God is sometimes perplexing. He encourages us to ask him for what we need and want. But then after we’ve put it out there, He’ll seemingly ignore us, leaving us with unmet needs and doubts about his purported benevolence.
Almost twenty years ago, I began experiencing unrelenting fatigue, muscle soreness, and waning strength. Countless tests and doctor visits later, I received the diagnosis of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. For the next five years, I politely asked God for healing, then I demanded healing. When that failed to move God, I confessed and repented of every sin I ever committed (at least those I remembered), wept, protested, and spent more than a few days crippled by despair. Because none of these strategies seemed to work and because I was growing increasingly disillusioned, I finally gave up.
Apparently, I’m not the only one who struggles to understand and make peace with this paradox. Recently, I invited friends to fill in the blank on my FB wall: “Unanswered prayer … ” I received more than forty responses, including the following: is deeply disappointing, makes me feel unloved, feels like a betrayal, is confusing, can be overwhelming, and is business as usual.
Some of our bewilderment emerges because we actually believe that God is all powerful and that He not only wants us to come to him like little children, but also encourages us to ask him for everything from babies, to jobs, to housing, and help overcoming an addiction. Hence the disconnect when He (seemingly) doesn’t respond to our needs.
This reminds me of our youngest son’s ambivalence with Christmas. He starts composing his gift list in September. For the next four months, he will revise, add to, and shamelessly share it. When Christmas day rolls around, he is filled with dread—because experience has shown him that though we are good parents, we don’t always give him precisely what he requested. Direct quote: “Why bother asking me if you aren’t going to buy me exactly what I want?” Replace buy with give and his question resonates with the same feelings I’ve had toward my heavenly Father.
I tend to have one of two responses when what I ask for is not given in a timely fashion: trying harder or angry blaming. My five years of spiritual activism offers you a snapshot of trying harder. I succeeded only in wearing myself out and spiraling deeper into doubt.
Angry blaming similarly leads into a cul-de-sac of despair.
In night-four of an insomnia jag, I remember spewing at God, “Why don’t you help me get to sleep? The Bible tells me that you give sleep to those you love! Don’t you love me?” Powerlessness is its own form of suffering. When we’ve run out of other options, anger and blame give us the illusion of control. But trust me on this one—it’s really only an illusion. Angry blaming didn’t draw me closer to Jesus and it certainly didn’t help me get to sleep.
In order to avoid these and other unhelpful responses, we need to zoom out and glimpse the larger story. Every day, there is an epic battle being waged for our hearts. The enemy of our soul has an entire arsenal at his disposal but his go-to weapon is doubt. Adam and Eve didn’t disobey because they desperately wanted to eat the fruit but because they fell for the serpent’s ruse that God was withholding good things from them.
If you ever find yourself doubting God’s love or questioning his character, push back—it’s the enemy trying to seduce you.
Expressing gratitude has also helped me to defuse despair. Due to fibromyalgia, I can no longer book all-day photo shoots—but I can still make photos. I can no longer play basketball with my sons—but I can walk and I constantly thank God for these and other gifts. This might seem like delusion, but turning to God in gratitude has the capacity to flip our disappointment upside down.
The hardest lesson for me has been detaching from my expectations of what healing needs to look like. I want to sleep through the night and be able to kayak, hike, and make love without battling incessant pain. Instead, God has chosen to do a deeper work.
Rather than interpreting God’s no or not yet as punishment or indifference, if I view it as an invitation to be transformed, that changes everything. C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, “We are a Divine work of art, something that God is making and therefore something with which He will not be satisfied until it has a certain character.”
That waiting and suffering and not being able to control God have the capacity to transform me into someone beautiful and Christ-like comforts me and simultaneously crushes the lie that God is indifferent. Rather than needing the Lord to answer my accusatory why questions, I am free to ask, “How can I find You in the midst of this?” which provides me with the traction that I need to move beyond my pain toward true transformation.
As I look back over the last fifteen years, I see that He has been healing me all along. I’ve just been too blind to see.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Relevant Magazine in 2015.