Category Archives: Prayer

“Is Prayer a Cop-Out?”

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying Article 6

(Coaching a Congolese leader)

“Prayer does nothing. Absolutely nothing. There is no efficacy to prayer. AT best, prayer will make people less action oriented and more accepting of social inequities due to the false idea some higher power will look out for them.

How about teaching people to read, change the lending institutions in the area to provide micro-loans, start up local businesses that pay western wages, open medical clinics with real medicines, provide family counselling and contraceptives?”(gthink, 6/7/10)*

Are you, as gthink charges, mindlessly and passively expecting God to do what you need to do for yourself and for others? If not, what is the connection between your prayers and your taking responsibility to address the problems of the world?

In my opinion, gthink misunderstands the role of prayer, but so do many Christians. Pitting prayer against action, as if one had to choose one or the other approach to dealing with life’s challenges, is a false dichotomy. In our mission work around the world, we don’t teach pastors and leaders to pray instead of taking action, but to do both. We coach our students to create a vision and plan to address the pressing needs of their congregations and communities, but to do so from a place of spiritual depth and vitality.

As I argued in my last article in this series, it’s human to want to help others, but most of us are too pre-occupied or self-serving to sustain our good intentions, especially if our own interests are threatened. Here, I am taking that concept one step further. Not only do we need God’s help to be able to get past our own self-interest, a vibrant prayer life empowers us to serve others more wholeheartedly, effectively, and sacrificially.

Jesus saw no conflict between maintaining and developing a strong relationship with God and serving the needs of others. He told us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. (Mark 12:30-31) In fact, loving God came first, and loving others second.

A look at Jesus’ life reveals the same two-fold priority: his service for humanity grew out of his relationship with God. By maintaining a rich prayer life first, he found the compassion, love, wisdom, strength, and courage he needed to fulfill his purpose in life and to serve humanity effectively in the face of great opposition and personal sacrifice.

Thus, if you pray to ask God to do what you cannot do on your own, to work through you in extraordinary (even miraculous) ways, and to equip you to take whatever action you are capable of taking, then you are praying as Jesus did. However, if your prayer is making you passive, you’ve misunderstood the point of relying on God.

Indeed there are times for letting go—in times of irretrievable loss, in death, or when we simply are not capable or called to address some need or crisis. And, it’s OK to admit your frailties and fears to God, and even throw up your hands in frustration and despair, if need be. But don’t assume the matter is finished at this point with your Amen.

If you are “letting go, and letting God” simply because you are scared, you are tired, you can’t be bothered, you are overwhelmed, or for any other self-excusing reason, then pay attention. You may be copping out. Your responsibility is not necessarily fulfilled just because you prayed or expressed your feelings.

I’m not saying that knowing how to integrate dependence on God and taking action is always easy. I’m saying it needs to be done, and requires discernment. You will need wisdom and the Spirit’s guidance to know when to press forward and when to back off. You need to discern when to act, when to wait, and when to let go.

God loves and accepts you in your inadequacies, and cares about your needs, but never stop looking for God to work through your weakness to help you move beyond yourself for the sake of others. Stay engaged, and keep looking for God to work in and through you according to his good purposes for you and for all those your life may touch. And keep working yourself.

Gthink is identifying a really important issue here, something every Christian needs to seriously think about. Are you relying on God as an excuse to be passive or avoid taking responsibility? Or, are you doing as St. Augustine advised: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you?”

“God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Corinthians 9:8, NIV)

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

A Prayer

“Lord Jesus Christ, thank for teaching me to love God and to be a conduit of your love to others as my highest priorities. Create within me a burning desire and the requisite power to do all I can to respond to the needs all around me. Work through me in extraordinary ways that fit with your good purposes—not for my glory, but for yours, and for the sake of those you want to love through me. May your good purposes be fulfilled in my life.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this and other responses from bloggers, click here, When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”

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“Just Do It! Oh, really?”

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying. Article 5.

(Climbing in Finnisterre, Spain)

The really sad thing here is that these “wiser, deeper, more thoughtful Christians” [to whom you refer in your online response to Thinkingwomanmillstone] still believe that the supreme being of all reality is sitting around giving them advice on how to turn lemons into lemonade, instead of being aware that they are doing it themselves through mature reflection on their experience; that they, not a figment of their imagination, are coming up with their own solution for their problem.

After all, practically speaking, how does what you describe functionally differ from what I describe? No gods, just people working it out using guts and common sense — and a crutch they don’t really need in the place of a self-confidence they don’t yet have.

A self-confidence people like you actively work to keep them from developing, striving instead to keep them dependent on a being that, as far as anyone actually knows, does not exist. (GalapagosPete, 6/10/10)*

In 2009, Hollywood produced its own critical take on religion and the human impulse to put their faith in God in the movie, The Answer Man. The main character, Arlen Faber is a national sensation—a much sought after religions guru, who captured 10% of the “God-market” after publishing his best-selling book, God and Me.

Turns out, though, that his claim to have heard from God is a lie. In fact, he is actually a disillusioned, cynical, dishonest jerk. Faber sells religion to make money, but doesn’t believe his own teaching, and certainly doesn’t live by it. As one disappointed fan of God and Me—and former fan of Faber—remarks at one point in the story, “He may have written the book, but he sure didn’t read it!”

From the screenwriter’s disillusionment comes a perspective on religion and life that says, in effect:  “Everyone suffers in life, and God—if there is one—won’t help. No one truly hears from God, so don’t expect answers to your prayers, and certainly don’t listen to those who claim to know anything about God. Instead, listen to your heart, and believe in what you can do on your own.”

Such an angry rejection of faith and a brave, romantic reliance on human potential may be understandable and even inspiring to some, but remains unsatisfying to me and inadequate for most people. The assumptions of these “secular humanists” (as philosophers would call them) are naïve and their hope illusory. They may be right to be skeptical of any religious system, but too quick to reject belief in God. They arrogantly take faith in their own abilities, and too easily shortchange the value of seeking a meaningful relationship with God. Ultimately, such faith in self is based on a lie, because it simply cannot deliver on its promise of relieving angst and creating a better world.

So, what’s the alternative? Taking God out of the equation certainly isn’t the answer. Rather, the solution is to let God transform your heart and mind by his love and grace, and to let your life and work in the world flow out of spiritual vitality rooted in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Hope for the world will never come from secular humanism, a religious system, or any ideology, but only from humble human beings who are committed to serving God out a living relationship with God.

Such spiritual vitality begins by seeing yourself as a beloved creation of a good Creator, who has provided a Savior to meet your deepest needs that you cannot meet on your own. Believe that you are designed to know, love, and serve a personal God, who calls you to know, love, and serve others. Then, the more you experience the love and grace of God for yourself, you will actually gain greater capacity to show that love and grace to others as well.

Such a vision for life will help you to get beyond your own self-centeredness to want to serve God’s good purposes for your life, and to join God wherever the Spirit is at work doing good. Without such a vision, most of your noble intentions and humanistic ideals for society are going to collapse rather quickly when you don’t get what you want or need. Without this kind of personal relationship with God, you simply are not going to have enough to draw on within yourself to sustain your good intentions.

No matter how smart, capable, dedicated, or “lucky” you may be, you still need God. You need God’s Spirit to cultivate a heart of love within you. You need Christ to show you how to move beyond selfishness to true devotion to the well-being of others (including those you already love the most). And you need the Holy Spirit to lead you, to guide you, and to empower you to use your abilities, opportunities, and resources in ways that best fit God’s good purposes.

Seeking to know, love, and serve God is not about using belief in God as a crutch when you should be learning how to rely on yourself more, as if they were mutually exclusive options. Rather, maximizing human potential calls for doing all you can to grow personally and to develop your self-confidence in the context of seeking the kind of relationship with God that will be truly life-giving and service-empowering.

You don’t have to choose between faith in God and developing yourself, then. You just need to wisdom to know what part God plays, and what part you play, and how God and you can best work together to do what you simply cannot do on your own.

“My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith…” (James 1:306a, NRSV)

A Prayer

“Loving Creator, thank you for helping me to better understand who I am and what my place is among others in this world. Please continue to help me to grow fully into the person you intend for me to become, and to develop the kind of relationship with you that most honors you and best serves your good purposes. Teach me when to rely fully on you, when to stand on my own two feet as a healthy adult, and how to integrate these two kinds of confidence in one Spirit-led person.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this and other responses from bloggers, click here,When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.

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“God’s Help: Fact or Fiction?”

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 4

(Congolese worshiper)

The thing is religion sellers get you coming and going. If you pray for God to help you in a crisis and the crisis goes away…all praise to God. If you pray for help and the crisis doesn’t go away He has different plans for you or He never gives you more than you can handle. So ante up. The religion sellers win both ways. BTW [By the way], why would a just and loving God give you pain to teach you a lesson? I’ll stick to the facts of the world…sh*t happens, good things happen, randomly. (Thinkingwomanmillstone, 6/9/10)*

Faith and disbelief. Two perspectives. Two very different worldviews. One claims that God’s intimate involvement in our lives is a fact. The other, God’s help is a fiction.

To someone who is frustrated or disillusioned with God, believers may seem out of touch with reality, at best, and dishonest or devious, at worst. Yet, those who trust in God and rely on biblical teaching for guidance have just the opposite point of view.

To believers, the Christian faith helps to make sense of life and opens the door to greater meaning and purpose in relationship with God. And it’s those who insist that God does not exist or doesn’t care about us who are out of touch with reality, at best, and seriously misguided, at worst.

When we start from an assumption that God is real and answers prayer, our seemingly random experiences don’t seem so random anymore. The unpredictable nature of God’s response to our requests may still confound us at times, but we can often find God at work in both the “yeses” and “no’s” to our prayers. And while we may suffer greatly from any number of painful experiences, eyes of faith see the good that can come out of even the most tragic of situations. These experiences are not proofs for God, but rather encouragements to continue believing.

If, on the other hand, we let the perplexing mysteries of God, the seeming randomness of life, and the horrors of human suffering undermine our faith, we lose something vital to our well-being. The light has not come on, as a skeptic might argue, but has gone out. When we should have been wrestling with God for deeper understanding and personal growth, we’ve given up. An absent, non-caring God becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because only those who seek find, and we’ve stopped seeking. We may think that we have reached a new height of understanding, but the truth is, we’re in a hole. But we don’t have to stay there.

From an intellectual point of view, 17th Century philosopher Blaise Pascal, in his posthumously published Pensées, put it this way. He argued that while one cannot prove the existence of God, it still makes sense to “wager” on God. If you’re right, you have everything to gain. If you’re wrong, you have nothing to lose. If, on the other hand, you wager against God, and you’re right, you have gained little or nothing. If you are wrong, you have everything to lose.

Personally, my reasons for continued faith go even deeper. I know I cannot prove that God’s help is a fact, but I can say that it is a fact that my faith improves the quality of my life. Faith in God’s love has been my single greatest source of encouragement, helping me to accept and forgive myself, and to want to be more loving. Faith in God’s goodness helps me to get outside of myself, to want to be an agent for good in the world, to seek to be a better person, and to not get stuck in the hole of disillusionment and despair. Faith helps me through times of insecurity, loss, fear, or uncertainty by giving me a rock to stand on, and prayer takes me into God’s presence where I often find peace, comfort, joy, strength, and courage in the midst of my greatest challenges. And when I can’t sense God’s presence, or I don’t see how God is helping, I continue to trust, because what I have in the love, goodness, and faithfulness of God cannot be matched by any competing philosophy or non-believing worldview.

Jesus himself died with unanswered questions (“Why have you forsaken me?”), yet refused to give up his faith. He was mocked for his faith in God the Father, and his detractors pointed to his crucifixion and inability to come down off the cross as proof that he was out of touch with reality. Yet, even in his death, when God appeared to have forsaken him, Jesus still cried out, “My God, my God…” (Mark 15:34, italics added). Though he did not understand why God was not saving him from death, he still clung to his relationship with God, his God, his abba, Father until the end.

Eventually, we see in Jesus’ resurrection that God had not, in fact, abandoned him after all. His faith was vindicated. God’s help was real. It came in God’s timing in ways that served God’s purposes, but God was faithful to him. And that’s what Jesus was betting on.

Faith and disbelief: Two perspectives. Two radically different worldviews. True wisdom is knowing on which to place your wager.

We have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light.” –Colossians 1:9-12 (NIV)

A Prayer

“Dear God, sometimes I don’t know what to think and believe about you. Please help me to face the observable facts about life, and not stick my head in the sand. At the same time, deepen my spiritual wisdom and understanding about those things that cannot be seen or scientifically tested. Help me to better see the truth about your presence, your love, and your activity in my life. Lead me in the midst of overwhelming intellectual and spiritual questions to the full and fruitful life you most desire for me.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this and other responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-timothy-c-geoffrion-phd/when-prayer-makes-a-diffe_b_601399.html

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“Is Prayer Worthwhile?”

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 3

What evidence is there for the efficacy of prayer? This is an old, well worn question but if you believe that God intervenes and saves people with a terminal disease or illness because of prayer, why does he not re-grow the limbs of amputees or unfortunates born without limbs?

Why would he help you because you prayed, for example, to pass an exam, when he ignores the prayers said for something far less trivial like helping a seriously ill, close relative to recover?

Prayer is a delusion. (So writes Trevand, 6/7/10)*

Trevand is not really asking what seem to be good questions, but is trying to make a point: Even if there is a God, he’s saying, prayer doesn’t work, and we’re fooling ourselves to think it does. In his conclusion, he is assuming that a good, all-powerful God would never answer some requests and neglect others, meeting relatively minor needs while ignoring the most serious appeals.

But are his assumptions correct?

In spite of the fact that Psalm 103 says that God “heals all our diseases,” should we really expect that God will always heal us or help us whenever we pray? And just because prayer doesn’t “work” sometimes, does that mean God never answers prayer? And when we do not receive what we ask for, are there ways to understand what is happening in our lives other than concluding that prayer is worthless?

I’ve struggled with these questions, and others like them, ever since my first pastorate in the mid-1980’s. Alongside a multitude of wonderful experiences of God at work in powerful and life-changing ways are a host of disappointing or disheartening times of unanswered prayer.

When Al was dying, for example, he asked for prayer. As a new pastor, I eagerly gathered the elders together and went to his home on a cold, wintry night. We laid hands on him and prayed for his healing. I was eager to see what God would do in response to our faith.

However, within a matter of a few weeks, he died. I was crushed. After several more equally disappointing attempts to seek healing through prayer, I started to question my faith. I couldn’t figure out what God was doing (or not doing), and why God wouldn’t honor our efforts.

Was our praying for Al a waste of time? If one measures the value of prayer by whether someone is healed, and stays healed, then our prayer didn’t work. Maybe we were wasting our time.

But that’s not what Al thought. I remember well his saying to me that he had “felt something he had never felt before” when we prayed together. Al was thrilled by his experience of prayer with the elders, and wore a look of wonder and gratitude on his face. When his illness resumed in full force, he accepted his impending death with peace that he didn’t have before.

My confusing experience with Al (and with many others who suffered and died without apparent intervention from God) forced me to re-evaluate my assumptions about God and prayer. However, I did not draw the same conclusions as Trevand. Rather, instead of concluding that God or prayer was failing me in all the unanswered prayers of my life, I realized that it was my expectations of God and prayer that were failing me.

I was assuming that if Jesus and other New Testament figures healed others, we could heal in Jesus’ name on demand. However, while I have seen God heal and have even experienced healing myself, what would make me think that God would always do so at my bidding?

Think about it. Jesus promised resurrection, which comes after death, not deliverance from every disease, calamity, sickness, and cause of suffering while we are in our human bodies. We are all going to die eventually. At some point, everyone’s prayer for healing will fail. If saving us from death were the requirement for faith, then there would never be a basis for belief in God, since we all die.

No, the Christian perspective on life is that our earthly existence is a very brief season in eternity, a time for coming to know, love, and serve God in ways that may or may not include long life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

I cannot speak for God, and I cannot fully know why God does not answer prayers in every way we want or think he should. However, there are alternatives to Trevand’s assumptions and conclusions—ways of thinking and relating to God that are rooted in humility, openness to mystery, and faith, while still being intellectually honest:

1. Accept that suffering, decay, and death are indelibly etched into the fabric of human existence. Do not pray to try to escape life’s hardship and frailty, but to find greater meaning, purpose, strength, and courage to face reality and make the most of your life.

2. Give up trying to prove something about God that cannot be proven. Instead, focus your attention on what it means to live by faith in the God of the Bible. Do not simply pray for what you want, but to come to know better the God who created the universe, makes covenants with people, provides a Savior for humanity, loves sinners, forgives those who confess their sins and repent, and who promises life after death for those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.

3. Be humble enough to let your false assumptions about God and prayer be exposed and changed by your experience. As you do so, let Scripture continually inform your changing beliefs and practices. Learn how to live with unanswered questions and tensions in the biblical view of God and prayer, while never giving up on asking the questions that are burning within you.

4. Seek from God whatever God offers, on God’s terms. Pray wholeheartedly, trusting that there is a God, who wants to be in relationship with you; that this God is good, loving, and active in the universe and in your life; and that prayer does make a difference. But do not for a minute think that you can ever control God by your prayers or your will.

Faith is not having the ability to answer every logical question that comes to mind. It is a mindset that requires humility and openness to being in relationship with your Creator, whom you can never fully understand, but who rewards those who earnestly seek a meaningful relationship with him. These “rewards”—along with many disappointments, frustrations, longings, and heartaches—are well worth the effort and the difficulty of spending a lifetime walking by faith and not by sight.

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see… And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” —Hebrews 11:1, 6 (NIV)

A Prayer “Loving Creator, you perplex me sometimes. I really can’t understand why you seem to work in such beautiful ways in my life in some circumstances, and then leave so many fervent, desperate prayers unanswered. Your “no” seems so cruel and heartless in some situations. Please help me to grow in my ability to know the truth about your involvement in my life and the lives of others, so that my worship will be appropriate, my relationship with you genuine, and my spiritual growth real and fruitful, according to your good purposes for my life. In Christ’s name and for his sake, I will continue to pray… Amen.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted these responses from bloggers, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”

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“Where is God in Unanswered Prayer?”

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 2

(Jill's hardest day on the Camino)

I tried prayer. At one point in time, I tried prayer a lot, a whole lot, not one circumstance changed for me in life. Not one thing changed that did not require my active effort to make a change. One minister told me that I was being tested, another said I was not praying correctly. Now, I asked, if I am being tested do I get a gold star or a better part of heaven? I also asked who is the best at prayer if I am doing it wrong. Is there a special teacher as to how to go about it? …. I did it simply on my own, with no remarkable insight or feeling of comfort, no transformation, no amazing response to words sent out into the vast emptiness. (Magick1 6/14/10)*

To not get an answer to prayer, especially if you have been trying unsuccessfully for a long time to hear something from God, can be extremely frustrating and disillusioning. I, too, have been tempted at times to give up and just rely on myself instead. However, whenever I start to move in that direction, away from God and faith, something tells me that it’s a mistake. I’m not talking about feeling guilty, but getting an intuitive sense that I need to be open to something that I don’t yet understand about God and prayer.

Over time, my experiences of unanswered prayer have led to great growth and learning. I often ask God to help me to see what I need to see and to  help me to reform my requests, often resulting in sudden shifts in my perspective and experience.

Magick1, I understand why you have drawn the conclusions you have, but, there are indeed teachers who can help. No one can tell you for sure why God does not answer your prayers. And no one can give you a formula to use to get the answers you want. However, there are many time-tested ways to learn and grow through periods of unanswered prayer, taught in Scripture and practiced by millions of Christians regularly. Here are three of them:

1. Remind yourself that your spiritual pilgrimage calls you to walk by faith, not by sight (or hearing). When all is dark, and even if your life is cut short; when you cannot see evidence of what you hope for, and cannot imagine how God could provide for you; choose to continue to trust in the faithfulness of God, and take actions that correspond to believing that “God exists, and rewards those that earnestly seek God.” (See Hebrews 11:1, 6.)

Continually look for God to produce good things in your life, trusting that God is at work for good in everyone who loves God and is called according to his purposes. Trust that nothing can separate you from God’s love through Jesus Christ, and that God will not abandon you. (See Romans 8:28-39: Hebrews 13:5.) Stay on course and work the plan that you believe best fits with God’s calling on your life.

2. Second, remember that your life is chiefly about knowing, loving, and serving God. Your job is not to cling to your life and to try to use God to further your own purposes (however noble they may be), but to cling to God and use your life to further God’s eternal purposes. Prayer fits in as a way to connect personally with God, to gain wisdom and understanding, to help you to align your will with God’s, and to experience spiritual transformation to help you to better live out your purpose in life.

When your prayer request aligns with God’s will for you, expect to receive what you ask for. Since you can’t know for sure when your desire aligns with God’s will, ask for everything on your heart; but accept whatever you receive. Pray for whatever you want, but always offer up your will to be reshaped by God’s will.

Jesus is our example here. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he pleaded with God the Father to take the cup of suffering from him, yet he concluded his prayer with, “but not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

3. Third, look for ways God may be at work in your life through his silence.

Magick1, you gave up on God and prayer because you thought nothing happened when you prayed, and that only your own action brought about changes in your life. That’s one possible conclusion, but what if God’s silence was God’s answer? What if God deliberately did not change your circumstances, because he wanted you to be changed instead? What if, among other lessons, God intended to teach you to take more responsibility for your own life, and to show you how much is possible if you put your mind to accomplishing something—which is just what happened? You say you experienced no transformation, but your response indicates just the opposite. You’ve changed a great deal, but you cut God out of the equation along the way.

Instead of jumping to the conclusion that God does not exist, does not care, or has abandoned you when your prayers go unanswered, ask God to teach you through your experiences. Listen to what your pain and suffering are telling you about your world and yourself. If God will not give you what you most want, ask for the Holy Spirit to help you to see what you need to see in order to clarify your thinking, to change your heart, to purify your motives, to strengthen your character, to lead you to deeper levels of repentance, to learn how to rely more on others in the body of Christ, or to better align your will with God’s. Look for God’s leading and working through closed doors and unanswered prayers, and not just through the blessing of your requests and plans.

Often we can only see the hand of God in retrospect, but the more you look learn to look at your life through the eyes of faith, and continue to trust in God’s faithfulness even in the midst of unanswered prayers, the more likely you will be to see God at work for good in your life. Yes, you can do so much on your own. God created you that way, and wants you to discover your full potential. But God also wants to be in a relationship with you and to teach you how to take what you can do and use it for the sake of Christ and his kingdom.

Where is God in unanswered prayer? God “is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13, NRSV).

Scripture “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” (Romans 8:28-29, NRSV)

A Prayer “Creator God, it’s so hard for me when you don’t answer my prayers. Please help me to appropriately adjust my expectations of you and prayer, without rejecting you, and without giving up on prayer. Please teach me through your silence and my disappointments, and shape me through my painful experiences. Free me from myself, that I may more and more embrace your often obscure purposes for my life, and be able to see the good you are accomplishing in me and through me.”

*To read the original Huffington Post article that prompted this response from a blogger, click here, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.”

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“What if God Let You Down?”

Dialogue with the Disillusioned: Why Keep Praying—Week 1

(15 years of suffering drawing to an end)

(15 years of suffering drawing to an end)

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.

Scripture

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.

A Prayer

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?”

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“Why Keep Praying?”

Why do you keep praying when prayers aren’t answered? Why do you keep trusting in God when your suffering does not fit with your notion of a good, loving, and caring God?

These questions, and others like them, are inspired by the response I received to my June 4th article on the Huffington Post, “When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering”. My main point was that prayer can be a great help to those who suffer, in spite of the fact that many of their prayers may have gone unanswered, and their suffering might suggest that God has abandoned them.

It didn’t take long for the negative reactions to start pouring in, principally from atheists and other skeptics. Response after response charged that prayer simply does not work, and it’s delusional to think it does. At best, praying is a “placebo.” Mostly, it is a waste of time. At worst, those who promote prayer are misleading suffering people and failing to truly help them in practical ways. At least, that’s what the detractors argue.

For example, here is what Kadene and Scott had to say:

“Prayer merely provides an avenue of hope for the marginalized and dispossessed, and keeps them servile and inert; it really doesn’t solve a thing.” (Kadene, 6/7/10)

Prayer doesn’t work, how about doing something more constructive with your time like trying to make the world a better place through actual actions and not hocus pocus. (Scott Ferguson 6/17/10)

Bloggers like these two individuals, and many others like them, seem to want Christians to face up to the “facts” of this life and to quit fooling themselves about the existence of God. The argument goes something like this: If there is so much horrendous suffering in the world that doesn’t seem to square with any notion of a just, loving, and powerful God; if God routinely does not respond to the prayers for help from those who suffer the most; and if so-called “answers” can be explained by good luck that randomly falls to believers and nonbelievers alike; why in the world would any sane, rational person keep praying?

Good question.

This summer, I’m going to raise this and other such questions for us to thoughtfully reflect on together. I not going to offer any “proofs for God”—I don’t think one exists. And I am not going to attempt a full-blown, intellectual “apology” (defense) for the Christian faith. (Countless books are available on the subject, if you’re interested.) Also, if you’re interested in my thoughts on human suffering and faith in God, you can read my lecture notes, prepared for a church group a few years ago on our Resources Page at our Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries site.

Rather, my plan here on this blog is to talk about the value of prayer in the lives of those who look at life through the eyes of faith, without ignoring the valid objections and questions of those who do not believe in God and Christ. Drawing on my own personal experience as a pastor, ministry leader, spiritual life coach, and teaching minister, I’m going offer my own working hypotheses on the presence of God in the life of Christians.

I invite you to use this series of articles to think deeply about the existence of God and the value of prayer for yourself—by considering the teaching of Scripture, drawing on your own intelligence, reflecting on your perceptions of the presence and working God, and asking God to lead you to greater insight and understanding.

To this end, here are some of the additional questions I invite you to think and pray about with me in the coming weeks:

• What if you got a raw deal in life?

• Where is God in unanswered prayer?

•  Who really wins when we pray?

•  Is prayer a cop out?

• Wouldn’t it be just as good (or, better) to answer your own prayers?

• Is prayer a con?

• How can a rational person still pray?

The series of articles begins next Monday. For now, how would you respond to Kadene, Scott, or any other atheist who insists that prayer is a waste of time? In light of all the legitimate reasons to doubt the existence of God and the efficacy of prayer, why do you keep praying?

“…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15, NIV)

To read my Huffington Post Article and some of the comments for yourself, go to When Prayer Makes a Difference in Suffering.

© Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion, http://www.spirit-ledleader.com

Please feel free to copy or send to as many other seekers of God as possible!

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