Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 1
I volunteered to read to terminally ill children at a cancer unit once, and found that many of them were bound up at first in the hope that God would heal them. He never did. I wept copious tears each time one passed away during my stint, as I had become emotionally attached to them. The pain got to me. And He claimed to have this special caring for children? But why are we blaming him, when he is only imaginary? (Kadene, 6/7/10)
As a survivor of clergy sexual abuse don’t pray for me – your prayers will not help me pay the rent to stop being evicted or pay the bills because I am no longer able to work because of the abuse. When you have provided support for all the victims of clergy abuse then you can take time off to pray. (JohnBS1, 6/8/10)*
My heart breaks when I read experiences like these. Sincere people have been deeply hurt or disappointed by God, or they have trusted in others who represent God, and they got a raw deal. They believe that God abandoned them or seriously let them down, just when they most needed his help.
I understand all of these feelings and reactions very well. I’ve had them myself. I am convinced that I will never be able to fully understand why God seems to be very helpful in some circumstances, but does nothing in others, especially when a little help could make all the difference in the world to someone who is suffering.
For example, one of the most troubling, difficult, and faith-testing experiences of my life was when my mother was dying slowly of Alzheimer’s disease. For 15 horrific years, I had to watch her, my father, and the rest of us suffer. At first, I prayed that she would be healed, but she wasn’t. Then I prayed that God would put her out of her misery (and us out of ours), but she continued to linger on.
She was a strong Christian who helped many different people, and she and I were very close. Her death was going to be a huge loss to me. Why God would let this happen to her? Even though I should have known better, and should have asked this question on behalf of millions of others who suffer far worse horrors, I was caught off guard. I had falsely assumed that if someone was a good person or did good in the world (or was my mother), then God would spare them from extraordinary suffering. But there she was, slowly dying before my eyes. What was I supposed to think now? What was I going to do?
One day, in the midst of my angst and distress, I came to a crossroads. I had become bitter, and I was going to have choose which way I was going to go: continue in my bitterness, choose to trust to God in the midst of unanswered questions, or quit believing in God all together. When the options finally crystallized in my mind, I suddenly saw the way forward for me.
To cling to bitterness seemed just plain stupid and self-defeating. Holding a grudge against God and stewing in negative emotions was getting me nowhere and poisoning my soul.
Logically, I had to consider the possibility that God didn’t exist, didn’t care, or was powerless to help (as others have suggested). However, I had a problem with this option: My belief in God went to the core of my being, and my relationship with God had led to significant changes, meaning, and fruitfulness in my life and relationships, in spite of all of the disappointments and frustrations. Further, the existence and work of a divine being remains the most compelling explanation to me for the universe and human existence.
That left the middle option—humble myself to accept that fully understanding God was beyond my ability, and to seek whatever God offers to me on God’s terms. I can leave open unanswerable questions, and embrace the hope that comes through Jesus and the power that I experience through the unpredictable, and uncontrollable working of the Holy Spirit.
In that moment, I suddenly knew what choice I was going to make. Or perhaps I should say, it was made for me. I was given the grace to trust again in God. I accepted that I would wrestle with important questions about God, but that they need not hold me back from living by faith and enjoying a relationship with God, while I was continuing my exploration for deeper understanding.
When the light came on, I suddenly was set free from the bitterness I felt, and free to love and serve God again wholeheartedly. You might even say, I forgave God in that moment. Not that God needed forgiving, but in my own small mind, arrogant enough to think that I should be able to understand God and all of God’s ways, I needed to let go of my charges against God.
That’s what forgiveness is. Letting go of real or imagined offenses, and choosing to go on with the relationship on a new basis—sometimes with renewed hope, and sometimes with altered expectations. Either way, humbling yourself, forgiving God, and embracing what is available to you through Christ, may give you the fresh start you’ve been looking for in your relationship with God.
As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, “Where is your God?”
These things I remember as I pour out my soul: how I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, with shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.
—Psalm 42:1-6a (NIV)
If You’re Stuck….
I don’t know what kind of raw deal you might have experienced in your life, or what impact it might be having on your relationship with God. You may feel you have a right to be angry at God, and really good reason to reject religion or faith in God. You probably do. But how well is turning your back on God and prayer working for you?
What would happen if you chose to forgive God for not helping you when you expected or begged for help? What might happen if you chose to move toward God, instead of away from God, with all of your hurt and pain? I know you might instinctively respond, “Nothing! Nothing would happen!” However, that is not my experience. You may not experience what you want or expect, but, in time, those who put their hope in God will again know and experience his love and presence.
Dear God, sometimes I feel so abandoned by you. You are so silent. I feel so alone in my suffering. I cannot understand why you are not helping more. I don’t even know what to say to you anymore. Please show me the way forward. Help me to know how to wait for you and to see your presence where it may be found.
*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted these responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.” “Dialogue with the Disillusioned” is a series of articles addressing the question “Why Keep Praying?”