In a tragedy such as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan this week we don't know how to pray. We are confused about prayer because we can tend to treat prayer as if it is a magic pill that should take away pain immediately. We can use prayer like a momentary dose of therapy for our own soul… moving on to our normal lives because we have "prayed about it." But when the problem doesn't go away, and when the problem keeps presenting itself, we struggle to know how to keep talking to God. Trying to deal with the ongoing situation in Japan, I'm trying to resolve persistency in prayer with my urge to have things fixed McDonalds style:
Over the years, I've prayed for healing for dear friends and family. Sometimes I prayed fervently for immediate healing, sometimes even imagining God's hands at work in the healing process, mud and spittle on the hurt. But in those regular moments when I paused my prayer to notice that no healing had taken place, my mind and heart were a bit confused at what to do next. Should I pray harder? Should I stop and accept God's answer as a "no". Should I change my whole life pattern around and stay and pray constantly, unwilling to move until God did something? Usually I simply trusted God, not always knowing why He wanted me to pray for healing when He wasn't going to heal.
Why pray? Why pray for people in Japan right now? Why pray for loved ones who are suffering? What difference does it make?
Ah… here's the thing. We treat prayer as if it is a tool to fix a broken problem. That is one element of prayer, certainly. But prayer is so much more. Prayer is entering into conversation and relationship with God. Prayer is our chance to join hands with God in what he is doing. Prayer is our chance to expose our hearts to the joys and pains of God. And in the case of people who are suffering, prayer is our chance to enter into suffering with them.
Prayer is not a means to avoid suffering. Hear this. Prayer is not a happy pill. Prayer is deep and it can hurt when others hurt. If we truly pray for the people of Japan, we will enter into the hurt and fear and pain they are experiencing right now. Yes, we pray for relief and safety and victories in the midst of utter destruction… but we also pray for our hearts to join theirs. We pray for our hearts to be willing to carry the burden of sorrow along with them. And in doing so, we ask that they will be uplifted and strengthened as we take up the cause of their affliction.
Maybe it is a ragman theology… or maybe it is the way of Jesus. The willingness to enter into the deepest hurt of humanity and hold it in the heart… this is deep prayer. It is not a quick fix… it is much better than that. It is not a selfish prayer for healing because we hurt or because we want to avoid being IN the pain. It is an altruistic prayer for God's presence and goodness and restorative work because we truly embrace the pain of another.