When God doesn’t answer prayers the way we want

Image Source: huffpost.com

You won’t live very long on this earth before you have an experience that causes you to ask God for a healing. What we usually have in mind is that we want God to physically heal a person so that they can go on living life here with us “like normal.”

Sometimes, however, God doesn’t answer our prayers the way we want him to. This situation is poignantly addressed in this beautiful blog post at scribblesandcrumbs.

The author describes her struggles to understand the suffering and eventual deaths of two people, her friend Chelsea and her son Charlie. Chelsea, an adult:

So many rallied around and prayed for healing for her. She was so deeply loved by many, many faithful Christians, but her healing did not come in this life.

And Charlie, her own young child:

I can’t tell you how many times Charlie beat the odds. I can’t tell you how many nights where all medical options were exhausted, and it was up to Charlie and God to pull him through. He had so many close calls, so many near death experiences. People rallied together. They prayed through the night, and Charlie would pull through.

God brought healing, and then Charlie got sick again. And again. And again.

I wrestled with the purpose of Charlie’s sickness all throughout his life, and after his death, I still do.

Her set of questions about our understanding of God versus the reality of God is insightful, and she points to the centrality of hope for coping with the things we don’t understand…

Sometimes God doesn’t answer prayers in the way we want. Sometimes horrible things happen.

God can still be good and still be strong and still be loving. Our world is sick and broken and muddied since the fall of mankind.

The tragedies we encounter sometimes push us to question or even reject God’s existence, out of our pain and misunderstanding of God’s perspective, his purposes, and his sovereignty. This is because we want God to do what we want him to do–we have such a high view of ourselves that in times of struggle we want God to comply with our will. When he doesn’t, we blame him for not really being a loving God. Instead, scribblesandcrumbs points us to the hope that she and millions of others find in their tragedies.

We can choose to reject or resent God for the times it feels he doesn’t listen or doesn’t answer or even the times that it feels he doesn’t have any regard for our lives.

I know those times, but I can tell you that, because of him, I can also see the beauty, see the joy, see the hope, see heaven. I see what was intended, and that only builds my hope for so much more after this life.

When the healing doesn’t come, hold on to hope. This world is the beginning. This world is a shadow compared to what is to come.

Indeed.

PS: If you are struggling with tragedy, you don’t have to go it alone. Here are some ideas I had for finding hope and meaning in the midst of community.

 

Understanding Ferguson’s Fires (updated)

Source: nbc.com

Source: nbc.com

[Updated: I updated this post to incorporate other responses published since I wrote the original.]

In Ferguson, Missouri a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer who shot a young African-American man last summer. When the decision not to indict was announced protests and violence ensued, with several fires set as some residents expressed anger and frustration, and other protests occurred around the country.

In a blog comment reprinted on Christianity Today, African-American pastor Bryan Lorrits wrote,

Over the years I’ve been challenged by my white brothers and sisters to just “get over” [events perceived as involving racism]. Their refusal to attempt to see things from my ethnically different perspective is a subtle, stinging form of racism. What’s more is that it hinders true Christian unity and fellowship within the beloved body of Christ.

My purpose with this post is an attempt  to explain this difference in perspective to my white brothers and sisters (of which I am one), and to help people understand why there is often an angry reaction to situations such as that of Michael Brown and Ferguson. In pulling together this post, I draw on what I have learned by studying race and American politics for more than twenty years. I also suggest some solutions from a Christian perspective. As you might imagine, it’s often complicated, but here goes a blog-length attempt.

Why are they angry?

There are obvious immediate causes: the unarmed African-American man[1] shot by a white police officer; the decision not to indict; the militaristic environment after the shooting, and so on. But the reality is that there are longer-term factors at work here. First, there is the perception (or reality) of racism on the part of the authorities in the situation. Second, there are race-based social and economic frustrations in many of America’s communities. Let’s take these apart carefully.

Racism

White people view racism quite differently than do black people. When whites are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “when a person treats another person badly or negatively because of their race or ethnicity.” But when African-Americans are asked to define racism, the answer is usually something like, “a system in which racial groups are treated differently.”

The reasons for these two different views are socially and historically complicated. White people in general do not define themselves in terms of their ethnicity, nor do they view themselves as a social, economic or political group that has any specific common interests. (There are obvious exceptions to this, such as those whites who do view their race as their main relevant social characteristic. These people often end up in white supremacist groups, but are a very small portion of the white American population.)

African-Americans, on the other hand often see their primary relevant group characteristic as being their race or ethnicity. They have a high level of what social scientists call “group identification,” a strong psychological attachment to their group. This leads to a strong feeling of “linked fate,” the idea that what happens to one person in their group is likely to be relevant to one’s own life. So when a black person is shot by a white person, there is a psychological link made between that event and an awareness that this could happen to anyone in the group, including oneself.

White Americans simply don’t think this way based on our racial category, but we sometimes do in other areas. For example, as a home schooler, when I hear about a bad event (child abuse, or social worker’s abuse of powers), I often will say to myself, “I really hope that wasn’t a home schooler.” Why? Because I perceive that what happens to other home schoolers could also happen to me because I am a home schooler. Or if a child abuser is a home schooler, that reflects badly on home schoolers generally and makes us more likely to be viewed badly by society. This perception is due to my strong social identification as a home schooler and my sense of linked fate with other home schoolers.

The System and its Outcomes

Because African-Americans have higher racial group identification and attitude of linked fate, they view their relationship to the American political and criminal justice systems differently than white Americans do. A very important historical fact to remember is that for at least two centuries in the US, the legal and political systems did in fact define people and their status in society in race-based terms. In the South especially, the “Jim Crow” social environment used the law specifically to treat blacks and whites differently, and unequally (See an excellent article on this here). Thus one major reason the African-American community defines itself in that way is at least partially because the political system did so for so long.

While whites might optimistically hope that several decades after Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Acts the group-oriented mindset of African-Americans might have lessened, the reality is that group identity and linked fate still are quite important. To say that they shouldn’t be important is to miss the point that they still do matter to our neighbors.

In fact, the system itself seems to reinforce the sense that the group is systematically disadvantaged, not due to problems of individual motivation or a sense of entitlement, but because of intractable, long term social and economic outcomes in society. Here are just three examples:

The public education system, which is broken and dysfunctional in so many ways, is a particularly harsh environment for black (and Latino) boys. See a report here).

Family income in the black community is persistently lower than other racial or ethnic groups. This is illustrated in this graph:

Racial differences in household income, 1967-2012 Source: businessinsider.com

In terms of interacting with the criminal justice system, the legacy of race-defined unequal treatment still rears its ugly head. See this op-ed on crime statistics.

Differences like these produce the perception that the system is largely rigged against people of color, and persistent differences reinforce those perceptions.

That is not to say that this perception about bias in “the system” is universal among African-Americans. For example, following Ferguson, Pastor Voddie Bauchum reflected on his own experiences, writing,

“for many of those years, I blamed “the system” or “the man.” However, I have come to realize that it was no more “the system” when white cops pulled me over than it was “the system” when a black thug robbed me at gunpoint. It was sin! The men who robbed me were sinners. The cops who stopped me were sinners. They were not taking their cues from some script designed to “keep me down.” They were simply men who didn’t understand what it meant to treat others with the dignity and respect they deserve as image bearers of God.

It does me absolutely no good to assume that my mistreatment was systemic in nature. No more than it is good for me to assume that what happened in Ferguson was systemic. I have a life to live, and I refuse to live it fighting ghosts. I will not waste my energy trying to prove the Gramscian, neo-Marxist concept of “white privilege” or prejudice in policing practices.”

There is, however, in the black community a broad tendency to blame the system because of low trust in the system, for which there are plausible historical reasons. It is true that social, economic, educational, and political advances of black Americans occurred through governmental involvement. Nonetheless, there is a broad perception of stagnation in that progress over the last forty years. Whether white people think this it is unreasonable for black people to think this way is entirely beside the point.

Why Political Solutions Fail

In the big picture, political efforts to solve these problems will fail, because politicians are notoriously bad at changing peoples’ attitudes and hearts. More to the point, I have become convinced that there are individuals and groups in politics and society who have no interest in pursuing genuine healing and solutions to America’s longstanding race problems. They make their money, sell their books, and win elections by taking advantage of black anger and frustration and white complacency, resentment or ignorance. They are liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, black and white. If the “race problem” goes away, so does their income stream and their political advantage. So we can’t look to politicians and talking heads to get us out of this mess.

Christian Solutions

The solution, it seems to me, is just as complicated as the problem, but that is not an excuse to ignore it. As a Christian, what am I to do when Ferguson situations come up? And how am I supposed to think about these problems? I think the Bible speaks in two specific ways—to me as an individual, and to the church as a social organism. The solution is not going to be borne out of a crisis, but out of a long-term systematic commitment of people of faith and their churches.

As an individual, I am to be an instrument of peace (as the old Catholic prayer goes) in my community (Matt 5:9; James 3:18). I can do this by praying for peace in communities where there is unrest, but also in the hearts of people whose hearts are broken or hardened. I must humbly check my own attitude and seek understanding of others’ situations (Phil 2:3-4). This is one area where the social justice movement of Christianity is correct—we are to strive for justice in our communities and to work on behalf of those who are oppressed in God’s eyes (e.g., Psalm 10, Psalm 146). Am I trying to be understanding of the frustrations of others, or do I just view Ferguson-like violent outbursts as unruly mobs engaged in unjustified riots? Am I personally working to be an ambassador of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-21) across racial and ethnic groups in my community?

Our churches are supposed to be voices of truth and reconciliation in our communities. Is your congregation making opportunities to partner across racial and ethnic lines where you live? Martin Luther King, Jr. often observed that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour and Sunday school is still the most segregated school of the week.” If your congregation is virtually entirely of one race, is your church leadership doing anything about that?

As Christians we must continue to acknowledge that Christians sometimes were on the wrong side of race conflicts; that some Christians twisted scripture to support their own personal racist beliefs; and that some of those wounds are still painful to brothers and sisters and neighbors. And yet, Christianity provides an extraordinary—indeed a supernatural—means of reconciling the races, and unifying people in our communities. In the Bible we are repeatedly instructed that the arbitrary social groups of society are supposed to be set aside in the church, where

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. (James 2:1)

For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Cor 12:13)

Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)

Instead of being angry or looking on in disbelief, pray for peace, walk humbly, and strive for understanding and peace in your own communities.

[1] I use the terms African-American and black interchangeably here. I also use the term race (and variants) to refer to different groups even though I believe there is only one race—the human race—with different ethnicities and skin tones.

God and Our Tragedies

girl cryingBackground: On December 3, 2013 two Kalamazoo teens were killed in a car crash, and another took his own life. Many of my students knew these young people, and it was an emotionally wrenching time for the Kalamazoo-area home school community. I wrote this open letter, first and foremost for my students, but then someone suggested that I post it more broadly; I did, and the response to the letter was more than I ever expected. In it, I try to help those who have experienced a tragedy begin the process of grieving and dealing with the hard questions of why God allows such suffering and bad things to occur. This week another young person was in a serious crash and people are asking again, “Why?” In another post I’ll address some of the “why’s” we can explain, but for now I’ve been asked to re-post the original open letter, with only slight edits. I hope and pray you find it healing and helpful.

Many dear friends are grieving tonight…for three young lives ended today. Among many in our community hearts are broken or are breaking, and people we love are crying their eyes out. Parents all around us are hugging their kids a little tighter, as many of our teens are experiencing, for the first time, the death of a peer, a friend, a classmate, a Prom Queen. Worst of all, two families have lost beloved children.

What are we to make of this? How can it make sense? What purpose could there be in these tragedies? These are the situations when, as we sit in puddles of tears, we just can’t see the way clear to a rational reason for any of it.

Just two weeks ago, in my worldview class (which includes several friends of those who passed on), we discussed the nature of suffering. Why do we suffer? Why does tragedy occur? What could God possibly accomplish in horrible circumstances?  I told my dear students that, if they hadn’t experienced tragedy yet, they would.

I promised.

Because that is what happens in a world that was created good, but not perfect, and which is falling apart around us. Creation groans in its fallen state, and tonight we groan along with it.

But our groaning and grieving and weeping is not everything, and need not be the end of the story.

I told my students that when you’re in the weeds—in the middle of a horrible situation, like a sibling or a parent dying, like a typhoon wiping out your home, like a cancer diagnosis, like an assault—that in those close quarters of desperation and grief we can’t understand it at all. We can’t see what any of it means, where God could be, or what God could be doing by letting our world fall apart around us. But, as Corrie ten Boom (who lived through horrors most of us will never face) wrote, “There is no pit so deep, that God’s love is not deeper still.”

Even the pit in which you may now find yourself, you are not alone.

I told my students that because your world is so dark when you are in that pit, that you must decide ahead of time to understand something about God and cling to it, desperately, as if your life depended on it, when you don’t have any answers:

God intends all of our human experiences to direct us to Himself.

Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

Paul, James, and Peter all told their readers that God is accomplishing purposes through our suffering and tribulations, even when we can’t discern the designs of his handiwork or the tragedies He permits (Romans 5:3-4; James 1:2-4; 1 Peter 5:8-11). And then there is that familiar promise, “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). And we’ll hear this a lot over the coming days and weeks, about how not everything is good, but that God works things together for good. And in the short term, it will sound trite and maybe even a little pathetic. But wait.

Let’s not forget how Paul introduces that promise: He writes a couple of verses earlier (Rom 8:26-27),

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

Paul is saying that when we are in a pit of grief so deep that we don’t even know what to say, the Holy Spirit groans before God on our behalf. My children, you do not walk this painful path alone, and you have not been abandoned.

My point to my students was that we must intellectually grasp the principle that the purposes of God—yes, even His unknown and unknowable purposes—are somehow, inexplicably, being accomplished. And we must understand this before tragedy strikes, so that in our grief we do not curse God or abandon him in what seems like a hopeless, pointless, and purpose-less situation.

Young people, gather together with your friends and loved ones and grieve for a time, for this is right and necessary and healthy. But also gather with older people, those gray-headed elders of The Church who have already walked this path more times than they care to remember. Talk with them about those times that the Lord used tragedies—including deaths of people taken from them much too soon—to do something in their lives. (I can tell you that some of the most important times in my Christian walk occurred among fellow-worshippers in ICU waiting rooms or funeral parlors.) Allow them to speak this evidence into your life, to testify about the Lord’s work. Perhaps there are things they don’t yet understand, and that’s okay, too.

 Older people, seek out opportunities to share your experiences with young people in your circle of friends or in your church. Tell them that you understand what they’re going through. Share with them how the Lord has grown you and those around you through life’s tragedies. This day is one of the reasons you lived through that day…to minister to the broken-hearted around you, and testify to God’s goodness.

Love one another, comfort one another, care for each other, treasure the moments you had with your friends who have gone home ahead of you. And if you can’t talk to God quite yet, or you don’t know what to say, let the Holy Spirit groan on your behalf until you can. Grieve, and in time, you will move forward. Your life will be better for having known them. And then, after a little while, bit by bit, let the Lord show you how He wants to use these friendships and relationships, the loss of your friends, and what you are experiencing now to draw you nearer to him, and to grow you ever more into the likeness of His Son.

May the peace of God the father, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and the love of Jesus surround you, enfold you, and comfort you.

Peter

Lessons from a dead butterfly

Something went wrong. 

We have had several cocoons in our butterfly habitat over the last couple of years. We start with caterpillars who ate, grew, and then built their cocoons as they moved toward their metamorphosis into Painted Lady butterflies. Most of the caterpillars did just what they were supposed to do, creating cocoons hanging on a piece of paper, which we then hung on the wall of the habitat. One cocoon fell, and rather than disturb it, we decided to leave it where it lay.

Most of the butterflies, emerging from still-hanging cocoons, stretched their wings, permitting the blood to flow so that they could eventually fly from the habitat when we released them. But when the “fallen” butterfly emerged from his (her?) cocoon, it didn’t act right; it had one wing that was deformed. Instead of flying like the other butterflies, he flapped frantically around the floor of the habitat, unable to take flight. Eventually he died, even after we put sugar water low enough for him to get it.

This got me wondering about what happened, so I have been researching cocoons and the metamorphosis of caterpillars into butterflies, and I’ve learned some lessons about home, family, and parenting.

The cocoon’s purposes

First, the cocoon is a protective covering that permits the caterpillar to mature from its immature state to its mature state; within its walls, it can grow the way God designed it to grow. The caterpillar’s stem cells have all the information it needs to develop into a butterfly, but without the cocoon, the metamorphosis won’t take place. The caterpillar would simply stay immature, and would not fulfill its butterfly-destiny.

Second, the cocoon is a shelter that protects, in this most vulnerable time of its life, the caterpillar from external dangers, such as the predators that want to devour the caterpillar before it has a chance to grow into the mature butterfly God created it to be.

When it goes wrong

I learned that sometimes, the cocoon-metamorphosis process doesn’t work the way it’s designed to. Sometimes a semi-formed butterfly emerges from its cocoon too early. When this happens, its wings are often not fully developed, leaving the immature butterfly vulnerable to predators in the environment, and unable to fly, which is what it is designed to do.

Sometimes the cocoon gets damaged. When this happens several outcomes are possible. Sometimes the caterpillar dies in the cocoon. Sometimes an apparently-mature butterfly will emerge, but will be unable to fly due to unformed or deformed wings. Interestingly, there is evidence that some caterpillars contract their bodies when the cocoon is damaged, protecting themselves from the worst effects of the damage; these caterpillars can emerge from the cocoon fully formed and mature, in spite of the difficult and rocky metamorphosis process.

Lessons in Parenting

Now, re-read the last two sections, replacing ‘cocoon’ with ‘home,’ ‘caterpillar’ with ‘child,’ and ‘butterfly’ with ‘young adult.’

Pretty amazing, isn’t it?

God designed your home, and put you and your children together for a specific set of purposes. Our homes are designed by Him to be a protective shelter from the world and its predators, and to be a safe environment in which we are engaged in the process of metamorphosing our children from immaturity into the mature Christian adults God created them to be (Deut 6; Eph 6:1-4).

If we release them too early, they simply will not have the understanding, wisdom, and godly character needed to walk in the world. Keep them in too long, and their development will be stifled and they will not learn to exercise their faith on their own.

Importantly, we are not alone in this process. The New Testament concept of transformation mainly involves two Greek words. When the word metaschēmatizō is used (Cor 3:18; Phil 3:17-21; 2 Cor 11:13-15; 1 Cor 4:6), it generally implies a transient state, moving from a starting point and headed toward some other point, but the emphasis is on the starting point. When the word metamorphoō is used (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2;Rom 12:1-2), the emphasis is on movement toward the final end state, with the emphasis on what the transformed person will eventually be like, or on what they have become.

With both parts of the transformation, scripture usually implies that there is some external force actually doing the transformation. So it is with the process of parenting. In the same way that the Lord and the Holy Spirit transform us, we partner with Him in the transformation of our children, equipping them with the faith-tools they need to survive attacks from spiritual predators who would steal their faith from them.

Too many parents simply let others make critical decisions for them when it comes to raising their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. But remember that Hebrews 13:17 gives an important instruction and warning to us: “Obey your leaders and be under their authority. They are watching you because they are responsible for your souls” (ICB). The implied instruction for children is to obey their parents, but parents: look at your role. You are responsible for their souls. This means the cocoon you build has eternal consequences for those you are responsible for raising.

Christian parents: Seek the Lord’s will for you and for your family. Ask Him to reveal to you opportunities for faith-strengthening conversations with your children. Ask Him for wisdom to deal with the challenges they face. Ask the Lord when HE wants you to begin releasing them from your cocoon. (Seriously: ask Him whether your 3, 4, 5, or 6 year old is old enough or mature enough to release to the world!) Ask Him when HE has grown their faith sufficiently to deal with some of the challenges the world gives them.

And no matter what, continue to disciple them with the plan and content HE gives you.