Trust Him and Pray. Even when you don’t feel like it. This is the only way to survive and even thrive in the significant suffering.
In yesterdays blog post I spoke about the intersection between the series on the Commands of Jesus and the work I am doing on suffering, in particularly reviewing Tim Keller’s book backwards (see parts 1 and 2). Well today those two series completely collide.
There is an old hymn whose words I initially remembered wrong. I thought it said something like, “Trust him and pray, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus but to trust him and pray”
But in fact the Lyrics don’t talk directly about prayer, but rather obedience.
Trust and obey, for there’s no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
Not a shadow can rise, not a cloud in the skies,
But His smile quickly drives it away;
Not a doubt or a fear, not a sigh or a tear,
Can abide while we trust and obey . . .
And ‘Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus,
Just to take Him at His Word;
Just to rest upon His promise,
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord!”
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him!
How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er;
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus!
Oh, for grace to trust Him more!
Oh, for grace to trust You more!
You can listen to a video of this old hymn here:
But as we have seen, a large number of Jesus commands to us relate to how we should relate to him. None of the following commands can be obeyed without prayer. Even being born again is something that happens to us as we first cry out to Jesus in a genuine heartfelt cry for help:
- Be Born Again
- Repent and Believe
- “Come to me,
- Listen to My Voice
- Abide in Me
- Follow Me
- Love Me
- Worship Me
- Trust and Fear Me
- Receive the Holy Spirit
And Jesus doesn’t just tells us to obey these general commands about how we should relate to him, he gives us specific instructions about the practicalities and precisely how it is that he wants us to pray. As we pray the way Jesus tells us to, then we will find that each of the above list becomes a greater reality in our lives. So far we have looked at three of these commands of Jesus about prayer:
And there are several more similar instructions which I intend to look at. Simply put there is no way to trust him without obeying him. And there is no way to obey him without praying to him. Not least because we are utterly incapable of following his commands in the way he intends us to without his help. This should be clear even from looking at the very first one in the list. We simply cannot decide one day to be born all over again. We have to ask him to create in us a clean heart, and that simple prayer is surely one we need to pray often!
And yet when we are really sick prayer can be the hardest thing to do. God feels remote. We may even feel angry at him. We might even doubt he exists. We may find ourselves asking the age-old question “IF God is all-powerful and all-loving how can he possibly have allowed this to happen to me or the ones I love?” We might well not feel particularly like talking to the very one that we are blaming for the predicament we find ourselves in. Although God is not the author of evil, it can sure feel like that to us sometimes.
And perhaps we should reverse the order of the two verbs we are looking at today. You see we often need to pray even when we don’t feel particularly trusting towards God. And trust often grows from our prayer rather than the other way round. Prayer is often the very first step back in our journey towards Him. And whilst we may not have the energy for complicated long prayers, nobody who is still conscious is beyond praying perhaps the most simple two word prayer:
Keller expresses beautifully the opportunity that truly dark suffering brings us:
“In the darkness we have a choice that is not really there in better times. We can choose to serve God just because he is God. In the darkest moments we feel we are getting absolutely nothing out of God or out of our relationship to him. But what if then—when it does not seem to be paying or benefiting you at all—you continue to obey, pray to, and seek God, as well as continue to do your duties of love to others? If we do that—we are finally learning to love God for himself, and not for his benefits.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
The comfort the Bible speaks of will often initially feel a million miles away. But we pray anyway. We pray because we have no one else to turn to. And we pray because it is what God has designed in order to bring us back to himself and to show us how to love him for himself.
“How can you move from loving God in a mercenary way toward loving God himself? I’m afraid the primary way is to have hardship come into your life. Suffering first helps you assess yourself and see the mercenary nature of your love for God. When your most cherished things are taken from you, you may be tempted to angrily reject him. But then suffering gives you an opportunity. Instead of giving up on God and moving away from him you could adjust and focus on him in a way you had never done before.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
But what are our prayers to look like? Should they be pious platitudes? Should we simply recite the Lords Prayer (which of course is not a bad thing to do in an of itself)? Actually this might surprise you but God is inviting us to talk to him. He wants to be our counsellor. He wants us to pour out to him the agony we are feeling. He can cope with all our emotions. He is ready to hear our hearts true cry. Every single human emotion is expressed towards God in the Psalms which is one of the reasons that many of us, myself included, when we don’t know how to pray at a time of suffering simply pick up the book of psalms and read till we find something to pray. These precious prayers of the saints of long ago will often surprise you, and you will suddenly realise you are not alone.
Others have walked this journey of struggling through pain and suffering with God for thousands of years. Let their prayers guide and inform yours, even when you feel at your very worst. In fact simply reading the psalms, perhaps out loud, is something you can do when you simply cannot bring yourself to form a thought into a prayer. Perhaps you are so far from God that you even hate him right now. Even then, choosing to turn towards him rather than away is the key to eventually finding the way out of the hole you have been thrown into:
“It is important to at least want to love God. So do what you can to pray to him and ponder the truth. And wait. Wait like Job waited. Many people who have done this work—this “dry meditation and prayer”—have especially used the Psalms to great profit. The Psalms are filled with teaching about God, of course, but they are also, in the main, prayers. And they are prayers that cover almost the entire range of human experience. They show us people processing their condition before God—they are “praying” their situation instead of merely thinking about it. We see psalmists praying their tears, their doubts, their fears, their griefs, their hopelessness—as well as their joys and blessings. There is no better place to wait for God than deep inside the Psalter.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
It is not just in the Psalms that we find this raw outburst of emotion towards God in prayer. We see it in the book of Job:
“Through it all, Job never stopped praying. Yes, he complained, but he complained to God. He doubted, but he doubted to God. He screamed and yelled, but he did it in God’s presence. No matter how much in agony he was, he continued to address God. He kept seeking him. And in the end, God said Job triumphed . . . Job’s doggedness in seeking the face and presence of God meant that the suffering did not drive him away from God but toward him. And that made all the difference. As John Newton said, if we are not getting much out of going to God in prayer, we will certainly get nothing out of staying away. . .
All of this means that even if we cannot feel God in our darkest and most dry times, he is still there. And so there is no more basic way to face suffering than this: Like Job, you must seek him, go to him. Pray even if you are dry. Read the Scriptures even if it is an agony. Eventually, you will sense him again—the darkness won’t last forever.
The strength you need for suffering comes in the doing of the responsibilities and duties God requires. Shirk no commands of God. Read, pray, study, fellowship, serve, witness, obey. Do all your duties that you physically can and the God of peace will be with you.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
And as we pray and think about the truths of the gospel, also focusing on what we can thank God for, then we will slowly realise that trust is returning. To a certain extent trust is a choice. You don’t always have to feel particularly trusting. You can still have lots of unanswered questions and doubts. Yet you can say “Where else can I go but to you Lord?” or “Who else could ever possibly help me?” Of course trust and hope are hugely entwined. But I would argue it is possible to choose to trust God even when you feel that all hope is lost.
As you carefully examine the small details of your life looking for things to be thankful for, even when things are at the hardest, you will gradually see it. GOD has really been at work in your situation all along. In my own case, he held back sickess until I was in a job which had an amazing sick pay policy (supported by an insurance company) that means that I am still paid a significant portion of my salary as I go through this very long and slow recovery period. If I had to get sick, becoming sick when I did and not just a few weeks earlier, was part of God’s provision for me. Of course I could choose to question why as my loving Father he didn’t heal me completely before I even knew I was unwell. Or, I can thank him for over-ruling in such a way that me and my family would be amazingly provided for. Many people are not so blessed as we have been at a time like this. Keller cites possibly the two best verses in the Bible for teaching us to trust in the Sovereignty of God in working in all the details of our lives, even the painful ones. Even the ones caused by other people:
If the brothers had not betrayed Joseph and sold him into slavery, the family (and Joseph) would not have been saved from disaster and death. It was obviously part of God’s plan. God was present at every point, and was working even in the smallest details of the daily lives and schedules and choices of everyone. So this shows that “all things work according to the counsel of his will” (Eph 1:10–11; Rom 8:28). So was it all right that they did what they did? Not at all. What they did was wrong—no one forced them to do it . . .
The Joseph story tells us that very often God does not give us exactly what we ask for. Instead he gives us what we would have asked for if we had known everything he knows….
Joseph assumes that behind everything that happened was the goodness and love of God. Even though what the brothers did was evil and wrong, God purposed to use it for good. This is the Old Testament version of Romans 8:28—“All things work together for good to them who love God.” Paul then adds a set of powerful questions and declarations and run-on sentences concluding that nothing “in all creation” can “separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:31–38). Paul and Joseph are saying that, no matter how bad things get, believers can be assured that God loves them.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
If you have not read it recently, I recommend reading the story of Joseph. It starts at Genesis 37 and is a story of two halves. In the first we see the fall of a precocious favourite son. Who through no fault of his own other than naivete and daring to share his dreams, underwent a series of downward steps till he finds himself not just a slave but imprisoned in Egypt. We can see signs of God at work in his story despite his severely damaged family, and we are expected to believe that throughout his suffering and disappointment this was a chosen vessel of God. See for example
2 The Lord was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. 3 When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, 4 Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant (Genesis 39:2)
And yet even that positive season was shot lived. If Joseph rotting in the prison and been told that God was with him, he might well have said “Well where on earth would I be if he wasn’t with me?“ And perhaps the answer would have been somewhere even worse. But the answer would also have been not in the very place that God intended you to be in so that you could save the lives not only of yourselves but of your whole family, a whole nation, and many from the nations around during famine.
And so we see that we CAN trust in God even when our life feels like a total mess. And looking back, we can believe that God’s hand in some mysterious way was behind everything that happened to us. Desiring and causing some things, preventing others, and with great reluctance and pain allowing some things to happen to us, but turning even the greatest evil around for good. And so we come near the end of the story to one of the greatest verses in the Bible which Keller alluded to in the quote above. Terrified Joseph would now punish them since their father had died, his brothers come and plead for mercy. He said these memorable words, knowing that without their treachery and evil acts he could never have been used in the miraculous way he was:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (Genesis 50:20, NIV)
Do you know God? Do you trust him? Then as you enter the fire you too can know that he is with you. If you hold onto the Gospel, you can believe that the God who gave you Jesus will surely not bring ultimate harm on you. In fact, God will make the furnace itself a place of blessing. Keller picks this point up:
“If you believe in Jesus and you rest in him, then suffering will relate to your character like fire relates to gold. Think of four things that we want. Do you want to know who you are, your strengths and weaknesses? Do you want to be a compassionate person who skillfully helps people who are hurting? Do you want to have such a profound trust in God that you are fortified against the disappointments of life? Do you want simply to be wise about how life goes?
Those are four crucial things to have—but none of them are readily achievable without suffering. There is no way to know who you really are until you are tested. There is no way to really empathize and sympathize with other suffering people unless you have suffered yourself. There is no way to really learn how to trust in God until you are drowning.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering
Elsewhere he comes back to this notion that suffering is like a furnace:
“If you go into the furnace without the gospel, it will not be possible to find God in there. You will be sure he has done terrible wrong or you have and you will feel all alone. Going into the fire without the gospel is the most dangerous thing anyone can do. You will be mad at God, or mad at yourself, or mad at both.
But if you say to yourself when you get thrown into the furnace, “This is my furnace. I am not being punished for my sins, because Jesus was thrown into that ultimate fire for me. And so if he went through that greatest fire steadfastly for me, I can go through this smaller furnace steadfastly for him. And I also know it means that if I trust in him, this furnace will only make me better.” – Tim Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering.
I think that this is perhaps the one place in the book where I would have a very slight disagreement with Keller. Perhaps you are in the middle of a season of suffering. And maybe you have never been a Christian, or your hold on the gospel has become so lose that right now you are in the first without the gospel. You are in the fire without hope. You may indeed feel mad at God, or mad at yourself or both. But, and I am sure that Keller would not disagree with this, it IS in fact possible to find God in the middle of the fire.
You who do not know God now can turn towards him. You can be like the prodigal son coming to his senses. You can “wake up” and realise that you are cleaning out pigswill when you could be in the presence of your father. A small glimmer of hope may enter into you, and you simply start to read the Bible. The book of psalms and the gospel of John would be the two places that I point fellow sufferers to as they are the two places that I have found the most comfort from personally at such times. An old preacher used to dare his hearers to read the Gospel of John without by the end of it coming to believe in and love the amazing person of Jesus. The Jesus who understands. The Jesus who volunteered for suffering far greater than you or I could ever experience. And who did it for you. Because he wants you to be with him forever!
As you take one small step towards God, just like the Father in the story of the prodigal son, he will come running towards you. Of course the son was walking home for perhaps days or even weeks before he finally met the Father. And it may take you a long time to get close to God.
But you do have a choice. Some face suffering and turn away from God altogether. They lose their faith and yet retain an anger against the God they no longer believe in. Often an angry Atheist has a reason to be angry. But others will see suffering as an opportunity to turn towards God. To pray however falteringly. And to learn to trust in God. Prayer is literally life saving. And yet we so often struggle in it. No wonder Jesus taught us how to pray. And perhaps right now he is calling you to really pray for the first time ever in your life.
It seems that this is a good place to leave it. But since we have seen how important prayer is, I think I will pause my reverse review of Keller’s book here for now, and write some more posts about how Jesus commands us to pray. But I will return to Keller, God-willing.
Find out More
Listen to Adrian’s Podcast
Interviews, personal reflections, meditation, debates, sermons, training
Coming soon (God willing) : the rest of the series “Jesus Commands”
Jesus said that if you obey him your life will be established on a firm foundation when the storms come.
Adrian hopes to be able to return to blogging more regularly soon.
Follow the link to read all the articles, or subscribe to our newsletter to be notified as they are published.
Complete the form in the top of the right hand column, or below if you are visiting on a mobile device.