While there are many commonalities to being a Christian, a relationship with God is a deeply personal thing. Those who believe have ways of talking to or hearing God. Some people come to the faith through deliberate reasoning and learning, others simply grow into the faith, and then there are those who have the encounters with God that most of us pray for. But one thing I noticed, and have wrestled with, is how the relationship with God can change after a bereavement or period of suffering.
Until fairly recently, I was happy to pray to God, to ask Him for help with a problem, to pray for my family, to pray for healing, but when those prayers were not answered I felt confused and alone. Isn’t it true that when something goes well we believe that was God answering our prayers (and, perhaps, we take just a smidge of the glory by thinking it was thanks to us praying in the the first place!), yet when something goes badly we are stumped as to what happened, and don’t know what to say.
Reading about Jesus’s last days on earth, I understood how he knew he had to take the burden of our sin onto himself, he had to take the suffering of our bodies and minds, and worst of all, he had to be abandoned by God, his Father. He had to know what it was like to live without God, just as the people were doing. When our prayers aren’t answered the way we want them to be, it can feel this way for us.
‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’
Yet, at the hour of his suffering and abandonment, Jesus put himself entirely into God’s hands.
Feeling is believing
After my daughter died, I knew in an instant that I wasn’t alone in my grief. That Jesus was there – right there – grieving with me. It was a comfort but it also left me feeling more confused than ever. I was totally separated from God at that point in my life. I hadn’t lived a very Christian life. If anything, I felt nothing but anger at my decision that it was ‘all untrue’. I felt spiritually alone. So I was shocked to feel this overwhelming sense of spiritual love.
There by my daughter’s death bed, I felt his presence. My husband didn’t; he was there too! And again, at home, I felt him with me. I didn’t need to work out who it was. I just knew. And he has shown himself to me in many ways ever since.
I felt loved, forgiven, comforted in a way I have never known. I also felt afraid. Knowing his presence was humbling to say the least. But I wanted more. I wanted him with me always and I knew I had to work on my relationship with Him in order to achieve that.
Your will be done
When someone dies of something ‘senseless’ – an unexpected event or an illness that drags them to their death in agonising pain – I wonder at why God is choosing to ignore the prayers for that person, why God felt it would be ‘better’ to let them go than to save them. I notice the anger of those who feel this ‘good God’ is just plain ‘bad’ and disconnected from our suffering. I understand why people fall away from faith in the midst of suffering. A big aspect of my faith journey was to try to make sense of this.
I’ve learned that God is with us. I’ve learned that he does love us. I’ve learned that he mourns with us. I’ve also learned that my prayers to him, while received, were not as open as I thought they were. I needed to learn to turn my prayers around. To stop asking all the time. To pray with everything and allow God to respond.
In my early days of mourning, I read this:
‘…the saddest sight I saw was some earnest Christians praying around the bed of someone who was dying, exhorting God to return him to his former health. They had misunderstood the whole journey of life, and at the very point when we must pray for the grace to let go of this life, they were frantically clinging on as if this life were all there is.
In times of suffering we need to place those we love in God’s hands. We need to believe that he knows what is best for them. We also need to take comfort from the suffering and death of Jesus. His passion and crucifixion shows us that God is with us in our suffering and at the hour of our death.’
‘How to Pray’ by Stephen Cottrell
It started me thinking about the reality of our prayers.
Where is your God now?
This question is asked by people of all faiths in times of crisis. Where is God when the car crashed, when the cancer result was positive, when the baby stopped breathing…?
It’s a question I have asked many times too. I believe in God but I don’t know why He allows us to suffer. We knew our daughter couldn’t be saved from her haemorrhage, yet I still felt the presence of God. I know He’s there!
And this is why my experience after my daughter died was so important. I realised that, through it all, God wasn’t a genie to grant us our heart’s desire. He wasn’t detached from our lives. He wasn’t always going to make things different, but He was there with us, feeling it too.
Blaming the ‘grown up’
When as a child things don’t go to plan, our parents often get the brunt of our frustration. My children shout ‘It’s your fault [that I forgot my homework/got into trouble/broke something]. It’s all your fault!’ The blame isn’t on them, it’s on their parents. They rely on us to make their world right. And while we often do solve our children’s problems, we don’t always because we are trying to teach them independence, how to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. However, we know it’s going to make us the perpetrators, the ones to blame. Sometimes these grudges go on long into adulthood. And I think it’s the same with our relationship with God.
Our prayers aren’t answered, someone we love is suffering so badly, we are worried and frightened. What exactly are you up to God? It’s all your fault. If you’re so good then show us by fixing this. Just like a child, when our prayers aren’t answered in the way we want, we can feel let down, hurt and distrustful. I have no one to blame for my daughter’s death but God, yet I know He didn’t cause it.
Praying with our hearts and minds
Our prayers shouldn’t be all about wants and asks, although we should of course keep asking, they should be about building a two-way relationship with God. God wants to hear from the real us, about our real emotions, not just the ‘virtuous stuff’. We need to trust that he will look after us, whether we are alive or dead, rich or poor, in sickness or health. It’s about putting true faith in him – one that allows us to hurt as well as feel love. One thing I have learned in my own grief, is that pain and sorrow – while horrible – are feelings we must allow to happen. We mustn’t try to brush over them, laugh over them, or change the subject. The sorrow and tears are just as important as the laughter and happiness.
This is hard, and doesn’t come naturally. I am often asking why, and why not. I know people who are so much more faithful and trusting. I am more trusting now and I feel I know God much more than I ever have, but it’s a work in progress…
I pray for healing because I trust that God will heal. I pray for God to be with me or others in times of suffering. I also tell God that I trust Him. There are many aspects of God’s will that I don’t understand and I don’t believe we ever will. I think challenging the higher being is a complete waste of our spiritual energy. I pray that I will see God’s grace through whatever suffering or trial I face. That he knows what is in our hearts and that sometimes he answers our prayers in ways that bring us greater love and understanding, and greater glory to Him.
[This post was inspired by my reading for Lent, ‘God on Mute’ by Peter Greig]