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Posts tagged ‘God’s goodness in the silence’

God’s Ministry of Disappointment

SOURCE:  Amena Brown/Christianity Today

In pain and confusion, I’m finding that God is, indeed, close to the brokenhearted.

I thought I’d be pregnant by now.

Full stop. Hard return.

I will sit a few minutes after writing that sentence. I want to highlight and delete. I want to press backspace, as if a button on my laptop can keep that sentence from being true. I imagined my mid-30s differently. I thought my guest room would be a baby room. I thought I would have smiled at my baby shower by now, gentle hand on a round belly. I thought by this time, I’d have a calendar full of playdates and plenty of funny kid stories to tell.

Instead, it’s just my husband and me. This isn’t a bad thing. This is in fact enough. My husband and I are a family. Having a child doesn’t start our family. These are the things I tell myself when people whose manners exist somewhere between well-meaning and none of your business search the torso of my shirts with their eyes, trying to discern if I am hiding a pregnant belly from them. These are the things I remind myself of when enduring conversations that start off as small talk and turn to the dangerous territory of statements that stab you right between your heart and your unanswered prayers.

“Are you pregnant yet? Are you trying?” they ask, followed by intrusive suggestions and weird home remedies. “Don’t wait too long,” they say, as if we are waiting this long because we want to. “Have you thought about adopting?” they say, followed by a story of a random couple who adopted a child and then surprisingly had a biological child. As if we haven’t walked beside our friends as they journey in the honor of adoption, as if adoption is a consolation prize or busy work while we wait for the “real thing,” as if adoption should only be plan B.

Mostly we smile. Nod. Change the subject. Sometimes we get angry and frustrated and not so polite. We don’t tell anyone how these conversations make us cry when we are alone. How we hold our breath until the awkward conversation is over, until the dinner has finished and the plates have been wiped clean. We say less and less. We don’t even make comments about the future children we dream to have. We realize we are too fragile for the pointed questions and the oversimplifications.

A journey through heartbreak

I ask myself all sorts of things. Does true womanhood really hinge on a woman’s ability to become a mother? Why do I hold myself to this ticking biological clock and some ridiculous social media standard that says I should have children by now? Is my identity wrapped in checking off some arbitrary list of achievements? Does my life not matter if I am not married with kids, with a certain income bracket, with a house in a certain neighborhood, with a list of ways to describe my cool life to people I meet at parties?

Our journey to one day having children has not been blissful, innocent, joyous, or as easy as I expected it to be. It has been a journey of loss, heartbreak, delay, doctor appointments, test results, delays, stress, frustration, more appointments, more delays. Hope seems to be a liability too expensive to carry in the face of so much disappointment.

My relationship to God and my feelings about prayer became tumultuous. I found myself wincing in my faith, praying cautiously because I don’t want to deal with asking God for something when I think he will disappoint me. How do I keep going to God and asking when it seems like his consistent answer is no or wait? How do I keep believing the God who says no or wait when he knows how much that no or wait hurts me? How do I believe that God actually has my best interests at heart?

I spent the first year of this journey saying things like, “We are not these people. We are not the people who watch all of our friends around us get pregnant and have babies while we have no idea when it will happen for us.” I learned there is no such thing as “these people.” We don’t get to choose. Everyone carries a load; we don’t get to say what load, how we’ll carry it, when we’ll get it, or how long it will last.

The painful truth

I grew up as a church teen in the 1990s. In my church context, it was an age of believing the gospel could be connected to prosperity, that in the name of Jesus we could not only find love and peace, but also Benzes, McMansions, future husbands (also known as Boaz), future wives (also known as Proverbs 31 women), land, larger paychecks, and awesome shoes. Whether you named it and claimed it or marched around it six times in silence and the seventh time while blasting your loud trumpet, believing these things would bring you the answers to miraculous prayers became a way of life.

Sometimes I watched those prayers work. I watched people of faith pray for the sick, and the sick were healed. I watched church members move into houses the lender had nearly laughed them out the door for attempting to buy. I watched Boazes and Proverbs 31 women find each other, marry, and have pretty babies. So for years, I assumed this was the walk of faith. You see something you want, you pray and ask God, and you quote God’s Word that applies to said request. You focus your positive thinking on the fact that God is powerful enough to answer and that he will do all in his power and with his unlimited resources to fulfill your request.

Then I grew up. I am learning the painful truth that even when you pray and ask God, even when you quote back to God the applicable Scriptures, even when you walk around the object you are praying for six times and play your trumpet on the seventh, God doesn’t always answer the way you want him to.

What do you assume about a God who does this? He must be mean, cold, distant, unloving, inconsiderate. He must be more human and less holy, right? He must care about other people more than he cares about you. He must not see how hard you’ve tried to be good/honest/righteous.

Sometimes God is the great leader in the ministry of your disappointment. Sometimes you don’t get the job you prayed for. Sometimes the Boaz/Proverbs 31 woman you thought you were supposed to marry doesn’t even want a second date. Sometimes you want a Benz and you can only afford a hoopty. Sometimes God allows you to be disappointed. Sometimes you learn through tears, heartache, anger, and frustration that God is not a yes person.

God is near

I didn’t want to write my story this way. I wanted to have a happy sitcom ending. I wanted to be able to tell you this story from the lofty place of prayers answered. I wanted to spend a short time telling you this hard time we had and spend most of the time telling you the amazing story of how that all changed. But I’m not there yet. I don’t know when I will be. I don’t know if I will be.

Some people said this would be a season, and maybe it is, but it hasn’t ended yet. It’s gone on longer than I thought I had the strength to walk. Sometimes I get so weary all I can muster in prayer is “God, help me.” And sometimes no words come, and I trust he hears the things my soul wants to say when it hurts too much to gather the words to express.

I’m learning to accept this mystery of God. There are many things about God I will come to know or understand, and there is plenty I will never know, never understand, never be able to put words to. I’m learning the truth of Psalm 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted.” This means that when my pain hurts me deeply, God understands, God listens, God is near.

I wish I had answers. I wish I could predict the future. One of the limits of humanity is knowing only exactly what we know right now, right where we are. One thing I want my soul to remember is that life isn’t always good, humans aren’t always good, but God is good. Always.

I don’t say that because it’s convenient. I don’t say it to silence the frustrations, doubts, and questions. I say it because our tears and frustrations and doubts and hurt feelings and anger matter to God. I say it because I know how scary hope can be when you’ve lived with disappointment so long. I say it because I’m living every day trying to hold the tension of fully trusting in a God my humanity will never completely understand. As I sit in that tension, my heart still wants to believe in the God whose love is found in prosperity and poverty, in answers and in questions, in disappointment and in miracles.


Taken from How to Fix a Broken Record: Thoughts on Vinyl Records, Awkward Relationships, and Learning to Be Myself by Amena Brown.

 

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Hanging on to Faith When the Miracle Doesn’t Come

SOURCE:  Karen Woodall/InTouch Ministry

Sundown

The sun sank low on the horizon beyond the hill out behind our house. As the blazing orange orb melted into the distance, red, pink, and purple clouds seemed to ascend into a deepening blue sky. As I paused to behold the glorious display, a story that I’d recently read in the book of Joshua came to mind.

A lesser-known miracle recorded in chapter 10 (vv. 1-14) occurs during Israel’s battle with the Amorites. The writer of Joshua tells us that five kings of the surrounding area planned to attack the Gibeonites because they had signed a treaty with Israel. Coming to the defense of their new ally, Joshua and the Israelite army executed a surprise attack on the camp of their common enemies.

In verse 8, God assured Joshua of the outcome, saying, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands; not one of them shall stand before you.” Not surprisingly, Israel beat the Amorites and drove them from the city. But, as the Israelite army pursued the Amorites to seal their victory, the sun began to set. Seeing this, Joshua prayed a bold prayer, “O Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and O moon, in the Valley of Aijalon” (v. 12). And the amazing thing is, the sun actually stood still in the sky!

I love that story because it’s a dramatic picture of our miracle-working God responding to bold prayers of faith that are centered on His promises.

But as I stood there in the overgrown grass surrounding our house observing that evening’s sunset, it occurred to me that sometimes—maybe a lot of times—believers trust, pray, and believe as best as they know how, and the sun doesn’t stop in the sky. Even while clinging to the last scrap of faith, daylight disappears and is soon replaced by the long shadows of night.

It’s difficult to find answers that satisfy during times when our desires go unfulfilled, our prayers appear to be unanswered, and hope and confidence seem hard to find. I won’t attempt to gloss over real pain and frustration with fluffy platitudes and easy fix-all solutions that do little to repair dreams dashed into pieces on the ground.

What I will say is this: You can still trust God.

That doesn’t mean that if you hang on long enough, you’ll always get what you are hoping for, because the reality of our fallen world is that sometimes miracles don’t come according to our timetable. Or they don’t look like we thought they would when they finally arrive. But no matter what happens, our trust should never be placed in external circumstances. We must anchor our hope in God who, by His very nature, is trustworthy.

Beyond any doubt, the Lord has already proven His love and care for you in a tangible and concrete way. Romans 5:8 says it like this: “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” You don’t have to lean on warm feelings, or on skewed assessments of what, in our view, seems to be the best outcome. The cross is an objective and enduring exhibition of the love of God. On that, you can place your full trust without question.

I do not know why some miracles come in such grand fashion, nor do I understand why so many times the sun silently sinks away.

What I do know is that even when the light retreats and night falls, with its all-encompassing blackness, you can still believe in the unending love and compassion of our God. When the sun sets, and disappointment settles over you like an evening mist, you can still choose to hang on to your trust in Him. And when, in the face of sorrow and heartbreak, you do remain faithful, perhaps it’s then the Lord will set ablaze His greatest miracle deep within your heart to ultimately shine brighter than the sun.

“Your sun will no longer set nor will your moon wane;

for you will have the Lord for an everlasting light,

and the days of your mourning will be over.”

Isaiah 60:20

 

When Jesus Makes You Wait in Pain

SOURCE:  Jon Bloom/Desiring God

The reason there was a “Palm Sunday” was because Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (John 12:17–18). It was perhaps the most powerful, hope-giving miracle Jesus ever performed during his pre-cross ministry; the capstone sign of who he was (John 5:21–25).

That’s why the Apostle John wrote, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was” (John 11:5–6).

The word “so” connecting those two sentences is stunning. The most loving thing Jesus could do at that moment was to let Lazarus die. But it didn’t look or feel like love to Martha.


“Martha, the Teacher has come. He’s near the village.”

Martha’s emotions collided. Just hearing that Jesus was near resuscitated hope in her soul — the same hope she had felt the day she sent word for him to come.

But it was quickly smothered with grief and disappointment. Lazarus had died four days earlier. She had prayed desperately that Jesus would come in time. God had not answered her prayers. What could Jesus do now?

And yet… if anyone could do something, Jesus could. He had the words of eternal life (John 6:68). Martha hurried out.

When she saw Jesus, she could not restrain her grief and love. She collapsed at his feet and sobbed, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Jesus laid his hand on her head.

He had come to Bethany to destroy the devil’s works (1 John 3:8) in Lazarus. He had come to give death a taste of its coming final defeat (1 Corinthians 15:26). He had come to show that now was the time when the dead would hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who heard would live (John 5:25).

Martha did not know all this. Neither did she know that what was about to happen would hasten Jesus’ own death—a death that would purchase her resurrection and both of Lazarus’s. She didn’t know how this weighed on him, how great was his distress until it was accomplished (Luke 12:50).

But Jesus’ wordless kindness soothed her.

When Martha’s sorrowful convulsion had passed she said, “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

Jesus gently lifted Martha’s eyes and looked at her with affectionate intensity. “Your brother will rise again.”

His living words revived her hope. Could he mean…? No. She dared not let herself hope in that way. Not after four days.

“I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Yes. Lazarus would rise again on the last day. Martha had no idea how deeply Jesus longed for that day. But Jesus meant more than that.

He replied, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

The power with which Jesus spoke caused faith to swell in Martha’s soul. She wasn’t sure what this all meant, but as he spoke it was as if death itself was being swallowed up (1 Corinthians 15:54). No one ever spoke like this man (John 7:46).

She answered, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”


We know how this story from John chapter eleven ends. But in the horrible days of Lazarus’s agonizing illness and in the dark misery of the days following his death, Martha did not know what God was doing. He seemed silent and unresponsive. Jesus didn’t come. It’s likely that she knew word had reached him. She was confused, disappointed, and overwhelmed with grief.

And yet, Jesus delayed precisely because he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. He knew that Lazarus’s death and resurrection would give maximum glory to God and his friends would all experience maximum joy in that glory. It would make all their suffering seem light and momentary (2 Corinthians 4:17).

When Jesus makes a trusting saint wait in pain, his reasons are only love. God only ordains his child’s deep disappointment and profound suffering in order to give him or her far greater joy in the glory he is preparing to reveal (Romans 8:18).

Before we know what Jesus is doing, circumstances can look all wrong. And we are tempted to interpret God’s apparent inaction as unloving, when in fact God is loving us in the most profound way he possibly can.

So in your anguish of soul, hear Jesus ask with strong affection, “Do you believe this?”


Jon Bloom (@Bloom_Jon) is the author of the forthcoming book Not by Sight: A Fresh Look at Old Stories of Walking by Faith (April 30, 2013)

The Mystery of Unanswered Prayer

SOURCE:  Gerald Sittser/Discipleship Journal

Sooner or later we all wrestle with God’s silence.

 

Stories of unanswered prayer wear down our defenses until we can no longer dismiss them as the rare exceptions we would like them to be.

Each stabs us with pain, reminding us of personal experiences we would like to forget and raising all the old questions about God’s trustworthiness.

Each makes us wonder if it is worth our while to pray to a God who doesn’t seem to hear our prayers or, even worse, doesn’t seem to want to answer them.

Recently our interim pastor, Bob Mitchell, a former president of Young Life, preached a sermon in which he quoted from a letter he received in May 1955. The letter was written by Jim Elliot, who had recently moved to Ecuador with his young wife and baby daughter to pioneer a new missionary outreach to the Auca Indians.

The Aucas lived in a remote area and were considered hostile to outsiders. Elliot expressed gladness that “the gospel is creeping a little farther out into this big no-man’s land of Amazonia.” He also mentioned that a mutual friend and partner in ministry, Ed, had already left to make contact with the tribe. With a sense of excitement and foreboding, Jim asked Bob to pray for them, especially for Ed: “There are rumors that the same tribe is scouting around there now, so don’t forget to pray for Ed—that the Lord will keep him alive as well as make him effective in declaring the truth about Christ.”

Bob prayed for his friends’ protection and for the success of their ministry. But several months later those courageous friends—Ed, Jim, and three others—were murdered by members of the very tribe they wanted to reach.

Bob’s prayer seemed to go unanswered.

Problematic promises

I have heard similar stories, less sensational perhaps but no less wrenching.

A young Christian prays for guidance but fails to receive any sense of direction.

A mother prays for a daughter’s healing but watches helplessly as she falls prey to the ravages of cancer.

An elderly couple prays for a neighbor’s salvation but sees no results.

It would be easy to discount such stories if these praying people were the peacetime equivalent of “foxhole Christians” who turned to God only in a panic and a pinch. But many people whose prayers go unanswered are sincere, mature believers.

Jesus’ outrageous promises appear to be part of the problem. He promised that if we ask, we will receive; if we seek, we will find; if we knock, the door will be opened (Lk. 11:9). He taught that if we ask anything in His name, He will do it (Jn. 14:14). Jesus’ promises awaken an expectation that our prayers will be answered. This leads to profound disappointment when our prayers go unanswered.

Ironically, the answers to prayer we do receive exacerbate the problem.

If God never answered our prayers, then we would surely stop praying, dismissing it as futile. But we have all had enough prayers answered to know that God is real, willing to meet our needs, and eager to respond to our pleas.

Why does He answer some of our prayers but refuse to answer others? Does God judge our motives, weighing each request according to its polish and purity? Or is He capricious, like a moody monarch? Is prayer simply a vain exercise, nothing more than the haunting cry of our own voice?

Is it our fault?

I do not ask these questions as a disinterested observer. I, too, have experienced the devastation and bewilderment of unanswered prayer.

My wife, Lynda, wanted to have a big family, but she was unable to conceive. Every day I prayed that God would grant us the gift of children. My prayers were finally answered when Lynda gave birth to four healthy children in six years. She was delirious with joy and embraced the calling of motherhood with enthusiasm and confidence.

Every morning I pleaded with God to protect and bless our family. I prayed such a prayer on the morning of September 27, 1991. But something went wrong that day. A drunk driver lost control and smashed into our minivan, killing Lynda; my daughter Diana Jane; and my mother, who was visiting us for the weekend.

To this day I have been unable to understand what made that day different. What prevented my prayers from getting through to God? Did I commit some unpardonable sin? Did I fail to say the right words? Did God suddenly turn against me?

Why, I have asked myself a thousand times, did my prayer go unanswered?

I have no answer to that question.

I have pondered the traditional and biblical reasons why God does not answer prayer: willful sin (Ps. 66:18), lack of persistence (Lk. 11:5–8), selfish motives (Jas. 4:3). All of these are valid. Unanswered prayer can be our own fault, as we all know. We are well advised to search our souls when God does not answer, daring to discover if we are shamelessly disobeying Him or praying foolishly.

Yet these explanations leave me cold. Sooner or later such introspection must stop. The problem of unanswered prayer is too complex to reduce it to the simple issue of personal sin.

I spent months in torment trying to figure out why God did not answer my prayer that morning. I finally gave up in frustration and exhaustion. Perhaps I deserved what happened. Then again, maybe I didn’t.

I will never know.

But I do know that prayer is intended for the weak, not the strong; for sinners, not the perfect. Jesus did not commend the self-righteous Pharisee who used prayer as a platform to exalt himself; instead, He embraced a sinful tax collector who cried out to God for mercy (Lk. 18:9–14).

Hints and clues

So I am left asking the same question: Why unanswered prayer?

It is a mystery to me.

I find hints here and there that point to an explanation, but I cannot find a definitive answer. The Bible boldly proclaims that God is near and wants to answer our prayers; it also tells us God can seem strangely distant at times (Psalm 88:102).

What clues, then, does God’s Word provide?

First, Scripture encourages us to express our frustrations and disappointments. Nearly half the psalms express lament, some with a great deal of emotion. Jesus had one such psalm on His lips as He died: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1, Mk. 15:34). Jesus did not silence Mary and Martha when they accused Him of failing them, nor did He shame them when they wept. Instead, He welcomed their complaints and wept with them (Jn. 11:1–44). Revelation promises that at the end of history God will wipe away every tear, which implies that we will shed many tears before the end comes (Rev. 21:4).

Second, however distant God seems to be, Jesus urges us to pray with boldness and persistence. He commands us to pray like the woman who approaches an unrighteous judge to settle her case, refusing to take no for an answer (Lk. 18:1–8). Somehow persistence itself builds faith in God, increases longing for God, focuses attention on God, and purifies motives before God. It affects us more than it affects Him. God does not have to be persuaded to answer our prayers; we have to be disciplined to keep asking.

We can see the importance of persistence by observing how children function with their parents. Most of their requests fade as suddenly as they appear. In those few cases when they want something really important to them, they cannot take no for an answer, no matter how long it takes to get their way.

Third, Jesus reassures us that God wants to answer our prayers.

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?

—Lk. 11:11–12

God is our Father. He delights in giving gifts. He is not abusive, turning our requests into occasions to torture us. He overflows with bounty and generosity.

If anything, God is so gracious that He wants to give us the best gift of all. That gift is not some cheap toy that wears out after a week of hard play. God gives us the very best; He gives us what we really need (though not always what we think we need). He sends us the Holy Spirit, which is the answer to all our prayers, even the prayers we do not think to utter.

The Holy Spirit is God’s greatest gift because He enables us to live life well, though our outward circumstances would tempt us to think otherwise. The Holy Spirit transforms us from within.

If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

—Lk. 11:13

Finally, Jesus charges us to view life from a redemptive perspective. There is more to life than meets the eye when God gets involved. He works things out for good. Think about how the stories of Joseph, Esther, and Jesus turned out. Could anyone have imagined that Joseph would be reconciled with his brothers, that Esther would save her people from annihilation, that Jesus—who in the eyes of His followers seemed to fail miserably as the Messiah—would save the world from sin and death? We view unanswered prayer from the perspective of our immediate experience and our limited vision. But God is doing something so great that only faith can grasp it, wait for it, and pray for it.

An unlikely answer

There is more to Bob Mitchell’s story than that one ominous letter. Years later Bob attended an international conference for evangelists. He happened to meet an old friend who introduced Bob to a South American evangelist. Bob learned that the evangelist was one of the Auca Indians who had murdered Jim Elliot and the other four missionaries. Bob suddenly realized that his prayers had been answered. The Auca Indians had become Christians.

I refuse to offer trivial answers to the problem of unanswered prayer. No easy answer will mitigate the difficult questions.

The Apostle Paul prayed three times that God would remove some “thorn in [his] flesh” that had tormented him for years (2 Cor. 12:7). God did not answer Paul’s prayer. Instead, He did something even greater. He showed Paul that His grace was sufficient for Paul’s weakness, which seems to us an odd way to answer such a prayer (vv. 8–10).

It is all a mystery to me, both wonderful and terrifying. It is a mystery that draws us ever closer to God, who, in His glory and holiness and utter beauty, is the answer to all our prayers.

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