by Bob Lupton, November 2010 My Whizzer motor bike wouldn’t start. Could be flooded or something worse. I cranked and cranked until I was nearly worn out but nothing. Not even a sputter. Maybe I should let it set awhile, give the gas fumes a chance to evaporate. An hour later I tried again. Same results. This was a deeply troubling dilemma for a fourteen year old with no money to take it into the cycle shop.
And then an idea entered my head. Prayer. I had heard many times in church that prayer could do wonders, even miraculous things. It was worth a try. But I knew I had to really have faith. This could not be one of those secret, in-your-heart kind of prayers that required no risk. I would put myself out there, publicly, in front of the thirteen year old neighbor kid who was taking turns trying to start the motorbike. Reverently I knelt down on the garage floor beside the immobile cycle, bowed my head, and offered a fervent prayer for God’s intervention. Then rising with the assurance that God knew exactly what was wrong with the machine and that He could easily correct the problem – no, that He had already fixed it – I swung astride the cycle and gave it a confident crank. Nothing! Another crank. Not even a sputter. A few more vigorous attempts and it became devastatingly clear that God had not come through.
How could He do this? To His own reputation? To me?! Why would He pass up a perfect opportunity to demonstrate His concern for us, His power to intervene? Why would He choose to stay stone silent and lose face by humiliating me and Himself? Embarrassed, I ushered my friend out of the garage, locked the padlock behind us and walked silently across the street to my house. Had I been more courageous I would have cursed.
A couple weeks later, after a trip to the cycle shop, I learned that the problem was a defective coil – an expensive $20 remedy. After a few odd jobs to earn the repair money, I was back riding the streets again on my Whizzer, happy to feel the wind in my face but not so pleased about the doubt I felt in my heart.
What can I count on God for? It is a question that has remained with me since childhood. All those promises in scripture about “ask anything in my name”…and “move mountains” with just a mustard-seed of faith…and “the prayer of a righteous man avails much”… they all seem to be saying “Go ahead, put God to the test, have faith and doubt not, see that His word is true.” And yet, if I am honest, I must confess that my prayer experience has been largely a disappointment. Though I have continued to pray throughout my lifetime, and admittedly sometimes my requests have been granted, most of them have gone unanswered, like my Whizzer prayer.
Maybe God doesn’t care about little insignificant things, like malfunctioning mini-bikes. Or is it that such prayers are too self-centered? Or could it be that I had too little faith, or that my faith wavered? Or maybe God wants me to grow up and take responsibility for handling things on my own. It’s confusing stuff for a fourteen-year-old to grapple with. Or an adult.
Undoubtedly the most wrenching prayer experience of my life was forty-five years down the road when Peggy was diagnosed with breast cancer. Oh how I prayed! And prayed! And prayed! For her healing, for the chemo to work, for just a little more time together. But by this time in my spiritual journey I knew better than to agonize over whether or not I had enough faith. Or to attempt to manipulate God by publicly “claiming her healing.” I would not describe this as resignation but after more than four decades of struggle, most of my wrestling energy was spent. Acceptance would be a more accurate description. By this time I had concluded that everything, everything, is in God’s hands, that He hears the deep desires of our hearts, He cares deeply, and that no matter what happens He will be with us. And in this assurance I watched Peggy slip away.
Caring friends gave me helpful books and tapes on dealing with grief. There are stages, I learned, that most everyone passes through in the valley of grief. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. During the dark months as the dreaded disease depleted Peggy’s vitality, finally taking her from me, and in the lonely days following as I sat alone in a quiet house, I experienced the full range of these emotions. All but one. Strangely, the anger stage never came. Not once did I feel anger toward God for not answering my prayers or for taking Peggy from me prematurely (in my judgment anyway). Certainly I felt confusion and there were many unanswered “why’s”, but no anger. Grief counselors might interpret this as denial. But I don’t think it was.
I think the absence of anger toward God for allowing Peggy’s early death, for not healing her as I (and the whole church) prayed so fervently for, was the result of many previous angry struggles I had had with God over unanswered prayers. Years of trial and error – of trying various biblical techniques (anointing with oil, laying on of hands, etc.), of observing private vs. public mass prayer for healing – had taught me that this sort of prayer (petitioning) has very spotty results. Sometimes God seemed to respond as requested but other times, many other times, there was no observable response. And when He was silent, there usually followed explanations (that sounded more like excuses) about God’s timing or our limited understanding or the value of suffering. In the end, the prayer I became most comfortable with was the one Jesus taught his disciples – “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”
These days my prayer theology is distilled down to a few simple premises. God desires communication with me. And so I continue to speak to Him candidly from my heart, expressing my joys and concerns. And I spend time listening for His whispers. I don’t ask Him for parking places anymore but I do express my delight when “little miracles” happen (as well as my frustration when I get stuck in traffic). I believe that He has my best interests at heart and I rest in the confidence that He will always be with me. And that is enough.