The Problem of Prayer 2: Bee Stings and Eczema

My older daughter is 3, and the other day she asked my wife the following question:

Why did God make bees if they sting us?

It’s an easy enough question to answer – bees serve a valuable role in the ecosystem, and they have a stinger to protect their honey from animals who might want to eat it. But it’s still a little sad; it marks the beginning of what will probably be a lifelong struggle over the contradiction between the existence of pain and the presence of an omnipotent, loving God.

We finished Rachel Held EvansEvolving in Monkey Town (just in time! We’ll be seeing her speak tomorrow) last night, and she opens the final chapter with a story from her childhood, asking her father why God didn’t heal her eczema.

I remember that he had tears in his eyes.

“I don’t know,” he said after clearing his throat. “But I know that he loves you.”

Which brought to mind a thought-provoking blog post from Shawn Smucker, whose own daughter deals with a similar affliction.

She was much more patient with God than I normally am. She never so much as raised a question as to why, night after night, we prayed for her bumps and they didn’t go away. Every evening she asked for the same two things: her bunny and a prayer.

Then, a few nights ago, as Maile tried to put some salve on the bumps to keep them from itching, Lucy asked her through the tired tears:

“Mama, why doesn’t God take away the bumps? We pray for them every night.”

Bee stings and eczema. I fervently pray these are the types of problems with which my daughter has to wrestle. That would be so much easier than cancer or death.

But I hope she does wrestle. For a long time, I didn’t. I had a pat answer about free will and living in a fallen world, and I didn’t much think about it. I thought that was a sign of my faith in God, but it turns out it was a sign of how little I thought of his love. Because I now believe the more you buy into the incomprehensible love of God, the more you should be troubled by the existence of pain and suffering in his world.

When my daughter asks one of those questions for real, the kind Rachel Evans and Shawn Smucker’s daughter asked, the kind born from frustration and unanswered prayer, I don’t know what my answer will be. Why doesn’t God answer prayer?

Perhaps the answer is something close to what a commenter on Shawn’s blog post said:

More and more, I am coming to the understanding and realization that God is not a person in the sky making decisions of who “he’s” going to help and who he’s not. I don’t think God is a person so therefore, the mystery of pain is just that, a mystery. All we can know is that it is a part of life. I don’t think God “answers prayers” in the way we conceptualize it. We even call them prayer requests, as though they are something we write to our congressmen hoping for actual answers in the way we want them. I think this deludes our ability to live with reality and have acceptance. It also deludes our ability to know God if God is taught to us as children to be the magician in the sky who you pray to when things go wrong. This is part of a huge paradigmatic problem in evangelical Christianity if you ask me and I also believe it is changing. So what should we tell our children? I guess not leading them to believe that a prayer is like a request to mom or dad for something but more like when mom or dad holds your hand.

I keep coming back to rain. Why do we pray for it? Should we pray for it? I don’t have the answer.

But I think a lot about Ann Voskamp’s story about praying against the rain. My wife told me about this post, where Ann and her daughter pray that rain will hold off and allow her husband to finish planting the beans he needs to plant.

“If God really works in everything, why don’t we thank Him for everything? Why do we accept good from His hand — and not bad?

This is hard. Maybe the hardest of all. She is young. She has much to come.

I have held dying babies. Eaten with those who live on the town garbage heap. Wept with women who’ve been violated, with the bankrupt, the heart crushed, the terminal. And this never stops being true: Neglecting to give thanks only deepens the wound of the world.

Doesn’t God call His people to a non-discriminating response in all circumstances? “[G]iv[e] thanks always and for everything” (Ephesians 5:20 ESV).

If I only thank Him when the fig tree buds — is this “selective faith”? Practical atheism? What of faith in a God who wastes nothing? Who makes all into grace?

And yet — is thanking God for everything… thanking Him for evil?

Rivulets run down glass, blurring my husband and all our seeded prayers. What do I accurately see and know?

Emphasis copied from the original.

What do we accurately see and know? In the end, nothing.

In the end, I can only have faith. Because I don’t know. But I know that he loves us.

So we hold – cling – to his hand. Through bee stings and eczema. Through cancer and rain.

3 thoughts on “The Problem of Prayer 2: Bee Stings and Eczema”

  1. I can’t imagine what it’s like to try and tell a child something that I don’t understand myself. I’m pretty comfortable saying “I don’t know” about a lot of things (auto repair, advanced chemistry, the inscrutable will of God), but I know that a child won’t be satisfied with that.

    Thinking about prayer, though: For me, prayer is about supplication. It’s about entering an emotional space where I admit that I am not in control, that my life was not my creation. It’s why we bow our heads, or are told to pray on our knees. We remind ourselves that we can do nothing but ask for help and try our best. The line about a parent holding a child’s hand is a great one.

    I pray for rain. Not because I think that if I pull the handle enough times that the slot machine’s bound to pay out. When it rained over the weekend, I didn’t take pride in it as if I’d done it. Rather, I see the way the heat has been scorching the land, the way the fires have consumed swaths of the state, the way animals and plants are dying of thirst, and I say: Help. I can’t make the rain come, but I need it to come. I say, I’m not in control, and I know that droughts and fires are built into the cycle of nature, and that I’m so lucky to live in a nation where I still have access to potable water and good food. But still I say, Help. It’s not that I necessarily expect a certain response after a certain amount of time; prayer isn’t a recipe. Rather, it’s about constantly saying: I am not in control, and we ask your favor.

    I realize I might not have made that as clear as I’d like. It’s kind of a tricky area. I guess what I’m saying is: Prayer keeps me centered.

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