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When I don’t Know and It’s Hard to Pray

June 20, 2013

But now I was unsure what it would be proper to pray for, or how to pray for it.  After you have said “thy will be done,” what more can be said?  And where do you find the strength to pray “thy will be done” after you see what it means?

And what did these questions do to my understanding of all the prayers I had ever heard and prayed? …Does prayer change God’s mind?  If God’s mind can be changed by the wants and wishes of us mere humans, as if deferring to our better judgement, what is the point of praying to Him at all?  And what are we to think when two good people pray for opposite things–as when two devout mothers of soldiers on opposite sides pray for the safety of their sons, or for victory?

from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

One of the things I have come to embrace as I’ve gotten older is the ability to say “I don’t know.”  When I was young, I thought a mature faith meant knowing all the answers.  Most pastors seemed to know everything, or at least have a strong opinion on everything.  Things were easily distinguishable into right or wrong, black or white.  As I’ve gotten older and lived a bit, I’ve roamed farther and farther from the need for certainty.  I’ve veered away from the right and wrong, the black, white, and gray areas.  While this doesn’t mean I’m not opinionated nor that I can be easily swayed on any subject matter, it does mean that I have made space for mystery and color.

Rachel Held Evans, in a recently published blog post, made a list of 11 Things I Wish More Pastor’s Would Say.  Number 1?  “I don’t know.”   I agree with Rachel here.  I think we need to hear “I don’t know” more from Christian leaders, whether they be pastors, bloggers (yes, they are quickly becoming leaders), and convention/conference speakers.  We assume because people speak, they must know everything.  This expectation only prevents them from growing more and getting us off the hook because we don’t know (thus we aren’t responsible for speaking, teaching, or leading).  Adam Hamilton, in his book/discussion video, says the same thing, in a different context.  Young people are leaving the church (being “spiritual, but not religious,”) because they need more pastors to admit they don’t know the answer.  My generation (and those younger than me–Generation X isn’t as young as it once was) isn’t looking for pastors who are there to impart all the answers.  I’ve read the Bible.  I know there are conflicting passages and contextual nuances I don’t understand.  I lose serious faith in a person who claims the Bible tells all the answers and is crystal clear.

I was being changed by my prayers which dwindled down nearer and nearer to silence, which weren’t confrontations with God but with the difficulty–in my own mind, or in the human lot–of knowing what or how to pray.  Lying awake at night, I could feel myself being changed–into what I had no idea…I was a lost traveler wandering in the woods, needing to be on my way somewhere but not knowing where.

from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

As I read more, pray more, and study the Bible more, I feel a deeper connection with Wendell’s Berry main character, Jayber Crow, in his book of the same title.  I wonder what to pray, how to pray, when to pray.  I feel like he described, “a lost traveler wandering in the woods, needing to be on my way somewhere but not knowing where.”  In this slightly uncertain time of our lives (but isn’t there a bit of uncertainty in all stages of our lives?), I have found myself struggling with what to pray.  I believe God’s will doesn’t always occur because of sin and/or circumstances.   Like Jayber, I wonder how to pray, “thy will be done.”  What if things don’t work out like we want them too?  What do you say to the dear friend who has been without a job for over a year?  I can’t respond by saying it is God’s will because I know the stress and financial difficulty that goes with it.  What do you say to a dear friend who has lost a loved one recently, too soon, to cancer?   What do you say to a mother who has lost a child too young?  What do you pray?

Did God arrange these incidents as tests of faith?  To the contrary, I see them as spectacular demonstrations of human freedom exercised on a fallen planet.  At such moments, exposed as frail and mortal, we lash out against someone who is not:  God.

From  Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey

I stood washing dishes a couple of nights ago, thinking about paths that could be taken, not at peace with some of the paths that laid before me.  Some of the paths I have no desire to walk down.  To be honest, if I’m not teaching at my children’s school, I don’t want to teach next year.  However, one of the paths I see being laid out for me heads in that direction.  I don’t like it.  I don’t really want to do it and I have a bit of dread.  I don’t know if I believe it is God’s will or not.  I wonder how it could be God’s will.  All of a sudden, I am back as a lonely wanderer in the woods, not knowing where I am heading, but knowing I am heading somewhere.  “Help things to work out like I want them to,” I want to pray.  But I can’t.  I can’t pray that without feeling all false inside.  Because I don’t know God’s will, I may not like God’s will, and God’s will may not even occur in this situation.  Is God’s will really more than that we love God and love others?

Instead, I have relied on one of my two go-to prayers.  “Be with me, God,”  I plead.  When that feels empty I rely on my other prayer, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  That’s all I can say.  Sometimes, I feel peace in those prayers.  Other times I don’t.  Again, from Philip Yancey:

We who follow their [the prophets] path today may sometimes experience times of unusual closeness when God seems responsive to our every need; we may also experience times when God stays silent and all the Bible’s promises seem glaringly false.

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