Job 1.1, 2.1-10
What I first noticed was the crowd of people.
They had made the hospital waiting room their home away from home. Every seat was taken. Senior adults, children, and everyone in between filled up almost all of the space in the room. There were coolers full of food. There were piles of Bibles and books and magazines for people to read. But mostly, there was prayer. Lots and lots of prayer.
The reason for this gathering was that a young girl had been a victim in a car accident and clung to life in the hospital. She was not responsive, and doctors had done all that they could do. They would keep trying, but she might not make it. Her life was in the balance.
So, the members of her church – and I mean ALL the members of her church – took it upon themselves to tip the scales. They created a room of prayer for this child. A 24-hour vigil to bring healing to this tiny little body. They would gather in small groups to pray. They would pray together as a large group. They would pray quietly to themselves during the middle of the night. Whenever I walked into the room, it was like a party of prayer!
As a rather green chaplain in the hospital where this was taking place, I found myself in the middle of all of this. Each time I went to visit the family, I wasn’t quite sure where to start. So many people. So much certainty. This child would live. They had absolutely no doubt. In fact, if anyone expressed any doubt of this fact, they were summarily dismissed from the room. No time for doubters. It would only put a hurdle in the way of God’s miracle that was sure to come. I waded into the theological questions that I had, while at the same time not trying to take away the faith that was so important to them. It became clear that this community of faith believed so fully in the power of prayer that if this child didn’t make it, it was because they had not prayed hard enough. They had not lived righteously enough. They had not believed fervently enough. And so, doctors, nurses, and we chaplains were told to leave any doubts at the door.
I was not on duty when the girl died.
It happened overnight, and when I went to check on the family the next day, I had to catch my breath when I entered an empty room. The family was all gone. When I learned of her death, I grieved for the family deeply. What would they do with this child gone from their family and their community? What would they say about God in the midst of this pain and grief? What would they say about their prayers for healing that went unanswered?
Perhaps we know full well the pain of unanswered prayers. Prayers for health and for healing are particularly painful when they are not answered the way that we want. Often times when we ask for prayer requests or concerns, the vast majority are about health and healing. Physical, emotional, relational. We know people who are hurting and we want to believe that our prayers make a difference. We pray them with hope and expectation that they will be heard. Like this family in the hospital room, we know that God is a God of love and healing and we want to rest our faith on that promise.
But then those prayers go unanswered. The cancer has come back. Mom didn’t make it to meet her new grandson. The child in the hospital room dies, even when we prayed for her to live.
What do we do when our prayers go unanswered? What does it do to our faith and our trust in a healing God?
The Scriptures are filled with examples of unanswered prayers. Moses prayed to be granted health and life long enough to join the Israelites in the Promised Land. His prayer went unanswered. Paul prayed to be relieved of a physical ailment that he called his “thorn in the flesh,” so that he could better do his ministry. His prayer went unanswered. Even Jesus prayed to be spared from the physical torture of the cross. His prayer went unanswered. “Nevertheless, thy will be done.”
Over the next couple of weeks, we are going to explore some of these questions together, using the story of Job as a guide. Job’s life was an example of unanswered prayer. For those of you who don’t know the story, it begins in today’s passage: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
Up until this point in the Bible, we would know what happens next, and it would only be good news for Job. The Proverbs, which would likely have been known to Job’s first readers, suggest over and over again that the best life to lead is a blameless and upright life, and that those who don’t are due for judgment and pain. The Psalms all the time say things like, “the unrighteous will be judged for their failure to observe the commands of God, but the upright will be brought to deliverance.” And Deuteronomy (28.35) is pretty point-blank: “If you don’t obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees…the Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head.” Wow, that’s some bad stuff. Good thing for Job that he is blameless and upright and none of that stuff could ever possibly happen to him.
And then it does.
All of it. His children are killed in an accident. His property and riches are taken from him. And those head-to-foot boils? Yup. Within a chapter and a half, we see Job scratching these oozing skin sores with a broken piece of a pot.
Now, any good reader of the Proverbs and the Psalms and Deuteronomy would know in a heartbeat that if these things are happening to Job than he is NOT really blameless and upright. His wife knows this, and explains it to him here in chapter 2 and again throughout the book. His friends know this, and we’ll take a closer look at their relationship with him next week, but they know what the Bible says…there is no ambiguity here: he is in the wrong. Righteous people are rewarded with blessings. Unrighteous people are judged with punishment. If the child dies, it is because we didn’t pray hard enough, live rightly enough, obey fully enough. We are not upright and blameless enough. It’s in the Bible. There is no ambiguity here.
But then here comes the book of Job. It immediately puts those assumptions on their ear. Imagine, says the story, if once upon a time there WAS a guy who was totally upright and blameless, AND STILL suffered in the exact way that Deuteronomy describes. What does that say about our faith, our prayers, and our God? That is the core question of the book of Job.
In Job, here is a man who did not deserve the pain that he felt. He did not deserve this level of suffering. Yet, when he prayed for it to be removed, it was not. Does that mean that we should just give up on prayer all together? Or does that mean that we have to go back and figure out what Job did wrong?
Or perhaps, it means something else entirely. At the end of the passage, we get this line from Job that has become synonymous with the book: “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” That sounds like a grown-up prayer. “God, I don’t deserve this. I know that this suffering is not my fault. Meanwhile, I will not stop trusting you, whether in good times or in bad.”
Job asks – really demands – us to grow up. Demands a pretty mature view of prayer that requires us to hold two things in tension. Psychologists tell us that that is a mark of maturity, to be able to take two things that appear opposite in tension with one another.
Harry Emerson Fosdick describes this view for us. He was a Baptist pastor, who pastored the famous Riverside Church in New York City. He wrote a little book on prayer that became a classic: The Meaning of Prayer. In it, he has a whole chapter on “Unanswered Prayer,” where he holds up two seemingly opposing ideas:
- Prayer can bring results.
- Prayer does not bring results.
Fosdick and Job demand that we grow up and see that both of these things are true.
Just because prayer doesn’t always bring the results we want doesn’t mean that it cannot. Prayer works! And half of Fosdick’s book is about this truth, as well as evidence from many of our own lives. If we were to suggest that unanswered prayer means prayer is useless, we would miss the point.
But also, just because it can bring results doesn’t mean that it always does. Doubting the veracity or the morality of the person praying, or suggesting that we didn’t pray right or hard enough, or with the right words, would miss the point.
Both of these things are true. And to hold these two in tension, believing both to be true takes some pretty mature thinking. It takes some pretty mature trust.
And maybe that is the lesson for us. When we suffer, when our prayers go unanswered, when our health or the health of those whom we love is not all that we pray for, the wisdom of Job teaches us to trust. Don’t look for what we did wrong. And by all means, don’t reject God or throw out the idea of prayer all together. Instead, let’s grow up and ask God “what are you doing here? How can I trust you in the midst of this? Can I love you in the midst of the bad as well as the good?”
In the next couple of weeks, we will come back to Job, and come back to this question of unanswered prayers. We still have Job’s friends to look at next week. And then God’s response the week after that. Job has more to teach us. Fosdick has some more great stuff, as do many other scholars and teachers on prayer.
But for today, hear this word. Whether you are in the midst of the good, or the bad, know that the hand of God sustains you. Whatever your experience is today – be it joy or hope or grief or anger or pain, be it suffering or strength or happiness or sadness – know that God walks with you through that experience. That God loves you in the midst of the suffering, even when the answers are not simple or easy.
That’s my biggest regret with my ministry with that family in the hospital waiting room. I wish that I could have come to their church about three months after the tragic death of this child. I wish that I could have come to speak to their pain.
- I wouldn’t have had all the answers, for sure, but I would have told them that the questions are okay.
- I wouldn’t have been able to tell them why their prayers didn’t work in the way that we all wanted, but I would have told them to keep praying.
- I wouldn’t have been able to tell them whether they could have prayed differently or more fervently or more powerfully, but I would have told them that they were in the company of some pretty good prayers – that Job and Moses and Paul and even Jesus lived through unanswered prayers, too.
- I wouldn’t have been able to take away their grief, but perhaps I could have asked them not to add meaningless guilt that they didn’t pray hard enough.
- I wouldn’t have been able to explain why innocent lives are lost in this world, but I would have told them that God hears their cries.
- I wouldn’t have had the arrogance to speak on behalf of God, but I would have told them God is with them through the good and the bad. Just like Job. Just like all people of faith.
I would have told them that the God of love and life and health and healing is still at work in this world, and while it may not fix their pain, I hope that it would remind them that they are not alone.
Which is what I would remind you, as well, today. In the midst of your own unanswered prayers, your own crisis of faith. Know that you are not alone.