When You Just Can’t Pray Anymore
A friend of mine is watching his daughter die. She’s only eighteen.
Last month, they were sitting side-by-side on the bleachers at her volleyball games, cheering her team to victory. And today they sit beside her hospital bed, watching her chest rise and fall slowly, listening to the monitors beep once…and again…and again.
He is a writer too, and I’ve been following their horrific journey day by day through his eyes. The hope. The prayers. And finally, today, the utter defeat when there are no words to pray anymore.
He calls it “sacred sorrow.” It’s the moment when your insides squeeze so tight that you can hardly breathe. Your heart wells up with pain, anger, fear…and then comes the silent scream…one that flows through your whole body and yet cannot be expressed.
I’ve been there more times than I can count. Some days I sit on the floor of my closet, in the dark, with my arms wrapped around my sides, rocking back and forth as the tears flow. I can’t even pray…nor do I try to anymore. I just give myself up to the hurt and cry until I’m exhausted. Then I start life again.
When I was about seven years old, I heard Mark Lowry (the comedian) say something that changed my entire view of God. He said, “When you’re mad at God, you might as well tell Him. He knows anyway.”
I think so many of us feel the expectation to pray with pretty words. To ask just the right thing. To formalize our requests and our needs with a “Dear Lord” and an “Amen.”
Isn’t that just like us as imperfect human beings? If we pray the right way, God HAS to answer. It says so in the Bible. He fits in a box.
Or if we don’t pray exactly right, God won’t listen. He’s so high and mighty, why would He listen to me? I have to ask with the perfect words so He’ll listen. Then maybe, just maybe, He’ll act. Maybe.
Nope. That’s not who God is. At least, that’s not the God I know. That’s not my Father.
My Daddy and I talk. I just let the words flow whenever I’ve got em.
“Today is gonna suck. I have too much to do and not enough time. I feel miserable. And I need help. I’m gonna trust you to be with me because You said You would. And I love You.”
“I hurt. Again. Why do I have to be so sick all the time? Why did you let me have such a broken body? It’s not fair. I’m ticked. SO MAD!” (Ten minutes go by while I write about a special-needs orphanage in Russia and the kids there who need help.)
“Father, I’m sorry. I forgot that life’s not all about me. I sure am thankful that I live in an age and a place where there are docs and meds that keep me alive and able to do work that matters. Be with the children who have nothing…please let them know that they are loved…that they have not been forgotten…”
But here’s the deal. Straight up. I truly believe that there is always a purpose in our pain. That swell of “sacred sorrow,” that deep, gut-wrenching suffering that goes beyond words? It changes me. Every time.
God allows us to hurt to make us more like Jesus.
I heard my Dad preach on 2 Corinthians 1 many times. You’ll recognize the verses. Take a sec to read them:
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.
Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.
(2 Corinthians 1:3-7; I emphasized some parts on purpose. I’ll show you why in just a minute.)
I used to read these verses and focus on the comfort. I read them to be warm and fuzzy, encouragement just when I need it most. “God is the source of our comfort…He comforts us in all our troubles…share in the comfort God gives us.”
To be blunt, that’s definitely the mindset of a young, unseasoned, immature Christian. “Let me pick the parts of Scripture that make me feel better.” I truly saw my Father God as a teddy bear. I could run into His arms when I hurt and receive that warm glow of peace in my heart.
Please, don’t misunderstand…God IS my comfort and will always be. I do rest in my Daddy’s arms and meditate on His goodness. I do sense His very real comfort and peace often.
But His comfort has a partner; it is rooted in suffering. SUFFERING.
I missed this truth for so long. God comforts us in our troubles. He doesn’t keep troubles away from us. We live in a fallen, broken, ugly world and will until we get to heaven. But that’s when and where we will truly experience God’s comfort…as we fight through the pain and experience the sorrow.
Dad called out the suffering part. He actually challenged me to pray to experience Christ’s sufferings, so I would grow to be more like Jesus…He said it was the prayer of a spiritual young man or woman who wants to become a spiritual mother or father.
Talk about a terrifying prayer. “Lord, let me share in Your sufferings.”
It’s hard for me to list all of the suffering He’s allowed in my life and the life of my family. I was shot in a drive-by at school when I was 13. I’ve had cancer three times. I struggle with a serious, lifelong immune deficiency…and if I don’t spend ten hours a week getting gamma globulin through a port I simply will not survive. Migraines, nausea and excruciating pain follow my treatments.
My dad had open-heart surgery when he was 13 and has had life-threatening heart problems ever since. I remember when he wore a bulletproof vest to preach every Sunday and a police car sat outside of our house because of threats to our lives. Now he struggles with more challenging illnesses every day.
So when I close my eyes, I can imagine the “sacred sorrow” Jesus felt in the Garden of Gethsemane when He knew He was going to die…and especially when He discovered that His closest friends were sleeping. He was alone.
I can picture the drops of blood on His forehead and the agony in His hands and feet as His mouth opened in the “silent scream” of wordless pain. I can feel at least a little of the pain He felt when His insides squeezed so tightly with fear, anger, and sadness that He couldn’t pray a word.
God has allowed me to go there just a little bit…and each time, I come back stronger.
So when I’m angry with God, I tell Him. When I’m in pain, I scream out for Him to make it stop. When I’m afraid, I cry with the soundless scream that wracks my whole body.
And then I remember that I asked Him for this…because I desperately want to be like Jesus. Because of Christ’s sufferings, I no longer fear death. And in His sufferings, I find hope.
One final thought. It’s not all about me. “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”
I think that’s what real spiritual maturity is, and that’s what I’m beginning to be able to focus on. The sufferings I experience…the sacred sorrow…allows me to give comfort to others. I truly “get it.” I feel their pain, and I can take my eyes off of my own long enough to love them through it. When they have no words, I can pray in their stead. I can enter into their sufferings…we will shoulder the burden and hurt together.
That’s my prayer for you, more than anything. How much do you want to be like Jesus? Enough to ask to share in His sufferings…and then actually endure it? Are you ready to become like Him at any cost?
Some days I’m brave and say yes with confidence! Other days, I can’t believe I signed up for this. But I promise. It’s worth it.