Sunday, 24 June 2018

Why does God answer the same prayer in different ways for different people?

'Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it would not rain; and it did not rain on the land for three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth produced its fruit'. James 5:13-18

A well known passage. God can do amazing things! He is a God of miracles. He is good and loving. He answers prayer. He forgives sin. The Bible is full of inspiring examples.

But what about when the healing doesn't happen? In the past year, I've had two friends in very similar situations. Both had babies with serious heart problems who needed to travel abroad for surgery. Both had similar underlying medical problems. In both cases, the parents were strong, vibrant Christians (worship leaders and missionaries, respectively). In one case, prayer after prayer was answered, doors were opened, things that seemed impossible came to pass, surgery was uncomplicated, recovery smooth and there has been much celebration. In the other case, whilst the surgery seemed initially to go well, the child died some months later. I have no doubt that the parents (and their friends and loved ones) would have been praying very similar prayers in both instances. So, why the difference? My children, knowing both families quite well, have also been asking these questions!

My eight year old was very clear. 'God answers prayer in three possible ways. Yes, no, or not now'.

My nine year old was also quite clear. 'God knows the way in which He will be glorified most, and that will not be the same for every person. He chose things to happen the way they did so that more people can hear about His goodness'.

I agree with both of these, but it is quite poignant when you see a friend torn apart by grief, not necessarily seeing just why God would be more glorified through the loss of her child! And when faced with the question, I realise that the question can only be answered with the eternal perspective.

Platitudes come into being because there is often truth within them. So, when God doesn't answer a prayer in line with our deepest human longings, of course He is still working good. 'And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose' Romans 8:28. It's a wonderful, powerful verse. And yet it can feel like a slap in the face to somebody wrestling with this question.

One of the first things I think it is essential to remember is that, 'Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever' (Hebrews 13:8). When the Lord revealed Himself to Moses, He described Himself thus: 'The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...' (Exodus 34:6). The character of God does not change and will not change. Our perception of God may be challenged. But that does not mean for a second that He has changed. I think time spent meditating on the attributes of God is very helpful when facing difficult questions, and I recently wrote more about that here.

It is important to consider all of His attributes, rather than focussing one one or two alone. This article summarises these attributes well. The perfect combination is important - because one can accept that God is omnipotent, all powerful, but might not appreciate that He is also good, and wise. One might accept that God is omniscient, knowing all things, but then feel rejected and abandoned because He must have chosen to ignore your pain and circumstances. But when we remember that He is wise, good, just, merciful, gracious and loving - then we recognise that He is fully aware of the situation, of the prayers that have been uttered, the tears that have been shed, and the currently overwhelming sorrow that is being experienced.

Our God is triune - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Considering Christ the Son, 'He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him'. (Colossians 1:15-16). Despite this power, 'We do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathise with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need'. (Hebrews 4:14-16). He knows our sorrow, our confusion, our questioning - and invites us to come to Him in prayer and find the help we need.

But all of this only answers the question in part! So far, we have established that:

1. God does not change
2. God is able to perform miracles as He is fully powerful
3. God is aware of everything that any person is going through and is compassionate
4. God is perfectly kind, loving and wise
5. As a man, Jesus walked through trials and pain, and invites us to bring these to Him in prayer
6. God works in every situation for good

But still the question remains: Why then, would this good, powerful, unchanging God work in different ways in response to similar prayers? Why would He put some of His children through extreme pain and suffering, and seem to provide a way out for others?

Earlier this evening I read Philippians to my children, and noted this: 'For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it might be conformed to His glorious body, according to the workings by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself' Philippians 3:20-21. Illness and death is a sign of our bodies being subject to decay, to brokenness, and here we are reminded to look to eternity - to transformation and restoration. This echoes of Paul, 'Therefore we do not lose heart. Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen. For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal'. 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. And it leads forward to the promise given in Revelation, 'Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away'. Revelation 21:3-4.

When we look with human eyes, considering the here and now, we see a paradox between the apparent 'answered' and 'unanswered' prayers. But when we consider what is happening from the eternal perspective, I find things start to fall into place:

1. Heaven is better by far! As Paul wrote, 'For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain' (Philippians 1:21). Those who have died in faith have been 'fast-tracked' or 'promoted' to glory. For them, suffering and pain has ended and they are fully free to worship perfectly for eternity. (I am aware I am not bringing in the added complexity of when a loved one dies, apparently not in faith - this also presents a challenge, and I should aim to write about that separately).

2. Sufferings and affliction are used by God for His glory. There are so many passages about how we should expect suffering and tribulation, about how trials present unique opportunities for growth, and about how God is honoured in these situations that I shall not attempt to list them all here. My favourites include 1 Peter 1, James 1, Romans 5.

3. In the light of eternity, the pain and frustration we face here is short-lived. If you study the circumstances that Paul described as 'light and momentary', you can see that few people enduring these would use such language to describe them: 'in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and in nakedness - besides the other things...' (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).

4. Whilst God might display some of His glory through 'answered prayer' here and now, He is achieving eternal glory (some of which may be apparent, other of which may only become apparent in eternity) through the prayers that seem to be unanswered, or which are not answered according to our human desire.

I think a third aspect that we must consider is what might be considered a person's 'lot'. The book of Ecclesiastes deals with this extensively - that a person may pursue pleasures and security in the here and now, and find it all to be 'vanity'. 'Here is what I have seen: it is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage. As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labour - this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart' (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20). Basically, we should focus on what God has given us, and accept the good and the bad parts. When I reflect on my life so far, I can see situations where prayers have been answered dramatically, in the way that I would have chosen (the immediate example is when my second son was acutely ill and close to death, that he responded within a few days to treatment and had no lasting consequences, and that his adoption went through within about six weeks without any challenges), and of course others situations where I have felt the sorrow of the prayers being answered differently (for example my daughter's death). Whilst we are caught up in a situation of sorrow or of rejoicing, it is important to remember that there will be other times in our lives when we experience the opposite. And as discussed above, God will not have changed, and will not have made a mistake.

At the end of John's gospel, Jesus has just told Peter about how his life will end. Peter immediately wanted to know about what would happen to his friend, John. 'When Peter saw him, he asked, "Lord, what about him?" Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me." Because of this, the rumour spread among the believers that disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:21-23) I opened this blog post with the question of why God would act 'differently' in two similar situations. And yet, the pain of apparently 'unanswered prayer' is much easier to bear when you do not see the other situation right in front of you. I think there is great wisdom in Jesus' words to Peter here: "What is that to you? You must follow me."

Again, there is a lot we can learn from the Apostle Paul (you can see that reading through the whole of Philippians as the childrens' bedtime reading did us all good!): 'I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content; I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me' (Philippians 4:11-13). Our contentment should not depend on what we have, but ultimately on our relationship with God. 'Therefore gird up the loins of your mind, be sober, and rest your hope fully on the grace that is to be brought to you at the revelation of Christ' (1 Peter 1:13). By finding satisfaction and true joy and peace in Christ alone, we are better positioned to weather the storms of pain and loss, and better able to trust that whilst we cannot fully understand why things are as they are, that we have not been wronged or forgotten by God.

I think there are also other complicating factors that can make the situations very difficult to bear. These relate to the fact that all Christians are sinners saved by grace. We are all open to temptation, and will not relate to one another with that perfect wisdom, kindness, grace, love and gentleness that the Lord displays to us.

A couple of specifics come to mind:

1. Jealousy/ envy. It is very easy to feel envious when another person seems to have had their prayer answered in the way you wanted yours to be! I think this happens a lot in the Christian life - when a friend gets a good job, or married, or the couple who have been praying for children have children, I could go on. When there is a situation as extreme as the death of a child, it can be easier to dismiss the feeling as reasonable or acceptable. However, it fails to recognise that God has, somehow, in His wisdom, given you your current situation. It is not wise to spend too long thinking about the situation of another - there may well be things that you are unaware of, and as Jesus said to Peter: "What is that to you?" I think it is not going too far to describe every aspect of life, including the painful and sorrowful as a gift (and I recently wrote about that here), but I think it does take a long time to reach that point. It is hard to face up to darker feelings, but remember that God will not be shocked. 'Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep' (Romans 12:15) is a well known verse; I find it telling that the two situations are placed right next to one another. It is difficult to celebrate with one family on the wonderful news, and to stand with another family in their sorrow. I think that verse is there, like that, to remind us that it is tough, but through the strength that God gives us, we should seek to do so.

2. Glory (whether it be through the miraculous 'answered prayer' or through the trial and sorrow) belongs to God alone. At either extreme, there may be people who (deliberately or unwittingly) seek to be in the limelight. Many years ago I attended a church where there was a general feeling that having a certain person pray for you would be more likely to 'result' in the desired outcome. The individual who prayed would try to take the glory from the God who had answered the prayer, and celebrations of 'miracles' often seemed to have more to do with the spiritual prowess of an individual rather than the amazing power of God. This can occur more subtly, and even churches which would stand firmly against any form of 'prosperity' teaching need to take care that there is not a subtle communication contrary to that teaching. Similarly, I have seen bereaved parents who have stood firm in their faith be almost revered by their community as having 'strong faith', to the extent where they have felt isolated and discouraged, longing for Christian fellowship where they can talk frankly about the ups and downs of their grieving process (and all other aspects of their Christian life). These things can be subtle, but can cause damage in relationships.

As is often the case, I am very aware I have not answered the question fully. Returning to the conversation with my children which prompted me to write, my simple answer would be:

1. God is good, powerful and in control, and never changes
2. God's desire is that He be glorified in and through every situation
3. Life here is short compared with heaven
4. Some things will be difficult to understand and painful in this world

How would you respond?