For those who don’t live on the East Coast, last week Hurricane Irene visited Eastern NC and did quite a bit of damage – at our house we lost a 45′ tree, part of a fence, and a ton of shingles off our roof, not to mention power for 12 hours and phone and internet for three days. But we weren’t even the worst hit. We had friends here without power for 4-5 days (one couple in our neighborhood is STILL without power after 12 days!), trees fell on houses and literally killed people, and schools and businesses were shut down for at least two days (some districts are still out two weeks later!). It’s not that Irene was a terribly strong storm (it was only a Category 1), it’s that it was a BIG and SLOW storm (roughly 900 miles from north to south and moving at only 14 mph here). We had sustained hurricane force winds for, well, 20+ hours.
It hit two Friday’s ago overnight and all day on that Saturday. On Sunday church was cancelled (as were most churches since roads were still impassable because of downed power lines, trees, and localized flooding), so when I got up on Sunday AM I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood to see how everyone had fared. I loaded the girls in the stroller and the three of us set out about 8:00am to see the world outside our four walls (Melissa was still sleeping). I have to say that the entire time I was just in awe at the devastation around the area; below are some pictures I took while on my walk around the neighborhood.
As we walked Chloe kept saying over and over (and she said it for days afterwards), “This storm made a mess, Daddy.” The overwhelming response I had while I walked was just thanksgiving and praise to God that he protected my family, and at one point I said to Chloe, “Chloe, do you realize how much Jesus protected us yesterday?” And she said, “Yes.”
As I spoke with other people in our church and at work I was amazed at the stories I heard – stories that I used to just hear on the TV or read in the newspaper but I was not experiencing first-hand. I also spoke with many people who said they felt guilty because they had no damage – not even a loss of power. I heard myself saying (and hearing other people say), “We were very blessed that we didn’t have any more damage than we did.” And we spoke with the girls repeatedly about how important it is to pray and how God answered our prayers for safety and protection during the storm.
But here’s where I struggle: I also know that at the same time I say these words (“We were blessed” or “God answered our prayers”) people will naturally hear that if they suffered significant loss then they are not “blessed” or God did not answer “their prayers”. Several days after the storm I was speaking with a couple from my church and I made the comment to them, “We were kept safe and we were blessed – but it wasn’t because of anything I did or any value I have – it was completely the grace of God.”
Too often I hear people shout how God saved them from disaster and protected them from harm – which they should proclaim – but we need to be careful our choice of words does not also communicate a sense we are “God’s favorites” – because he doesn’t have any. At the same time, we need to accept the reality that sometimes the disaster/tragedy itself is God’s work. Job said, “The Lord gave me what I had, and the Lord has taken it away. Praise the name of the Lord!” We love to talk about what the Lord gives – but read that verse again. It doesn’t say Satan takes away, it doesn’t say we loose it, it says “The Lord has taken it away.”
Now, here’s the mystery: do I believe God answered our prayers for safety? Yes. Do I believe those prayers were powerful? Yes. Do I believe the reason we didn’t suffer any major damage to our house or life is because of those prayers? Now that’s the hard one. While I want to say “Yes, absolutely”, I also can not ignore the fact that there are people out there who prayed for safety and yet suffered extreme loss. Shoot, 12 years ago I prayed for God to heal my sister from cancer and she died – and even Jesus prayed to avoid the cross but his prayer wasn’t answered… By saying “Yes, absolutely” to the question “Is the reason we didn’t suffer any major damage because of those prayers” it implies that the power to stop the storm rests in my hands – that if I prayed just a little less then disaster would strike, but thank God I prayed enough. It gets us all mixed up in this whole works-for-salvation mess that I want to stay far away from. What I refuse to accept and believe (translation: what I don’t have enough faith to believe in) is that the power of prayer rests in the strength of the one praying (translation: if I had just prayed a little bit harder or a little bit longer then God would have answered the prayer OR it’s a good thing I prayed as much as I did because if I hadn’t then God wouldn’t have heard).
Now before I get attacked from multiple sides with scripture verses and teachings from the Bible that say God answers our prayers and that the reason we don’t have is because we don’t ask (yes, I’ve read the book of James), I know there is a very scriptural truth that prayer moves God’s heart and causes him to act. Jesus did say that whatever we ask for “in his name” will be “given to [us].” Yes, I know that – so cool your jets and take a deep breath before you call me a heretic 🙂 Here’s what I am saying: The power of prayer rests not in me (or us) but in the one to whom we pray. And, what I’ve learned over time, is that the number one thing (or person) prayer changes is me. I have to believe that when I pray for safety God keeps me safe because he redefines my definition of safety; when I pray for healing God heals because he redefines my definition of healing to match his. In Isaiah I read, “’My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the Lord. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.’” Or as the NIV translates it, “Neither are my ways your ways.” God doesn’t operate in ways that often make sense to us! Let’s go back to my sister for a second. The fact is she died. The reality is that God healed her forever – and what I prayed for was healing. In a very real sense God answered my prayer – maybe not how I thought I wanted it answered, but he answered my prayer. And the real answer he gave me was that he changed my perspective on life, sickness, death, and prayer through the whole process to align more closely to his perspective.
Too often we (and when I say “we” I probably mean “me”) approach praying to God like the ancient rubbing the genie in the bottle issue – if we just say the “magic word” then we’ll get what “we wish” for. Sometimes I think we even reinforce this by how we (again, perhaps I should say I) raise our kids: so often while teaching manners we tell them that the word “please” is what? The “magic word”! Until they say “the magic word” we ignore them, and then once they say “the magic word” – BAM! They get what they ask for. It’s the genie in the bottle routine played out multiple times a day in every household in America with children in it! We raise our kids this way because we were raised this way – so is it any wonder we start to think God owes us something when we ask “in Jesus’ name,” like tacking on “Jesus” at the end of our prayers is the “magic word” and divine equivalent of saying “please” to our parents? Again, I’m not saying it’s wrong to train children to use good manners – don’t get lost and distracted by the analogy here – what I’m saying is we can’t approach God in the same way we often teach our children to approach us.
And therein lies the real problem. Mark Driscoll compares talking with God to a toddler talking with his daddy – and I can think of no better analogy than that one. But we also need to get rid of the junk we put into that picture (like the “magic word” issue) and look deeper and see the heart of the daddy and the heart of the child. That’s the point of the image – but first we need to get past the baggage we bring into it.
Now I’m not trying to be super-spiritual or anything, but here’s the question I found myself asking after the storm: “Is the reason we (translation: I) didn’t suffer any further damage is because my faith wasn’t strong enough to withstand any more? And if the answer to that is yes then shame on me.” Now I’m not going to say that the reason I didn’t suffer any more loss than I did is because my faith is “too weak” because I also know that God does – for his own reasons and because of no value of my own – protects us and blesses us, so I’m not going to get all guilt-ridden because I didn’t suffer a major loss. So the question becomes, how can we view even the disasters as a blessing from God. Look at Job’s words again: he had lost everything except his own life (but even that wasn’t great because of all the health problems he had), but he was able to praise the Lord even in disaster.
In the New Testament we read to give thanks in “everything” and rejoice “at all times”. Those are two verses I think were meant to be taken literally but we rationalize away (even those of us who claim to take the Bible “literally”!). So here’s a radical thought maybe we really are supposed to rejoice in suffering.
This post is getting very long and I fear it’s degenerating into rambling, so I’ll wrap it up. Here’s the question we all (myself included) need to come up with an answer to (how many times have I said that in this post?): Do I believe in a God who is all-powerful and in control at all times or do I believe in a God who relegates the outcome of situations to me, a sinful, weak, selfish human? The answer to that question will dictate how we live every minute of our lives. Either we rest in the grace of God or we don’t; either we trust in God’s goodness or we don’t; either we believe prayer changes us or we believe that when things don’t go as planned it means our prayer and faith just weren’t strong enough to change him; either we believe our perspective is sometimes (often?) wrong or God’s is; either we believe we are in control or God controls it all.
I don’t know about you, but I’m going with God on this one.