Praying when in pain
1Kings 19: Elijah, what are you doing here?
More than a month has passed since Elijah fled Jezebel and asked God to take his life. During this time the angel of the Lord has ministered to him and he’s traveled 40 days across the wilderness to Horeb which is the mountain range that includes Sinai where Moses met God and was given the Law. In other words, Elijah has retreated to holy ground. Here, even as Moses encountered God, Elijah has an encounter of his own. This meeting though, starts very differently. For Moses, there were earthquakes and thick smoke. For Elijah, things start with God asking him a question, “So, Elijah, what are you doing here?” With that, Elijah begins to state his discouragement, loneliness, and fear. The big stuff is still coming but I’m taken with just this today. I know that prayer should generally start with words of worship and reverence. Sometimes, though, we’re so broken and confused that we can hardly bring ourselves to pray at all. Sometimes we have to travel out into the wilderness for a while possibly ending up at some place that’s significant to us. And then, it isn’t us but God who starts a conversation that doesn’t begin with “Our Father who art in heaven” but instead with words of pain. Know what? That’s okay with God. Take note of just who it is that asks the opening question here.
Take Away: Our prayers are going nowhere if they don’t come from an honest heart.
Breaking the “me centered” way of life
1Peter 4: Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way.
Peter’s target audience is Christians who are isolated and suffering for their faith. He doesn’t suggest to them that suffering in itself is good but he does tell them that their suffering for the right reason gives them reason to rejoice. If the same people who hate Jesus hate us because they see Jesus in our lives their poor treatment of us may be unwelcome but in it we can see a compliment. He also tells his readers that suffering tends to wean us from the idea that we’re always supposed to get our own way. As infants, we all start off there, caring not at all about the needs of those around us, but instead, totally focused on what we want and having it right now. To some extent we never outgrow that. Peter says that suffering (something no one wants) helps break that “me centered” way of life. This, in turn, sets the table for allowing the One who knows and loves us best to have his way in our lives. Again, the suffering isn’t a good thing, but the result can be a good one. My earnest desire is that I’ll learn these lessons early and well as the Lord uses the ups and downs of my life to benefit me and his kingdom.
Take Away: If we’ll allow it the Lord will use both the ups and downs of our lives to our benefit.
At the end of myself and at the beginning of God
2Corinthians 1: And he’ll do it again, rescuing us as many times as we need rescuing.
Since his first letter to the church at Corinth Paul has gone though some hard times. His words remind me of some of the Psalms of complaint when David thought it was all over for him. In words similar to what David used, Paul describes how he was crushed and sure that he was at the end. In his despair he realized he was out of options and that there was nothing he could do to save himself. At that low point, he remembered his greatest Resource. When he came to the end of himself he found himself at just the beginning of God. Throwing himself on the mercy of God is the smartest thing he ever did. After all, Paul reminds us, this is the God who even raises the dead. The Lord was equal to the challenge and, for Paul, the sun rose once again in his life, giving him a new lease on life. This journey to death’s door and back, Paul says, has turned out to be a positive event in his life. These days he’s quicker to stop struggling and to start trusting in God to bring about a rescue in his life. This is a lesson I need to learn anew. I serve a God who loves me and who has the power to, when necessary, raise the dead. I may not like it when life brings me my share of uncertainty and even pain. At the same time, I can remember that the same God who has brought me through difficult times in the past can “rescue me as many times as I need rescuing.”
Take Away: In an uncertain world the Lord remains my steadfast certainty.
Weeping with those who weep
Joel 1: Get them into God’s Sanctuary for serious prayer to God.
The event that drives Joel’s sermon is a natural disaster. A swarm of millions and millions of locusts have devastated the country. Every green thing has been stripped bare. The result is that famine is most certainly coming to the land. What are they going to do now? One thing Joel calls for is for people to take their fear and pain to the Lord. He says to the priests, “You, who lead people in worship, lead them in lament.” This is no time for empty promises that everything will be okay. Rather, this is a time for fasting and crying out to God. Joel takes his own advice and a few lines later he prays, “God! I pray, I cry out to you!” Today, I find this passage to be frighteningly instructive. It’s quite likely that our version of the disaster of Joel’s day will come. What is the church to do when a hurricane or earthquake or tornado sweeps through the community destroying lives and property? Joel says this is a time for pastors and other leaders to lead the community in lament; a time for “weeping with those who weep.” I’m not ignoring the good that can be done in practical ways, but I’m reminded here that the church isn’t to just “put on a happy face.” It’s okay, and even necessary, for God’s people to lead the way in crying out to God, declaring the pain and suffering of a community in the face of disaster.
Take Away: Sometimes it’s the role of the people of the Lord to lead the way in crying out to God.
Working through grief and loss
Lamentations 1: Judah has gone into exile.
Lamentations, to me, is the book of the Bible most like Job. In Job’s story we find him in a state of misery, lamenting all that has been lost. Lamentations takes us into similar unwelcome territory. The destruction of Jerusalem isn’t a tidy event. There’s a long siege that results in starvation and a descent into barbarism of the worst sort. It’s the mildest of statements to say that things get ugly. Inhumanity and misery rule. Now, Jeremiah, still reeling from it all creates poetry in an effort to describe the remaining sense of loss and grief. While it’s true that their destruction is the result of their own sin the misery of it all is real. In Lamentations the weeping prophet takes us on a walk through the rubble of his beloved Jerusalem. He replays for us the scenes of murder and rape and loss. I confess that I’m not looking forward to spending these few days with Jeremiah. Two things come to mind as I begin this journey. First: loss is a part of the human condition. Even as Job faced it, so does Jeremiah; and so do we. Second: sometimes we’re wise to allow ourselves to embrace this unwelcome aspect of life. We tend to hurry past the bad times; to smile through our tears; to cheer up believing things will get better. It really doesn’t work that way. The route to healing may begin with our taking time to grieve — to lament — all that’s been lost. Like it or not, that’s the path we follow when we walk with the weeping prophet in the book of Lamentations.
Take Away: The route to healing may begin with our taking time to grieve.
Investing in painful circumstances
Ecclesiastes 7: Sages invest themselves in hurt and grieving.
I know it is human nature to want to hurry past the difficulties of life. No one wants to spend the rest of their days dealing with some painful situation. However, I also know that just about everyone has their share of “hurt and grieving.” In fact, some folks have more than their share of such things. Some of the finest people I know carry a burden of broken health, broken dreams, and painful loss with them every day. I’ve noticed that, for some, those difficulties somehow deepen them. They know how to enjoy life, but there’s an attractive stability and perspective on life in them. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that we’re wise to invest something of ourselves in those challenging parts of life. When I make an investment, I give something of value because I expect to get a return on my investment. When I go through the darkness I tend to rush through it as quickly as possible. This portion of Ecclesiastes reminds me that there’s something for me even there if I’ll trust the Lord enough to give myself to such difficulties.
Take Away: Obviously, no one wants to go through hard times, but even in such times the Lord can work in our lives, deepening us, making us more like his Son, Jesus.
Serving God for nothing
Job 30: What did I do to deserve this?
Job’s final reply to his friends is his longest speech. He doesn’t summarize so much as restate all he has already said. He’s cried out to God for justice, but can’t get an answer. He’s lived a just life, avoiding immorality, falsehood, dishonesty, and pride. He’s treated people with respect and honesty, caring for the poor and the stranger. Now, in the midst of the trial, all he’s wanted is an audience with God, an audience which has not been granted. Job, like his friends, believes that bad things only happen to bad people. He maintains that he’s lived a life pleasing to God, yet bad things are happening. If he could only sit down with God and work all this out! Were that to happen, he’s sure this mess could be straightened out. Among all the other losses Job has suffered is the loss of his comfortable understanding of God and life. However, even with that taken away (and maybe this is the last thing to go) Job continues serving God. And he does so, yes, for nothing! At this point, Satan’s accusation from the opening paragraphs of this story is proven false. In spite of the suggestion otherwise, a man will love and serve God even when he’s getting nothing out of it; even when it seems God, himself, is breaking the rules; even when all else is taken away. If the book of Job ended with chapter 31, the point of the whole story is made.
Take Away: Yes, it’s possible for a person to love the Lord and trust the Lord even when there appears to be no tangible gain in it.
Better to say nothing
Job 16: What a bunch of miserable comforters!
When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, arrive at his side they’re overwhelmed with what they find. They cry out and rip their clothes in mourning. Then for seven days they sit with him, speechless at the horror of it all. It appears that it’s during these days that they come to a decision to go with the status quo because once they start talking they merely state and restate the “folk wisdom” of the day. As they do that, Job turns his fevered face toward them and denounces them as “miserable comforters.” I think they are better comforters sitting there for a week, broken and speechless at what they see than when they start reasoning with Job about all of this. There’s a lesson to be learned here. People who are suffering pain and grief don’t really need our platitudes or our so-called wisdom. Even when we don’t know “why” things are as they are our presence matters. The scriptures tell us to “mourn with those who mourn.” We aren’t called to explain it all but we are told to care and help the broken-hearted by sharing in their sorrow.
Take Away: When we don’t know what to say or do we don’t need to say or do anything – just be there, sharing in the moment.
Telling it like it is
Job 3: Why didn’t I die at birth?
All of my life I’ve heard people speak of the “patience of Job” and, frankly, I don’t get it. Just a quick read through chapter 3 reveals that Job doesn’t stoically accept his condition. He’s miserable and he wishes he’d never been born. “May those who are ‘good at cursing’ curse the day of my birth,” he says. As I look at this miserable man I can’t help but appreciate his stark honesty. This guy isn’t given to platitudes. Instead, he tells it like it is, and at this moment in his life, life isn’t worth living. Somehow Christians have gotten the idea that we ought to behave as Job does in chapter one when he sincerely declares “God gives, God takes.” We read that and make it our model for dealing with pain and suffering. However, we need to keep on reading. Soon we find this same man crying out against his own life. Beyond that, to excuse Job as being “out of his mind” in pain is such a horrible put-down of Job. Yes, he’s in agony but he’s still thinking and the things he says reflect exactly what he believes. When we deny ourselves (and Job) the right to be absolutely honest about how we feel we destine ourselves to continue in a shallow relationship with God. You see, when I’m going through a trial God isn’t interested in seeing me put on a brave front and hearing me say all the right things. It’s honesty that he wants and sometimes that includes our telling him, and others, how miserable we are. Such honesty opens the way for God to work in our lives at levels we didn’t even know existed.
Take Away: There’s never a time to pretend things are different than they are before the Lord.
Job one, Satan nothing
Job 1: God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.
As round one of Job’s trials concludes we find Job a heartbroken man. Everything’s gone, including his children. Job’s in shock and deep mourning. In this midst of his pain, he falls to the ground — and worships! The test is to see if a man will serve God “for nothing” and, as this round of testing ends, we find Job still worshiping God! His worship doesn’t consist of his shrugging off all that has happened. After all, the pain is real. His actions declare the depth of his pain yet his words carry a philosophic tone. Job declares, “I entered with world with nothing and that’s how I’ll leave.” Does Job serve God for nothing? Job’s answer is “God gives, God takes. God’s name be ever blessed.”
Take Away: Job trusts in the Lord even when everything falls apart. Does that describe us?