fbpx
Renewal

Just Keep Praying: A Reflection on Faith and Perseverance

Renewal

Just Keep Praying: A Reflection on Faith and Perseverance

By November 30, 2023December 4th, 2023No Comments
.

Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and unpredictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and unpredictable in the outworking of the grace of God in our lives.

—Philip Yancey

Emily says her daughter was fine yesterday. But today, the little three-month-old Kenyan girl is struggling. She’s breathing fast. With each breath, the skin below her ribs sucks in. I listen to her lungs. There is nothing to hear—no wheezes, no rattles, just nothing—a dire sign.

The staff and I send her over to the hospital’s little ICU. The little baby occupies an adult-sized bed, four feet from a grown man in a coma who sustained a bad head trauma in a motorcycle accident two days ago. To help with the girl’s breathing, we set her up with a pressurized breathing mask.

It’s made for an adult, and it fits her poorly, covering almost her whole face. But it’s all we have, and hopefully it will do the trick.

While I’m writing in her chart, one of the nurses tells me Emily herself was extremely sick last year. Sick to the point that, even though she is young, they had decided not to try and resuscitate her if she stopped breathing. No one expected it, but here she is—young and healthy—with a baby no less.

Unexpected hope rises, once again.

The first night was rocky, and the baby had a hard time keeping her oxygen levels up. The next morning, I need to have a conversation with Emily so she understands how sick her daughter is. She asks me to wait until her husband comes.

A couple hours later, I return to greet her husband. Whereas Emily has retained a certain youthfulness, incredible in light of the stories of her illness, the years wear heavy on her husband.

He’s probably no more than thirty, thirty-five at the most. His teeth are stained yellow before their time, and several are missing. His body is gaunt, and his face looks tired. He wears a threadbare suit coat, and his pants are several sizes too big.

We sit down in the corner of the ICU to talk. Neither has ever had the luxury of much education, so the nurse translates for me into the local dialect. I tell them we are doing everything we can for their daughter, but if something else gets worse, there isn’t much more we can do.

Emily’s husband eagerly drinks in my words, intently looking me in the eyes, even though it is the nurse’s words he understands.

When we finish, as I often do in these situations, I ask if I can pray with them. They agree, and immediately seize both my hands and the hands of my nurse, forming a tight circle of four. Their heads are bowed, and the nurse and I exchange a surprised glance.

Normally, patients are glad to accept an offer of prayer, but they are more or less passive in the event. I offer a prayer in English, that God would save this child and sustain these parents. I finish and attempt to withdraw my hands, but they don’t let go.

Without looking up, Emily’s husband launches into a prayer in Kalenjin, rattling off his petitions to the “amens” of his wife. His words are punctuated by the shaking of our combined fists. When he finishes, Emily starts. They continue for several minutes, finally concluding with a long “amen” that comes out like a sigh.

They thank me and immediately head to the foot of their daughter’s bed. Dad is on the right, between the bed and the wall, and Mom is on the left, in between her daughter and the man with the head trauma.

Eyes closed, still voicing their prayers out loud, still pumping their fists. That is how I leave them: zealous petitions and repetitive chants. They seem confident that they are being heard—heard by the God who spared Emily’s life last year, heard by the God who has brought them through poverty and lack of opportunity to this very moment.

It strikes me that, if these parents had more education, they might be researching their daughter’s diagnosis on their mobile phones, seeking reassurance that their daughter is receiving the right treatment, and arming themselves with information, like a veneer of control.

If they were more socially connected, they would probably be out on the veranda with the men whose suits aren’t so threadbare, texting their numerous relations to gather financial and social support during this time.

These parents are instead interceding, standing in the gap for their little girl, for this is who they are. They are the widow tossing her two copper coins into the basket. They are giving what they have.

————

The Norwegian pastor Ole Hallesby writes that prayer is fundamentally helplessness: “To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs.”

We are not trying to convince God of something, nor are we trying to get His attention. We are asking for God’s hand in all we cannot do.

We are not trying to strategize or fix things. We don’t have to come up with ideas for God to consider or ways He might want to answer our prayers. Rather we are simply bringing to God our insufficiencies. We are there to place our inadequacy in His hands, precisely because we know our hands are insufficient.

Hallesby points to Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the wedding of Cana as someone who prays well. She has a need, namely the embarrassing lack of wine. Mary knows to take this need to Jesus, since He is never less than equal to the situation. She speaks four simple words, “They have no wine.”

Mary is no expert on how to solve the problem. She suggests no course of action, and even if she had, it is doubtful she would have suggested turning water into wine. Yet, Mary seems at peace with her part of the story, for she says no more.

When I remember the mom and dad flanking the bedside of their baby girl’s hospital bed, I must admit I have no idea what they were saying.

Maybe they were claiming promises. Maybe they were repeating some formula they had heard their pastor say. Maybe they were reminding God of what He had done for the mom. I don’t know.

They certainly spoke more words than Mary. But I have no doubt that, underneath it all, they were praying precisely because of their helplessness, and they knew to whom they could direct their prayers.

————

We often imagine we pray from our strength, just as we imagine God’s power will be made perfect in our strength. Nevertheless, that promise belongs to our weakness, to all the parts of our hearts and lives that we would rather hide. In weakness, we need just such a promise as we are given.

God doesn’t need suggested plans or certain key details brought into the center of His attention. We pray because we need. We pray because we can do nothing else. That means the more we see the truth of our neediness, of our insufficiency, the more we will pray.

If we were to see the whole truth, we would pray all of the time.

“The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

I memorized this verse when I was a teenager. I’m not sure what I thought it meant. Maybe I thought it meant people who followed God’s commands really well could pray and their prayers would change things more than the prayers of someone who didn’t follow God’s commands as well.

The problem is this interpretation divorces this verse from the rest of the New Testament’s concept of righteousness. The only righteousness I have is that which is given freely by God because of His unmerited love, and definitively not by my following of God’s commands.

This verse, thus, promises Christians that our prayers are powerful because they originate in our fundamental nature as those who are now righteous in Christ. In fact, recognizing that our only righteousness comes from Christ reminds us of our helplessness and thus pushes us to prayer.

I see a similar phenomenon when I think about my kids. I believe their prayers are heard, but not because of their obedience to God’s commands. I believe their prayers are heard because they are my kids, and I love them. I can’t imagine not wanting to listen to them praying for someone who is suffering.

Maybe God feels the same way about me, which is the love that made Him sacrifice so much to make me righteous. Maybe that’s the same love that gives my prayers whatever power they may have.

For most Christians, any discussion on prayer quickly provokes guilt in everyone for having neglected prayer. We resolve to pray more and habitually fail rapidly to keep that resolve.

The under-emphasized question is, Why? Why don’t we pray more? Do we not think we’re being heard? Do we not think God, though He obviously encourages prayer, will act any differently because of our prayers?

Maybe that’s part of it, but I think the biggest reason we don’t pray is that we really don’t think we need to. The proof for this is found in how our prayerfulness changes in moments of true desperation.

Put me in a situation where I obviously can’t solve the situation, and I don’t have to be goaded into prayer. It pours naturally out of my neediness. Let the storm calm down a bit, and I stop praying as soon as I think I can navigate the waters.

If the root of the problem is that we seem unable to see our true neediness, then maybe we can start there. We can repent and confess our utter incapacity to rightly see our incapacity. We can cry out with our fellow blind man, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

————

Two days after their first prayers in the ICU, the three-month-old daughter died. She just never got any better, and she could only keep up that level of respiratory distress for so long.

I don’t know what her parents thought. I never knew what they prayed, but I would guess their prayers, at least in part, were not answered. I do not doubt they were heard. The prayers of the weak in their weakness—these are gathered and treasured. These are heard—but not always answered.

Heard but not answered—is that enough? Is this sufficient to keep me praying for the next little three-month-old under my care? Is it enough for any of us in the teeth of the next tragedy that hits us? Is that enough for these two parents?

Jesus seems to understand this as the crux of the matter because much of His teaching on prayer centers on perseverance, such as the man who keeps knocking on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night, until he gets up and gives him what he wants.

There is the widow who wears down the unjust judge with her persistence until he uncharacteristically grants her justice. Then there are the heartbreakingly unrelenting appeals of the Syrophoenician woman for the healing of her daughter.

She is utterly shameless and would rather identify with a dog under a table seeking crumbs than turn her prayer away from Jesus.

Frederick Buechner sums it up like this:

What about when the boy is not healed? When, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says. Remember the sleepy friend, the crooked judge. Even if the boy dies, keep on beating the path to God’s door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that down the path you beat with even your most half-cocked and halting prayer the God you call upon will finally come, and even if He does not bring you the answer you want, He will bring you Himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for.

All this leaves those of us who pray with a terrible mystery. We are called to trust in some bigger promise, some perspective that is bigger than our own, in which all our unanswered prayers are knitted together into something beautiful.

But for now, this fulfillment is unseen, and hope may be scarce. Yet there is a heart’s cry beneath the heart’s cry. Underneath it all, we yearn for the presence of the one who is Himself Life and Healing. He has come, and He promises to come again.

He has shown His love and His faithfulness. So, if He’s the one who hears prayers, and if He’s the one who promises, then maybe we have reason enough to continue to pray.

 


This post is an adapted excerpt from Promises in the Dark: Walking with Those in Need Without Losing Heart, © 2019 by Dr. Eric McLaughlin. Used with permission from New Growth Press.

SERGE RESOURCE

Promises in the Dark

Promises in the Dark by Dr. Eric McLaughlin strengthens the hearts of readers to persevere in God’s calling to walk with those in need. As a missionary doctor in Africa, McLaughlin knows how walking closely with those who suffer and bearing others’ burdens can easily lead to burnout or cynicism—unless we find the path to perseverance that the Lord provides.

Learn More
Share this story:
Dr. Eric McLaughlin

Dr. Eric McLaughlin

Dr. Eric McLaughlin has been a Serge Missionary since 2011. He and his wife, Dr. Rachel McLaughlin, serve at Kibuye Hope Hospital in the impoverished rural interior of Burundi, in the heart of central Africa, where they care for patients while training national doctors as professors for Hope Africa University, a Christian Burundian University.