Posted February 20, 2014
Why is it almost impossible to smile when you’re in extreme pain? Simply because the mind is overwhelmed with the grief or anguish. Such distress is a negative emotion that can eclipse any effort to elicit a positive emotion—unless the action of God’s grace activates faith to see hidden benefits in the hurt.
Many persons who write to me asking for spiritual advice about what appears as “prayer failure” seem to emphasize the prayer of petition, of “I want” or with the plaintive question, “Why doesn’t God…?” Seldom do people—even devout persons—express any hint of a loving willingness to accept God’s use of hardship. Their prayer seldom includes the words, “I accept,” or “I lovingly surrender or “thank you, Lord, for the privilege of being united with you in your suffering,” or even a sincere Our Father prayer including, “thy will be done.”
Petition is good, of course, since it expresses our dependence on God for help. Yet it’s the lowest form of prayer, and should never occupy the primary part of our prayer life. It should never overshadow the higher forms of prayer, like praise, worship, adoration, glorifying or blessing God, or prayers of contrition or thanksgiving—including gratitude for pain that can be beneficial when offered up generously, or even by prompting one to pursue proper medical attention.
Speaking of petition, prayer for the relief of suffering can be upgraded by asking for patience, fortitude, generosity of soul, magnanimity, holy abandonment to God’s will, and asking God to use your suffering for his glory, for the salvation of others, for the relief of those suffering in purgatory, or for the spiritual growth of your own soul. All such sublime motives should, of course, never prelude the prudent seeking of necessary medical attention.
Try meditating on one of the Bible’s richest passages—St. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians. 12:7-10: “I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will thankfully boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
There is no such thing as “failed prayer, because all prayer is answered in one of three ways: Yes, No and Wait. If the answer is YES, we get what we want when we want it or at least with minimum delay.
If the answer is NO, we always get something better instead, like the ultimate salvation of a loved one headed for hell or the deathbed repentance of someone somewhere—possibly a loved one, etc. Paul’s answer was a triple “NO,” which he said released Christ’s power in him and thus sanctified him enormously and enhanced his ministry to countless souls—still active today by his 13 epistles—a major part of God’s love letter—the Bible.
If your prayer is answered with a “WAIT,” it means, “Keep on praying and not give up,” as Jesus said when explaining his parable about the widow importuning the judge (Luke 18:1). Only God determines which of the three ways your prayer will be answered, but he wants you to be open to all three.
Paul was a weak human being made strong by his God-designed providential suffering. He actually thanked God for his physical ailments, because it taught him that through his pain God wanted to sanctify him and give him enormous power in his work of leading others to Christ as he described it in Colossians 1:24. His suffering was thus altruistic, not self-centered. He lifted himself, with God’s grace, above self-pity. Without this insight, all his suffering would have been wasted in spiritual pettiness.
Ask yourself if you fulfill the biblical command of James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance in suffering finish its work, so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” Suffering can “finish its work” only if we allow ourselves to be “trained by it, as described in Hebrews 12:10-11. The author reminds us that all suffering seems unpleasant at the time we undergo it, but it “produces a harvest of righteousness and peace, but only for those who allow themselves to be trained by it.” Self-pity in our pain or hardship doesn’t “train” us, but only exposes our spiritual pettiness, not the maturity that James urges.
Or, try meditating on Paul’s words from Romans 5:3-5: “We glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love is poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”
The love that God has for us—which is hard to recognize when we are overcome with distress—reminds me of a true story that might help you when your suffering seems unbearable. The only survivor of a shipwreck was washed up on a small, uninhabited island. He prayed feverishly for God to rescue him. Every day he scanned the horizon for help, but none seemed forthcoming.
Exhausted, he resigned himself to a kind of “Robinson Crusoe” type of existence and eventually managed to build a little hut out of driftwood to protect himself from the elements, and to store his few possessions.
One day, after scavenging for food, he arrived home to find his little hut in flames, with smoke rolling up to the sky. He felt the worst had happened, and everything was lost. He was stunned with disbelief, grief, and anger.
He cried out, ‘God! How could you let this happen to me?’
Early the next day, he was awakened by the sound of a ship approaching the island! It had come to rescue him! ‘How did you know I was here?’ asked the weary man of his rescuers. ‘We saw your smoke signal,’ they replied.
The moral of this story is clear: It’s easy to get discouraged when things are going bad, but we shouldn’t lose heart, because God is at work in our lives, especially in the midst of our pain and suffering. Remember this story the next time your little hut seems to be burning to the ground. It just may be a smoke signal that summons the grace of God to your weary soul.
Finally, consider this insight of Peter: from 1 Pet. 4:12-13: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial that you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.”
Try meditating frequently on the Bible’s many suffering-related passages, until they become part of your life. Reading them prayerfully will not only provide support for you in your trials and misfortunes, but will also reinforce your conviction that an incalculable eternal reward awaits you.
For further insights into God’s view of adversity, you may want to test yourself with the Scripture-based “faith barometer,” which measures six levels of faith-response to one’s trials, as expounded in my booklet, Rainbows in Your Teardrops—Finding Joy in Suffering. Or another booklet, When God Says No—25 Reasons Why Some Prayers are Unanswered’.
by Father John H. Hampsch, C.M.F.