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The most foolish of prayers

_Sorry this is quite long–  Feel free to read it in installments.

Foolish prayers.

I’ve always enjoyed inspirational books. Not inspirational in the Oprah Winfrey, self help sense of the word. Rather, those classic tales of rugged men daring greatly against tremendous odds. Roosevelt suffering in the Amazon, Shackleton stranded in Antarctica, my favorite stories cast a lead character persevering with endless grit and determination. This all worked delightfully as entertainment, but I continually hit upon a reoccurring problem. I couldn’t relate.

My life was the very definition of ease. Comfortably middle class, loving parents, healthy body, sound mind. Searching for legitimate trials in my life required acrobatic leaps of imagination, digging at the edge of absurdity. It was fruitless, the suffering simply didn’t exist.

As a suburban white kid in Seattle, this was not something to be proud of. It wasn’t cool to be middle class. Or perhaps more correctly, it wasn’t cool to appear middle class. You were certainly expected to have enough money to buy a seasons pass at the ski hill, but your clothes better come from the thrift store. Poverty as style. Delightfully American.

Though amusing, this was clearly unsatisfactory. How could my life ever have meaning if I never experienced true struggles or suffering? Or worse, if I invented a façade of tribulation to hide the shame of my comfort? I needed legitimate pain. Something that would force utter dependence on God. Yet this was more than simply adding a jewel in my crown. The very legitimacy of my faith now stumbled through the door and loomed as an unanswered question.

Doubt upon doubt crashed in as well, laying waste to the fragile caricatures I stood behind. Do you love God? Does your heart rise at the sound of His voice? C’mon do you honestly even believe this? Or do you simply have a ready defense, a line of reasoning pushed forward to hide the shame of the deeper accusation? Tell me, do you love Jesus?

I do not know from where the questions came. Whether it was a demon lashing accusations or the Holy Spirit hammering conviction I cannot say. I’m not entirely sure the discernment is important. The result, however was unmistakable. I needed God in a way I had not yet experienced.

Unfortunately my desire was unmatched by ability. No force of will seemed capable of crossing this raging gorge stretched out before me. I listened to the music, read the bible, I even felt the occasional bliss of a youth group retreat. Nothing stuck. God still seemed relegated to little more than a quiet old sage I visited occasionally when I needed advice.

Even the very name I used to address Him shed light on our relationship. I spoke to Him nearly always as God, occasionally Father, but almost never Jesus. Something felt off. Undoubtedly my vocabulary was jaded by exposure to Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant, but I could not say Jesus without feeling awkward. Or perhaps even worse in the mind of an insecure teenager, cheesy.

The word God came out much easier. Grey and nebulous, it served the purpose of avoiding attention from non-believers, but more importantly, it left alone my own half belief. To say Jesus declared I had met the God of the universe in a real and personal way. The way you meet a friend, a spouse, a teacher. Practical and tangible, you don’t even consider doubting the authenticity of the connection. Many Christians around me seem to have this, professing their deep love and compassion for Jesus. They spoke of God as a child would his father when he is still young and innocent.

Though not all were sincere. Often their happiness and contentment appeared inauthentic, simply actors feigning belief as a grand, delusional coping mechanism. The type of people you meet and after a brief conversation realize they’re not listening to a word you’ve said. As if their mind reached a certain point and decided any further inward contemplation was dangerous. I imagine the decision was rooted in fear. A fear their doubts may grow into disbelief. Ironically they feared the very position I found myself in, yet their response was cast in a wildly different mold. While they drew back into the shelter of trite mantras and comfortable promises, I threw myself at ragged edge of absolute truth. I wanted to meet the real God.

I certainly needed help. I needed a Christian to learn from, a brother in Christ who had tasted God deeply. Eventually I found it. In the life of a climber, of course. Tim Hansel story. To be Written later

I had found my answer. At least to the extent a 16 year old male can conjecture upon the great spiritual need in his life. My need was suffering. A visceral and raw dependence on God. Not manufactured by a simple change of perspective, but a real, tangible pain. This great trial stood before me as a bridge from the intellectual understanding of Christianity to the true faith I felt missing.

I hit my knees and offered my prayer, uttering quite possibly the most foolish words a Christian can bring before God. “Father, give me a trial, give me some great struggle or pain, my life is too easy.” Before the words left my bended knee, I felt the cold chill of regret. What if God gets this wrong? What if He miscalculates and casts upon me some burden too great?

Of course my request was not without boundaries, and these I brought to God as well. Not in outright prayer, but in those quiet murmurs and thoughts you leave laying about for God to pickup. My requirements were sensible. The trial must not interfere with my love for sports and adventure. Or if it does, it must leave room for a dramatic and glorious perseverance. A trial significant enough to warrant His sympathy, but not so severe as to hinder my ambitions.

The mind of a 16 year old has its limitations though. I found nothing could fit this profile. No injury, no disease, nothing worked. Every legitimate struggle I imagined required some frightful sacrifice. This was terribly disappointing, I thought it quite reasonable to expect the glory of perseverance could outweigh the necessary suffering.

I sensed the Father’s patience waning. While the original petition was noble, the absurd stipulations were too much. After a respectful pause the Holy Spirit muscled his way into the conversation. You must simply leave it in my hands. If I believed in this God enough to trust He wielded the power to intervene in my life, I must also trust him enough with the resolution. After a deep breath I offered Him my surrender. Do with me what you will.

(answer coming soon.)


Comment from Megan
Time November 22, 2008 at 11:17 am

…And what did He do with you?

Comment from Elizabeth K
Time November 24, 2008 at 9:29 am

James, forgive me if it appears as though I am trying to shove you into a category, or if I am too far from your point, but you reminded me of the two brothers in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Some commentators view the difference in the two siblings as the symbolic difference between Jews and Greeks, or law and grace, but I think it’s okay to view the story with even more ambiguity.

Although both of the brothers were of the same family (of God) there was stark contrast of sense and sensibility between them. While the younger brother strayed from the father then returned, the older brother remained faithfully stable. The older did not experience suffering as a result of his own or his family’s rebellious decisions, yet he was also spared the extreme emotional heartbreak and joy of doing so.

Just from their differences, each brother could cause the other to feel second-rate toward the father.The brothers actually have much in common for …Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11) and rarely does anyone fit perfectly into a box, but types are useful for explaining paradoxical truths. Just as all brothers allow jealousy and friction to sour the relationship, they are in the same family for a reason. One can provide what the other is missing, and can also learn from each other. The older might need to free his heart a little while the younger must become more cautious.

Still, the father rewards both of his sons and this is where this parable might relate to the one of the workers in the vineyard. Although all of workers begin at different times, they present themselves with a divergence of strengths and weaknesses. In the same way, believers working together arrive at their same final glorification but in different ways and times.

All this is to say that suffering and growing happens in various forms. You rightfully realized the necessity of suffering but as you pointed out, your prayer was foolish in that it was attempting to direct God. Perhaps your virtue of self-control had begun to work against you? All believers are called to take that scary step of faith in surrendering our will but that step presents itself in the wonder of diversity. For some it might mean returning home to their spiritual family in humility, while for others it may require learning to walk “alone” in the dark.

Comment from Bob M
Time December 17, 2008 at 10:49 pm

Ah, to be young and “foolishly” seeking the Lord. Too bad more folks aren’t so rash. Could it be that Jesus was just waiting for you offer such a foolish prayer, because he wanted you to acknowledge his power before he carried out his work in you? Not that he always waits for our overt permission to refine us, and we certainly can’t direct him, but it must help the process if we’re pre-disposed to be walking at his pace. Unfortunately, many Christians spend so much time avoiding eye contact with God that it never occurs to them to seek him, especially if it involves suffering. The thought is just too foolish.

What some might not realize is that you took the next step and got involved in some pretty demanding projects for the Lord, traveling to some dangerous locations, rather than turning inward and being self-absorbed in personal trials.

Now, I don’t think there is a set pattern for how we respond to the Lord, as he has something unique for each of us, and there are times when we just can’t do anything but sit and wait for the Lord’s help in dire circumstances. Even our responses can change for different seasons in our life. But I also thought it was really cool that you took on such challenges when you could have just blown it all off. Well done.

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