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What do you do when God doesn't answer your prayers?
This has been the hardest question for me to answer as a Sunday School teacher to my students, as a Christian to myself. So many times I've looked up from folded hands feeling despair settle on me, after praying earnestly, urgently, desperately for that one thing yet again. Fear tightening your muscles as you hesitantly consider what would happen if God doesn't grant you your prayer. I can't imagine what I would do. I don't know how things could possibly work out. If He doesn't--how can I be happy, how can I be useful or successful? And ultimately--how can God be good?
The fear is crippling. In panic, you thrust the thought away, too terrified to imagine what an alternative would be, to face a future that didn't work out the way we wanted it to. You feel like you can't live, you don't know how to live, without it. Anguish. Terror. Despair. Desperation. How can God not give it to you? Isn't He good? Doesn't He love me?
I've been gripped by this fear several times in my life, over things which seemed like the end of the world, which I prayed fervently for, which I clung to desperately. Please, save my loved one who has rejected You. Heal the cancer. Rescue the broken relationship. Let me go to my dream university; give me like-minded friends to encourage and nurture and inspire me. Let me get the grades I worked so hard for. Make this project or event a success. Like Rachel's "Give me children or I die," we feel like we can't live without it.
And most recently--though not on such an extreme level--help me recover quickly!
I remember sitting on the sofa trying not to burst into tears, feeling anxiety sitting physically on my chest like a bag of rice, quashing the breath and courage out of me. The past few months had been exceptionally stressful, feeling like I was barely managing to stay abreast of everything, and this was one of those moments when it came to a head. Taking one look at my schedule only made it worse, and I mentally wailed, Lord, You HAVE to let me recover by tomorrow, if not today! I've got a wedding this weekend to play at, I'm travelling overseas, church camp is coming up next week and I've got to see to the things I'm in charge of. I've already had to cancel so many of last week's lessons, do I have to cancel this week's as well? How am I going to make it?
Unlike my sis, for example, to whom getting sick can mean a well-earned break, seeing the doctor and getting an MC isn't the magic solution for freelancers. At a period when I'd been praying ceaselessly for better time management, to be more efficient, to have more peace of heart, to improve so I could handle everything without feeling so stretched, the last thing I needed was to get sick, to fall even shorter of my goal. I simply couldn't imagine how I would make it if God didn't answer my prayer, exactly as I had in mind. I couldn't imagine, I didn't want to imagine.
Looking back, I recognize the same desperate, even imperious urgency that I struggled with at past significant points in my life. I felt like my life was over if I didn't get into a university I liked. I felt like I wouldn't be able to cope losing both my sisters at the same time when they went to study overseas. And so on. I stood in front of that one closed door, crying, too terrified to look at any others, convinced that nothing good could possibly be behind them, that the only happy ending lay behind the one in front of me.
And in every of those cases, what happened was that God allowed exactly what I had not dared, could not bring myself to imagine. The alternative that I shrank from in terror came to pass. And in each case, though it was terribly difficult at first, painful even, especially when it came to losing dreams, loved ones--I was forced to realize that the alternative was not quite the end of the world it had seemed.
To accept that the alternative was not the end. To see that His goodness was more creative than I could imagine, even understand. To learn that this is faith, trusting His definition of what is good, even when it doesn't appear anything like your own definition.
I was sharing about this with a sister in church, and being someone who suffers from chronic back pain--the debilitating sort which makes you unable to get up from bed--she knew all about it. In the beginning you're resentful and frustrated and impatient; you can only think about recovering; you chafe restlessly and wonder if you'll recover tomorrow. And the only thing you can pray about is recovery--ASAP! When you think about God, that's the One Big Thing that emerges. Heal me!
But as the pain remains, you slowly learn to focus on the now, to trust and rely on God for helping you through the situation you're currently in, the pain you're currently enduring, to face each challenge as it comes, rather than clamouring desperately for it to end.
Your focus changes. And your trust is shifted, so that it isn't based on whether or not God lets your life turn out the way you think it ought to, but rather based on your knowledge of His person. His wisdom and His love, even if they don't manifest themselves the way you would expect them to.
And His glory. Even in suffering. Even in your pain.
Consider Jesus's prayer that last night in Gethsemane. He was facing the same anguish of soul, the same desperate desire to avoid pain and suffering, the same "answer me or I die!" sort of situation. "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow, even to the point of death."
Yet in His prayers what emerges just as clearly is His supreme obedience to God's will, His submission and His one-minded devotion to glorifying and serving His Father. His willingness to accept His Father's will, even if His flesh cringed from it.
"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me...Yet not as I will, but as You will."
image by Elizabeth Lies from Unsplash
When I first read about Jesus's last night in Gethsemane, my low opinion of the disciples sunk even lower. Three times? They fell asleep three times during this intense scene? Picture it as you would a Hollywood movie: the shadowy leaves of the garden, the dramatic splashes of moonlight, the mysterious rustling noises, the anguish on Jesus' face as He prayed, the sweat like drops of blood glistening on His face, and the underlying tension of what was about to happen--the greatest event that the world has seen so far--and ruining all that moonlit mystery and suspense and emotion, a half-smothered snore from Peter (he would!)
And the fact that they did this repeatedly, despite being gently but earnestly reproached by Jesus each time-- I mentally facepalmed on their behalf.
Then I got older, and I found myself reenacting the disciples every morning during prayer time, every Sunday during worship. I exaggerate, but we all know the very real struggle of staying awake--such a basic, humiliatingly simple thing really. We blush to admit it, but it's painfully obvious, so much so that our admissions aren't even needed...when we nod off so hard that we bump our head against someone's shoulder, or drop our pen with a deafening noise, or can't seem to stop our head from falling forward!
Search the Scriptures asked what was the reason for the disciples' repeated failures, according to Jesus; and how does that apply to us, being in a similar situation?
"Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."
When I was a young(er) Christian, I did not realize it but the only times I prayed about sin were when I had to ask for forgiveness. In other words, I didn't like to consider it until it was unavoidable, until it had already happened, until I had clearly failed. Despite the significance of grace, and its liberating power, I think our pride and self-reliance is so much a part of us that even as Christians, we cling to it without realizing it. We hate to confront our weaknesses. We like to assume that "next time," we'll be more prepared, we'll have more self-control; I just didn't try hard enough this time, I can do it next time, I will be stronger next time...
And we unknowingly reject grace.
We push the cross away a bit further. We fall back into the same self-reliant, self-confident, and fruitless mentality of the Pharisees, living each day treading on eggshells, trying desperately to prove that they can control themselves completely, that they can be free from sin, that they do not need Christ.
Although God values our hearts' emotions and desires--"a broken and contrite spirit...You will not despise" (Psalm 51:17) when it comes to dealing with sin, it's not enough to merely have a willing spirit, as the disciples demonstrated. Jesus knew that they desired to overcome temptation, as His words and the gentleness of His tone indicates. Having good desires in our hearts, but simply hoping for the best and assuming our self-control will have our backs when temptation hits is naive.
Humility. Our first step is to humbly admit our weakness, our propensity to sin, our instinctive obedience to the call of our old slave driver even though we no longer belong to him. Admitting our weakness enables us to prepare ourselves realistically, without relying on delusions of our ability and strength of will. As 1 Peter 5:8 reminds us, the devil is constantly on the lookout for the best opportunities to send temptation our way--when we are complacent, when we are distracted, when we are tired, wallowing in self-pity, feeling wronged, struggling with jealousy... Realizing just how vulnerable we are, and what are our weaknesses that are most prone to manipulation, is necessary if we want to resist such a vigilant and strategic enemy.
Watch and pray. With this humbling but eye-opening awareness of our own unreliability and vulnerability, we prepare ourselves for temptation even before it hits, knowing just how often and how subtle it is when it comes. Watchfulness implies the purposeful preparation for and awareness of possible crisis. Which sounds rather extreme if you're trying to apply it to not falling asleep during sermons, but if we were watchful, instead of hazily promising ourselves that next Sunday we'll do better, we might try sleeping earlier on Saturday night, or asking a friend to help us stay awake (swallowing our pride in the process!) or focus on writing better notes. Or we might find ourselves staying awake for the simplest and best reason of all, that we are watchfully waiting for something we can learn, something that can help us.
Watch and pray. There's a reason why the two come together. Mere watchfulness by itself is exhausting and ineffective, because it becomes yet another self-centered, self-reliant form of legalism. But watchfulness rooted in humility, and more importantly, grace, empowers us. We turn instinctively, naturally, to God for help.
Keep me from sin today, Lord. I'll try, but I need Your help. You promised us that the Spirit would be given to us for this. Give me the strength and the steadfastness to be loyal to You, to remember my love for You, when other desires drag at me, when emotions shred my resolve and distort my priorities.
My spirit is willing--help me be stronger than my flesh.
image by Andre Benz from Unsplash
My church recently had our annual church camp, and it was an unspoken understanding that the theme--Living Out Faith in a Stressful World--was uniquely relevant for Singaporean. I don't think I was the only one who went to camp with a pretty strong sense of anticipation for this topic, and I'm thankful for God's timeliness in moving our speaker--Pastor David Yan of Emmanuel Church, New Zealand--to choose this theme. God knows we all needed it. Both collectively, as a small church struggling with all the standard challenges of small churches, and individually, each one dealing with the different burdens of work, school, commitments, family problems, spiritual struggles.
I want to share some of the points from the talks which really resonated me, because they were an effective mixture of epiphany, encouragement, self-awareness, and a convicting challenge in what it would mean to apply these truths to your life.
First of all, how we handle stress and rest is important as it has a direct influence on our spiritual life. It's foolish, and perhaps even proud, to think otherwise, to imagine that our life is nicely compartmentalized such that the secular and spiritual are as neatly separated as the seaweed and Honey Stars in a child's lunchbox. As such, we can't just shrug off the stress we complain about, avoid dealing purposefully with it, on the grounds that "I just have to get used to it," "life is like that," "what can I do anyway?" or even "I don't have the time/energy to think about that." (though honestly it is a legitimate challenge; feeling, at your most overwhelmed, that you don't even have the emotional/mental energy or capacity to be thinking about how to deal with stress; that you're stretched to the utmost already just keeping up with every day, just to keep going, just surviving. That is undoubtedly the worst.)
God cares for us. He calls us to be resting in Him, not living in frantic activity, one nervous breakdown away. Living out faith in a stressful world--how, in our individual contexts, do we do this? How do we make a difference, be a difference to the others around us?
Secondly. Rest can be physical, but in many cases in our first-world context today, it is also emotional and mental.
Amen. Did this resonate with me. Feeling like a wimp because I wasn't facing the kind of physical stress that I see people like my sister, who works in healthcare with its long and draining hours, only added to the emotional and mental stress I was struggling with. Not being able to acknowledge this as a legitimate form of stress, and instead feeling like I was a greater failure for not being able to handle this, were just some things that made it harder.
But truly. Not just from work--emotional and mental stress from people and relationship problems has a huge impact on me as well, and on others, as I heard during my discussion group. It ruins your mood, your concentration, your whole day. It burdens you, haunting your mind, so that even when you're supposed to be resting you're worrying about that conversation, about that text, about what they said, replaying it constantly, trying to analyze what to do.
This kind of stress is also what Jesus promised us rest from. Acknowledging that, and turning to Him, will help us more than if we try to forget about it, frustratedly wonder why we can't stop thinking about it, despair over our inability to maintain our peace of mind--or heart.
Thirdly--what have we been defining as rest, and do we need to redefine our definitions? To be honest, this was phrased quite differently in the discussion questions: "What are the unnecessary activities that we can eliminate from our lives?" However, my personal takeaway went a bit deeper. I realized that often when work--or studies--is stressing us out, we feel strongly entitled to our rest time, our me-time. And we usually lapse into the most extreme, passive sort of rest, the sort that is the easiest to slip into; aimlessly browsing videos, scrolling through social media, looking for entertainment on our screens, generally nua-ing on an appropriate surface (think bed or sofa or even floor in some cases; I plead guilty.) For those unfamiliar with the term, nua is a very apt Singlish term, derived from Hokkien, which denotes laziness, idling, or just generally being a bum. However, unlike those unimaginative English terms, nua denotes a physical change of state, from solid to a pasty/gooey/semi-solid state (think slime, or bread dough.) If that isn't graphic enough I don't know what is.
Singlish appreciation post aside--I unconsciously think this is rest, simply because it's so opposite of what I associate with work/stress. However, upon serious examination--at least for myself--it's really more escapism. Distraction. It's not rest in the sense that I'm not refreshed and recharged, ready to go back to work after it...far from it! If anything it's the opposite; having to exit nua mode, to return to solid state, so to speak, is torturous. You're only more reluctant to return to work. I feel entitled to my nua time because I argue that it's rest I deserve and need after all that stress, but really it's more like a form of distraction, trying (only fleetingly) to escape from the mental and emotional stress. With this deluded sense of entitlement in mind, often I get annoyed when anything impinges or interrupts that nua time; seeing that as "rest," I get impatient with others, start to equate spending time with others, relationships, as merely other non-essential energy-sappers. I don't know if this is partly an introvert problem, though it's definitely mainly original sin, but you start to live with a very self-centered, selfish/miserly attitude towards your stock of energy, as I discussed previously.
So, nua consciously. It's not necessarily evil--there's a place for it, as with lumping--but see it for what is is.
I've realized that rest, specifically emotional and mental rest, is not about the actual energy levels as much as priorities. It may even be simply a change in activities. It may simply be a change of heart, or attitude. It may simply be encouragement from someone, from what you read today, from your prayer time. Just like how this camp was for me--a refreshing mental and emotional rest from the constant worries and mental burden of work. For just those few days, I felt more rested than I had for a long time. Even though camp is not exactly what you would associate with rest, at least if you're on the camp committee. Lack of sleep, keeping an eye on the schedule, last minute changes, cleaning up, facilitating discussion groups and activities...these kept me busy, yet I was conscious of a very real sense of peace and rest throughout the camp, that left me refreshed and encouraged when it was time to go back to work.
Fourthly, and lastly--rest is found in a person, not a place. At least in Singapore, where travelling is a common and even convenient norm (the British didn't choose us as a trading port for nothing) so many people I know live for their overseas trip every year, the holiday getaway that keeps them motivated for the slogging at work the rest of the time. The #tbt and scenic beach photos that keep reappearing throughout the year on their Instagram even when it's been months since their trip, as if their actual day-to-day life now doesn't count, doesn't matter. In fact, whenever you see one of those photos appear it usually means they're feeling the stress more than ever, craving for that getaway even more. I feel more sympathy than criticism here, if you feel attacked; I can actually relate, believe it or not, even though I may not have the same 9-5 job challenges or experiences that you face. What strikes me poignantly about this phenomenon is how urgently the yearning for rest, the desire to escape, becomes. It's hardly a matter of which country you go to, or how; getting away from Singapore and the work stress that you associate with it emerges as the goal instead. And, more sobering, the bleak realization that even when you manage to escape, these happy hours are only so many percentage of your whole year.
Don't you feel that something's wrong, that we aren't meant to be living like this, spending the majority of our lives yearning and enduring for brief reprieves? Surely the answer isn't throwing up your hands and saying "Well, but this is Singapore! We're compulsively stressed out, due to our culture and workplace habits and education system and etc...it's as much a requirement of being Singaporean as National Service is for boys!" Which is pretty much the response I've often heard, the end-all conclusion to the frequent discussion of mutual stress levels.
Rest is in a person. Not a place. I believe this because of real-life examples I've seen, people who made certain choices as a conscious effort to live differently; people who are in the same situation as others, yet respond differently, with grace and peace and joy. It's possible. God didn't call us to an earthly kingdom, but to a spiritual one, at least during our time here. Until Heaven, we're all on the same earth, and no matter where we are, the same challenges, the same root problems and temptations, confront us all. Rest, whether due to your attitude, your heart; due to people who support and care for you; but most of all, in a Person--in He who promised us, Come unto Me, all you who are weary and heavy-ladened, and I will give you rest.
image by Jamie Dench from Unsplash
With classes on every day and a busy weekend coming up, the last thing on my mind was getting sick.
Germs have no consideration for the ambitions of man, however, and on the contrary they seem to take a malicious delight in thwarting them. I struggled through one day after another doctoring myself with lemons and trying to sleep more, hoping that my immune system would pick up the next day and have my back, praying that God would let me "just get through this week". To my horror, what seemed like a simple cold soon became a clear case of flu, and my plans for the week were clearly doomed. One class after another, I had to cancel all my engagements, and vegetated on the sofa feeling like my legs had become gummy worms, until I didn't even have the energy to care anymore. I slept whole days through on that long-suffering sofa, passively watching life go by for the rest of my family, slipping in and out of sleep without even realizing it, with a total lack of ambition or interest in life. Even my two guinea pigs eating hay in their house had a more exciting life than me right then.
After falling so low, recovering basically entailed more lying on the sofa (somehow you still feel like it's an improvement from lying in bed) except with enough energy to do so without being perpetually in a semi-sleeping state. I found myself thinking over how my life has been recently, fleeting memories of people interaction, conversations.
This year has definitely been the most challenging (I hate that I say this every year and I hate even more that each time it is the truth! but I suppose that also indicates a grim sort of progress of sorts) year of my life, as I finished studying and took on more work than I ever had before. Every day a different class to teach; picking up new skills, trying to keep up old ones and ongoing projects; trying to keep up my writing, but without any acceptances to stimulate me, only one rejection after another to sigh over. I'm not fishing for pity here. To be honest one of the things which made me feel worse was the fact that I already have it so much better than so many people I know, so many of my peers, who are struggling just to survive financially, let alone have the time to pursue a dream, doing work they may not even enjoy. When I felt overwhelmed, even the temptation to wallow luxuriously in self-pity was soured by the knowledge that I was behaving like a big wimp.
But that's not the point; that's just the background. These few months since I've started this new phase of life, I felt like I had enough on my plate trying to manage my new schedule. Everything else--family commitments, church, social life--became simply so many more straws on top of the camel's back. Mentally exhausted, I felt like I didn't have the energy to talk to people; I got impatient and frustrated easily in my relationships, selfish about my time and energy, grudging anything on top of what I felt was my duty to give. I didn't enjoy living like that. I was aware that I had lost the sense of peace and purpose which I used to have, the joy in simple things like eating dinner with my family or having a good conversation with a friend. I looked forward hungrily to me-time, because it seemed like the only relief from the pressure and whirlwind of things to do which I seemed to be living in all the time, and started to lack the patience and calmness of heart even for these small things. And yet, me-time was more of a temporary distraction than a solution; social media, the latest episode of a show, my favourite Agatha Christie, (Destination Unknown, if you don't already know) they were just escapes, that didn't really leave me feeling refreshed and ready for the challenges of life afterwards. Frustrated, wondering why I never seemed to have enough time, never seemed to be on top of anything, or excited about anything anymore, I kept thinking the answer was to be more efficient, more productive; to cut, cut, cut all the unnecessary things that wasted time and took up energy. I cut the wrong things, obviously. My definition of "unnecessary" and "waste" had been severely warped.
Lying on the sofa, with that unreal sense of weakness and vulnerability, even humility, which physical sickness so uniquely impresses on you, I soberly admitted that I had made a stupid mistake.
An old phrase echoed in my mind; Elisabeth Elliott on a "life of unmitigated selfishness." Selfishness--that had been my mistake. I had become increasingly self-centered, in an attempt to cope with stress. I had lost sight of the things which were truly important, in the hustle of getting urgent things done. I had been living for the boxes on each schedule's page, living from class to class, project to project, deadline to deadline, and treated everything else as distractions.
John 13: 1 is a beautiful reminder of how Jesus responded to this very human challenge.
We often forget that Jesus, of all people, had the best reasons to be anxious and preoccupied, harassed, stressed. Imagine the power He held to heal, and the overwhelming burden that power itself implies; all the people He knew so clearly were hurting, suffering, needing Him. The very thought is enough to induce a panic attack. Add to that His merciful, gentle nature; His love for His disciples, knowing so clearly how devastated they were going to be, how ignorant and unprepared they were; the emotional pain of knowing Judas was about to betray Him, knowing so clearly all the thoughts going on in their hearts, the hatred of those plotting against Him. Add to that His acute awareness of His approaching death, the horrible physical, spiritual, emotional suffering it entailed, getting closer and closer with every moment...the full weight of countless souls' sins and salvation. And the very human reluctance towards pain, towards death, leaving this imperfect yet so appealing world that we love so desperately; all the words you would want to say to those you love before you leave, all the thoughts and emotions...
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
He loved us to the end.
Amidst all that, He never lost sight of His purposeful love for us, the love which drew Him to the cross. This was what remained steadfast in Christ, that heart of compassion, that gentleness which was in His touch on the leper, that made Him hear the blind beggar's cry above the noise of the crowd, to stop when He felt the sick woman touch His garment. The love with which He let the children climb into His lap, even as the disciples frowned and tried to make signals to Him to stop. The same love burned steady in the confusion, betrayal, pain and fear of Gethsemane; in the loneliness of the high priest's courtyard, the shame and suffering of the barracks, of the cross.
I want to be grounded by such a love. Amidst busyness, distractions, physical ills, frustrations, anxieties, fears. To have this love within me, for others. To have this love for Christ, even as He has for me. To find my peace, comfort, joy, priorities, within the context of such a love.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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