Everywhere I turned, I saw a prayer request. A need.
When we were in India, part of my work was crafting honest requests on behalf of my family in a creative way. These requests were sent to people who supported us, for the purpose of making our needs known so that our team could come around us in prayer.
Another part of my work was sorting newsletters from families living all over South Asia to develop story ideas. Sometimes it would be 80 newsletters per month, two to three pages each. And, that’s just the people I didn’t know. There would be another 20 or so from people I knew personally.
At first, I felt like I should pray through each newsletter I received. Then, I allowed myself to focus on the people I knew personally. I felt like I should care about each family, each person. Anything less seemed insincere. But, I couldn’t do it.
It took me a long time to realize that God never intended to use me to meet everyone’s needs. Not even all of the needs of all of the people I am blessed to know.
When I realized I wasn’t even praying for myself anymore, but only praying for the needs of other people, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what to do.
I was in the middle of a personal crisis in my family, praying a prayer I’d been praying for many years. I’d never prayed for anything for more than a few months. I wondered what it meant that my prayers were met with silence.
I wondered what it meant for my faith. For my God. For my future as a missionary.
I heard well-meaning people say things like, “Of course God hears the prayers of the righteous.” Or “Have you fasted?” Or “Maybe if you went to a special prayer service … ” Or “Ask God with your whole heart, and He will answer.”
In my mind, the things people would say were translated like this, “Well, if you just prayed a little more, God would answer.” Or “If you found exactly the right place of service to God, then He will give you what you desire.” Or “Once you are following the Lord perfectly, you’ll be able to pray for whatever you want and get it.”
When I read the Bible, I know this isn’t true of God. Getting the answers we want can’t be the goal of prayer. The main goal of prayer is deeper fellowship with God.
But, he wasn’t answering.
So, for awhile, I stopped praying much at all. I wouldn’t say I stopped praying out of a desire to get back at God. It wasn’t a conscious decision. I would describe it more as going through the motions of prayer, holding back while waiting for God to act. The feelings I experienced were not the feelings I wanted. Pain. Grief. Fear of the unknown. So, I pushed them aside and offered up simple prayers.
“God, help me.”
“God, help me get through the day.”
“God, I don’t feel you. Are you there?”
I don’t think these kinds of prayers are wrong. God knows what we are able to do to at any given moment. Sometimes saying, “God, help me,” is the most honest thing we can do.
But I do think it is wrong to avoid talking to God, to avoid pouring out my heart to him honestly and vulnerably. Yes, we can do this with loved ones and support systems, but it’s meaningless if we can’t do it with God.
After more than 20 years as a Christian, I felt like I stopped knowing how to pray, stopped knowing how to talk to God. I knew prayer as a mysterious spiritual discipline that we can’t totally explain, and I knew God as able to perform miracles unimagined, but I questioned everything and found myself with almost no desire to pray.
Friends would share their needs with me and I would feel compassion and want to comfort them, but I couldn’t pray. I stopped committing to pray for people because I knew I would fail.
I felt alone in the pain of my circumstances. When other people would offer to pray for me, I would thank them, but wonder if they would follow through. And, even wonder if it mattered.
I could say God wasn’t answering in the way I wanted, that instead he was answering by allowing me to wait. Some days, I would agree with this. I know waiting is one of God’s great training tools.
Other days, when I long to be answered, when I long to be heard, I wonder if anyone knows my pain. I feel like the writer of Lamentations in chapter 3, who says,
“I am the man who has seen affliction under the rod of his wrath; he has driven and brought me into darkness without any light; surely against me he turns his hand again and again the whole day long … though I cry out for help, he shuts out my prayer; he has blocked my ways with blocks of stones; he has made my paths crooked … so I say, ‘My endurance has perished; so has my hope from the Lord.’ ” (ESV)
This is a man who knows what it’s like to feel distanced from the Lord. If anyone has a right to curse God, it’s this guy.
And, yet, later in the same chapter, he — while remembering his afflictions — says,
“But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’ The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him … For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love … ” (ESV)
If anyone has a right to say God is faithful with authority, it’s this guy. He’s suffered. Lamentations says his flesh and skin wasted away, he was broken. He was straight up bitter.
But God didn’t forget him. God didn’t abandon him to his sin or his situation. God hasn’t changed because of his afflictions. Or my season of unwillingness to pray.
And, so with God’s grace, this guy learns to discipline his mind to remember what is true. In the middle of his pain. He uses words like “steadfast love,” and “faithfulness,” and “mercies” and “compassion.”
God is still here. Worthy of our hope. Steadfast in love. Unending in mercy. Silent at times, but never gone.
Like the guy in Lamentations, I am learning to preach to myself when my feelings don’t match up with what the Bible says is true. I am learning that my hope is not dependent on the present reality of my circumstances. No matter how bleak they may seem to me. There’s more to this life than today.
When we’re honest, I think we all have moments where we forget how to hope. But forgetting doesn’t mean the hope isn’t there. Feeling distant from God doesn’t mean he isn’t real. Our feelings are powerful and a part of how God designed us. But they are not always how God shows himself in our lives.
Sometimes God shows himself through silence. Silence that drives me to read the words he put together for us in Scripture. Silence that drives me to seek the counsel of respected mentors. Silence that reveals the sin in my heart. Silence that causes loneliness to teach the importance of community, or remembering to gather together.