I stood in the sanctuary during church, my heart hurting for all the other hurting hearts in the room. One of our own wasn’t there with us. We’d lost someone way too young, way too soon: a vibrant woman who touched countless lives. And many of us were left wondering how to pray now.
Because we’d been praying for healing. We’d hoped to see a miracle—genuinely hoped, believing that our God is able to do anything. He is.
But when He doesn’t do it, what then?
When the behaviorist B.F. Skinner did experiments on learned behavior with rats, he discovered that once an animal discovers that pushing a lever would produce a food pellet, that animal will continually press it. But what happens when the result is erratic, when he tries again and again with no reward, when sometimes he gets a pellet and other times he does not? He stops trying altogether.
Maybe it’s irreverent—or somehow warped—to stand in church, listening to praise music and contemplating the behavior of rats. That may be, but I think it’s relevant.
Because here’s the thing. We go to God asking for healing for so many people we love—husbands and fathers and grandmothers and children and friends. We go because we know that only God can turn around that situation. We believe what we read in the Bible, so we know that God can do miraculous things. The lame can walk; the blind can see. We genuinely believe it. We know it’s possible.
And if we’re lucky, we do see healings. Sometimes they’re miraculous—Nathan’s aneurism is visible on the x-ray he brought to church so that we could pray for him, but the next day, the doctors couldn’t find it any longer. Sometimes they’re smaller, less dramatic, but still clearly bear the imprint of God. A person diagnosed with less than a year lives for three, or the doctors fear a serious scenario and the tests all come back normal. Is this a miracle? Did God heal?
Honestly, it feels like a cop-out to say that sometimes healing consists of someone leaving this earth and stepping into heaven. Even so, I believe it’s true. But that feels like a consolation prize, doesn’t it? Something we say we’re grateful for, even though it hurts and makes no sense to us. A way to still think our God is good, when we think what happened is bad.
So what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to stop praying, stop asking? I don’t think so. The Bible says to pray about everything, to pray without ceasing, to ask and you shall receive.
But, if I’m being completely honest, as some point it begins to feel like our God is capricious, heartless, acting on a whim, arbitrarily deciding, “no… yes… no… definitely not.” Deciding whether to give us a reward, perhaps even playing a game with our emotions.
And it seems as though we’re rats in a box, pushing a lever again and again, beginning to grasp that the food really isn’t coming this time.
How do we get past that?
1. Remember that God knows more than we do. Not just about science, or the details of someone’s life, but He sees from the beginning to the end. He is aware of the repercussions of every action, not just in this physical life but in the eternal, spiritual realm. When we only have a little bit of knowledge, we can’t accurately judge which events are tragic and which are merely sad. Which ones will forever change the direction of our lives, and which will just detour us briefly.
2. Remember that Jesus came to give us life with him for all of eternity. When someone dies, our hearts break. We see unlimited potential brought to an untimely close. But if God’s ultimate plan for us, borne of a love so great we can’t really fathom it, was to unite us with him forevermore… then when someone goes to be with Him, can we really say that it’s not a good thing? There is no place better for the person we love to be than physically present with God.
3. Remember that God understands our hurt, frustration, even our anger. We cannot ever forget that God knows our hearts—and He loves us anyway, even when our thoughts are less than holy, less than generous, less than grateful. In Luke 7:22 (NRSV), Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” This passage reminds us that Jesus healed, but the more powerful part, in my opinion, is what He says next: “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” I think God knows that seeing healings—or not seeing them—can become a stumbling block to our faith. We start to wonder, “Why him?” and “Why not her?” We feel that our prayers aren’t heard, or we didn’t pray right, or wonder if something we did caused an undesirable outcome.
But Jesus promised that anyone who does not take offense at him is blessed. So don’t despair if you are struggling to stand strong in your faith, and don’t presume all is lost when you find yourself wrestling with doubts. A friend once asked me, after losing her husband unexpectedly, “So when I yelled and screamed at God and told him how mad I am, was that prayer?” I (emphatically) said yes, which brings us to my final tip.
4. Be real with God. Don’t try to hide how you feel; He knows. Don’t ignore your feelings, because they’ll tear you apart if you don’t let yourself express them. But know that God is your refuge. Go to Him with your pain; allow Him to provide comfort (Matthew 5:4). He created you, and He can handle anything you have to throw at Him. And right now, if you are hurting, I promise you that He wants you to let Him in. He’ll help carry the weight of your sadness (Matthew 11:28), and He’ll hold you close while you mourn. He is close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), and He knows your heart (Psalm 139). Whatever you feel, He has the answer. He is patient, and He will not leave you, so trust Him with this. And remember, no matter how weak you feel, He is strong. “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26).
It goes without saying that you don’t WANT to do this. I don’t want to face losses like this, either. But the truth is, you CAN. When my mom died, I fought against it. I resisted with everything in me, and it took me years to feel like I was somewhat okay again. When my dad passed away this summer, I knew something I hadn’t known when Mom died: I will forever be changed by this. The loss won’t destroy me, but it does go with me and forever become part of who I am. Knowing that helped me. It doesn’t make it stop hurting, but it does feel bearable.
Pray with me? Dear Lord, you are the hope for the brokenhearted, and we come before you today, hurting, aching, feeling less than whole—maybe doubting what we believe about you. Maybe wondering if our faith will recover from this blow. Help us to tear down the walls we use to protect our fragile selves just enough to let You in. Because it is only WITH You that we can see the light again, that we can open our hearts enough to be able to remember the good and beautiful memories, to honor the legacies of those we love, and to someday feel whole again. Please help us. Amen.