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.

Continue reading The Problem of Prayer 2: Bee Stings and Eczema

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The Problem of Prayer

Reading Rachel Held EvansEvolving in Monkey Town the other night, my wife and I came to a passage about an 8-year-old boy in India, Kanakaraju, whose mother was dying of AIDS and father had already succumbed to the disease.

He had asked Evans, his akka, or “sister,” to pray for her, and she did, that day and every day after.

After my return to the States, when my pastor asked the congregation to pray for the funds to repave the church parking lot, I privately asked God to take care of Kanakaraju’s family first. It wasn’t that I thought god was incapable of doing both. I guess I just figured if prayer made any difference at all, it was more important that Kanakaraju have a mother than that my church have new blacktop.

But just a few weeks after I left India, I got an email from the missionary family saying that Kanakaraju’s mother had succumbed to her illness. They planned to take Kanakaraju in themselves and start training his older sisters for sewing jobs so they could earn a living. The email said Kanakaraju was struggling to accept his mother’s death, that he was crying for her every night.

Not long after I got the message from India, my pastor announced that God had provided the funds for the parking lot.

“Isn’t it amazing how God blesses his children?” he asked.

That last quote makes me feel a little icky, which I’m sure is exactly what Evans intended.

The truth is, my wife and I have been talking a lot lately about prayer: Why we do it, when it’s appropriate, and how it should be done. It comes up in the context of praying for rain, something people in our region do a lot, thanks to a horrible drought and record-breaking heat.

Neither of us is comfortable with the idea of praying for rain, and we’re not sure why. It’s not a particularly shallow request; rain would provide relief for thousands of farmers and ranchers who depend on it for their livelihood. And since I can live with my brown lawn and alarmingly yellow hedges, it’s not particularly selfish either.

But there’s something about it that seems off. Maybe it’s because there’s not much satisfaction that comes from it. It finally did rain here in a big way – three inches in one day – a couple of weeks ago. This was hailed as an answer to prayer. But it wasn’t an answer to everyone’s prayer. A storm cloud the size and shape of Texas did not park itself over the state and let loose for three straight days. We got rain, yes, but thousands of people praying for it have yet to see any.

And as it turns out, the rain wasn’t enough to make any difference in the conditions of the drought, or the state of the crops, or the need for many ranchers to sell off their cattle because they can’t find or afford the food for them. Further, years of reporting on West Texas farmers has taught me that hard rains like that in the late summer and early fall actually hurt the cotton crop because the raindrops splash dirt on the bowls and lower the value of the cotton.

So, after that huge outpouring of rain, the marquees on the small-town churches still say: PRAY FOR RAIN.

What was the point?

Continue reading The Problem of Prayer

Suffering, Love and Children

This sermon by Randy Harris has been making the rounds. I loved it when I first heard it last month, and when Mike Cope reposted it, I was reminded of what struck me the most about Randy’s message.

Harris tackles the age-old question of why we suffer, and he tells the story of being asked by somebody that if God truly loves us and is all-knowing, why didn’t he simply create us in heaven? We’ve all heard – and asked – similar questions before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an answer like the one Harris gives:

I would ask the question, and this is the kind of question you’d expect a single guy to ask: Why do people keep having children? Because let me give you my informal observation: Children create more anxiety and pain and suffering in your life than anything you can imagine! …

The reason people keep having children, though they often disappoint them – the reason that people keep having children, though they know that the possibilities are they can get sick and die – the reason people keep having children is because they believe love is worth the risk.

And I really believe that when God in heaven – who in his very nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is love – looked down and decided to create, he knew, as every parent does, that this could go badly wrong. But he believed that love was such a wonderful, deep, marvelous thing it was worth the risk. That he would risk anything for the sake of love.

And then he created a world where we could learn to do it. He didn’t just drop us in heaven because we don’t know how to do this yet. He created a world where we can learn to love, and all of us know that the deepest, most profound experiences of love that we have are not just when things are going well. It’s in moments of pain and tragedy.

I have no doubt that at the end, when we reach that heavenly point, God will say, “OK. Now you get it. This is what it means to love.”

As a parent, this really spoke to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t worry in some way about my children – either about something happening to them or something happening to me or my wife. I know at least two sets of parents with young children battling cancer, and a friend whose sister-in-law just died in a car wreck, leaving behind a young boy. Often, thinking about them or my own family leads to unsettling questions about the nature, sovereignty and goodness of God.

I’m not sure we will ever have a good answer to the question of suffering. Its existence is the single most troubling part of believing in a loving, omnipotent God. But Randy’s answer is the closest I’ve seen anyone get to achieving a satisfactory response.