This past Sunday at St. Paul’s Leaskdale, we enjoyed a Family Service, where our whole church body came together for worship, rather than having children’s ministry during the service. It was a beautiful time where we looked at different ways we “experience” God in prayer, and specifically prayed for healing for many different individuals. While a few oral prayers may have been uttered, the basis of the service was to experience prayer through art or other physical media that we can utilize when words elude us.
One of the highlights was seeing eighty-year-olds, sitting on the floor next to four-year-old kids, colouring prayers to the Lord, expressing their prayers for healing in wordless sighs/groans. But something struck me in this service, an often-cried plea from believers and unbelievers alike.
All of these people were gathered praying prayers of healing, but what about the times when it seems like our prayers go unanswered? What about the times when it seems like our prayers fall on deaf ears? I don’t think this more profoundly affects people anywhere than in prayers of healing.
I do not think for a second that those who find healing are somehow better Christians, or prayed the right words, or had stronger faith than those who don’t find healing. I have seen God radically heal people through prayer, and others pass away despite prayer. The problem of suffering is a timeless dilemma. When we ask questions like these we deal with God’s providence and presence uniquely amid human suffering. And I don’t think there is a “right” answer to how God answers prayer.
But human responses to this question sometimes seek to control suffering and fail to address a complex, omnipotent, all-loving God.
In the Old Testament, in the book of Job, we meet Job, who was a righteous man who followed God in his very being, and yet was afflicted with horrific things. His friends come around him as his life literally crumbles around him (losing his family, his livelihood, and even his own health), and question what he had done that caused the calamity. Job replies that he did not do anything to cause it; which indeed is correct!
But that is unfortunately an all-to-common notion, even today, that God brings problems into peoples lives for a reason, to teach them, or because “they sinned.” But as Christians this is not helpful nor correct. In the book of Job, it was not God bringing these struggles into his life, but rather a story of Job being tested by evil. It used to be the common belief in the Old Testament that if a person sinned they would be punished accordingly. But we receive something very different from Jesus in the New Testament. Suffering happens despite Job’s faith and righteousness. And sometimes healing and restoration occur, and other times they do not.
Another take on the problem of suffering is in the Gospels, where Jesus meets a man who is blind since birth. The people test Jesus asking if it was the man’s sin, or the sin of his parents that caused his blindness. Jesus replies to them, “Neither.” He goes on to say that the man is blind, but that the miraculous thing is him receiving his sight back. And the miracle is to and for the glory of God. This New Testament angle of God’s providence in a challenging situation, and the meaning behind human suffering is likely where more people today find themselves.
But I think there is a further answer to suffering and elusive healing, and that comes in the theology of the cross. Now, you may not agree with this theology entirely, but the essence of it is that God suffers with us. God is not absent in our suffering, or punishing us for wrong-doing, but rather God, in Christ, suffers with us.
Furthermore, when God suffered in the person of Christ dying on the cross, he experienced the fullness of human suffering. He died because of our sins, the sins of the world, and bore the immensity of that burden. This theology is called theology of the cross for this very reason: Christ suffers on our behalf, but he also suffers with us.
Even when God does not bring physical healing in the way or the timing that we want or see fit, God is still there in the midst. I love the story of Lazarus. Jesus gets there too late; Lazarus is gone, and Mary and Martha are wailing, and blaming, and bargaining. And before he does anything to remedy the situation, Jesus weeps. Christ weeps. God weeps with us. (*Photo Jesus Wept, by Joann Lee Kim).
We are never alone in our suffering because we have a God who loves us so deeply that He weeps with us. This doesn’t answer all of the problems of suffering, but I know I can stand firm in the promise—that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The answer to the question, “where is God in the suffering?” is simply, Emmanuel—God with us.
What about you…Where do you find God in the suffering? Why do you think our prayers sometimes appear to go unanswered?
- What area of your life do you need healing in?
- Have there been times in your life when God answered your prayers and brought healing? Describe them.
- Have there been times in your life when God didn’t seem to answer your prayers the way you wanted? Describe them.
- One way we believe God works in the world is through believers in the local church. How can you come alongside someone right now in their suffering?
*Joann Lee Kim is an incredible artist who often does live art during sermons and services. This piece is a reflection of a church service at Bothell United Methodist Church near Seattle, Washington. Follow the link to see more of her art or visit her facebook page.
*For further reading on this topic I would highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain.