Pain and suffering are part and parcel of our planet, and Christians are not exempt.
ONE OF THE MAIN QUESTIONS PEOPLE ASK me about prayer is why every prayer is not answered. That seems to fly in the face of what Jesus says and does. And this is one of the Lenten surrenders we can make. We can work to surrender our doubts about prayer.
Consistently, we associate Jesus with answered prayers. Jesus' teachings on prayer are straightforward and simple: "Ask and you shall receive; knock and it shall be opened to you." Jesus wants us to have a kind of sublime confidence. He often says that healings are more likely when people's faith is strong. Jesus makes us feel that God is always listening.
This confidence is especially keen before the raising of Lazarus. Jesus says, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." Lazarus has not yet been raised, but Jesus already knows that his prayer has been heard and answered. And Jesus wants us to know that the Father's generous response is not just for him, but also for us.
At the same time the Scriptures caution us against overconfidence in prayer. When Jesus struggles with Satan in the wilderness, Satan taunts Jesus into using prayer as a kind of magic bullet. He seems to want to distort Jesus' intimacy with God. "If your God is so terrific, and you're so close to him, why don't you just turn a few stones into bread? Why don't you jump off a high place and see if he'll save you? Why don't you come over to the dark side, where it's so much more fun?"
And Jesus replies that we should not test the Lord our God.
One of the deepest surrenders we are called to make (I'd hardly call it small) is when we must accept the death of someone we love.
Lieutenant Colonel Ken Brown, a chaplain with the United States Army 101st Airborne Division, serving in Iraq, has some insights on this theme. He wrote an entry in his war diary on April 9, 2003. He was commenting on soldiers who come face-to-face with death for the first time, when they see their comrades wounded or killed.
Some of these soldiers came to Chaplain Brown to talk about death.
"I had a young man come to me a couple of weeks ago . . . he talked to me about, if he had just been a couple of seconds sooner at a certain location, he could probably have prevented this or that." Soldiers feel guilty, Chaplain Brown says, because they didn't or couldn't prevent a buddy from dying. They feel guilty that they are still alive.
When soldiers actually see death, Brown says, their priorities change. He doesn't try to tell them that all this can be so easily explained. In the same way I think all of us feel a real anxiety about the things we can't seem to prevent through our prayer.
But Chaplain Brown tells his soldiers about a philosopher named Boethius, from the fourth century, who made a famous remark. When we come up against an evil, when God doesn't seem to be in charge, God is writing straight with crooked lines.
How do we reconcile this with the statement of Jesus, "I know, Father, that you always hear me"?
Jesus tells us to believe in a God of enormous power who surrounds us with his love. But sometimes it seems to us that this all-powerful God is not listening, is not responsive to our prayers. What then?
This experience-of sustained, unanswered prayer-is well known in the spiritual life. Sometimes it is called darkness. Sometimes it is called aridity, or dryness in prayer. It comes when we're not sure God is listening, when we think God doesn't care about us, when the outcomes we want are not forthcoming. This is a great test of faith.
The path leads both to the raising of Lazarus and to the Garden of Gethsemane. As Philip Yancey writes, "Pain and suffering are part and parcel of our planet, and Christians are not exempt." When we face this undesirable reality, when we accept that there will be pain and suffering in spite of our prayers, we accept God's wisdom as higher than our own. We trust that God is writing straight with crooked lines.
Even so, we continue to believe and to pray. We have faith that where our knowledge fails, God's knowledge does not.
This is an old map, one that has been folded and refolded many times, so creased it seems about to fall apart. Yet it leads us to hidden treasure, a deeper reliance on God. Where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also.