You’d think it could only be a good thing – believing in a God who, without hesitation, you call: “The creator and sustainer of the universe.” You believe He can move the mountains and loves to transform the mess of human life. You’d think it would be a source of confidence and comfort – entrusting life’s difficulties and uncontrollables to a being you truly believe is both powerful enough and loving enough to right this world of wrongs.
You’d think. But for half of my life now – and that feels like a long, long time – prayer has been a source of deep, biting pain. In fact, one of the most painful things I’m ever called to do.
I don’t mean all prayer. Over those 12 years, it’s been quiet prayer in the mornings that’s set me up for my toughest days; prayer that’s nudged me to take risks of faith; prayer that’s drawn me close into God’s presence; prayer that’s knitted me together with my communities; prayer that’s enabled us to share our burdens; prayer that has expressed our gratitude and joy. I know that prayer is a privilege and through it I’ve seen the world change – not least, the change in myself.
But there is prayer that hurts. It goes on and on. It doesn’t feel like a privilege, but it is a calling. And definitely not a calling I’d choose – you know those quiet, faithful people who don’t make a fuss but pray day in, day out for years with an unshakeable belief in the power of their prayers? Not me. I’m not quiet, I’m pretty prone to angry outbursts, and I’m not known for my ability to do anything consistently.
Many of us pray these painful prayers, often alone and hidden because they defy reason and our better judgement. They’re for situations and people and dreams that are better left alone. It’s a fact of the human condition that we are messy creatures, complicated and prone to mistakes. There’s no limit to the awful wreck we can make of our lives. And by virtue of also being social creatures, we often find ourselves tangled up in the rubbish of other people’s lives, with about as much choice in the matter as a sea turtle stuck in waste plastic packaging.
And if we are compassionate and capable people, we of course try our best to help. We offer advice, ideas, solutions. When they don’t immediately work, we start to steel ourselves for a tougher journey. We try a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. We give time, energy, emotional and practical support. And if we are Christians, we commit to prayer. With every new suggestion, with every helpful word, with every cup of tea we pray: “God, step in here. Come and do your thing. Show your power to heal and transform; this is surely what it’s all about. Imagine the glory it would bring you, imagine the joy it would bring us. Bring freedom, bring transformation, bring peace.”
Yet, years later – perhaps half a lifetime later – here we still are. Darker eyes now, and heavier hearts. Tired of attempting solutions. Wearier still of offering support. Sometimes cynical at prayer meetings and more reluctant still to mention it out loud – why bore everyone else too with the same old prayer request? Reason speaks in our heads, measured but firm. “This one was too hard for you. It would be for anyone. All your efforts could not fix this situation. You’d do better to walk away.” Even sentiment shares the same message with our hearts: “You only have so much emotional energy to give. Save it for where you can make a difference. You’re done here.”
But faith is much more demanding. See, even after 12 years or more, faith will not allow us to stop believing that God is the creator and sustainer of the universe. Faith will not permit us to lay aside the trust that He can move every mountain and bring beauty from every mess. And faith will certainly not give permission for us to give up on another human being anymore than God has given up on us.
So faith’s words sound a little different: “Pray again. Yes, again. Even if you have nothing new to say, even if it’s not convenient, even if it brings tears. Yes, even if it means people notice in church. Yes, even if it means sharing again with your small group. Even if it means raging at God for a while. Even if it means writing a blog post about how difficult it is. Pray again.”
Prayer for the apparently impossible, prayer that takes years and decades, prayer that’s demanded by a love we can’t shake any more than the sea turtle can shake off its plastic packaging collar – that’s prayer that hurts like hell. And yet it’s a calling from heaven. It’s prayer that faith demands.
It’s the kind of prayer that takes every opportunity, even demanding to take up the last words of an article about how tough it is…
Lord, have mercy.