When Prayer Doesn’t Work

In the wake of the death of Rachel Held Evans I’ve been thinking about struggling with prayer.

Sarah Bessey got hundreds of thousands to band together in praying for Rachel. If there was a type of person God cared about healing, surely this mom of a 1 & 3 year old would qualify? She was making a difference with her life, and building people up in their faith (just check out the #BecauseOfRHE Twitter thread to read the impact of her life. And grab a box of tissues!)

She was only my age when she landed suddenly and unexpectedly in the ICU a few weeks ago, and didn’t come out, dying on Saturday.

Rachel had people around the globe joining her in prayer and she still died.

This is something that rocks our faith and makes us question the point in prayer. A friend in a group I’m in, transparently put it this way:

I love Carissa’s honesty because I’ve been struggling with those same feeligs thinking of my own experiences with prayer too.

Having prayed every single morning for years with a mentor for the healing of my marriage and for my ex husbands healing. It never happened. I was taught to “just pray about it” and “have faith” and that “prayer changes things”. My marriage should have been healed. So many people told me they had faith and knew God would work a miracle or heal our relationship.

My 20 year marriage crashed anyway, even with faith in God in this marriage till the day he walked away. It made the whole situation a lot more jarring to think prayer could help for so long & not see that get answered.

I wish my experiences reflected that sentiment of prayer making the difference but they didn’t for me!

My lived experiences are much more like Chris Boeskool‘s feelings on this as he responds to Nadia Boltz-Webers call to prayer :

I think some of the ways we talk about God and prayer make God sound callous.

Or as my friend Kristi put it:

When I hear people treat prayer like a magic wand, or the way to solve problems, it bothers me because it makes God look arbitrary and petty.

Sometimes God gets used as a diversion from our own responsibility in a situation as well:

Prayer can be treated like a magic tool.

I knew a guy who talked to me about prayer like a UFC fighter making prayer power moves. He talked about arm wrestling God in prayer and Jacob wrestling with God in the bible to be an illustration for prayer.

It never worked out that way for me. No matter how much faith.

When my dad went into a three month coma and didn’t come out, it was devastating. Eventually they were feeding him by a peg in his stomach. The doctors said he would likely never wake up after 3 months of being in a coma. I prayed every day to no answer. It broke my heart anew to see him still in a coma each day.

So I gave up praying for him. It was too emotionally draining to come home crying each day. So I stopped believing God could or would heal my dad. It was easier to get along with God by pulling that hope for healing off the table completely and accepting his inevitable death.

A few weeks later he wakes up. Maybe I should have given up praying sooner! I shared my story with a mentor very confused because people would pull out parts of the bible with “your faith has healed you” and my story contradicted that.

She answered me by saying God also healed her mom in a near death situation after she gave up praying. That was not the answer I was expecting but it was the truth. The formulas don’t work!

I think of how Rachel herself discussed the struggle of prayer:

The psalmists are filled with similar perplexity over prayer.

Psalm 13 is absolutely beautiful.

So short, only 6 verses long but it says so much!

David who is a “man after God’s own heart” (Acts 13:22) says a whole bunch of things that we tell Christians they should not feel if they really trust in God.

And he doesn’t just think these thoughts and keep them to himself. He does not hide or stuff his negative feelings… not even those about God. Nope. He felt quite at ease telling God that he felt forsaken, that he didn’t like God’s timing, that he felt forgotten, that he was constantly wrestling with his thoughts, and felt restless, that he was filled with sorrow in his heart day after day, that he despaired that he would be defeated and his enemies would look on his pitiful state and rejoice at his downfall.

He wants answers and He wants God to give him light even though he is expressing all of the above emotions. I admire him still asking God for answers and for light -with all those doubts and with all the pain he felt.

Are we okay if other Christians feel the same way David did? Do we tell them to “Just trust God” without allowing them the space to just be sad? Or even mad?

Are we okay with a God that allows us to go through hard times that make us feel discouraged? Can we deal with someone feeling despair or do we try and bi-pass that uncomfortable tension of verses 1-4 to get on with verses 5-6?

I think sometimes we try to pretend disappointment is not part of the faith walk.

We might believe there is a contradiction in David saying all of that and then concluding in the last two verses with:

“But I trust in your unfailing love.

I will rejoice because you have rescued me.

I will sing to the Lord

because he is good to me.”

It takes freedom and space to ever get around to that last part. Freedom to doubt and freedom to be like Jesus who cried out on the cross “my God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Have you ever heard that doubt is a sin? What does that lead you to do with your doubts?

Where does that expression: “God’s will prevails”, leave you?

I was listening to a group of people discussing how God “works all things for the good of those who are called according to his purpose,” and I sat there pondering my Christian friend who had the miscarriage and my friend who suffered through a brain tumor and my friend whose church family supported her rapist.

Where was God “working all things” there?

As I began to think over my own childhood of extreme abuse in foster care, their simplistic stories did not only seem trite but incredibly immature and insensitive. They showcased a deep need for grasping onto certainty with all their might. As much as people view that as strong faith, certainty is the exact opposite. For some people “the bible says so” is not a tool of contemplation and working out our faith, but a step-by-step instruction manual read with a very clear and narrow interpretation.

The clarity becomes the anchor, not the relationship by faith in Jesus. It is a lot easier to say that “God’s will prevails in the end” than imagine a world where God is as horrified about victims without intervening in the way that we really wish He would.

It’s one thing to think that thought in the deep recesses of your mind, but we are told that speaking our real doubts out loud will poison the well of faith we are drawing from. So rebuke it and suppress your reality—shove that thought out of sight and out of mind, but don’t you dare say it out loud!

Reality, without a neat bow, stirs up too much in people and rocks their neat & tidy faith.

It forces us to wonder like Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent” (Psalm 22).

Deep cries like that require a mature faith; not in a tidy faith box where everything works out.

Jesus seems to display a level of doubt, when he thinks God has forsaken him, that demonstrates a courageous and raw expression of pain and humanity. It says that he really does get me, not just fully God but also fully man!

I don’t believe God ever turned his face away from Jesus. I believe Jesus was experiencing human emotions of abandonment because of his pain. But that God could never abandon his son.

The Psalms are full of expressions of doubt. God decided to record them for all of us – to read for all history, all those raw unpleasant and authentic prayers.

Through scripture, although Thomas is called “the doubter” other passages tell us that all of the disciples were doubting but that Thomas was the brave one to bring up the topics often.

An honest faith requires that we don’t shut down any of our doubts or emotions but allow ourselves to ask the gut wrenching questions. When we deny our doubt we tend to amplify our fears and our doubts.

However, going straight to God with our doubts or putting them to poetry or a song or a prayer actually helps us to acknowledge where we’re at. It’s healthy, healing and genuine – and that’s why I think they are recorded in the bible!

Expressing our experiences with doubt helps live authentically and root out cognitive dissonance from our Christianity and our faith.

So if you don’t get prayer, keep struggling. I don’t have the easy answers I used to have, and I don’t think Jacob’s wrestling is about persistence in prayer anymore. I think it’s about being restless over what God allows into our life and facing that reality instead of running away or hiding behind empty platitudes of certainty posing as faith.

I was told that there was power in saying the right words—”speaking God’s truth”—with my mouth even if I didn’t believe it. I was told this projection of a truth I was not grasping on would be “claiming God’s promises” this would defeat “the enemy” by highlighting my trust in God.

Now I believe trust goes deeper. It’s not about puffing up your chest like my lizards do when they feel threatened to look big and confident when they feel under attack.

I think real faith is trusting in a relationship that is not seamless but often fraught with real difficulty, disagreement and question.

And as cliché as it sounds, if God is actually “big,” God can handle your doubts and questions.

Stay authentic. Your struggle doesn’t scare God. Stay there as long as you need and don’t try to fake it till you make it. God doesn’t need you to “honor him” by putting on airs. Image means nothing to God. God prefers your authentic self, full of doubts. Warts and all.

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