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Posts Tagged ‘doubt’

My soul waits for the Lord

More than watchmen for the morning

More than watchmen for the morning.

Psalm 130:6 (ESV)

For many years I felt I possessed an insight into this verse that a lot of people could not appreciate. Whenever I read this verse, invariably an image would come to mind of experiences I had in Vietnam. I remember being on guard in Vietnam, staring out into the darkness, praying that I would see nothing throughout a long and fearful night. Most of the time, the night would pass uneventfully, although it was not always to be so. But it’s that image of staring out into a darkness so black that it seems to envelop you that I most remember. Can you imagine the relief when daylight finally arrives and most of the danger is over? And that’s how it must have felt to watchmen on the city walls in the ancient world; fear turning to relief with the promise of one more day.

As I struggle to deal with a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer I feel some of that same anxiety. I see before me a darkness that threatens to swallow me up with no promise of daylight at the end. You see, I understand that life is too uncertain and our fears too real for them to be explained away simply by quoting an inspirational verse. You can quote this verse (and hundreds of others) to me, but the darkness is still there and the struggles ongoing.

So, what should we do with verses like this? First of all, be careful before you post an inspirational verse on social media. Can you understand that I now have two perspectives on this verse that many of you cannot identify with (Vietnam and cancer)? Posting a verse such as this provides little encouragement to me, unless it is put into a context that recognizes the full reality of my situation. I would even suggest that until you have experienced real hardship in life, perhaps you may not be the best one to provide encouragement. Better to leave that to those who have some battle scars and have experienced struggle firsthand.

So how can this and similar verses encourage us? Certainly not by some “health and wealth” platitude that everything is going to work out fine. From a material perspective, it may not. Yes, I can and do look forward in faith to a time when the darkness is over and an eternal morning dawns. I believe that, but I still have to deal everyday with pain and struggles that are so real I am reluctant to describe them. I have to watch my wife step in and do so many things that should be my responsibility. And although she does so magnificently and without a word of complaining, it is hard for me to accept.

So, just in case you missed it, here is the lesson with which I would leave you. Please recognize that life is real and struggle is part of it. For many of us the darkness is always there, ready to engulf us. Simply posting an inspirational verse or quotation by itself is not enough. Do something to acknowledge that you recognize the reality behind it. The last thing someone struggling with a serious problem needs is for someone to post something that just adds to their guilt, because they do not have a blind faith that takes away all of the fear. And as much as I long for the morning, today the darkness is still there. So, leave me with encouragement as I struggle with that darkness, rather than guilt because I am still struggling.

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This post will be longer than usual, but it deals with a subject that is so important to me right now that I ask your indulgence.

C. S. Lewis once wrote an essay entitled, “Petitionary Prayer: A Problem Without An Answer.” He described how the New Testament gives what appear to be contradictory instructions regarding petitionary prayer (prayer in which we are asking God for something). Interestingly enough, James gives examples of both. In James 1:6 we read, “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind.” At the same time James 4:13-15 reads, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ 14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 15 Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’” Other examples could be given such as Matthew 17:20 which talks about having the faith of a mustard seed and Luke 22:42 in which our Lord asks the Father to take away the cross, but ultimately submits himself to God’s will. So, how should we pray? Do we pray with the assurance that God will grant what we ask, or should we limit our prayer to praying according to God’s will?

If I understand Lewis’s essay, he ultimately gave up and admitted that he could not adequately reconcile the two views. While it may appear the epitome of arrogance to suggest that I can resolve anything C. S. Lewis could not, perhaps my current situation (stage 4 lung cancer) has given me plenty of time for reflection, as I have pondered in my life just what I should pray for. Do I pray for healing when my oncologist has said categorically that ultimately my condition is terminal, or should I pray according to God’s will? And if I do the latter, does that very prayer indicate a lack of faith?

When I was growing up, it seems that almost invariably petitionary prayers used the second model, especially if the condition was critical. I do not wish to judge peoples’ hearts, but it appeared to me even then, that these were not prayers of faith. Rather, the ones praying felt the need to “hedge their bets,” so that if the prayer was not granted, they could fall back on the  explanation that God’s will was that it not be granted. We did that, so that our faith would not be threatened by the petition not being granted.

So, how do I reconcile these two models for petitionary prayer? Here are my rather simplistic explanations.

The model that simply asks God to grant what we ask, because we have faith in him is valid, because it recognizes the nature of the relationship God wants to have with his children. I often fall back on the family relationship as an illustration. When our children come to us with requests, loving parents delight to give them what they seek. We want them to come to us, and it makes us happy to see the pleasure they receive from granting those requests.

At the same time, children do not always get what they ask for a variety of reasons. It may be that the parents do not have the ability to give what is asked, and in that instance the analogy to God breaks down. Sometimes, however, the parents do not give what is asked for either because they recognize that in the long run it would not be good or wise, or there are other issues that the child may not be able to understand.

So, how does this relate to our own petitionary prayers? The prayer which simply asks God to grant the request is a prayer of faith, because it recognizes both God’s power as well as his loving nature that cares for us.

But I am coming to believe that the prayer that subjects my desire to God’s will, when properly invoked, is an even greater expression of faith. It recognizes both God’s power and his love, just as the first model does, but it goes further. When I pray this second model, it tells God that I have enough faith to leave the outcome to him. It is also an admission that I cannot see the whole picture.

I believe that God has the power to remove my cancer completely, even when the physical laws of this universe say it is impossible. Of course, God could have just as easily prevented the cancer from developing in the first place. The fact that he did not causes my faith to ask a more difficult question. Is it possible that God wants to use this situation in some way that I cannot comprehend? As painful as it may be to contemplate, perhaps I should recognize that God did not cause my cancer. The physical laws of the universe did that. At the same time, he can use my circumstances just as he has promised to use every circumstance of my life (consider Romans 8:28). What if God is challenging me to allow him to walk with me through this circumstance, even if the end is my death? Am I willing to do that? Can I recognize that perhaps there are others struggling with their own doubts and their own demons who might read my words and be strengthened in their own faith? And if that happens, am I ready to acknowledge that my death might be worth that kind of transformation?

In conclusion, the first model is a prayer of faith; however, I have come to feel that the second model is an even greater prayer of faith. It reflects a trust that goes beyond my asking God for what I want. Instead, it says to God, “I trust you with this situation, recognizing both your power and your wisdom, and I willingly submit myself to your working in my life — no matter what the end result might be.” This kind of prayer is not “hedging my bets.” Rather, it is the response of a mature faith, that says to God, “I feel that the safest place to be is in your hands.”

Today, do you have the faith to place your situation in God’s hands and allow him to do whatever he wills with you? But I caution you (from personal experience), do not pray that, unless you really mean it.

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Our oldest son is 31-years-old. We adopted Geoffrey in 1981 when he was four weeks old. When he was approximately three-and-a half, after an extensive evaluation, a doctor told us that Geoffrey would be mentally retarded. No one who has not experienced such an announcement can appreciate how devastating this was for Jeannie and for me. In one instant all our hopes and dreams for Geoffrey were dashed, and we faced an uncertain, fearful future for which we felt totally unprepared. Acceptance did not come in a month or even a year, but eventually it became impossible to deny the reality of the diagnosis. Geoffrey is better at some skills than others, but basically he functions at a four to five-year-old level.

Jeannie and I could have reacted as 80% of parents do in such a situation, and one or the other could have sought a divorce. But while our wedding vows did not use the actual words, “for better or for worse,” that kind of commitment was at the heart of what we had promised one another. So we decided to embrace the new reality and forge new hopes and new dreams. Over the years we have learned much about our medical and governmental systems we would just as soon not have experienced. I will not pretend that our faith was strong throughout this experience. If our faith has grown, it has done so through the crucible of pain and disappointment. When Geoffrey was diagnosed, I will admit to being terrified of what the future might hold and to being almost overwhelmed by the responsibility. But step-by-step we learned and coped.

Not for a moment would I downplay the struggles we have faced or the problems we still confront, as Geoffrey is still living with us in our retirement. But there are some characteristics that Geoffrey displays that, while very different from most people, can speak to all of us. Let me list three.

  1. Geoffrey is almost always happy. He responds to everyone with trust and enthusiasm. He knows nothing of black or white, male or female, or any other artificial distinctions.
  2. Geoffrey has almost complete trust. Indeed, this is one reason we must be careful. It would never occur to him that anyone might wish to hurt him. Most people respond positively to Geoffrey, because he is open and direct in expressing his affection for virtually anyone he meets.
  3. Geoffrey assumes he will be cared for because he always has been. To whatever degree he possesses faith, it is simple, pure, and childlike, without any of the doubts or reservations we “wiser” people possess.

As I said earlier, I do not wish to minimize the difficulties or the hardships; this is not the life we would have chosen. At the same time, we have learned so much from Geoffrey that is positive. I don’t know what you are struggling with now. Perhaps it is worse than our situation. I am convinced, however, that the reality of that situation depends as much on how you respond to it as it does on the hardship itself. Happiness is not dependent on circumstances. In a situation in which 80% of couples divorce, Jeannie and I are happy even as we face daily challenges. We could just as easily have chosen to abandon our commitment and wallow in self-pity and despair. The temptation to do that was very real, and it resurfaces occasionally. I cannot change reality, but I choose to be happy. What about you?

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In 1990 I taught a Sunday school class which I entitled “Encounters With Christ.” Each week we studied an incident recorded in the gospels in which Jesus interacted with one person. Some of the people we studied included, Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, Thomas, the sinful woman, the rich young man, Peter, as well as number of others. For the final class, I wrote the following, hoping to capture the spirit of the class and especially to show that, through it all, we were really studying about ourselves. I give it to you now for whatever benefit it may have. Feel free to share it, but notice the copyright at the end. I would appreciate it if you would include that copyright notice if you copy and paste this. Here is that summary.

Where can I find Jesus?

Where can I find Jesus?
The question is not new. It was asked two thousand years ago:

by a man possessed by a legion of demons.

by a rich young man, seeking a finishing touch to a successful life.

by a woman in a backwater town who knew all too well the heavy weight racial prejudice and moral self-righteousness could place on a heart already weighed down by guilt.

by a religious scholar who still possessed enough of his ideals to dream, but not enough faith to believe his dreams could be transformed into reality.

by a prostitute, needing desperately to be told that even she was worth saving.

by a friend who had trusted Jesus, and could not understand why He had allowed her brother to die.

by a trusted disciple who had made glowing promises, then failed Him miserably.

by a doubting disciple who so wanted to believe, but for whom the forces of this world seemed too real.

Where can I find Jesus?
The question is not new. It has been asked throughout the
centuries by:

scholars and sinners.
mystics and merchants.
preachers and popes.
princes and paupers.
teachers and tradesmen.
legalists and liberals.

Where can I find Jesus?
The question is not new. It is still being asked by millions of people every day who have discovered (often too late) that the foundation on which they have chosen to build their life will not support them.

Where can I find Jesus?
He walks among us every day, but we are often too busy to see Him.

He is in our churches, but often best observed, not in the pulpit, but rather in the faces of our children, who in their innocence can still sing without fear and without doubt, “Yes, Jesus loves me.”

He is at the bedside of a child, seeing not the child, but watching in sorrow as the parents grasp desperately for hope when the doctors have none to offer.

He can be found standing beside the soldier, peering out into the darkness, who with trembling hand and unblinking eyes, fervently prays that he may see nothing throughout a long, fearful night.

He is a silent participant in board meetings, watching in sorrow the accounts of profit and loss, the futile search of one more generation of “rich young men” seeking security and fulfillment from the whispered promises of the elusive siren of success.

He is the constant companion of the elderly, those who have been mothers, fathers, teachers, doctors, preachers, and workers, and who now wonder if their lives had meaning.

He is an unregistered guest in our nursing homes, providing comfort to the lonely and encouragement to the sick and neglected.

Where can I find Jesus?
We search for Him in churches, in books, in friends, in laughter, in sorrow and in pain.
And if we look with the eye of faith, we shall assuredly see Him, for truly He has promised to be with us always–in every time, at every place, and under all circumstances.

But if we would see Him most clearly and observe His love most fully, we must search where He Himself said we should find Him–among “the least of these.”
Then, as we reach out in love and compassion to those in need, we shall see Him clearly, and doubt will be transformed into faith.
And we shall find ourselves, like Thomas of old, exclaiming in adoration, “My Lord and my God.”

Where can I find Jesus?
There is one final place. He will be the last guest to leave the cemetery.
And He will not depart alone, for He will most surely take me with Him.

© Gary Cottrell
August 26, 1990
Pinellas Park, Florida

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