My ridiculously-long text to Josiah: …I have a question that I’m really struggling with, and I’m hoping you can provide some wisdom. Yesterday youth group discussed breakthrough prayer and one of the verses used was John 15:7: “If you stay connected to me and my words remain in your heart, you may ask any request you want in prayer, and it will be given to you.” I don’t see how that’s possible given the people we’ve lost in the last three months. A whole community prayed fervently and consistently for Shelly Kraus, and it didn’t matter. I can confess that maybe I’m not a good enough Christian to have my prayers answered. I’ve sinned in many ways and I don’t read the Bible as much as I should, so maybe my prayers weren’t pure enough. But my daughters’ were. I’m sure Shelly’s mom and sister and niece and children’s hearts were 100% pure. So why is Shelly gone? And Cathy? And Lee? I don’t understand the apparent contradictions in the Bible and in reality on this topic. So that’s question #1.
My second question… The Bible says to be very specific in prayer yet we are also to understand that it’s His ways and His timing. We are told he knew our story and our plan when we were knitted in the womb. So my question is why should we pray if God already knows what’s going to happen? Can our prayers change His mind, given that He already has a plan? I’m confused by this incongruent information. Why pray if the plan is set? And are we supposed to pray kind of “big, umbrella prayers” or very specific prayers? How can we ask that His will be done yet plead for His will to match our desires?
I’m so angry at God for taking parents. I know the parents are better off, celebrating in Heaven, but I don’t see how leaving a child without one or even both parents can be for that child’s good. Growing up mother-less cannot be best in just about any circumstance, but especially in the families with extraordinary moms, like Shel and Cathy. I know we can’t understand His ways, but I need more than that to let go of my anger at God. Our school kids prayed and prayed for Shelly, so I need to know how to explain those tough questions to those children. I don’t want them to think they weren’t “holy enough” to get God to save Shell.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
From Josiah: I’m going to do my best to answer your questions as thoroughly as possible, but I am, as the old hymn goes, prone to wander, so please follow up with me if there is anything else that you would like to discuss further.
Let me first say that the questions you’re asking are very natural and warranted given the circumstances of recent months. I think we, all of us, feel an earthquake in the deepest part of our gut when people like Shelly and Lee and Cathy are suddenly gone. Death is a collector we can’t refuse, and he leaves all of us doubting and weak and furious and robbed. Jesus himself knows these sorrows, so don’t let the pangs of guilt take hold of you for asking these questions.
In regards to Rick Warren’s use of John 15:7, I think he missed a crucial explanation of the verse’s context, which sheds a helpful and illuminating light on Christ’s words. The whole of John chapters 13-17 are grounded in Jesus’s farewell discourse to his disciples before he was arrested, and the first 11 verses of John 15 in particular are dedicated to Jesus explaining how, as our Lord, he is the true vine, and we as his followers are the branches. He says that as we abide in him – that is, as we root ourselves through faith in his teaching, his love, his words, and so on – he abides in us, and through him we bear fruit just as any healthy branch would: we repent and turn away from anything that he calls sinful (Mt 3:8), we grow more and more into a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-23), and we become exemplars of good works and increase in the knowledge of God as a result of finding our salvation in him (Col 1:10), just to list a few ways that we “bear fruit.”
Because John 15:7 falls in the middle of these words, it seems that the most wholesome way to understand it would be something like this: when we let the words of Jesus truly abide in us, our prayers will be molded in such a way that they will overflow from a heart that seeks to bear fruit for God, and he will give us what we pray for in the cause of bearing fruit.
In other words, John 15:7 is not a catch-all that means God promises to give us everything we ask for; it must be understood within its context and it must be understood in light of other verses like 1 John 5:14, which reads, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” I doubt that there is any more startling picture of this truth than the one that C.S. Lewis painted for us, when he so breathtakingly said, “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from him. It did not.” Even Jesus himself, the very Word made flesh, walked this silent and galling road. He knew this bitter drink that’s forced into our cup.
Which, of course, leads naturally to your next question: why pray at all if God’s will is already set?
But before I attempt to address that question, I’d like to say something that I hope will bring you at least some measure of encouragement and assurance: you don’t have to worry about whether your prayers are “pure” enough to be answered, because it’s through Christ’s pureness – not ours – that our prayers are heard to begin with. If you have faith in Jesus, even if it’s the size of the tiniest seed, your prayers are heard. Of course, we certainly want to let God’s word dwell more deeply in our hearts, in order to let our prayers be more and more shaped by him, but ultimately it is only through Jesus that we find the merit for our prayers to be brought before the Father – which is why we pray in Jesus’ name. Our prayers are pure enough to be heard because of Christ. They bear his seal.
I say this because it breaks my heart to think of you carrying the unbearable burden of the thought that your prayers weren’t pure enough to be answered. That weight will crush any human being, so it’s my sincere hope that, as you think on Jesus and these words of his, you’ll find some peace and allow yourself to drop that millstone at his feet, even in the midst of tears and frustrations and questions and all. Perhaps, in that silence of all places, you’ll find that Christ weeps too – perhaps you will come to know him more intimately as the Man of all sorrows.
Now, back to the question at hand: why spend time in prayer if God’s will is already determined? And if we do pray, then what kind of prayers should we be praying? Here are some things to consider.
As frustrating, confusing, and mysterious as it is, it seems that are certain times and circumstances in which God chooses to move and act only through the prayers of his people. Here is a story from Scripture that illustrates what I mean – in Genesis 20, Abraham decides to try and settle down for a little while in a place called Gerar. Apparently, while he and his wife Sarah were there, the king of Gerar, Abimelech, took notice of Sarah. This frightened Abraham and made him feel powerless, the way a 2nd grader might feel in the shadow of a high school bully; he thought that he might be killed so that the king could swoop in and take Sarah as his own wife. In the clutches of this potential catastrophe, Abraham began saying that Sarah was his sister, and to no one’s surprise, Abimelech did in fact take her. And then, this:
“But God came to Abimelech in a dream by night and said to him, ‘Behold, you are a dead man because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.’ Now Abimelech had not approached her. So he said, ‘Lord, will you kill an innocent people?Did he not himself say to me, “She is my sister”? And she herself said, “He is my brother.” In the integrity of my heart and the innocence of my hands I have done this.’ Then God said to him in the dream, ‘Yes, I know that you have done this in the integrity of your heart, and it was I who kept you from sinning against me. Therefore I did not let you touch her. Now then, return the man’s wife, for he is a prophet, so that he will pray for you, and you shall live. But if you do not return her, know that you shall surely die, you and all who are yours.’”
Abimelech does as he’s instructed, Abraham prays for him, and all is well. So, our question is this: why didn’t God just leave it at the dream? Why didn’t he simply say that he would heal Abimelech once he obeyed? Why did he specify that Abraham would pray for him, and then he would live? It seems to be that, in some scenarios, God intends to do the things he has already determined to do, but only through prayer.
We also see this in the episode of the demon-possessed boy in Mark 9. The disciples, unable to cast out the demon themselves, watch Jesus do it with nothing more than a verbal command. This troubled the disciples, and they asked Jesus why they had not been able to cast the demon out, to which he replied, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.” Again, we see that God may have determined something (the demon is going to come out of the boy), but that if we are going to see that determined action come to pass in our lives, it will only happen through prayer.
You might call this “truth in tension”: two equal yet seemingly opposed truths, maintained somehow in a tension that makes our stomachs queasy and our heads throb.
– God has a determined will – and he will act on that determined will through prayer.
– The Bible is God’s inerrant Word, inspired by the Holy Spirit – and it was written by human beings who had individual personalities and writing styles that came through their works as they were carried along by the Spirit.
– There is only one true God – and he exists in three distinct persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are rational beings who want to make order out of chaos and sense out of madness. We do our best to sort things into easily grasped patterns, into simple if-this-then-thats. And then there is God, and the things of God, and perhaps most maddening of all the things of God, there is prayer, and we cannot make any of it fit into our patterns, our if-this-then-thats – and so when we reach these crossroad moments of death and loss and questions, we tend to do one of two things: box our faith up and let it collect dust in the attic of our hearts, or throw ourselves into God as desperately we know how to with our questions and longings and anger. And all the while he is keeping count of our sleepless tossing and collecting every single one of our precious tears in his bottle; none of them go unseen, even when we are stifling earthquake sobs alone in the car and think we won’t be noticed (Psalm 56:8).
So, with all of this, what and how are we to pray? I suppose that if we are going to take God at his word, then we pray all kinds of prayers: we do pray big, umbrella prayers. We do pray very specific, detailed prayers. We ask generally for his kingdom to come and his will to be done, and we ask specifically for our daily bread and for the resources to make it through the next day; we ask him to be with us for all of our lives, and we ask for his peace as we walk into a dreaded work meeting; we pray that he will protect our families, and we pray that he will be like a shield around our children while they are on a bus for a field trip; we ask him to forgive us of all our sins, and we ask him to forgive us for that very unkind word that we spoke to our spouse.
And in the moments when we don’t know what to pray, in the moments when we don’t know where to begin, in the moments when we our bellies ache with heartbreak and the only thing we can do is weep, the Holy Spirit is praying for us with groans too deep for words, bringing our disappointments and cries before the Father.
I imagine that you, like Jacob in the book of Genesis, will have a long wrestling match with God over these questions – but I hope that these words help you at least catch a glimpse of the sunrise that rests on the blade of this seemingly never-ending night. There are no easy answers for the times when tragedy comes rampaging at us like this, rushing away with those we love so dearly; there are no words that completely eradicate the grief that invades our lives when death robs children of their parents, parents of their children. I’ve been wrestling with God, too. My prayers feel like I’m coming up from under the waters just long enough to draw a breath, and the waves are steep and pounding.
In these storm-tossings, this has been my most common prayer in recent months, and maybe it will be as much a help for you as it’s been for me: Jesus, have mercy on me – I believe; help my unbelief.
Until that Day, when Christ himself will finally crush and smother death once and for all, and obliterate that ancient monster with his own scarred hands.
Praise God, Josiah. Amen.