Ishinomaki City is a world-renowned fishing port of about 250,000 people. Local pastors tell me there are only about 30-40 Christians in the entire city. Ishinomaki lies on the East Coast of Japan and is nestled up against the Pacific Ocean. In March 2011, a 9.0 earthquake struck near Tokyo pulsing a massive tidal wave through the region. Abe San, a local pastor, guides me through the wreckage. We explore a middle school about a mile away from the coast. This site was the city’s safe zone where people were encouraged to take refuge in the event of a tsunami. But the wave reached this building too. Every floor is completely blown out and destroyed. Hundreds died here. Thousands died throughout the city.
As I choke on tears, I ask Abe, “When people ask you, ‘Where was God in the tsunami?’ what do you tell them?” I tell them, “He was with them. He is with them now.”
An hour later, we find ourselves at a new building that has risen from the rubble. A church. There are some Japanese characters on the wall and for some reason I can’t stop staring. “Abe San, what does this say?” He tells me it reads: “Jesus wept.”
Does Jesus still weep? I’m convinced he does. Our individual presuppositions about how God relates to us in the midst of pain carry immense weight when as we consider how to pray, how to counsel, and how to preach.
When a prayer slips out of your mouth, where does it go? And when it arrives at its destination, what effect does it have?
At the risk of speaking rather mechanically, we might describe prayer as the interplay between two wills: our will and God’s will. Only one of the wills in this dialogue is flawless. Thus, prayer is, in large part, an exercise in aligning our hearts with the heart of God.
This was true in Jesus’ life. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Not my will but yours be done.” Did Jesus will something other than God willed? Yes and no. Jesus was anxious about the physical torture and moment of spiritual death that loomed over him. He hoped there might be another way. But what Jesus desired more than escaping the suffering was the will of the Father. He was willing to bend his will to God’s will.
Prayer is bending our will to God’s will. But it is also more than that. Sometimes, when it does not conflict with his ultimate purposes, God bends his will to our will. This is nothing less than staggering.
Consider the story of Moses’ intercession (Exod 32). God is burning with fury against Israel. He tells Moses, “Leave me alone so that I can kill these guys. Then I will rebuild a nation that follows me out of you” (v.10). But Moses intercedes and prays, “You’ve done the work to rescue them. That’s clear. So what will the surrounding nations think of you if you kill them? Fulfill your promise to Abraham.” Then the Lord “relented” (v.14). The same word is used several other places in Scripture to describe God’s attitude towards actions he has taken or was planning to take.
What should we make of this? Is God confused? Short sighted? Blinded by rage? No. When we consider the scope of Scripture, the best way to summarize the interplay of God’s will and human will is to say: God does not change in his plans and purposes for humanity, but he does change in regard to his attitudes, emotions, actions, and responses. He is both impassible and impassioned.
By definition, a real relationship experiences progress. As intimacy grows it manifests externally. In our relationship with God the flow is simple: God reveals his goodness, we respond by treasuring him more deeply, surrendering more fully, and expressing our true selves in prayer.
But this flow is not one way. When we treasure him, surrender to him, and express our true heart in prayer, God is pleased. He is more pleased than he would be if we were cheating on him with false lovers, withholding parts of our life from his rule, or ignoring him. In other words, God responds to our response to his revelation.
So how does this understanding impact personal prayer and discipleship efforts? It means that every discipleship conversation and every prayer is a life or death conversation. God is inviting me to find life and significance through belonging to him in Christ while my flesh, the broken stories of culture, and demonic forces are inviting me down the trail of death. God’s deepest agenda—and his greatest glory—are when I embrace life under his rule.
Praying in the Middle of Complex Pain
How about suffering in the life of a disciple? What is the cause and purpose behind it?
- Sometimes God ordains suffering in our lives in order to accomplish his greater purposes. Joseph and Jesus are clear examples of God purposing evil for his own glory. In our own life, he may orchestrate tests or trials that put us back on the path of life (Rev 3:19).
- Sometimes God allows us to suffer by living out our union with Jesus and identifying in his suffering (Col 1:24, 1 Pt 2:21, 3:14). While he wills our obedience, he does not will the evil done to us by persecutors. For example, Jesus is pleased with the faithfulness of the Philadelphian believers, but he is angry with their persecutors (Rev 3:8-9). Similarly, Jesus was angry with Saul for killing Christians and asked him to stop (Acts 9).
- Sometimes God permits us to suffer at the hands of our own foolishness or the sin of others (1 Pt 3:17, 4:15). The sluggard in Proverbs is a prime example of both self-harm and harm to others.
- Sometimes suffering is orchestrated by Satan and his forces although this cannot occur without God’s permission. Job is the best example.
- Sometimes suffering occurs randomly through the outworking of existing natural laws within a cursed creation.
When discipling another, we must take into account a variety of causes for suffering. God is not the lone cause. Neither is Satan the lone cause. Personal sin is not the sole cause. Neither is the sin of others the sole cause. Often the suffering may involve multiple, complex factors which are impossible to dissect. So how are we to respond in the face of suffering?
Whatever the cause, God’s will in the midst of all our suffering is that we would allow the Holy Spirit to draw our hearts to the beauty of Jesus. God wills to free us from the need to find an explanation for our suffering. Jesus is our answer. Our attempts to categorize, moralize, or interpret our pain only negate our ability to experience the presence of God in the midst of our suffering.
Prayer then ought to be our biblically informed, imaginative exploration of how to best receive the life and character of God in the midst of present circumstances. Prayer also includes the responsiveness of God to these requests. As we draw near to God, he draws near to us and infuses our life with his life. This is his ultimate desire whether we find ourselves in the bitter winter of suffering or the warmth of blessing.
We are Real Cause and Effect Beings
An indispensable part of what it means to be a rational, moral being is that our actions have real cause and effect. God is the ultimate cause. But he is not the only cause. God created other cause and effect beings. Our choices mean something because they either contribute to or oppose God’s good purposes for this world. That is what it means to have free will.
So is God responsible for evil and suffering? On a few occasions in the biblical text, he has claimed to be, but it is antithetical to the message of Scripture to teach that God universally wills, causes, or desires evil in our world.
God hates evil and evildoers. He weeps with those who weep and mourns with those who mourn. He is near to the brokenhearted. He is angry with the pain and injustice of our world. That is precisely why the Father, the Son, and the Spirit partnered together to relocate the Son into our neighborhood. The Son is now a past and present co-sufferer with us (Heb 2:18, Acts 9, Col 1:24). The Son comforts us in our affliction. He does not afflict us and then comfort us. Only a being with multiple personality disorder could do so.
Some might level the objection that if God is truly all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving, he will prevent certain heinous actions. The flaw in this logic is that God is not God in a vacuum. God is God in the universe he has created. And in this universe he has voluntarily limited himself in order to open up the possibility of authentic relationship with humans.
What does that mean for you and me? It means that somehow our prayers matter to him. When I respond to his self-revelation and open up a conversation, an infinite being actually changes the level and nature of his interactivity with both the world and me.
Jesus urges us to seek the Father by saying, “Knock and the door will be opened to you.” The clear picture is that the sound of my knock brings the Father to the door and he answers. If I don’t knock he won’t answer. If I don’t knock he will just keep doing what he is doing in the kitchen or in the living room.
James’ letter is chalk full of the astounding cause and effect our prayers have upon God’s attitudes and actions. In chapter 4, James rebukes the believers for their evil desires. They are fighting with each other and their prayers are prayers for God to satisfy their evil desires. The clear implication (which is a statement of fact by Jesus in John 15:7), is that when we pray in alignment with God’s will and purposes, he is delighted to respond.
United with the Suffering Servant and the King of Shalom
Whether you find yourself in times of darkness or times of blessing, God’s invitation is the same. Let go of “Why?” questions, and instead fixate on the central issue of “Who?”
For the Christian, our lives have been united with the Suffering Servant who loved us and gave himself for us. Through union with Jesus, you have been invited into the joyful life of the Trinity. And our hope is found in the comfort of God’s life-giving presence and in the shalom-filled future he has promised for us and our world.
Dr. Sean Post leads a one-year discipleship experience for young adults called Adelphia. He has authored three books. His great joys in life are spending time with his wife and three kids, eating great food, and CrossFit.