suffering and the unanswered prayer…

A line from the song Casimir Pulaski Day, written by my favorite musician Sufjan Stevens, says, “Tuesday night at the Bible study we lift our hands and pray over your body but nothing ever happens.”

It is with notions and sentiments such as this that we uncover the difficult areas of faith that are many times too taboo, or too controversial, for the Church to entertain. It is as if our recognition of the fact that God sometimes does not seem to answer our prayers somehow then compromises our faith at its very core.

The truth of the matter is that there is nothing wrong with recognizing the fact that there are times when God does not answer prayer the way that I would like. And sometimes that means the unanswered prayer will make my life hard…sometimes unbearable…but it doesn’t mean that God is not there suffering with me or that God has turned against me and does not love me.

I don’t speak of such matters in ignorance, for over the last ten years of my life I have dealt with severe body pain. For the most part I keep it to myself. I don’t talk about it much, only to a few close friends, because I can’t stand to be the center of attention. So the less I share about it, the less people will focus on me. That is the way I like it. But in those few instances when I have opened up with others about it, they were very surprised at how much I suffer through the pain.

I can identify with the cry of the Psalmist, in my suffering through unanswered prayer, as he writes, “O Lord, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O Lord, how long? Turn, O Lord, and deliver me. Save me because of your unfailing love.”

But there is only silence and questions.

Why is it that God has not answered my prayers when I have asked for relief from this excruciating pain that won’t go away? Why is it that God has not answered the prayers of those closest to me when they have prayed for me? Why is it that God did not answer the prayers of one of my closest friends yesterday when he put his arms around me and prayed for me like no one has ever prayed for me before?

Am I now a man that has compromised his faith by asking such pointed and direct questions as to the distant hand of God? Or could it be that I am just a guy that embodies on a small scale the much larger reality of life- the unresolved tension between the pain and suffering in this life and the hope and anticipation of what is to come? I believe it is the latter. We carry this tension with us everywhere we go, waiting patiently and contently in hope, while continuing to give praise to God with every breath in great anticipation of this tension being resolved and all things being restored as God always intended.

It isn’t as if this is unique to humanity. We witness this same tension all throughout creation. There is a frustration and an anticipation all throughout creation, from what it is to what it will become, from bondage to decay to glorious freedom. This is the consistent condition that we find ourselves in, and through which we have hope of being rescued and renewed.

Paul writes that, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”

In our humanity it is impossible to grasp the will of God. And in our limited humanity we ask questions and wonder why some prayers are answered, while others seem to be ignored. It is only the Spirit who works and intercedes on our behalf in those moments of weakness and who helps us to understand that God’s greater purposes and will is being done whether our prayer is answered or unanswered. For in the answered prayer we trust and celebrate that the goodness and glory of God is being extended from person to person throughout the world. And in the unanswered prayer we trust that the goodness and glory of God is being extended in the world as others witness our patience, contentment, and joy through suffering.

That is how I choose to extend the greater purposes of God in this world through my suffering. Let me be a patient, content, and joyful example of what it looks like to bear the tension of pain and suffering and the anticipation of what is to come. I know that it is through my sufferings that I persevere in order to develop the character that embodies the hope of what is to come, and it is through this that I…and the Christian…can live contently now with the tension of suffering and the unanswered prayer.