Category Archives: What Will Make a Difference?

Practical teaching for pastors, leaders, students, clients, and other followers of Jesus who want to grow spiritually and serve Christ more effectively.

“What Makes A Marriage Work?”

Nate and Vanessa Geoffrion WeddingCharge to the Wedding Couple

Nathan and Vanessa Geoffrion

By Rev. Dr. Timothy C. Geoffrion

July 16, 2017 

Your wedding day is one of the most important days of your lives. Even though you have been in love for some time, today you are making a lifelong commitment to one another.

You’re in love. You are committed to each other. You’re excited. You have spent a lot of time planning not only for this day, but for your future together.

You’re ready to get married. Probably more than ready. So, the question for today is not, will you commit yourself to each other. You’re already ready to do that. No, the real question going forward is, what are you going to do to stay committed? What do you need to do to keep your love alive and growing?

Everything I’m going to say, you’ve probably heard before, but now is a very good time to remind you of what you simply must remember going forward, if you want your marriage not only to survive but to also thrive and be all that God intends for you.

In short, a marriage that both survives and thrives is one in which there is rock solid commitment. There’s a lot of grace. And God is clearly at the center of everything.

Rock-solid commitment

Let’s talk first about commitment. What kind of commitment is needed in marriage? Well, the minimum level is a commitment to stay together, come what may. In a few moments, you are going to promise to take each other as your spouse, and to hold on to each other throughout your lives…for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health…until death. I think that’s pretty clear. Come what may, you will be promising to stand by each other until the end of your lives.

That’s the minimum. But our commitment should go deeper and further than the minimum.

  • The kind of commitment that helps a marriage do more than just survive is also a commitment to do all you can to work things out when things get rough or rocky. You have to keep talking, and be willing to face things in yourself and issues you might prefer to avoid.
  • It’s also commitment to keep growing as individuals, and as a couple, so that you have more and more to offer one another.
  • It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other when loving seems really hard or when you get preoccupied with other interests or concerns.
  • It’s a commitment to learn how to love each other as God love us—as much as that’s possible.

The biblical definition of godly love, also known as agape, comes down to putting the interests of others ahead of your own. Agape means acting in ways that are truly in the other’s best interest, even when it costs you something to do so. Even if you’re not getting all of what you want in the relationship.

Agape is the kind of love that led Jesus Christ to give up his life to bring salvation to the world. He didn’t do it because he felt all warm and tingling inside all the time. He did it the people he loved had a great need, and he alone could do something about it. He did it because he wasn’t thinking only about what was best for him. He was thinking about what was best for us.

In a word, agape is unselfish commitment.  It’s not devoid of feelings; it’s just not dependent on feelings. Agape is a steadfast commitment to each other, commitment to treating each other in the right ways, commitment to believing the best things about each other, commitment to being there for each other.  

Agape simply does not give up on the other person. What this means then is that you need to be each other’s best fan. You need to believe in the other, even if no one else does. You need to focus more on what it is right than what is wrong in that person. And you need to hang in there, even when the going gets tougher than you ever dreamed it would.

Full of grace

The second ingredient in a marriage that both survives and thrives is grace. Be sure there’s a lot of grace in your marriage.

You know about grace because you’ve experienced it from God for yourselves. God’s standard for our lives and relationships doesn’t waver, but he continually remembers our frailty and limitations. He knows all our failings and weaknesses, but he loves us anyway.

God treasures and values us so highly, that even when (not if) we fail to be the kind of person he calls us to be, he is there to offer forgiveness if we turn back to him. And he’s there to help us to get back on our feet again, when we need a helping hand.

That’s grace.

When I got married 35 years ago, Jill and I had no idea what we were getting into! Some things we knew, but there was so much we didn’t know about ourselves and each other. We had so much growing up still to do. And then, there was so much that life brought to us that we never could have imagined. Sometimes we were ready for the unexpected, and sometimes we were completely caught off guard. Sometimes, we handled challenges really well. And sometimes, we fell flat on our faces.

Yet, in the midst all our weaknesses, limitations, failings, and missteps, what’s helped us through has been grace. Commitment, to be sure; but also grace.

Grace accepts the other person as they are. Grace recognizes that none of us is perfect, and never will be; yet there remains value and preciousness in each of us. Grace forgives when necessary, and chooses to be patient and kind. Grace chooses to focus on the good, rather than what’s wrong. Grace believes in the other person, even when your spouse cannot believe in him- or herself.

In short, grace offers what the other person does not deserve, because the other person’s worthiness is not the point. Grace offers what love chooses to give. And once again, God is our example.

God lavishes his love on us not because of our worthiness, but because of who he is. It’s how he wants to relate to his creation. He wants to love us, and he has within himself the capacity to be gracious and kind, even when we are at our worst. We find in Scripture several places where the writer praises God by saying, “You, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15).

That’s the kind of God we have. And he is our example…

Rock solid commitment and willingness to show grace to each other are critical ingredients to a successful marriage. But there’s something else even more important.

Keep God at the center of everything.

No matter what your intentions may be today, you cannot fulfill your commitment or become all of what God intends for you to be in your own strength or by just focusing on each other. Your love, as great as it is, is limited. Your relationship, as special as it is, cannot be everything. It can’t even be the main thing.

From a Christian perspective, what makes a marriage and a family thrive is God. God is the author of love. And it’s only by tapping into God’s incredible love that you are going to be able to keep loving each other in the face of all the demands and pressures ahead.

All this means that you need to build a strong relationship with God, and to make that relationship a high priority. As Christians, you also need to put Christ at the center of your lives, at the center of your marriage, and at the center of everything. It’s only when Christ becomes the reason for your lives, and God becomes the source and strength of your lives, that you can hope to experience all of what God intends for you. …that you could hope to experience the kind of marriage that God intends for you.

So many times in my marriage, I have noticed that it’s been our common commitment to Christ and our relationship with God that have helped us through the rough spots.

  • Individually, we each gave our lives to Christ, and that common spiritual commitment has given us a common language and purpose in life.
  • When we’ve been tempted to just focus on ourselves and what we want, our common faith has helped us to remember that we are here to serve God and others. Marriage is never just about the lives of the husband and wife. When we remember that we are here not to just serve ourselves, but to serve Christ in the world, that outward focus has kept us from turning inward and collapsing on ourselves.
  • And when we did not have the strength to face a particular trial, our common habits of prayer and seeking God’s help have led us over and over again to fresh perspective and strength to not give up.

We haven’t been perfect in following Christ by any means, but our relationship with him has been an anchor when we’ve needed stability; it’s been a lighthouse, when we’ve needed to avoid danger in the darkness; and it’s been our North star, when we’ve needed to know which direction to go. It’s been our common root, from which we both can grow.

If you continually pursue this kind of Christ-centered, agape filled, gracious and purposeful marriage, not only will your marriage survive when many others are failing; your marriage will thrive. You will see God use you to bless others in more ways than you can imagine now.

May God bless you both with this kind of marriage—grounded in a rock solid commitment, full of grace, and centered on God through Christ.

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What I Wish I Had Told My Sons

Pleased as punch, snapping photos and cheering them on, their mother and I relished each moment with our sons. We couldn’t have been prouder. Both sons were graduating from business schools within weeks of each other. Both had earned exceptional grades and accolades from professors and peers. We heaped praise on them. We told them repeatedly how thrilled we were with their accomplishments. I even posted a tribute to each one on Facebook. The more “likes” the posts received, the happier and prouder I felt.

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., Yet, in retrospect, something was missing. Not in my sons, but in me…and from me.

In addition to celebrating their well-deserved accomplishments, I wish I had also said:

I hope you know how deeply you are loved, regardless of the level of your success, or lack thereof. You never have to question your worth. There is absolutely nothing you could do to make God love you any more than he already does–and I feel the same way. My admiration and respect for you is certainly going to grow over time, but you can’t earn my love. It’s been firmly established in my heart from the day you were born. Being so deeply loved and treasured, you have all you need to genuinely love and accept yourself. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone.

IMG_3904

“You are loved just because you are our son, not for anything you have done.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t keep growing and looking for ways to contribute to society. I am trying say, What matters most is not what you accomplish or how much others praise or admire you. What counts more is the love you have known and the love you can give. You must take your self worth from God’s view of you and from what Christ does in you and through you that brings God glory and serves his good purposes.

In saying all this, I certainly wouldn’t want to take the wind out of their sails or somehow make them ashamed that they feel proud of their accomplishments. No, I simply want to keep their success in the right frame. I wish I had said:

Be thrilled about all you have been able to do, accomplish, and experience, but not from a “Look how great I am” or “See, I really am superior to others” or “Man, I have it made” perspective. Rather, humbly get on your knees with gratitude. Pray that God would not let your achievements distract you from him and his will for your life. Celebrate all that God has given you as opportunities to learn, grow, and serve Christ in unique and fruitful ways.

In other words, success without a personal relationship with God and character is shallow at best, and dangerous at worst. Don’t measure the quality of your life simply in terms of career, status, or wealth acquired. Instead, be a lover of God and keep putting Jesus Christ at the center of your life and relationships. Always desire to become a better person as well. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you how you can best serve with what God has given you. Continually seek to be wise, humble, and overflowing with the fruit of the Holy Spirit—loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (Galatians 5:22-23). That’s the life worth pursuing with your whole heart!

Photo ©Jill K H Geoffrion, Ph.D., www.jillgeoffrion.com; www.fhlglobal.org

Now, having grown up in our home, both of my sons would have already heard most if not all the things I wish I had said at their graduations. Truth be told, it probably wasn’t they who needed to be reminded of these truths, it was I.

I was the one who was tempted to glory in their achievements in a puffed up sort of way. I was the one who wanted to throw my shoulders back and feel just a little bit superior to other parents. I was the one who relished feeling powerful by vicariously identifying with their newly acquired status. I was the one who needed help to keep the right perspective.

I wish I had told them, I’m struggling this weekend. Sometimes it’s really hard for me to live by what I believe and know to be good, right, and true. The Christian life is a humbling journey. I embrace certain ideals and values only to stumble as I face my limitations, resist what I know is right, and outright rebel when I’d rather serve myself. It’s only by God’s grace that I am able to get my head straight again, put my heart back in the right place, and correct my course when I find myself drifting or distracted.

I hope that my experience will help you to see that you, too, are utterly dependent on God’s love, mercy, and grace. You must surrender your will to God’s and keep looking to Christ to do in you what you simply cannot do on your own. This is not something you do once. It is a spiritual program for your daily life. In other words, the real power of the Christian life does not come from you, it comes from your relationship with God, and the extent to which you are willing to throw yourself into knowing Christ and being led by the Holy Spirit in every way imaginable. This is the life you were created to have. This is the life most worth celebrating.

That’s what I wish I had said to my sons.

But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (The Apostle Paul, Philippians 3:7-9, NIV).

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Obama or Romney: Who Should a Christian Vote For?

Once in awhile someone asks me or implies that Christians should vote for one particular candidate over another. I vehemently disagree with this point of view in almost every situation I can imagine. Rather, I would say all citizens, including Christians, have a responsibility to be as informed as possible about the issues and to vote. Their decision should be based on their best effort to determine the issues, and to listen to their consciences. Unfortunately, too often, the most responsible vote requires choosing the lesser of two evils. Nevertheless, choose we must.

I value prayer as part of the discernment process for me, not as an infallible guide but as a resource to help me to sort out my own thinking and values. We have to be careful not to identify one or two issues as the whole measure of whether a candidate is acceptable to Christians. Rather, our responsibility is to vote for the candidate and party that, on the whole, will best serve the interests of our country at this time, under the current circumstances.

Then, from the perspective of faith, we must also put our hope in what God is doing—not to elevate one candidate over another, but to produce the kinds of changes needed at a deeper level within individuals and society. One of the students at the Myanmar Institute of Theology, where I am currently teaching, sent me a link to a very interesting essay written by an Asian-American pastor on Christians and voting. In it he urges Christians to look beyond the candidates to God, the one who is continually at work for good in the world, no matter who wins. Looking to God is not instead of voting, rolling up our sleeves, or otherwise working hard to alleviate suffering and provide better governance. Praying and seeking God’s help is acknowledging our limitations and our dependency on God to change our hearts and minds in ways we don’t seem to be able to do very easily on our own.

Our country and world are in mess, but that is not exactly news or a modern phenomenon. Since the beginning of human history, we have been continually in a struggle to make the world a better place amid so many destructive forces both within us and among us. We need to do all we can to address the plethora of challenges facing us, but no American politician is going to be the Savior of the world. That role belongs to Jesus Christ, and no matter who wins the election, we are going to need all the help we can get from him.

Jesus at Saint Suplice, Paris

May God give each of us the ability to be a good citizen at this critical time, and to increasingly let the love of Christ flow through us to others all the time.

A Prayer from the Apostle Paul

“And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.” —Philippians 1:9-11 (NIV)

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“Why Genocide Will Happen Again”

Ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane, France

Translation: "Here, in this place of torture, a group of human beings were massacred and burned by the Nazis. Reverently meditate on these things."

 

On June 10, 1944, just a few days after the Allied invasion at Normandy, 200 German S.S. troops surrounded a little French village, Oradour-sur-Glane. By nightfall, all but 3 escapees and a half a dozen others had been massacred. 642 men, women, and children dead.

Some say the Germans mistook this village for another with a similar name, another Oradour whose Resistance fighters, the machi, had abducted a SS officer earlier in the week. At the official memorial site, interpreters believe the attack was likely ordered as part of Himmler’s ongoing campaign of terror. Whatever the precise reason for the massacre, the killings were brutal, cruel, and completely unjustified.

Jill and I silently drifted from ruin to ruin in the half razed village, preserved as a memorial. As I wandered by the school, the church, and what remained of the little shops in the center of the village, I imagined the scene just hours before the soldiers arrived. Cafés were selling coffee. Coiffeurs were cutting hair. Men and women were working in the fields or selling their products in town. The children were running up and down the street, some helping their parents, others just enjoying summer vacation.

By evening, nearly all these precious lives were reduced to smoldering, bullet ridden corpses.

Some 400 women and children were herded to the church. Into the packed sanctuary, soldiers threw grenades before shooting those who weren’t immediately killed. One man who went to the village shortly after the massacre found three boys, ages 10-12, huddled together near the altar, where they had desperately clung to life and to each other, before succumbing to death. Before turning away from the horror he could no longer stomach, he noticed an infant still in its baby carriage, shot dead.

In the sanctuary, my eyes fell upon the now-rusted-out, crushed carriage still standing there, testifying to the extent of the callous brutality. I felt sick.

The men were divided into groups and taken to various barns where there were few entrances or exits, thus minimizing their chance of escape. Machine guns were set up to mow them down. Dead or alive, everyone in the village was eventually doused with gasoline and set afire. Fewer than 10% of the bodies were identifiable after the German soldiers had finished executing their orders.

I thought it odd that I felt almost nothing for almost two hours, until I realized that I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading and seeing. I was in shock, and couldn’t take in the horror of it all.

It’s not as if I didn’t already know about the millions who had died in concentration camps and gas chambers, the pogroms conducted over the centuries, and the even more horrific genocides in Rwanda, Armenia, Bosnia, Cambodia and elsewhere. Maybe it was the senseless, cold-blooded brutality against innocent villagers that so disturbed me. Maybe it was the realization that the killers looked just like me, and their victims just like the people in my own family. Or, maybe it was a growing sense of terror that what happened in this little village less than a century ago could happen again, anywhere, at any time, given the right conditions. And probably would again and again and again.

When I got to the cemetery, I found numerous memorials. The most disturbing were those displaying four, six, eight or more photographs of members of the same family. Organized in descending order by age, I saw the once smiling faces of eighty- year-old grandparents alongside their sons, daughters, in-laws, and grandchildren. One little boy was only thirteen days old when he had been slaughtered along with with seven other family members.

The tears finally began falling when I read the inscriptions on the memorial stones. Many spoke of loved ones whose lives were senselessly cut short by the “barbarian Germans.” The one pictured above reads: “To the memory of our dear little girls and sisters, charmed with our affection…students of the school at Oradour-sur-Glane, massacred and burned in the church by the Nazi hordes….”

What were the soldiers thinking? What were they feeling? “Just following orders” doesn’t begin to explain the depth of the degenerative forces at work that produced this evil.

My tears soon gave away to rage, and I fantasized wreaking revenge on the perpetrators, and anyone else like them. And then it struck me.

We may shake our heads at such mind-boggling atrocities, and we may even weep for the victims, but when are we going to face the ugly truth that any of us is capable of treating others cruelly and even violently? When are going to come to grips with how we are already inflicting pain, and sometimes quite serious damage, on others who have hurt us or who are simply in our way? When are we going to fall on our knees, begging God not just for forgiveness, but earnestly pleading for the  ability to forgive others from our hearts and  to work for healing and reconciliation?

Genocide will happen again, but what are you and I going to do differently today?

Memorial where victims were drowned

A Prayer “Loving God, save us from ourselves. Please break our hearts over our own hatred, desires for revenge, violent words and actions. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us. Lead us not into temptation to strike out against others, but deliver us from the evil within us as well as the evil all around us. Lead us to your well of grace and love that we may drink from it.  Cleanse us by your living water…and compel us to offer that same gift to others.”

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To Live or To Die?

Notre Dame Cathedral from hotel

Jill in Paris hospital

She saw herself floating out the window. On her back, feet forward, she was leaving this world. She had to make a decision, and fast. Was she going to choose to live or to die?

Jill and I had just returned from nearly three weeks in Africa. The view from our Paris hotel room was stunning. Three days to recuperate alongside the Seine River across the street from Notre Dame Cathedral sounded perfect. However, awakened by sharp chest pains around 12:30 a.m., our dream suddenly disfigured into a terrifying nightmare. With her life in the balance, she heard herself say, “NO! I have a husband. I have two sons!”

We didn’t know it at the time, but Jill was experiencing a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism, stemming from a deep vein thrombosis in one of her legs. A blood clot, formed during the long overnight flight from Nairobi, Kenya, broke loose, and traveled up her veins. After passing through her heart, it entered her lungs in one or more pieces, choking off oxygen to vital regions.

From a medical point of view, five days in the hospital and a steady dose of blood thinners saved her life. However, her decision to come back through the window for the sake of her sons and me may have been even more instrumental to her survival.

Few truly want to die, but choosing to live for the sake of others under such circumstances is not a given. The crisis revealed the depth of her love for her family, and her decision showed the extent of her devotion.

In prison, the Apostle Paul similarly found himself in a struggle between living and dying. We don’t know if he was at risk of being executed or simply felt he had an option to surrender his life to his suffering. Whatever the case, under his circumstances, death had become increasingly attractive.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul described his ambivalence about living and explained his rationale for the choice he finally made:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me. (Philippians 1:21-26, NIV)

Paul did not choose life because he was afraid to die. His relationship with Jesus Christ and his faith actually made the next life very appealing. However, he said no to death, because he had a stronger reason to live.

Most of us are not aware of making a decision about life or death, or even feel that we have any say in the matter. But the truth is, every day we are deciding, and we do have a say.

I’m not talking just about our power to affect our physical wellbeing. I’m referring to coming to grips with our raison d’être—our reason to wake up in the morning. I, for one, have no interest in simply trudging through life, just keeping busy or passively yielding to the demands and expectations of the status quo. I refuse to go through the motions of looking alive, when I am actually dying on the inside. I want to live, and want to do so with the meaning, purpose, and passion that grow out of God’s unique calling on my life.

We have choices. We can allow ourselves to be controlled by misguided values and empty pursuits, or we can look at our lives as a series of opportunities to make a difference. How we find the life we were meant to live will be different for each one of us, but only by making a concerted effort to discover and to pursue our callings will we truly live.

Near death experiences like Jill’s slap us in the face. We suddenly grasp that we cannot take our life for granted. Like Ebenezer Scrooge, after his encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Future, we may gratefully gulp down the air whose consumption proves that we still are alive. In our moment of second chances, we may eagerly search about for whatever changes we can quickly make while we still can.

You may not see yourself going out a window feet first, having to choose between life and death, but you do have life or death choices to make. What are they going to be?

A Prayer

“Dear Lord God, I want to live. I mean truly live. Please show me where I have settled for lesser gods or simply meaningless preoccupations, and set me free. Lead me in the path of life, and give me the wisdom, courage, and strength to take the next steps available to me…for Christ’s sake, for mine, and for all those you want to bless through me. Amen.”

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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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