built and directed numerous orphanages in Bristol, England while never making a single request for financial support; he remained debt-free as he relied solely on concerted prayer for God’s provision.
He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:37-38
The above-mentioned verses report part of what took place in the garden of Gethsemane hours before Jesus was arrested. Jesus and his disciples had just concluded their commemoration of the Passover and had gone to this place just outside the city to pray. Unlike other times, when Jesus went to a solitary place, on this occasion he asks his three closest friends to stay and keep watch – to pray – with him. At the time of deepest sorrow, our Lord prayed with others. Our savior’s last act of human volition was to conduct a prayer meeting with his companions. I cannot help but ask myself if I would do the same thing.
It all makes me wonder: do we pray better when we pray together? Are we all a bit more like Moses than we care to admit, that we simply cannot keep our hands raised in prayer and intercession without the help of others (see Exodus 17:8-16)? Are we willing to learn from Jesus the lesson that we are better able to accomplish God’s will when we ‘keep watch’ together? I am not, in my own strength alone, able to pray as I should. Perhaps we could get together, say on a Wednesday night, and hold up one another in prayer.
“I don’t know.”
While I hate to admit it, I am occasionally required to utter the above response. When terminal illness or unjust treatment invades the lives of those around me, I am asked questions that have no simple answer:
- ‘Why did God allow (name) to have cancer?’
- ‘Why didn’t God protect me from the man who (committed a crime)?’
- ‘Where was God when my (spouse) cheated on me?’
These questions are rarely stated but frequently felt by those who have been hurt by society, sin and circumstance. They want to know why prayers are not answered, why bad things happen to good people and why they must suffer.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a professional with a graduate degree, there is some information that I can share with those who question me about God’s role and/or absence in our personal tragedies. In my mind, I consider the role of sin: this is not the perfect world God created, but a corrupted shell of Eden ravage by sin and its consequences; much of the evil we experience is not a product of God ignoring us but us ignoring God. In my mind, I consider how harsh that sounds and how life cannot be boiled down to simplistic soundbites. While sin is a factor, its introduction to the conversation often leads to other questions like, ‘Why me and not someone more horrible than me?’ In my mind, I think these things.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a member of the clergy, there is some counsel I can offer to those who struggle with the unfair aspects of life. I think to myself that those who face adversity typically take it personally. I will hear first person pronouns – me, my, mine – when those around me question the purposes of God. I want to share that other circumstances in life have equipped them for the circumstances they are presently facing and that God has prepared them to persevere. But I know, as well, that these thoughts, if voiced, ring hollow when rebutted by questions like, ‘Why didn’t God stop this thing from happening?’ In my mind, I want to tell people to not take it personally.
“I don’t know.”
Because I am a fellow struggler in these areas, with a number of my own unanswered questions, I sometimes think about asking a few questions to those who wonder why: Is it possible that some unknown and yet unrevealed good is going to come from all this? Is it possible that you are being trained in sorrow so that you can strengthen someone else in the future? Is there any blessing, however small, that you could focus on instead your turmoil? But, even as I think of these questions, my own response is, ‘Yes, but why me? Why not someone else?’ In my mind, I’d want to think that there is a purpose in my pain.
I heard, but I did not understand. So I asked, “My lord, what will the outcome of all this be?” Daniel 12:8 (NIV)
I have no good answer to some of life’s questions. I am incapable of comprehending, let alone resolving, the intricacies of personal suffering. I must admit that I don’t know the answer to the question of why. But I do know and am comforted by the knowledge that God knows. Sometimes it is enough (and maybe sometimes it is all we have) to say that I know God and so I can trust Him with knowing why.
“I don’t know.”