I do this on a consistent basis, and I think that you do, too. Think about it — what happens when you experience a disappointment or a series of disappointments? Maybe you’ve been trying for six of the six years of your marriage to get pregnant with no luck. Perhaps you’re getting out of a relationship with someone that you’ve loved, lost a family member, or you fill in the blank with whatever is causing you the most pain, frustration or restlessness. When we experience this sense of loss or this longing for peace what do we do (or better yet…what should we do)?
Here’s where things go south and why I think that prayer proves to be a dead end for many of us. We end up doing the heart work, pinpointing what we believe the source of our discontentment is, and we pray for God to take that away from us. “God take away this feeling of anger….rid me of these strong emotions that I have for this individual…take away the pain that I’m feeling on the inside.” Now there’s nothing unnatural about prayers like these. Prayers like these are very human. But, prayers like these expose how shallow our thought process is. Basically, these kinds of prayers expose that our deepest desire is for God to rid us of the things that bother us and stand in the way of our peace. Whenever our sole prayer is for God to rid us of things, what we’re praying for–and putting our hope in–is the absence of pain. We’re praying and asking God to EMPTY US; rid me of what’s really bothering me. The underlying assumption is this, “If I just didn’t have to deal with this disappointment, then all would be well. In and of myself, I have all the tools that I need to be happy; the problem is there is a negative circumstance that’s standing in my way. Once I get rid of this, then all will be right in the world.” This mindset is faulty at its core.
I BELIEVE THE LIE.
I believe the lie that if this one frustration I feel is gone, then all will be well. However, the truth is that there are a lot of things that are going wrong with my life. The thing right in front of me that I pray for the most is the most prevalent. But if that was removed, then I’d see and feel something else that’s going wrong that would affect me just as deeply. I believe the lie that I have everything in myself to be happy; I just need for God to get the bad things out of the way so that I can enjoy all the good. But the Bible never describes a hope for a peaceful life being found in the absence of pain. We live in a fractured world where death, pain, disappointment and frustration are all around us. (I’m only 29 and I smell like Ben-Gay every time I go to the gym, because my knees aren’t what they used to be!) On a more serious note, I’ve been married since I was 23 and have wanted to have kids of my own since that time, and I’m still waiting. Meanwhile, the rest of my friends here in Atlanta and back in Texas are having quadruplets every 6 weeks—or at least it feels like it. A peaceful life, then, has nothing do with the absence of pain. A peaceful life, however, has everything to do with the presence of God.
In Psalm 23, David writes, “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Why David? Why wouldn’t you fear evil in the valley of the shadow of death? Is it because you’re confident that God is a protector and he’s going to get you out of the valley of the shadow of death soon? Is it because there’s no real danger in the valley of the shadow of death? No. The passage goes on to say that David won’t fear evil, because THE LORD is with him. David thanks God (and finds peace) not in the absence of pain but in the presence of God. He’s filled with a very real sense that God is there and being assured of God’s presence provides peace. Pain is an indispensible part of life. We shouldn’t think that God is going to provide a freedom from it. On the contrary, He’s assured us that we’ll experience pain (2 Timothy 3:12). And there is reason to believe that there are times He’ll see us experiencing pain and although He has the power to remove it and deliver us from what ails us with one flick of the wrist. He won’t. Regardless of how hard we pray (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). God knows the frustration (and the void) that we feel from not being able to have kids. He has the power to change it, but He refuses. (I know refuses may sound like a strong word, but what other word would you insert that captures someone who has denied the request of something that is in their control to provide?)
PRAYING FOR FULLNESS, NOT EMPTINESS.
Scripture points us in a different direction as to what we should pray for. We don’t merely pray for God to empty us of pain (as if true peace is found in the absence of pain). Scripture encourages us to pray for “the God of hope to fill us with all joy and peace as we trust in Him, so that [we] may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). For the past few days, my prayers have completely changed. I’ve realized satisfaction can never be found in emptiness. Satisfaction can only be found in fullness. If I’m thirsty, my throat aches because it’s dry and it’s lacking moisture; additional emptiness won’t help this problem. It’ll only make things worse. The only way to get rid of my thirst is to crowd it out by filling my mouth with water. Our lives are no different. We really get a chance to enjoy and experience God when we ask Him to fill our lives. My wife and I plead with God to fill the void we have from not being able to have children—with Himself. The frustration many of us experience when we feel underappreciated or when we compare ourselves to others–we plead with Him to fill that void for achievement or recognition. And we don’t stop pleading until He comes through.
I wonder what our lives would look like if we stopped only praying for God to remove our pain but to fill us with a sense of His presence. My guess is that we would experience what it is to have our thirst quenched in a way we never dreamed of.
Married to his beautiful wife Shawndra, John serves as one of the Teaching Pastors at Blueprint Church in Atlanta, GA. He spends the majority of his time focusing on equipping and discipleship, but you might find him on the basketball court from time to time! Learn more at blueprintchurch.org, or follow him on Twitter @JawnO.