Has God ever given you what you asked for—and then you wonder if you asked for the right thing in the first place? Have you ever felt punished…by prayer?
A quote from a nun I read in high school stunned me (a quote perhaps someone smarter than I can remember or more effectively Google). The gist: Lord, please don’t punish me by giving me what I ask for.
At the time, I thought it was genius; it encompassed the trepidation I felt at the time, so ferventy longing for God’s plans. But it took me awhile to peel back what that quote said about God. Do I really believe God’s ready to lay the smack down if I don’t see the 360⁰, if I’m honestly asking for Him to do what He sees fit?
C.S. Lewis puts it more comically: “There are only two kinds of people: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, ‘All right, then, have it your way.’”
Years ago, I devoured a disturbing, yet eye-opening science-fiction novel by Catholic author Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow. (No, I’m not usually a sci-fi girl—and for content reasons I can’t necessarily recommend it, though it’s stuck with me spiritually.) In the story, a complex team of skilled individuals—also friends–is assembled to examine a civilization discovered on another planet. One of these is a Jesuit priest with remarkable linguistic abilities and an uncanny set of circumstances. All seem to indicate that God has directed his life for this very team; this very situation.
(Spoiler alert at this point.) Yet despite what appears to be careful crafting by God, the team is wiped out in a number of acute horrors. The priest alone escapes, but not without dire suffering, and some unintentionally inflicted with his own hands. Bearing the scars of this journey, much of the story examines his agony and confusion, without resolve.
It caused me to wrestle with the poignant question, What if our circumstances are intricately orchestrated by God toward our own demise?
I turned over and over what I thought about such a disturbing, gut-wrenching concept—and surely the inquiry that’s plagued the minds of so many Christian parents who’ve lost a child, or, like me, a Christian who’s been involved in someone’s death.
I came to a few conclusions:
- This author’s fine-tuned story lacks the concept that much of the Bible hangs its hat on: That all things work together for good for the people who love God, even when our lives end without seeing its fulfillment. In a word, it lacked hope; signs of a deeply good Divine Author. Do we not believe God is both great and good?
- As Beth Moore phrases it: Deep inside, do I believe God is a giver or a taker?
As I look throughout the Bible, I do witness a number of circumstances that appear to be carefully coordinated for despair: The beleaguered, terrified disciples in a sleepless, storm-thrashed night, bailing water for hours from a boat. Hezekiah, watching the Assyrians that sacked Israel and the vast majority of the known world, closing in around his people. The sun descending on a dead man sagging from a Cross, whom everybody hopes would change everything forever.
The reality? Rather than despair, these situations were masterfully strategized and written for astounding triumph. For glory. One would gather that circumstances were only dismal in order to glorify God to the max when He did show up: To say, Behold: Our God.
I’m presently in my own situation where I’m befuddled not only that it appears I asked God for the wrong thing, but He actually gave it to me. (I’ve written about a form of this before, when I wrote about second-guessing decisions of mine—and wondered if God was in them.)
My heart aches with the implications of all these ardently, open-handedly, carefully requested-and-answered prayers. These answered prayers point away from something that, amidst the right surge of emotion, I feel I wanted more than any of them. Where did I go wrong?
And yet—I do not believe that God punishes us for not seeing the future, or for approaching Him in honest, humble prayer: Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. As author and pastor Tim Keller ruminates (as he elaborates upon in this well-reasoned presentation to the staff of Google), “Just because we don’t see a reason for evil and suffering doesn’t mean there’s not a reason for it.”
God is not a crafty fiction writer, endeavoring to gather us in suspense with the proper plot twists. He is not a vindictive Greek deity, crossing His arms with an eyebrow raised: You’d better pick the right one.
He’s the Shepherd who knows His sheep, knows how to get their attention. He directs a man’s heart like a watercourse—and not as an impassive God bent only on His fame. His glory can’t be teased apart from His profound, tenacious love for us and our welfare.
Like the rest of history, He only leverages prayer for our good.
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